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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Is Christianity a Religion?

Depends on your definition, doesn’t it.

As a unit of language, the word ‘religion’ has acquired so many nuances that it is almost useless. Everyone has his or her own idea of what religion means, but they often differ drastically from one another. It has become one of those words that just doesn’t really communicate much anymore.

If I ask, “Are you religious?” and you say “Yes”, I have actually discovered very little indeed about what you believe.

Mightily Morphing Meanings

You see, in the interests of acknowledging the diversity of religious thought and experience, writers and scholars are finding the “belief in a god or gods” definition, a variant on which you would see in a standard dictionary, to be a bit of a straitjacket. They are in the process of reworking it.

So perhaps you favour anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion as a:
“… system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
Or maybe not. I’m still trying to work out exactly what he means there.

That’s just one. I could list a bunch of them, but it’s a lot shorter simply to say that they are lengthy, difficult to parse, and tend to disagree with one another.

And these are the scholars, folks.

The Resulting Confusion

The point is, you may well answer “Yes” to my question “Are you religious?” and be a worshipper of Satan, or spirit beings, or Allah, or maybe ‘sacred stuff’ in general (including rocks, trees or pebbles) or just about anything that evokes solemnity or gravity.

When I was growing up I believed the word ‘religion’ had an almost-generally agreed-upon meaning. I might then have argued with conviction that “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship”. But now I’m pretty sure our modern definitions of religion are more than elastic enough to accommodate Christianity.

And, for better or for worse, whether it qualifies technically and whether it should be or not, Christianity is considered by most people to be a religion. Wikipedia lists it as the largest ‘religion’ in the world, at 33% (that is, by whatever watery standard the word ‘Christian’ is currently defined in Wiki-land).

Converting to Judaism

Happily, the distinctiveness of our faith does not depend on our ability to reduce it to pithy formulas. Where — as they increasingly do — English definitions fail, the Bible comes through for us. Here’s Luke writing in the book of Acts about the selection of seven men “of good repute, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” appointed by the apostles to the duty of caring for the widows among the Greek-speaking Jews in the early church:
“… they chose … Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch.”
(Acts 6:5)
Now a proselyte is a Gentile convert to Judaism. Presumably Nicolaus had converted to Judaism well before Pentecost, because he had time to develop a good reputation among the believers. Converting to the religion of Judaism (and there is no disputing that Judaism always was and still remains a religion by any definition) was not merely a matter of saying “I want in”:
“The law of Moses made specific regulations regarding the admission into the Jewish church of such as were not born Israelites”.
— Easton’s Bible Dictionary
These included keeping the Sabbath, celebrating the Passover, keeping no leaven during it and becoming circumcised. In other words, the would-be proselyte had to keep laws and perform actions to be considered devout or religious. And Nicolaus, as a man with a good reputation, had faithfully done what the law of Moses required.

Nicolaus had come into Judaism under the ‘old rules’, a set of regulations that Paul teaches are done away with in Christ. He was, at least initially, a ‘religious’ guy.

Turning to the Lord

But compare the language Scripture uses to describe Nicolaus’ original conversion with that of the conversion of Gentiles in Antioch after the preaching of the Cypriots and Cyrenians:
They turned “to the Lord”
Barnabas exhorted them to remain faithful “to the Lord”
A great many people were added “to the Lord”
(from Acts 11:19-24)
They did not turn to Christianity from Judaism; they turned to Christ. Barnabas did not exhort them to remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles but to the Lord. A great many people were added, not to a mere religion, but to the church which is “his body”. They were, in figure, added “to him”; not merely to an organization’s accounting of adherents. They became members of his body, not in the sense of being formally admitted, but just as your legs and arms are members of yours. 

Children of God

No matter what words you use, this is a uniquely personal bond. Add to membership in Christ the fact that we are called children of God. Islam does not portray God as a father, as observed by this Christian and confirmed by this Muslim, who rules that a Muslim may only refer to himself as a child of Allah in the sense that it is a metaphor for dependence. Islam knows no “adoption as sons”. 

I Have Called You Friends

Then consider the Lord’s words to his disciples: “I have called you friends”. Abraham was said to be a friend of God, but his is a rare privilege under the Old Testament economy. Allah has “friends” too, but only on the basis of works. But the Lord calls his followers his friends, not because of anything they have done but because they share knowledge of and interest in the Father and what he is doing. Here you have a level of intimate fellowship between God and man in Christ that no religion can compare to, and it is extended to all those in Christ, not just a privileged few.

The Disciples Called Christians

Before there were any “Christians”, people turned and were added “to the Lord”. This is the terminology of the Scripture, intimate and unique. Yes, the disciples were eventually called “Christians”, in Antioch first, as a matter of fact. That isn’t a name the Lord gave them or that they gave themselves. It’s something others called them. We don’t know how it was intended. It may well have been an insult. But the name stuck. We still use it, though its meaning too has been expanded and distorted over time.

But no matter what happens to English terminology, we can always fall back on the words of Scripture and retranslate them as necessary to give us a meaning that is current and accurate in any specific day and age, and therefore a means of communicating truth to those who need it. This is one reason that hailing any particular English translation of the Bible as definitive is short-sighted and problematic.

And really, what’s in a name? I would be perfectly happy to be a “follower of Christ” or a “disciple of Christ”. But I also “belong to Christ Jesus”. And best of all, I am “in Christ”. So I’m not bothered what terms people use for us.

Words change their meanings over time. That’s a fact of life. Sayings that were big in the sixties, like “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” may not be as compelling as they once were, when we take into account how people are actually using language.

But the relationship between Christ and his own is unique in human history, no matter what words we use to describe it.

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