Thursday, February 21, 2013

About a Relationship, Not a Religion: An Apology for the Christian Tradition

I have heard many Pastors and lay-Christians say this phrase “It’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship.” Boy, doesn’t that feel cozy. See, I used to love this phrase. This morning, however, I couldn’t get this phrase out of my head (which is weird because I don’t think I’ve heard it in a while) and I started to realize how misleading this statement is to a Christian’s spiritual development (that is, discipleship).

So I started thinking and I came up with several reasons why it is more damaging than good for us to keep repeating this. I didn’t, however, feel like anyone would simply take my word for it, so I found some people who agree and I’ll introduce them as I come to them.


First, the phrase in question is very inaccurate. Oddly enough, most of the people I hear say this are, in some way or another, a Christian leader in a formal Christian context. What is odd about that is that this statement throws out the Christian religion in place of a Christian relationship but those repeating this statement would not have a platform or the authority to say this statement had it not been for the Christian religion. I’ll press further: they may have not ever heard about the Christian God if it hadn’t been for the Christian religion. This effectively renders the statement self-contradictory and, thus, self-condemning.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I am well aware of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the Christian church. I would hope that it is obviously not these that I am talking about. What I am talking about is the pliable Christian tradition that tells and re-tells the story of Christ and then offers us ways to be a part of that story.

Against dead church-ism

I think what the proliferators of this statement are trying to say is that going to church and performing the rituals without a heart for God behind it is null and void. I think that this is a noble thing point out (though I don’t necessarily agree with the way that people tend to use this intention to point fingers at liturgical traditions), but I think that as leaders it is our responsibility to be exact with our words. Religion, then, is not the enemy. It is the heart of whoever is practicing said religion that is at fault. Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 29:13 “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” Jesus, actually quotes Isaiah in Mark 7:6 and goes on to put a finer point on it in verse 15: “It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.” Obviously, Jesus and the great prophet Isaiah were against worshiping without having a heart for God behind one’s actions. Jesus makes this clear in John 4:23-24 when he says that true worship must be done in spirit and in truth. This means that our worship must come from our deepest being and be honest. So, when I’m having a cruddy day, I don’t have to slap on a smile to worship God. I simply need to be honest in my heart that I know who he is and I’m having a cruddy day.

The apostle Paul also wrote to the early church of the importance of having a heart for God. We see in his first letter to the Corinthian church:

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”

Paul’s thoughts here coincide well with John’s letter in which he wrote “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

From these passages and good reason, we can assert that if we are to do anything, especially worship, it must be done from the depths of our spirit and in an honest way and, most importantly, from a heart that loves. Again, I don’t think any evangelical Christian would disagree that doing things void of love and with the wrong heart behind it is worthless, but the statement “it’s not about a religion, it’s about a relationship” throws the wrong bathwater out. Neither Jesus nor the apostles spoke out against religion and, in fact, both were pious in their practices of Judaism (Mark 7 and other places) and Christianity (see the letters to the early church in the New Testament). We mustn’t lose our religion in the misguided search for a fulfilling life in Christ.

Against over-spiritualization

There is something to be said against churches whose leadership has lost the value of a faith that is motivated from love and true spirituality. I, however, want to give a word of warning in letting the pendulum swing too far to the other side and result in a hyper-individualistic and super-spiritualization of one’s faith. The Christian tradition does not teach a spirituality that is wrapped up in some high-church theology or some guru-level spirituality. While some may cite scriptural passages such as the thief on the cross (Luke 23:40-43) in order to justify the superfluousness of going to a formal worship gathering, this passage cannot be twisted to say that it is right for a Christian to abstain from the formal gathering. The conversation between Jesus and the dying criminal must be read within the context of the fact that they’re dying. For those living, Jesus says “come follow me”. That following, today, is most life-giving when we stay connected to the body of Christ in the formal church which is located, yes, inside the Christian religion.

Western, post-Christian, culture has left Americans (and other country’s citizens) with a do-it-yourself spirituality in which one can have a relationship to God apart from the body of Christ. This notion while in its most basic form is true, is not how Christ left us to live. Instead, he is constantly placing our relationship to him in conjunction with our relationships to each other (Matthew 28:19-20, Luke 24:49-53, Luke 22:25-27, John 13:34-35). This is why Jesus’ greatest commands are to love God and, secondly, to love people (Matthew 22:37-40). For us to let things become overly individual and overly spiritual detracts from how Jesus regarded humanity.

