Believe It or Not

For many Christians, “religion” has become a dirty word. Perhaps the problem isn’t the term itself but how we define it.

How are you doing spiritually?”

I’m never sure how to answer that question. It’s as if a weird line has been drawn for some reason. Why the division? Is my “spiritual” life somehow separate from everything else I’m up to? I sure hope not. I don’t know what I’d do if I thought I had to keep my love of the Bible and my love for the last movie I saw in separate boxes, as if one isn’t allowed to have anything to do with the other. This, it seems to me, is no way to live. I don’t want my enjoyment of strangers, food, fresh air, or exercise to somehow always fall short of “the spiritual.”

As ever, the Psalms set a standard of human wholeness. “O Lord, who may abide in Your tent?” King David asked. “Who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Ps. 15:1-2). Our spirituality, it turns out, has nowhere else to happen but here and now. Abiding in the Lord’s tent isn’t a retreat from the everyday but a deeper engagement of self and others within it. The Scriptures, I’m often disturbed to find, refuse my attempts at compartmentalization.

The same goes for what we sometimes refer to as our witness, a word that can take on a very narrow or wonderfully large meaning, depending on how we try to use it. I once imagined that until I’d steered a conversation toward Jesus or issued an invitation to Bible study, I hadn’t witnessed to my unbelieving friends. I could admit that I’d proven a poor witness if I said something malicious in front of them, but I had yet to lean in on what I take to be a deeper, more biblical insight: I’m never not witnessing. Is my witness discernibly Christian? I sure hope so. But the proof is in the pudding.

Properly understood, a life of obedience to God has no boundaries. What I believe is what I see is what I think is what I do is who I am.

As much as I might like to, I don’t get to leave God at home when I’m buying or selling a car. This, too, is worship. The space of my life is the space of my worship—the sum total of everything I’m up to. So, what about a worship service? We’re welcome to plan them as often as we like, but it won’t mean our worship stops or starts according to our schedules. Properly understood, a life of obedience to God has no boundaries. Or to put it a little less ominously, there’s no part of my life I could ever rightly seal off from the joy of God’s reign and the thriving He promises as we seek that reign in the land of the living. What I believe is what I see is what I think is what I do is who I am. You’ll know me, Jesus teaches, by my fruit. For better and worse.

Like so much we receive from Jesus and the prophets, there’s a subversive straightforwardness to this insight that we’ll often avoid at any cost, and we have many a strategy for doing so. The big one I think we all need to reconsider is the way we popularly deploy that unwieldy, radioactive word on which we pin so much: religion.

We know the drill. Keep religion out of it, we hear when concerns are raised over how to approach God as a topic in a science class. The phrase is also thrown around when an appeal to Jesus’ commands concerning “the least of these” is brought to bear upon questions concerning refugees.

Religion, on the one hand, is fear. It’s those things we think we have to do to be loved by God or to have a shot at eternal salvation. So the “religious” person is an individual acting out of a misplaced sense of fear—someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject, who speaks only in conversation-stoppers. Religion, in this sense, is brainwash. Doesn’t Jesus save me from religion like this?

My witness, it turns out, won’t divide itself up quite so neatly. Given the overwhelming complications of trying to negotiate a just, joyful, and more-helpful-than-not existence in a world of raw data, which we often don’t even know how to use, I can perhaps be forgiven for wanting to rope off one issue from the other. (“That’s political. That’s religious. That’s a private matter. This is worship. That’s a guilty pleasure. And this one over here is just … it’s just business. It is what it is. It’s nothing personal. Sorry about that.”) However, these divisions obscure the living fact of certain connections and often leave us alienated from our true selves.

More Holistic, More Holy

I propose that we not play that way. In its root meaning, religion (Latin: religare—“to bind again, to bind back”) is simply a tying together, a question of how we organize our selves and our resources. Religion is always a question of how things have been tied together so far and of how they might be tied together differently. As has always been the case, the way we organize our lives can go beautifully or badly or both, but the development and breaking of bonds is inescapable. With this in mind, I find it most helpful to define religion as follows: My religion is my controlling story, and there are at least as many religions as there are people. Your religion—your life’s narrative—is your own. And I for one thank God for all the ways my story can change.

