In place of religion

27 Aug

There is a parable of Jesus, in which an ‘unclean spirit’ leaves a person, but does not find a new home. It returns, to find its former home lovely and clean—and empty. So it goes to find seven friends, to join it and they move back in. The last state of the house is worse than the first, Jesus says. (Matthew 12. 43 – 45.)

So, if we are going to abandon religion, what will we put in its place, lest it return with seven more monsters, to wreak havoc upon our lives and out communties?

This is I think the real challenge for us, and to answer this question we have to work out not just what we are against but what we are for.

I am for a fair dinkum faith; that is, a faith that has enough integrity at least to try to say what it is for, including what might even be of lasting value, despite itself, in what we so easily label and reject as ‘religion’.

I am for faith, rather than religion.

For me there are four or five characteristics I think I can name which are crucial to what I hope for, in a life of faith.
are, as it happens, the things that I reckon most people look for, when
they look towards ‘religion’ and, when they don’t see them, all too
easily they reject the idea of faith as well.

In place of religion, I want and I think most people want community. I think this is why there is such strong resistance to religious institutions. I know that Australians resist many forms of institutional structures, procedures and pageantry. But that is just the surface issue. Behind all that is something we hunger for. We want community. We want relationships that are real, genuine, equal, and meaningful.
I want a community of faith, not a religious institution.

This leads to the second feature. In place of religion, I want a faith that is  relational. By this I mean a specific contrast with the idea of religion so many people have, which is centred upon intellectual content, or the idea of ‘beliefs’, or ‘doctrines’.
Faith is not primarily an intellectual stance. For sure, it includes or implies ideas, beliefs, at least in some measure. But most people of faith see their faith in terms of experience and relationship, with God and with other people. ‘Religion’ seems so closely linked with doctrines and forms of belief. All too often, this is prescriptive. You must believe this, or that, if you are going to be part of our group. Even worse, at times religion has demanded that people assent to these beliefs, even if their rational understanding denies or cannot comprehend such ideas. The sacrifice of the intellect, on the altar of religion, is nothing to be celebrated. God did not give us brains in order for us to leave them at the church door.
My conviction is that a relational faith allows us to engage meaningfully with ideas and doctrines, in ways that allow for belief, and for exploration, and doubt, all within a faith-ful attitude, within trusting relationships. This to me is faith.

A third feature of genuine faith, I propose, is that it is dynamic rather than static. In my study of the relationship between doubt and faith, I noted that the kind of ‘faith’ that is focussed entirely on intellectual assent is an all-or-nothing attitude, you either have it or you don’t, and as such it is a static attitude. If you think that faith, or religion, is about beliefs that are all correct, all right, then why would you change? On the other hand, a faith that is relational is one which embraces a dynamic engagement. It envisages change, growth, and further personal discovery. 

Flowing from these features of faith are other elements. Perhaps most important for me, I want a faith that is future directed rather than defined by the past. Religion seems to me constantly addicted to the past, seeking to preserve and defend its position, defined in and by the past. While I am strongly convinced of the value of history and the heritage of the past, I also believe that the past, rightly understood and valued, sets us free for the future.
Religion that binds us to the past is bad religion. We are called and invited into freedom, for the future. God’s creativity leads us forwards, not backwards. Genuine faith does not fear the future, or the unknown. Rather, it lives by hope, even as that hope is grounded in the past. (This is the genius of Moltmann’s theology of hope—grounded as it is in what he calls ‘a history of promise’.) And, in place of that ‘tutelage’ which Bonhoeffer so rightly decried in religion, a future-oriented faith looks to others, with humility and respect, seeking their contribution to the future, and works in partnership towards making that hope a reality.

Furthermore, in place of religion, I want a faith that is inclusive rather than exclusive. It seems to be a characteristic of religion that it creates a sense of community by defining who is ‘out’ rather than who is ‘in’. I want a faith that is open to all God’s creatures, all God’s people, and thus seeks ways to embrace and include, in genuine relationships, all who wish to engage in such community. This does not mean ‘anything goes’. Inclusive community is not an easy option! It requires more of us than an exclusive community. It requires hard work, at relating, welcoming, consulting, reconciling differences, and so on and so on. But it is a lot more attractive than a community ‘united’ by what it is against.

In place of religion, I propose a kind of relationship and communal life which explores and tries to practice these features. No easy thing. Probably impossible. But then, that is what faith is about. All too easily, religion settles for the manageable, the achievable, for what we can grasp. Faith reaches out for the ‘impossible possibility’, that we just might in fact live as God’s people, as people made in the image and likeness of God.

There is something else, really basic to all this. The things I have tried to describe, as elements in a faith I want, a faith community of which I long to be a part—these are characteristics of God. In the best of Christian tradition, God is described as a relational, communal life, a community that is not static but is open, inclusive, free and inviting, a life of creative, loving hope. In place of religion, let us have some of this life of God. Let us receive and live into this life!

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