The word “religious” gets slung around a lot these days.
When I was going through the strange experience of viral fame, I cannot count the number of times people on social media, in interviews or articles referred to me as a “religious” person. Or worse: a vague phrase like “his faith is important to him.”
So I decided to conduct an informal social experiment. I posted a simple question on Facebook and Twitter: “What terms or characteristics come to mind when you hear the word ‘religious’?”
The feedback was incredibly mixed. One person wrote “Escapist,” and several people agreed with him. Another: “Being religious is needing something to believe in, something to tell you to be good and how to live your life.” Several commenters mentioned war and oppression caused by religion, while only a meager few spoke of the benefits of being religious. Even the positive ones tiptoed the line between New Age spirituality and feel-good Christianese. Some of the responses clearly came from personal history as one woman simply wrote “My ex-boyfriend,” and another stated, “Ignorance and bigotry.”
I was grateful for all the responses, and especially for their honesty. The handful of folks who replied helped fortify a thought I had been having: I am not a “religious” person at all. At least, not by their definition.
If these are the attributes people apply to the word “religious,” then I want nothing to do with it. (Consequently, I can’t figure out why people keep referring to me as “religious.” Should I be offended?)
The root of the word is from the Latin ligare, meaning “to bind,” as in, one who binds themselves to a certain god or gods. I realized the meaning has changed over time, because according to the archaic definition, everyone on earth is religious.
Every one of us binds ourselves to things.
We may unite ourselves to Christ, as we participate in the divine Father-child relationship. Some of us bind ourselves to sports, cars, money or clothes. Many of us are bound to attention or our own vices and habits. The atheist may be just as bound to logic, science and reason as the Hindu is to his many gods.
Whether we like it or not, every one of us is religious.
Because our culture is one slanted toward lawlessness, most people recoil at the word “religious.” It conjures up images of discipline being enforced and boundaries being marked. Many young people today have a distaste for police officers because they are indicative of rules and punishment, and “religious” folks have now been placed in this category too.
But James gives one suggestion for the type of religion the Lord desires: “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 1:27). God’s idea of religion is not a building with the doors fastened against outsiders, huddled in a holy masquerade of facades and fancy robes. No, religion desired by the Lord is a beautiful one where the lowest and loneliest members of society are welcomed into the open arms of the Church. Where the outcast finds a family and the runaway sons and daughters are welcomed home.
As Christians, we should be working to redeem everything we can, including words. Words are powerful and shape our perception and communication. God loves words. We should strive to live as the most religious people we can by acting out our love for God, loving others and living generously. By not forcing our political preferences or personal agendas on others, but by inviting the wounded and unworthy into our community.
James also implores us not to be corrupted by the world. This means there will be a distinct separation between believers and non-believers, so let’s make it a positive one. What if religious people were less self-absorbed than the rest of the world? What if we were known as those who gave money instead of gathering it up? What if we loved our spouses in such a way that the rest of the world wanted to emulate our marriages? What if we became known as encouragers in a world full of cynics?
I can’t help but think how cool it would be if the first thing that came to people’s mind when they hear about us “religious” Christians is how loving we are to others, regardless of their race, gender, political preference or sexual orientation. I don’t think the word “religious” is beyond redeeming. Let’s work to restore it to its former brilliance. Let’s make religious people those who are bound to God and bound to others, letting the worship of our lives be pleasing in the sight of God, and attractive to the world.