Is “Religion” REALLY Opposed to “Relationship”

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).

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Grab Bag: Do Evangelicals Really Understand Judaism? Do Evangelicals Really Understand Jesus?

Recently I’ve gone back to reading a lot of Abraham Joshua Heschel. He’s written a few books that have had a fairly profound impact on me (and quite a few others, I’m sure), including The Sabbath, The Prophets, and God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism (which I’m reading now).

One of the things that I’m continuously struck with when I actually take the time to study Judaism (and not just what I’m told about Judaism) is how much more faith-oriented and devotional it actually is.

I grew up Methodist, but I started getting involved in more “evangelical” expressions of Christianity in my 20s, and that’s when I began to regularly hear about how Jesus came to rescue us all from captivity to the “Law,” and how Judaism (usually represented by the poor pharisees; taking the brunt of our jabs for centuries) was a religion of “works” that failed to understand what God REALLY wanted Somehow they’d missed all the writings in the prophets where, um, JEWS had reminded each other of what God really wanted, like in Isaiah 1:

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
15 When you extend your hands,
I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
16     Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil;
17     learn to do good.
Seek justice:
help the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this,
says the Lord.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they will be white as snow.
If they are red as crimson,
they will become like wool.

But somehow we made it all work out; Jesus came to set us free from “dead religion.”

But it’s funny, when you actually read what a lot of Jews say about their faith (that’s right, I used that word), the math begins to break down. (Even Paul’s view on the Law is not quite so monochromatic as what we might think, but that is perhaps for another post.)

For instance, read this from Heschel:

The world needs more than the secret holiness of individual inwardness. It needs more than sacred sentiments and good intentions. God asks for the heart because He needs the lives. It is by lives that the world will be redeemed, by lives that beat in concordance with God, by deeds that outbeat the finite charity of the human heart.

Does that sound like a “dead, works-based religion”?

Trust me: there’s lots more where that came from.

If I had to boil it down, I’d start perhaps with these statements:

  1. Judaism has many different strands to it; some are more focused on the Law than others.
  2. On the whole, Judaism is as Spirit-focused as Christianity; conversely, it’s possible to find some strands of Christianity that are as works/law-focused as our (incorrect) vision of Judaism.
  3. In essence, this is what Paul is condemning: He doesn’t condemn the Law, per se, he condemns trusting the Law for salvation.
  4. Jesus still came, lived, died and was raised to set us free from sin.
  5. A huge (and still woefully overlooked) implication of this is that the Gentiles (that’s me) could be included in the people of God.
  6. Which is the Church.

Should this shape the way we live? Absolutely. We should take the Law (which we really should understand as, “The Instruction“) seriously, not just as the prequel to Jesus.

Should this shape the way we understand Judaism? Yes. Though we still disagree in regards to who Jesus was/is (and this is no small thing), we are closer in our faith (there’s that word again) than perhaps we’d like to believe.

Should this shape the way we preach? Yes, yes, and yes. In my opinion, Christians—and Evangelicals in particular—are constantly inventing “enemies” to preach against. Whether it’s the law, the liberals, the conservatives, or the fundamentals, we seem to thrive on false enemies. We need to release the Law from our expectations, and try to understand it more from a wider perspective. Though we’d lose this “enemy” we may actually find ourselves free to pursue a more constructive agenda in the world (though one that requires much more work and creativity).