I’m tired of playing off “religion” against “relationship.”
The notion (as defined by my tribe) is that Jesus came to save us from “religion” and invite us into a “relationship” with God.
This is a false dichotomy for a few different reasons.
First of all, it’s generally understood by Biblical scholars that the Jewish faith of Jesus’ era was immersed in “relationship”. The Jews (probably even moreso than most modern, western Christians) were intensely aware of the all-encompassing nature of God. They lived in a God-soaked, God-bathed world. God pervaded their politics, their art, their social structure.
They did not compartmentalize.
This God that was everywhere lived in a vital and dynamic relationship with them through a Covenant relationship that looked something like this: God committed Himself to Israel in a binding relationship; Israel would wander away, and God would pursue, invite and even “woo” Israel back like a lover who had betrayed her true love and left.
This God—YHWH, or even “The Name”—acted time and again to bring back and restore Israel, not because they kept the Law or were perfect, but simply because He loves them. (Read the Exodus: when does God rescue? before Israel has a chance to even hear the Law, much less obey it. God acts while His people are helpless and enslaved. For those of you keeping score at home, this is what grace looks like.)
Now, had some people in Jesus’ time forgot about this? Had some of them turned the vital faith of Abraham and Isaac into rote performance and rule keeping?
Sure. But look around us: we are just as adept at doing that in the 21st century as they were in the 1st.
What Jesus was up to was (among other things):
… showing what an “eternal life now” could look like
… welcoming in the outsiders to the Kingdom
… conquering evil through suffering love
… providing a ransom for our sin
It’s simply too narrow of a statement to say that Jesus saved us from religion.
Furthermore, by playing this “binary” game (black and white, on or off, etc), we are missing a vital part of what “religion” actually means.
Though the etymology is slightly unclear, the root of religion could be understood as a coming out of the Latin root legare, which means to “connect or bind” (it’s where our word for “ligament” comes from as well). In other words, “religion” at its best re-connects us. It should literally “knit us together”; it should connect us with ourselves, the world around us, and with God.
It should not fragment us, or make us small-minded.
With these thoughts in mind, what I’d actually say that Jesus (and the Prophets, and Paul, and the church fathers and mothers, and the great saints as well) was not trying to save us from religion as much as he was trying (still is trying, actually) to save us from bad religion, that fragments, fractures, and reduces our world.
So I’ll take both. I like my relationship (with the Triune God, with the world), but I can only have that relationship through my religion (my efforts to re-connect with God through His Holy Spirit).