Is there a more common Christian cliché in our time?
I'm honestly not sure there is. This one is a real doozy. Somewhat recently, there was even a YouTube sensation* which featured it, went instantly viral, and is well over 25 million views at this point.
"It's not religion, it's a relationship" is everywhere in Christian culture.
And I have to wonder if it isn't doing more harm than it is good. I have to wonder because, well, I can't help it. And I can't say I see it doing any good. I see it making Christians feel like they're drawing an important distinction, but I don't see non-Christians being satisfied with that distinction at all. And with good reason, I think... We'll get to all that.
The most important question to ask in relation to this particular cliché is WHY:
Why are we using this saying? What are we trying to communicate by it?
Another important question would be:
Is it working? ...Or are we just kidding ourselves?
...Let's break this all down.
People use this phrase to paint their worldview as distinctive. They wish to differentiate their faith from the way those other people do it. It's an attempt to communicate something like this:
"True Christianity is not a religion - or, at least, it's not like other religions - because Christianity is about a relationship with God/Jesus."
This sentiment has become very popular, and particularly so with Evangelicals. I'm certain that many of us say it with the best of intentions - to convey that our faith is not about earning God's favor through rites and rituals, that (in our view) Christianity is not like other faiths, because other faiths are about mankind reaching for God, while Christianity is about God reaching for mankind. It would seem to many of us that something like this is a simple and straightforward way to communicate meaningfully... It would seem that way.
But my hunch is that any time something like this becomes a marketable slogan, the result is dangerous.
My hunch is that many are using the phrase as a quick, even automatic response which effectively ends honest and vulnerable discussion before it even begins. My hunch is that many people use it automatically without truly, honestly considering its dimensions and implications.
It's unfortunate that more people aren't challenging this phrase, because it has really become something a lot of people say to shield their beliefs and lifestyle from being examined. They want to avoid being lumped in with the beliefs of "those people" (whoever "those people" are). It's like this instant, self-granted badge of distinction: You wear it, and you become exempt from playing by the same rules as everyone else... Well isn't that convenient? When someone brings up the atrocities done in the name of religion, you can say, "I'm not religious, I have a relationship," and then go on without feeling implicated. And when someone says they dislike organized religion, you can reply, "It's not religion, it's a relationship," and then go about your day feeling like you really showed them something different than what bothers them. But both examples - which occur commonly - are nothing to be proud of. In the first case, you're refusing to admit you have a lineage in faith, and that this lineage carries real social and political dimensions which should be accounted for. In the second instance, you're refusing to admit that the routine things you likely go about doing - church on Sundays, Christian bookstores, public group prayer, etc. - look a lot like "organized religion" to those around you.
(I know this can sound harsh, but we need to consider it. We really do. We need to consider how we come across...)
When you use this phrase, what you might actually be communicating to the person challenging you is that you're aloof, that you lack humility and compassion, that you don't take full ownership of your worldview, and that you're oblivious to the very things you do which they find so dull and unhealthfully "religious" in you... If you don't believe me, read this to someone you've had such a discussion with, and see if they affirm what I'm saying.
Despite the cliché not making it any easier for many in our society and generation to swallow Christianity, people continue to feel that speaking it covers them somehow, or that it means something substantive simply because they hope it does.
Who are we kidding?
I mean, do "religion" and "relationship" have to be so mutually exclusive? Do you have to pick one over the other? Can you not have both? Can you not be in "relationship" with God and have that inform what "religion" is and looks like for you?
I found a great irony when browsing Facebook for pages named after this phrase. There were many of them - which speaks to what a popular cliché the saying has become - but what was so funny was seeing "It's not a religion, it's a relationship!" followed immediately underneath by the classification "Religion." It's pretty hilarious - each person who tried to start a fanpage for this idea was immediately confronted with the paradox of how to classify their aim... and "religion" was staring right back at them. (There was one which didn't go that route. It said, "It's not religion, it's a relationship!" followed underneath by "Product/Service." This one is more disturbing, as far as I'm concerned. A consumer good or service sounds a lot like anything but a relationship... Of course, that is precisely what a lot of people feel religion entails anyway - since a lot of people use "Jesus" the way they would insurance or something - so maybe the creator of that page was just being honest.)
