In Defense of Religion

“I’m spiritual, not religious.”

We hear this everywhere these days, particularly from Millennials. In fact, over one-third of the one-fifth of adults in this country who are religiously unaffiliated say it.

Spiritual-not-religiousers typically aren’t very specific when it comes to explaining what they mean by “spiritual.” They most often appeal to a rather vague belief in a transcendent reality of some sort or a diffuse sense of awe at the majesty of the cosmos.

They’re much clearer about what they mean by “religious.” For them, the word refers to “institutionalized” faith traditions that, they contend, demand unwavering acceptance of certain tenets, prescribe narrow codes of conduct, and practice ritualistic rigmarole. They believe that religion as practiced in churches, temples, and mosques enchains the mind with formulaic doctrine, burdens life with joylessly puritanical norms, and belabors the spirit with incomprehensible liturgy.

I get and even partly sympathize with the point spiritual-not-religiousers wish to make. No honest religionist can deny that religious institutions are capable of spiritual atrophy, arrogant intolerance, arcane ritualism, and heart-breaking scandal. Institutions, religious or otherwise, are human artifacts, and thus always susceptible to corruption.

Still, despite the fact that religion can go bad, I’m unwilling to throw it over for the sake of an amorphous spirituality—much less one that, as I point out in my book Giving up god…to Find God, runs the risk of being little more than a projection of personal desires and prejudices. Embedded within religion at its best is a depth and richness that’s folded into the word’s very meaning.

The English word “religion” is derived from the Latin “religio,” which for the ancient Romans denoted ritualistic obligations to God. But etymologists are split over “religio’s” roots, debating whether it derives from “relegere” or “religare.”

In his On the Nature of the Gods, the pagan philosopher Cicero favored “relegere,” which means to ponder, examine, or peruse. The Christian theologian Augustine, on the other hand, plunked down in his City of God for “religare”: to bind, fasten, or tie together.

Although a lot of ink has been spilt since Cicero’s and Augustine’s day on this etymological debate, it seems to me that religion in its most authentic form is a marriage of both “relegere” and “religare.” Recognizing this might make spiritual-not-religiousers a bit less dismissive of religion, and religionists a bit more appreciative of the inner meaning of their traditions.

The “relegere” dimension of authentic religion invites us to ponder the wonderment that fills us when we contemplate the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why am I here? What kind of person ought I to be? These are the core musings that fuel religion. They impel us to dare to dive below life’s shallows, plumb its depths, and draw ever nearer to the Divine Mystery.

Religious creeds, which spiritual-not-religiousers dismiss as inflexible dogmas, are efforts to express our human ponderings about the universe and the God who created it. They don’t pretend to be exhaustive. How could words ever capture the ultimately unknowable essence of God? They are, instead, guideposts.

Creedal ponderings are essential aspects of authentic religion, but they’re not sufficient. The human soul isn’t just curious about God and God’s work. It also yearns for total, unqualified connection with the divine Source that pulsates at reality’s core. As Augustine said, our hearts are achingly restless until we rest in the God of love. Otherwise, we’re incomplete.

This is where the “religare” dimension of religion comes in. Authentic religion facilitates the loving connection with God that we crave. Although distrusted by spiritual-not-religiousers, religious rituals tie us to God by reminding us, in concrete, lived ways, of God’s abiding presence in our lives. They help us bind ourselves ever more closely to the God who, in turn, gladly offers himself to us.

The “religare” dimension of religion also clues us into the all-important fact that our ultimate fulfillment requires a loving connection not just to God but to the entire community of believers as well.

Spirituality-not-religion is often radically individualistic. Religion never is. It keeps us mindful that we’re children of a common Parent who loves us all equally. We’re bound by the deepest of familial ties to one another and to God, a fact acknowledged whenever we worship together. Religious moral codes, which spiritual-not-religiousers see as stultifying, are efforts, subject to continuous pondering, to help us honor our connectedness by loving one another as God loves us.

So, to my spiritual-not-religiouser friends, peace be with you on your journey. I wish you Godspeed, and I’m sure our paths will occasionally cross.

But I’ll stick with religion.

Fr. Kerry

Fr. Kerry Walters

Holy Spirit ANCC (Lewisburg, PA)

This piece originally appeared in Huffington Post, January 2017.

God and Country

The nation at large, as well as Christians, are divided in this fraught political climate. But ECC priest Fr. James Farris offers independent Catholicism’s embrace of diversity as a way of bridging the divide. It’s a welcome message for the Easter season.

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Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. – James Madison

Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is. – Mahatma Gandhi

 

The primary author of the U.S. constitution, James Madison, believed that religion is better served separated from government – not under government regulation, as in 18th century Europe. Two centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi used religious faith to stir support for separating India from the British Empire. Religion has always played a role in the laws governing social policy and the freedoms of individuals. Martin Luther King, Jr., utilized the power of the Church to galvanize the people in both black and white churches who supported civil rights. The new American administration is backing a change of rules to allow the endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit, currently disallowed by laws governing the non-profit status of churches.

Some faith communities face questions of the desire of a few members to publicly respond to policies of federal and state governments. Many march, write letters and speak to other parishioners about matters affecting issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights, minorities, women’s health choices, and economic disparity. Yet, look again: congregations are not uniform in membership. There are conservative and liberal members, although one side may predominate.

So, what is the Gospel call regarding this division? What is the Spirit saying to the Church? Matthew 25:40 reminds us that, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The work of the Gospel remains the love and service of those in need. How that is done remains in dispute. I have seen this at my home parish, in California, where parishioners are on a conservative-liberal political continuum. The majority tends to be on one side, but what about the minority? Do they have a right to be heard? Do the clergy and lay leadership have the right to embrace one political philosophy in the name of the parish? And, beyond rights, what is the call of Christ to serve all God’s people?

There is no quick answer. Every step has the danger of splitting a congregation, and alienating some faithful parish members. Yet, doing nothing for the sake of peace will not result in harmony. Some will decry Church inaction, and others will decry bringing politics into the Church. So it is with the nation: two sides angry with each other; a lot of words, but little progress toward cooperation. Could the ANCC/ECC become an example of how to dialogue with those who disagree, and how to ultimately turn dialogue into actions that address our issues of justice and security, while remaining compassionate with those in need? I pray for such a resolution, hoping our congregations and jurisdictions find such an answer. I turn again to Jesus’ words: “I pray for those who will believe in me through their words, that all of them may be one.” (John 17:21)

 Fr. James Farris

Ecumenical Catholic Communion (ECC)

Father James Farris is a priest of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion (ECC), an independent Catholic jurisdiction, and has been with the ECC since its inception. He was ordained a priest in
the Roman Catholic Church.