Recently I was sitting in a coffee shop chatting with a dude. When it came out that I am a student at a seminary (a graduate school dedicated to the training of Christian pastors, spiritual leader, theological thinkers, and the occasional philosopher) he told me about his own experience of growing up only on occasion attending religious services. Finally, he asked me…
“How long have you been religious?”
My gut said “I’m not religious” while my head said “Huh?” I was a bit surprised at my own reaction. After all, to an outsider looking at my life I guess I look religious. I attend a school whose whole existence is based around educating religious/spiritual leaders. I am an intern at a church. I read a lot of books about God. Does that make me religious?
I guess I have to figure out what this word “religious” means. The basic definition I can think of is something to the point of: a religious person is one who is involved in religion. (My English friends cringe at using the noun version of the word in defining the adjective.) With that definition, I would be religious because I am a member of a “traditional” (or organized) religion.
If by “religious” you mean Catholic priests, monks, and nuns (a lessor known use of the word), then I am not religious. No vows of chastity here, although if you have made one I highly respect your decision.
If being religious means that I am part of an organized community centered around religious or spiritual things, then I guess I am religious. But my question is, why is that a negative idea? In the general culture I feel like the word “religious” is used almost as an insult. Being spiritual is a good thing, but being religious is not. The many years of abuse, violence, and hypocrisy of Christian churches seems to be one of the triggering reasons why “religious” is an insult. If that is true, I am not religious. I believe all the violence and abuse and whatnot is a warping of the message of Jesus and seek a future where those things are not associated with followers of Jesus. For thousands of years human beings have sought community. We organize communities around all sorts of things–sports, education, class, hobbies. If I were to say I was a part of a scrap-booking club that met twice a week for two hours no one would think anything bad about that. They would think, “Wow, she really likes scrap-booking.” But when I say I am part of an intentional community centered around living the ways of Jesus… that’s bad.
It’s not that hard to figure out. People use religion as excuses for other things. People push their own agendas claiming it is “in the name of God” or “in the name of Jesus.” Turn on the coverage of the upcoming presidential race. Politicians have been using this tactic for centuries ever since Constantine (Emperor of the Roman Empire in the early 300′s) converted to Christianity. He used Christianity as a way to control his empire and got involved in all sorts of theological arguments that before then the government had no voice in. With Constantine most of the Roman Empire converted, turning the persecuted movement into a government-backed institution. This was the start of what some call “cultural Christianity.” A cultural Christian is a person who consider her or himself a Christian only because it’s part of the culture and not out of devotion or belief. Now, many people through history have called themselves Christians and been committed to the non-violent ways of Jesus. Many have cared for the poor and worked to end poverty, etc. But many have sought to use the religious institution as a stepping stone for their own power games. Wars have been fought in the name of Jesus that have nothing to do with the religion and everything to do with power! But how can we blame anyone for thinking all people who follow Jesus are like this? The evening news doesn’t report the thousands of ministers who go about their lives loving and caring for people. We hear about the Crusades in our history courses, not Francis and Claire. When people talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. many times they leave out his other title, Reverend. It is much easier to tear something down than to build it up. If the term “religious” is being used for people who use God like a product or like a trump card, count me out.
Thankfully, the days when Christianity was some sort of default religion are ending. What an amazing thing to become like the ancient church again! Sure, the reputation of people who call themselves “Christians” is not the best right now. But the institutions of Christianity are changing, and they are changing because of the movement of the people. As the numbers of official members in churches shrink I think we will be seeing fewer and fewer cultural Christians. The term “religious” may become less and less associated with modern followers of Jesus.
Many of my friends who are involved with Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism hesitate to use this term “religious.” (I’m sure others do as well, but I have only had personal conversations about this with Buddhists, Jews, and Christians.) None of us want our spiritual lives and traditions to be boiled down to that term. People sometimes write someone off when they associate the term “religious” with them as if they are a thing of the past with no relevance to the future and no passion that has changed the course of lives.
How long have I been religious? With all the ambiguities of how the word “religious” is used, at this point God only knows.