But I cannot go any further down the path toward unwrapping and challenging this cliche without first looking into the ideas it's built upon. It's crucial to take stock of that aspect of things, because, when people repeat this phrase all the time, the big question that goes so ignored is this: Just exactly what is "religion," anyway?
And any discussion of "religion" is almost overwhelming before it even begins (and it gets more overwhelming after it begins), because people mean so many different things when they use such a word.
What any one of us might mean when we say "religion" depends greatly on our personal history and particular background.
To those who say, "It's not religion, it's a relationship," religion is the way older Christians and other belief systems seek to engage God... but not them.
To some, "religion" simply means "a set of beliefs." Others might think of it more as "a set of ignorant, unflinching dogmas." To some, it means "the spiritual affiliation of one's family," while to others, it's "the opiate of the masses." To some, it could mean "robes and cathedrals and other lavish things," or it might mean, simply, "hypocrisy." But to some, it means "everything good and true thing that should be known," or "caring for the oppressed" and "finding true joy in life by removing oneself from the systems of brokenness which so infect humanity..."
My point is simple: To some, "religion" is an ugly thing...
While, to others, it is a beautiful one.
And there are certainly some who fall to neither extreme, or to both depending on the context or connotation. (I think these people who make room for both extremes are on to something - we'll come back to that later.)
Again, my point is simple: No one owns the word "religion",
and it is a loaded term for everyone.
But hey! Forget all that for a moment! Let's do the high-school-essay-thing where we orient our discussion by a good old-fashioned trip to Webster's Dictionary:
religion - noun - 1) the service and worship of God or the supernatural; 2) commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; 3) an institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
That's a modern definition... but we could probe deeper. Where does the word come from? Interestingly, there is no consensus view on that. Where scholars of etymology might have certainty over a lot of different terms concerning their origin and derivation, "religion" is a word that remains somewhat mysterious. We know our english term is derived from the Latin religio, but beyond that there is disagreement. Argumentation on the subject actually began around the 300's CE, and the common definition of "religion" we now find in a dictionary didn't come to prominence until the 1500's.
Both then and now, some would say the Latin religio is built from older words which mean "the state of life bound by monastic vows" (religiun), while others say the word components simply mean "to bind fast or reconnect" (religare). Still others would say it stems from the essential meaning of "taking full care in life" (religiens)... But again, there is no consensus.
Perhaps it is all of the above... Perhaps it is none of the above.
Are we feeling a bit overwhelmed yet? I certainly hope so.
Take a breath. I need to add another piece to this puzzle that is seldom brought up or even recognized.
Here it is: In the ancient world, no one even needed a word for "religion" in the sense we use it today anyway, because ancient peoples did not view life in compartments the way we tend to. For them, religion was a pervasive way of being, and no activity was done outside of it. Their lives were lives of holistic integration. And it was actually the Roman Empire's conquering of the world which necessitated such distinctions being made. Rome effectively became the founder of anthropology, having seen more of the world than any prior empire, and having grappled with how to classify the variety of things it saw. (If this stuff bores you or overwhelms you too much, stick with me. We'll make it to solid ground eventually.)
A more frantic reader may already be worrying over what this implies for the New Testament, and what Greek word is being translated "religion" in our English Bibles, since the New Testament is older than the Latin term people (including Christians) have argued over! If that's you, you're sharper than I am - it took me years to connect the dots between the discussion of where "religion" comes from and the fact that there are words in my Bible translated "religion" which pre-existed the cultural shift to having a word for "religion" in the first place. It's daunting when you open this can of worms. There are many things to consider.
