What Religion Should Do
I continue to struggle with religion. Not with faith —I live by faith — but with the denominationalism of organized religion, and the sometimes petty and insignificant issues that seem to plague any religion and almost all churches. I often find myself wondering how far some aspects of religion have strayed from Christ's intent.
For example, I can’t help wondering what is good and kind and holy about exclusivity? Jesus came to serve, to be a friend to sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors. The only ones he really had a problem with were the hypocrites: those who pretended to live by faith but instead lived by a set of rules, preferring to be right about the law than to be right with God. Preferring to pass judgment on others rather than practice forgiveness and compassion. I still see it all around me—even within the church—despite what we profess to believe.
One of the issues upon which all theologians agree is that the aspiration to connect to the holy is a central need of society. So why is it that so many people fail to fill that need within organized religion? If the need for a connection to that which is holy, worthy of worship, awe-inspiring, is so universal, then why do so many actually reject religion?
One theory is that there are people in the secular world who hate anything they view as repressive. And although those same people would probably admit that they base their own lives on some basic moral code or convictions — that which religion is meant to provide — they live in fear that religion has become so polarized and/or politicized that rather than shaping us, it will strangle us. Others have been turned off by witnessing divisiveness or hypocrisy within a church, with some members more intent on setting rules than on setting an example. Others have heard or seen enough about fanatical, restrictive religions that they believe ALL religion is like that.
Fortunately, all religion is not like that, but those people may never know. At least, not unless they have the opportunity to discover what religion is supposed to be, and what it often is.
The late Pope John Paul had a special relationship with kids everywhere around the world, telling them all pretty much the same thing. “Settle for nothing less than moral and spiritual greatness. That's what God created you for.” And that's what religion is for, to form and shape your awareness of the moral and spiritual, and to spur you on to overcome such worldly preoccupations as greed, selfishness, materialism. Religion is intended to lift you up to become what you were truly created to be. Religion contains within it the wisdom to overcome selfishness, pride, greed, and hypocrisy, but only if it follows that universal call for holiness rather than focusing on the differences between one denomination and the other, or on an issue based on ritual or tradition rather than on an infinitely larger picture.
When I first joined a church, a non-denominational Christian church, I became convinced that this was the only way to God. I realize now what really happened. At a particular time in my life, God opened my heart so that I was ready to discover what a personal relationship with God was about, what faith was about. It could have happened at any church, but it hadn’t. It could have happened at any time in my life, but it didn't.
It happened at a particular Christian church, and because of that, I assumed that this was the only denomination that could have called me to holiness. It wasn't. It's just the place where I was called. It's where I met others who also felt called to the highest principles of religion — to be servants, givers, forgivers, and to know that God was available to us all on a personal level. It's where I developed my faith.
The job of religion is to connect with the divine, to convey a set of moral standards, ethics, and values that serve as foundational for each of its members, and to support them as they struggle to live in accordance with those principles. Everyone knows that they aren't living the best life they can live if they persist in doing immoral things. But the job of religion is not to beat people down with its message; it's to help them to soar, knowing that with God's help they can overcome their human tendencies to make bad choices.
When churches get so bogged down with legalism, accentuating their differences rather than their over-arching common purpose, they fail. When they seem to care more about the style of worship rather than its substance, they lose their purpose. But when they answer the people's need to connect to that which is holy, they bring out the very best in the human soul. And any church can do that, regardless of denomination, regardless of human differences, if that's their desire.
I also want to address for a moment the fear that religion has been politicized, and talk instead about why politics is more about religion than people might think.
Politics should be about religion because politics should be about moral values and ethical behavior. As former President George Bush said, “I believe politics to be a noble calling,” even as many would argue that the terms politics and noble are mutually exclusive. They shouldn't be; our political system was, after all, founded on religion. NOT on a specific religion, but on the ethics of religion, which asserted that we were all endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. On the freedom of religion, that assured all could practice the religion of their choice, but that no one religion could be imposed upon them by the state. On the moral values of religion, that guaranteed an inclusive democracy and not an oppressive dictatorship.
Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced the politics of religion without offense because his interpretation of religion was exactly what we are all called to. His religion, and thus his politics, were about compassion, love, and mercy. He preached inclusion, when too much of organized religion is about exclusion.
You can't separate grace, compassion, forgiveness, loving your neighbor as yourself, into different denominations. You can't divvy up faith in God and connecting to the holy among different churches, or among different groups of people in a church. Jesus didn't offer that kind of religion. Instead, He showed us a way to live abundantly, a way to personally connect with God, and a way to welcome the power of God to live within us, if only we invite Him in. That's what religion should do.
me your opinions at LParis@netlistings.com