Finding balance

So here’s where we stand: somewhere between dead, rote-repetitious traditions and overly individualistic, overly spiritualization of reality. It is important that we acknowledge the necessity for a vivacious spiritual life as well as the need for a life that is connected with people in a real way. Our balance is important because, while we can come to an understanding of Christ and a relationship with him by ourselves, we are prone to folly. Theologian Ellen T. Charry writes in her book By the Renewing of Your Minds: the Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine:

“We started out by observing that insight and understanding are not the only way we are formed. We also come to understanding by doing: thinking is shaped by experience…It is not only the case that we must know God in order to love him. It is also the case that in loving we learn what loving is…The need to quiet the din of a busy life, however, should not be understood in opposition to Christian service (which can keep one very busy). The criticism that practicing doctrine has been severed from hands and feet is real. One can grasp what our theologians are inviting us to consider through silence. But being in Christ can remain theoretical unless one meets Christ by caring for children, the elderly, the poor, the sick and those in prison.”[1]

For us to actually be Christian, we must do so. By that, I mean, we must “do”. We cannot let our faith remain theoretical and we cannot divorce ourselves from the larger church. To do so is damaging to our spiritual lives and our understanding of who God is. For Christian leaders to guide people towards this folly is scary. “It” is about a relationship, but it is a relationship that is found within the context of a religion that has been abused and misrepresented. This does not mean that we should get rid of it, only that we should practice it more carefully.

There has been no thought more damaging to Christian spiritual formation than the anthropology that man is an eternal soul trapped inside a carnal body. No, the Christian understanding of humanity is that we are both spiritual and carnal; we are one unit. For us to assume otherwise results in all kinds of misconceptions of how we are to conduct ourselves; we see everything from rigid piety that is convinced that the physical world is the problem to a restricting empiricism that sees scientific discovery and physical observations as our only salvation. This is not what God shows us in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection. Man is 100% spiritual and 100% physical. Being a part of the Christian tradition allows us to exercise both in a way that grows us in our relationship with Christ.

Concluding thoughts

I had no intention at the outset of writing this blog to write over people’s heads or get some personal glory. I only long for the Church to in America to value herself again. To say that we don’t need our own religion is like me saying that I don’t need my bones in order to live. The church is our structure, our skeleton. While it can be difficult to describe at times due to its beautiful diversity, the church is the body and bride of Christ. AND the church practices a religion; it is a religion that fosters a relationship through maintaining other relationships.

If you are a Christian – especially a Christian leader – I implore you to abolish this cozy phrase from you library of Christian phrases. It feels good because it doesn’t require much out of us. For us to simply “be” in a relationship doesn’t necessarily require us to do much except “be”. Furthermore, there is no accountability here. If someone thinks I’m acting wrongly, I can simply say “my faith is between me and God” or “only God can judge me”, but this is no way to be a Christian in a community. Religion, on the other hand requires something of us. It demands we give our time and actions to being a Christian in more than theory. If I don’t show up to church for a month, the Christian tradition gives my brother and sister Christians a clear indicator that something may be wrong with me and then, in love, they can reach out to me.

Our religion is valuable. Let’s not get rid of it because some hearts are in the wrong place.


The Dread

[1] Charry, E. T. (1999). Conclusion. By the renewing of your minds the pastoral function of Christian doctrine (pp. 240-241). New York: Oxford University Press.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Book Review for you:

ok, it's been a while, but here is the latest bit of work from my Master's course: Spiritual Theology. enjoy!

In her book, By the Renewing of Your Minds: the Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, Ellen T. Charry endeavors to catalogue history for the purpose of demonstrating that theology should be about connecting people to God, not merely about philosophical method. She accomplishes this goal by highlighting some of the most influential characters that Christianity has in its family tree.