If no one has ever agreed on what religion means in the sense of where it comes from... Is it really such a stretch to suggest we tolerate what has always been? How about a fluid and contextual definition, which runs the gamut of potential usages, and not a dogmatic definition that is either good or bad? I'm not presenting a new idea when I say that "religion" wasn't meant to be a definitive term. This is an old idea. The word rose to prominence in Rome as a means of classification, but not as a definitive statement of quality or validity (or of a lack of either).
Let's put it another way: The word "religion" only has the power we grant it, and only carries the kind of weight we place upon it. And whether that weight is beautiful, ugly or neutral... at the end of the day... and in the grand scheme of things...
It is just a word.
Do I point all of this out to say I have it all figured out, and here's a neat and tidy answer (and I just so happen to be introducing a webseries that you can stream for the low, low price of thirteen installments of $29.97)? Absolutely not. We're barely skimming the surface of languages and presuppositions - both modern and ancient - when it comes to this word and concept, and already the discussion is plenty frustrating and difficult to get a hold on.
I point it out expressly to overwhelm us and remind us of the scope of such a thing. I point it out so that we can throw up our hands and say, "Oh. Okay. I'll admit: It's not that simple." I point it out to remind us that we need to exercise a little humility, a little mystery, and a little conscience in dealing with such a topic... because we need to exercise those things in all topics, really.
Whether people like "religion" or not, you'll notice that both "sides" are looking toward the same ideal: They want to end up on the side of goodness and truth. They want to reflect what is... At the same time, they often do not give each other that credit, and as a result, any discussion of "religion" tends toward becoming a discussion of ends rather than means, despite the real disagreement being over how and why we go about being who we are, and not so much what our goal is. People have more in common than they realize, I think.
But the cliché arises as certain people who claim a Christian faith desire to appeal to those who have (rightly) taken issue with religion.
The cliché says, "Well, thankfully, that's not us.
That's those other guys. We're about relationship."
...But it should go without saying that - no matter how much "relationship" you claim - your way of relationship is evident in your religion. There is no magic phrase you can use to prevent this. You cannot remove yourself from the discussion (which needs to take place) by basically claiming you're exempt. You're not exempt: You're not exempt if you claim "It's not religion, it's a relationship," and you're not exempt even if you claim you are religious and there's nothing wrong with "true" religion. You're implicated. You have to come to grips with that. We all do.
The discussions, the criticisms, the questions, the concerns...
They apply to you.
You have to take them seriously.
And when you think that by speaking this phrase, you're making yourself (or your viewpoints) appealing to others in matters of spirituality, you're ignoring the fact that you're actually disinteresting - even alienating - many of them. We see this going on all around us, especially since most people who trumpet the "It's not religion, it's a relationship" thing ARE "religious" in the very ways those who do not believe as they do are raising concern over.
Shall we note a few of the reasons why? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you hold certainty as a virtue to an unhealthy degree, making you afraid to ask questions or process life transparently?
- Do you have unflinching moral positions on issues The Bible is either quiet or silent on? Do you have dogmatic theological stances in areas where there should remain a healthy level of mystery and wonder?
- Do you attribute your positions to "the Bible" even when you couldn't build a biblical case for them yourself, trusting that an "authority" has already done the work for you, or that the status quo must be right?
- Do you pick and choose which parts of scripture are binding for you or others (and which are not) without any consistency of logic or rationale?
- Does that same picking-and-choosing lead to judgment of others over one issue while you overlook other issues entirely? ...Do you practice "sin discrimination?"
- Do you have compartments for "spiritual life," which you separate from other aspects of your life? Do you see a division between the "sacred" and the "secular"?
- Do you fall in line with Christian culture in elevating certain people and their giftings over other people and their particular strengths, so the exercise of "church" is always an institutional thing in which someone "important" talks (and a few others provide music) while most of the people attend passively, merely receiving what is being dispensed?
- Do you see a distinction between "clergy" and "laity"? Those "in the ministry" and those outside of it (despite being believers)? Do you put more stock in a pastor or priest (or some other form of religious CEO), and see more potential in such a person than you would yourself or anyone else?