However, I also understand that the fact of story doesn’t change. When we escape a bad story—or see through one into the shock, awe, or absurdity of what’s really going on—we haven’t escaped stories; we’ve simply awakened our way into better and truer ones. And we’ve probably managed that feat only with the considerate assistance of others. When I was a child, my Sunday school reading of salvation was almost exclusively a question of what I had to do to not go to hell. But in time, as I met people for whom avoiding hell was not the heart of their apparent love for Jesus, salvation became a broader hope than what would become of my soul in death. It widened into a kingdom coming to the whole of creation—just as it already is in heaven. This is how the work gets done. No one awakens all by him- or herself. Conversions occur all the time. For better and worse, we drink the Kool-Aid. Religion happens.

Religion happens when we get pulled in, moved, called out, or compelled by something outside ourselves. It could be a car commercial, a lyric, a painting, a theatrical performance, or the magnetic pull of an Apple Store. The calls to worship are everywhere. Whether we spy it in ritual, symbol, or ceremony, religion isn’t something one can be coherently for or against or decide to somehow suddenly engage, because it’s always already there. Or as the old Palmolive commercial once put it, we’re soaking in it. I don’t stop being religious when I leave church or close my Bible. My worship switch is still on when I look at my smartphone, turn on my television, or jump into a Facebook thread. My religion is my witness is the story my one life tells.

Show me your receipts, your text messages, your gas mileage, your online history, a transcript of the words you’ve spoken in a day, and we’ll begin to get a picture of your religion.

This need not be a bummer. On the contrary, it’s an invitation to be more present to my own life, an opportunity to be more deliberate in my choice of devotions (I’m always choosing my devotions), and an acknowledgment this is an avenue for being more honest with myself about all the things I’m up to. Are the things I’m passionate about good religion? Bad religion? True? False? Idolatrous? Righteous? Opinions will vary. But to hit pause long enough to consider the content of our devotion, our lives, and our investments is to begin to see the question clearly. What are my actual devotions? Do I like the stories my one life tells? Do I need to see about changing them?

If what you believe is what you say and do, the guiding provocation runs thusly: Show me your receipts, your text messages, your gas mileage, your online history, a record of your daily doings, and, just to get things started, a transcript of the words you’ve spoken aloud in the course of a single day, and we’ll begin to get a picture of your religion. What we believe, after all, isn’t what we say we believe; it’s what our actions show we believe. What doors of perception might begin to open when we allow ourselves to look at religion—and our own lives—in this way? What personal hypocrisies do we keep obscured from ourselves when we don’t?

Living What We Believe

If what we believe is displayed in every action and aspect of our lives, there’s no getting away from religion. We all want to know who we are, where and how we fit in, and what our lives might mean. And in this sense, religion might be the best word we have for seeing, naming, and confessing what we’re after—of becoming aware of what’s going on in our minds. Putting religion on the table in this way, if we’re open to doing so, might be the most pressing, interesting, and wide-ranging conversation we can have. We might even find ourselves amused.

Your commitment to getting the last word in on that Facebook thread? Religious. The song you sing when you’re alone? Religious. You’re always telling your story.

How’s that? Because religion can radically name the specific ways we’ve put our lives together and, perhaps more urgently, the ways we’ve allowed other people to put our lives together for us.

It’s a life’s work for sure, but with humor and compassion we can try to own what we’re up to; we can try to be true to what we believe in all we do. Your commitment to getting the last word in on that Facebook thread? Religious. The song you sing when you’re alone? Religious. Your response to the person who just cut you off in traffic? Religious. The bad ideas you’re leaving behind and the new ones you’re trying on? Religious. You’re always telling your controlling story.

As much as I’d often prefer otherwise, there is no on and off switch when it comes to my witness. It’s simply the evidence revealed by my output. My witness is the sum of everything I do as well as what I leave undone. The words are there, but the actions speak louder. Our witness isn’t what we say we believe or even what we think we believe. Neither is it the image, pose, or posture we try to present to others. It’s what we do, what we give, what we take, and what we actually bring to our little worlds. Witness knows no division. In some sense, the future will know what our witness was better than we can, the ways we rang true (or didn’t). Time’s the revelator when it comes to what your witness is or what your religion—as it turns out—was. Your religion is your witness is the shape your love takes. In all things.

Let me say it again with some firmness: In all things. Owning up to my own religiosity in everything I say and do is one more beautiful opportunity to begin to actually follow through on all the things I say I believe. Irenaeus of Lyon, an early church father who was born within a century or so of Peter and Paul, once observed that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. How might we allow God’s true and living way to more meaningfully seep into our everyday liturgies? And what do we lose when we don’t?

Related Topics:  Spiritual Life

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