In order to approach this large task, Charry begins with the foundations of the Christian religion by pointing out the apostle Paul and some of his major pastoral applications. First, she demonstrates that Paul is more interested in how God changes people, than how people can better themselves. Following from this interest, he imparts at least three life-applications as part of his implied theological framework. First, he attributes all Christian excellence to divine action; that is, no man can be righteous in his own power. Then, he shows that Christian self-esteem should be grounded in a new identity in Christ as our new ontological reality. This is more than a title change and is, thus, in contrast to those Christians who would ask “are you saved?” or “are you born again?” as if a change of category title is all that is required. Finally, Paul leaves us the idea that a holistic Christian life is social; thus, there are no “lone-ranger” Christians because the life that we live is to be in imitation of a God who is not solitary, but actually exists within the community of himself.
Moving on from Pauline theology, Charry takes a look at the gospel of Matthew and his transmission of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The author points out that the righteousness that Matthew relates from Jesus’ teachings is grounded in the highest level of ethics. For him, righteousness is more than following a set of rules; instead it is shaping oneself into the mold of Christ so much so that one’s intentions are pure, not just one’s actions. This higher level of righteousness is proactive, not reactive by finding foundation in the practice of being others-focused. While Matthew could be accused of portraying Christ’s message in an overly individualistic way, what can be attributed to him is the success of taking a system that was focused on what a person was to do and reorienting it to the deeper purpose behind the rules; namely, what a person is supposed to be. The pastoral concept is that we are to be introspective enough to grow in the righteous standard of Christ.
Progressing through time, Charry examines Athanasius of Alexandria whose pastoral thrust was in the concept of Christ being our example and that he is constantly showing us how to direct our lives towards God. Athanasius taught that humanity was intended to have access to bodily resurrection from the get-go, but by self-degeneration via our own intellect, God revoked those privileges. Not content to watch humanity wallow in its own degeneracy, God implements a way back to himself by the example of Christ. Thus, salvation isn’t about completing an unfinished creation, but about restoring our correct identity and all that that identity entails including taking the model of the Father and the Son as exemplary for our own relationships.
Next to be examined is Basil of Caesarea who was very focused on catechizing his followers. He did so by treating his readers as high-minded seekers of knowledge of God. Basil appeals to the integrity and, perhaps, vanity of his parishioners by always lifting them up and concurrently providing guidance and instruction that they needed. Basil’s pastoral emphasis was for Christians to utilize the trinity as a model for Christian human relations. The mutual respect and cooperation between the members of the trinity is the blueprint for Christians and how they should grow together.
After Basil, we progress to taking a snap shot of the aretegenic leanings of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s pastoral goal, much like Athanasius’, was to help his readers learn to identify themselves in God. In contrast, however Augustine does this through shame and exposure of short-comings. Regrettably, the western obsession with the intricacies of salvation have largely obscured Augustine’s purpose of helping people see themselves as having the imago Dei. While Augustine could be accused of producing doctrine that are more or less unhelpful, it can be extrapolated from his writings that he would largely support the more practical means of coming to know God by way of associating oneself with Christ.
Charry progresses in her assessment by encountering Anselm of Canterbury next. Humble obedience is the staple for Anselm’s teachings and, under a penal substitution understanding of atonement, he points to Christ as the one who lowered himself so that we would learn how to lower ourselves. For Anselm, this means of growing in spiritual maturity is one that has echoed throughout history. The concept of becoming what one studies is obvious in other theologians such as the aforementioned Athanasius and Basil. The example of God as merciful master gives us a model for when we are in authority and the example of God as obedient servant gives us a model for when we are under authority.
Following Anselm, Charry goes on to assess St. Thomas and Dame Julian side by side. Thomas takes God’s actions on the cross to be more indicative of the synthesis between anger and love; specifically, that love should temper anger. He also takes a more legalistic approach to salvation theology in which salvation is more about righteousness than love. By contrast, Julian emphasizes the love of God and views the cross as an exercise in trust and love. She was so extreme in her position that she went as far as to challenge the classical understanding and state that God in fact has no anger at all. The pastoral application from these two understandings of Christ’s actions at the cross would be to find some amalgamation of the two views. Yes, the cross is about righteousness, but it is a righteousness born out of Gods loving nature.
Approaching the Protestant reformation, Charry ends her procession through Christian leaders with a look at reformed theologian and pastor, John Calvin. Calvin is notably aretegenic in all his writings. This is a difficult thing for modern readers to see at times because he does not shy away from using fear, guilt and shame as motivators toward righteousness. Most contemporary people understand these things to be primarily damaging, so the utilization of such human emotions has largely fallen out of practice. Calvin essentially makes the Christian life all about the individual and God, thus taking Augustine’s dependence on the Holy Spirit to an extreme level. He also approaches salvation as black and white: He sees everyone as either “in” or “out” of Christianity. Because of the unstable political and religious atmosphere, Calvin intended to show people why piety was still to be sought after. That is the bridge between what is arguably one of the staunchest set of doctrine in Christendom and the heart of a pastor.
In the examination of these Christian builders, we see how pastoral function has played a foundational role to all doctrine. Early theologians were not theorizing about how to do theology, they were merely responding to the world around them as they saw appropriate. This is why we should not leave theology as merely rhetorical theory, but instead we should connect it to our lives; that, as demonstrated by the shakers and movers of Christianity, is the purpose of theology. Our actions should flow out of a changed instinct that is oriented towards righteousness; they should not simply be a rational reaction that is filtered through a set of doctrine.
Going forward in my Christian leadership, I think that this book has helped me to grasp a large scale take of things. Looking at the history of theology is like taking a panoramic picture of a landscape; while there are many nuances – colors, shapes, action and stillness – there are still more themes that can be taken. Charry takes that panoramic picture and points to a specific theme that all life-giving Christian leaders would do well to note: understanding that pastoral function and theoretical theology must go hand-in-hand. In fact, they have never flourished apart from each other. This is my biggest lesson from this book and I hope to impart this concept to all who look to me as a leader.
The Dread