Religion has gone out of vogue. I mean this in its most literal sense—in conversation after conversation, I continually discover that the word “religion” has become an epithet, a term of scorn within our culture. My agnostic co-worker sighs, and breathes out, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” The very next morning, however, I hear the much the same from the pastor of the largest church in Europe: “Jesus didn’t come to bring more religion.”
Or did he? We English-speakers paste the term “religion” over any situation that strikes us as legalistic, hidebound, judgmental. Of course, I’m not surprised that those outside the church have come to associate religion with the above pejoratives—the Church, particularly in America, has given the world ample ammunition over recent decades, and the broader quilt of church history will always present a mottled pattern. What shocks and concerns me is that the church itself has joined in the name-calling. Self-righteous and chronologically snobbish, Christians seek to extricate themselves from the failings of past generations simply by cutting all ties, by denouncing them as a different sort of group (“religious”) altogether from the church today (“spiritual,” or “solution-givers”). I think this current use of “spirituality” in place of “religion” is simply fraudulent bookkeeping, a halting sleight of hand by which we compare our current strengths with the weaknesses of the past, conveniently dismissing the many saints of God who have served the Kingdom under the banner of religion, still more conveniently dropping our own manifold faults—among them a bland and grey uniformity with a world desperately in need of salt and light, of which a good example is the generic, pseudo-mystical term, “spirituality.”
The church must find a way to stand united with its spiritual fathers, as surely as it must find a way to speak to the world that does not condone the world’s own failings. If we are to be relevant to the present, we must first redeem our past.
“Religion” provides an important test case for this matter. In the fourth century, Augustine affirmed the Latin term religio by underscoring its etymology—re ligare, “to join again.” Religion, properly understood, brings wholeness. When Adam fell, the world convulsed and cracked, shattered by that cosmic catastrophe. The relationships that weave the fabric of the universe were rent: man to God, man to man, man to himself, and man to creation, all warped and distorted.
After the Fall, despite Cain and Abel’s cultic worship, the gulf grew wider and wider, until at Babel—an horrific example of our current thoughts on “religion”—men had forgotten who God was. At this moment, God himself began His great religious project, and drew Abram into covenant—this was the beginning of redemption, the undoing of the Fall, God joining once more what man in his madness had torn apart.
If any faith deserves the name “religion,” it is Christianity. Let Buddhism have the dualistic “spirituality”—if the Enlightened One is correct, all matter will one day dissolve into pure nothingness, and we shall truly be spiritual in the sense intended by my co-worker. The gospel is a message of healing for the material order—we await, not immaterial bliss, but the redemption of matter, the “resurrection of the dead” (Nicene Creed, 1 Cor. 15) and the “new heavens and earth,” (Rev. 21) in which we will walk once more with God. We join St. Paul in affirming “spiritual” as a word truly religious—not an occult realm into which we escape the earth, but the process of heaven drawing earth to itself, of the divine stooping down to lift the fallen world back to its feet, that it might dance once more with the Trinity.