- Do you have a reverence for God in the movements, denominations and institutions you identify with that you do not have for God in people (where God actually dwells)?
- Do you hear "church" and first think "building?" And do you believe "worship" happens best in some "house of God" made with human hands? Do you still think of these structures as "temples" to some degree, as though God indwells them especially?
- Do you dress, speak or act in a way that is otherwise uncharacteristic of you on Sundays?
- Do you hold a hallowed place for fairly arbitrary Christian holidays, as though the concepts of incarnation and resurrection could ever be bound especially to just one day?
- Do you speak in Christianese, even to people who don't understand it?
- Do you even know when you're speaking Christianese?
- Do you believe "The Church" Jesus spoke of and championed is absolutely tied exclusively to the institution of "Christianity"?
- And do you believe people can only know God or be known by God when they do it your way?
We could go on and on. Easily.
But did you answer "yes" to any significant portion of those questions? Then guess what...
(It's okay. A lot of us are.)
Take a breath. Embrace the moment. Let it sink in. Maybe look at this picture while you do.
"It's not religion, it's a relationship" essentially represents the promise of a shortcut that comes up, well, short. People started saying they disliked religion because of the religion they saw around them, and how it (dys)functioned. That criticism was not invented without there being an example of what it criticizes... As a result, just calling yourself something different isn't exactly distracting to the people who have a problem with religion... And that should be obvious, right? It's not so easy as claiming a new designation for yourself, no matter how much you'd like it to be. I understand that some people use the phrase and mean well by it - because of their understanding of who Jesus is and what he offers or models for us - but we need to place ourselves in other peoples' shoes. If you want to communicate to people about that Jesus, you should start by giving up the dismissive and overly-simplistic clichés which turn them off.
What does your private "relationship with Jesus" look like to others? What does it mean for you? How does it play out in who you are and what you're like? ...Because that is what other people are referring to as your "religion." So a phrase like "It's not religion, it's a relationship" is kind of self-nullifying on some level. It's trying to create a divide, to make two distinct things out of one. If I was someone who didn't believe, and who disliked what he saw of religion, I might actually find a reply of "It's not religion, it's a relationship" a bit offensive. Think about it. If the way politicians in Washington bicker and become corrupt annoys you (I'm guessing it does), and if you got the chance to say you disliked politics to a politician, and the politician replied, "It's not politics, it's a civic duty!" ...How would you feel? Would you think that's a fair response? Or would you be put off by the politician's attempt to avoid your concern and take refuge in semantics?
The point should be clear: However great our idealism - and however we might qualify what we deem "true" or legitimate faith, we do not hold our own perspective over the heads of others.
Not if we care about them. They may unwrap a term in a manner that is not our preferred way... And we need to grow up and deal with it. And when we communicate with people, our goal should be to communicate with them in a way they understand, and which resonates for them. If there is one thing I have learned trying to meaningfully dialog with anyone I might encounter, it's that I should always adapt my approach - not to be phony or contrived - but to truly listen as closely as possible to a heart, to reach beyond language and to connect beyond words. I don't want to just hear what they say, I want a greater sense of what they mean. It's so much more rewarding to celebrate another human being in this way, as opposed to just hoping people come along who conform to your standards. I have found so many more brilliant and beautiful people in the world since I started the ongoing process of letting go of my superficiality in this regard.
That's why, so long as people use "religion" with both good and evil connotations, I want to make room for both... because it just makes sense. I don't want to get hung up on whatever position I've taken on the term, because I want to hear their heart. I want to speak to their heart.
Look at it this way: When someone wishes to navigate a maze with you, and invites you to go along on the journey...
I think those who've popularized the "It's not religion, it's a relationship" cliché have essentially gone the route of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in order to avoid being associated with a negative stigma, while doing very little to actually prove the stigma wrong.
