I have been listening to some excerpts from a recent book on the person of Jesus. Frequently, in the podcasts at any rate, the author inveighs against the “spirit of religion,” calling it a contagion which infects an otherwise healthy relationship with God. While I’ve not read the new book and so would not claim to have an adequate understanding of the author’s critique against, or definition of, religion, I do not think it is religion that is the problem, or at least there is no Christianity apart from some form of religion.
I have written elsewhere on this blog on an incarnational understanding of religion. But I want to take a little different pathway here.
Full disclosure: as an Orthodox Christian, my faith is expressed in elaborate and ornate rituals of worship, in sometimes rigorous disciplines of diet, and in the regular recitation of the Psalter and other formal prayers. I don’t have an axe to grind, but I do have a way of life to promote.
That said, while Jesus did in fact cry “woe” on the Pharisaic traditions and on the mercantile exchange which was morning prayer at the Jerusalem temple, his Apostles, and the early Church with them, quite readily continued the observance of the hours of prayer during the day, the dietary codes of the Jewish faith, and the observance of various feasts of the Jewish faith. Either one ought move the supposed Constantinian devolution of the Church back a few centuries or perhaps Jesus was decrying not tradition per se but rather the sinful distortion and manipulation of tradition.
From here it would be a simple matter to demonstrate how Paul and the other Apostles advocated the handing on of the traditions of the Christian Faith, which were, simply, “the Way.” That is to say, they handed down a way of living that was uniquely Christian. But this has been done elsewhere (including by myself: here, here, and here), so I’ll refrain here.
Rather, following along the lines of my more recent post, I want to continue looking at religion from the standpoint of incarnation. That is to say, we have religion because we are incarnate creatures. Correlatively, being incarnate creatures we are inescapably religious. This is not simply a matter of being in our pre-resurrected state, either. Even the saints in heaven, who await the final Resurrection, are inescapably religious (cf. Revelation 4-5).
Why is this so? I think Paul gives us a clue at the end of 1 Corinthians 9 when he uses athletic imagery to encapsulate the need for spiritual disciplines. If we follow his analogy, I think we will uncover some helpful insights.
Without adhering too rigidly to the metaphor (all comparisons ultimately break apart in the details), it is nonetheless true that athletes live what we might call a very religious sort of life. Indeed, whenever we perceive that someone very closely follows a routine or demonstrates a tenacious focus about some matter, we say that person is “religious” about it. “He’s very particular about being punctual, almost religious about it.” Athletes are similarly focused and tenacious about their regimens and routines. They eat particular foods at particular times in particular amounts and combinations. They exercise at specific times, utilizing specific movements. They meditate and visualize specific matters. They have a particular jargon, or language. Their lives revolve around a particular orientation (their sport). The Olympics will soon be televised (this coming summer), and we will hear about athletes who are mere teens who arise long before daybreak and swim their laps or perform their gymnastic routines. We may well even hear that for them this is “their religion.”
While we could look on such devotion to routine and discipline and a single sport as “a bit off,” or that such priorities are “out of whack” with regard to normal life (especially if the athletes are teens missing out on normal teen living), if we look at such lives in terms of the purpose of such a life, we might be more impressed. That is to say, if the manner of living (dietary regulations, sleep regulations, mental/thought disciplines, physical regulations and routines) results in the often awe-inspiring excellences in gymnastics, swiming, track and field, etc., that we see during the televised Olympics (we’ll leave the distortions of narrative creation and back story out of it and focus just simply on the athletes performing their respective sports), we will be forced to acknowledge that such a “religious” way of life, even if revolving around a single sport, is effective and to be admired.
Let us now turn that paradigm to the life of Christian faith. Instead of excellence in sport, the Christian seeks to know Jesus, whom to know is eternal life. But the Christian also knows that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). A holy life is a virtuous life. That is to say, the virtues are nothing less than the best things about being human: courage, wisdom, justice, and so forth. Thus, knowing Jesus means a pursuit of the excellences that are the virtues–not simply in living a moral life (which can be only a mere external form of living) but rather living the sort of life God lives–a life good and beautiful and true. If there is a manner of living such that it produces that sort of life, then we would do well to imitate such a life. Religion, understood in the paradigm here we are considering, as an askesis, a wholistic set of disciplines, a way of life, is just that sort of life.
In other words, far from being an impediment to getting to know Jesus as he is, religion is the disciplined pathway toward excellence by which we make room for and acquire the holiness God produces in us, thereby freeing us from our moral and mortal impediments which hinder us from the final goal: knowing Jesus as he is.