On the other side are some idealistic Christians who don't associate any "true" religion with that same negative stigma, so they confidently assert religion is a good thing to those they encounter. While I respect their idealism, I think they miss the more important thing - that going to great lengths to stand on some principle in a vacuum is ineffective. Obscuring your own viewpoint when your whole purpose is communication is fundamentally counterproductive.
We need a dynamic way to engage and interact. We need one which encompasses the ocean that is reality, and is bigger than the small islands we try to limit it to.
Which leads me to something I mentioned earlier on.
Some of us have found that not having a blanket approach to how we interpret the word "religion" (that is, not immediately associating it with either "good" or "bad") is wise.
It's very freeing, in fact. Whether Christians try (in vain) to pacify society at large by distancing themselves from the term, or whether they staunchly maintain it as a beautiful and necessary part of life... So many who've taken up definitive positions on this issue neglect the fact that even The Bible essentially maintains a both/and (and not an either/or) attitude when it comes to religion.
Paul, writing to the church at Colosse, says:
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations —“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using — according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
Paul says the point of identifying with Jesus in laying down one's life is to free a person from the typical, corrupt systems of rules and regulations which are so easy to find. Such systems may reflect the legalistic tendencies of charismatic leaders (and impressionable followers), but they do not reflect the character of God. Paul calls this a "self-imposed religion" of sorts. He has qualified religion in the negative. And if you read Colossians in total, contextually, you see Paul pointing to Jesus as the nail in the coffin of this mode of dead religion. Jesus, he says, is its very end.
It would be easy to stop with this one example and say, "See? The cliche is good!" ...But slow down... Along comes brother James, putting it a different way and putting up the greater challenge (as James tends to do):
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.
James distinguishes between a religion of no value at all and a religion that is "pure and genuine." He says this valid expression of religion is exemplified in taking care of the needs of those alone, abandoned and outcasted by society, and never giving in to the allure of a broken world, which tells you the key to happiness is to do the opposite - to live an isolated and selfish existence. James has now qualified religion in the positive.
As I said before, the actual Greek word being translated "religion" in either passage could probably be more accurately translated as something else. It's more a word depicting a manner of "worship" than it is a word for a corporate worldview or theological system of "religion" as we understand it. But the heart of the issue is there either way. It's all semantics. And again - The Bible leaves room for both the beautiful and the ugly when it comes to how a person lives out his/her faith.
Jesus was not about formulas.
The earliest recognized heresy the church confronted was gnosticism - which championed the kind of false ideology which would applaud formulaic, dogmatic positions, as though following Jesus was about having the right answer on a test. (There are a lot of Christians completely saturated with this same sickness to this day, equating higher levels of understanding with "maturity" by default, and forever affiliating, distancing, in-grouping and out-grouping whoever they deem is of them or not...)
So when I say "religion," I really do mean "religion", because the meaning is so subjective. But for the purpose of this installment of You Have Heard It Said, from here to the end of this entry, I'm going to use the word both with and without quotes. Hopefully this can bring an ounce of clarity to the discussion... we'll see how it works out... But my reasoning is this: If we recognize that the term can mean both good and bad things, and we recognize that Jesus said "a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit," then I think it should be fair to use the word in both an ideal and not-so-ideal manner... We aim for ideal, so that ideal religion will be without quotes. And that "religion" of the corrupt and ugly kind? That will be with quotes.
Today, some who believe see Jesus as the end of "religion," while others see him as the fulfillment of what religion was always supposed to mean and look like...
Personally, I can see both perspectives. I can even feel strongly both ways. The meanings are greater than the words we use to convey them.
Also today, some who do not believe reject "Jesus" because the only "Jesus" they've been shown has been the "Jesus" of "religion" in all its corruption and brokenness...
And I can see that perspective too. It's extremely valid, despite the dismissal of them by fearful "religious" people.
Given the reality of the situation we find ourselves in, what should be obvious, I think, is that we can't take a simplistic, unmoving and extreme position on this. It doesn't work. We have to admit that there's a tension which exists. And we have to dance with it, to let the truth be seen in our steps. Tension is good - it keeps us all searching, groping for a greater view. We must recognize that we are at a complex moment in time, and merely pretending this isn't the case is not going to change anything... I've made tidy compartments for religion before, but it has never worked to view the subject simplistically, regardless of which direction I took in viewing it. I see that now. I haven't always.
I've found that my opinion on "religion" has changed over the years as I peel back the layers.
- I've held the "It's not religion, it's a relationship, and religion is bad but Christianity is not religion" position.
- I've held the "Religion just means 'to reconnect,' so religion is fine and I'm going to use it anyway no matter what people on 'the outside' think of it" position.
- I've held the "It's all a matter of context; religion can be good or bad depending on whose you're talking about" position.
- And I'm leaning forward, into the "Ultimately, it's all semantics, since the idea of there even being a word for 'religion' is relatively new to history, and was originally intended as a neutral term anyway... But the meaning behind the word has always been a worthwhile topic regardless of what we call it" position.
It seems there are always more layers. I cannot presume to have reached the end of this topic or discussion. All I can do is mark the time and the journey thus far. I'll file "It's not religion, it's a relationship" under To Be Continued...
But for now, I'm comfortable enough to say this:
If your "religion" (even if you call it "relationship") looks like
rigid attendance and legalistic structures of morality... if it looks like 11th commandments and sin discrimination... if it looks like judgment and scorn to those who don't agree with you... if its primary focus is believing the correct things rather than living rightly... That "religion" is false. And if your "religion" looks like a shallow affiliation you've taken on for selfish reasons, believing God is a tool for you to carve out your own kingdom with... if it looks like more freedoms for you than others you disagree with... if it looks like preying on other people or systems for personal wealth, gain or prosperity - all while being sold out to the corrupt empires of this world... That "religion" is false too.
On the other hand, if your religion looks like
liberty to captives... if it looks like freedom to the oppressed... if it looks like a good message for the poor... if it looks like non-judgment and non-retaliation... if it looks like the radical love of enemies... if it looks like greater accountability to those who claim to follow Jesus... if it looks like an embrace of "the least of these" in society... if it looks like defending sinners and scapegoats from the stones and character assassinations hurled at them by religionists... if it looks like disregarding tradition in order to connect with those considered outcasts... if it looks like a kingdom not OF this world... if it looks like conscience rather than dogma... and if it looks like "love one another" ...That is religion as religion should be.
There are other ways you could promote false "religion," and other ways you could live out a more idealistic religion as well. Ultimately, while I'm not at all against what the phrase "It's not religion, it's a relationship" might mean to you... I am against the thinking which assumes it will automatically mean something good or important or true to other people.
The point is not whether or not we embrace the word "religion," or even what we mean by it. The point is WHO WE ARE, because WHO WE ARE communicates beyond any WORDS WE USE.
And we begin to see that spirituality is not about claiming you aren't "religious," but rather, the spiritual person is one who confronts themselves dynamically in such a "religious" culture and context as this... and who - each day - is losing his/her "religion" and finding religion at the same time. And whatever you might substitute for that word, it doesn't change what is or what should be... It IS religion. It IS relationship. It's NOT "religion." It's NOT "relationship."
Who are you?
What are you like?
1) *Re: The recent viral video Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus... Personally, while I like some of what's said in the video (particularly in regards to the ethical lapses and the often-bizarre priorities of Christianity), I take issue with the assumption he makes that "religion" and "Christianity" are automatically separate things. This illustrates exactly what I'm talking about in this blog - not only that he made such a video, but that it was so rabidly passed around by people looking to go the same route of elevating Christianity over "religion." It is the all-too-common mistake of viewing faith through an individualistic lens whenever the greater testimony at large becomes an inconvenience. It shrugs off accountability. It's too easy. And as I mentioned in the main body of this blog, it's a very gnostic trend at its root, making "true" Christianity something that's not possible for most people to perceive (or claiming they can't perceive it correctly). This is very much contrary to the New Testament. Regardless, It's clear that the discussion is out there.