Tuesday, January 1, 2008
"Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship"... & other heresies
Sculpture: "Religion overthrowing Heresy and Hatred" (1695-99, Pierre Le Gros, Church of Il Gesu, Rome: "In Le Gros' work, Religion hurls down thunderbolts upon an old woman representing Hatred while a male figure of Heresy writhes vanquished beneath; to reinforce the point, a putto cheerfully tears pages out of a volume by the Swiss reformer Zwingli, and a tome beneath the figure of Heresy bears Luther's name prominently on its spine.")
Laying awake fighting (and losing) the nightly insomnia, I thought of something I sometimes said as a somewhat younger person when I was preaching or speaking to groups of various sorts: "Christianity's not a religion, it's a relationship!" At the time, I didn't see the irony of uttering such in fairly liturgical churches with traditions dating back to 1517 or May 24, 1738 or 1534ish.
One thing I'm realizing as I grow older is that I don't need faith per se; I don't need a relationship with my personal Jesus all by our lonesomes. (What a lonely circle of two we make. About as sensical as an Army of One.) What I need is a religion. "Faith" is vague, inchoate, nebulous. It appears to limit itself to the emotions, to the psyche, and, considered rationally, to the mind. But "religion" -- this suggests an established way of life, presumes a standing community, into both of which I might be grounded. Religion involves the totality of the myriad faculties that comprise a human being -- heart, soul, mind, strength, in one schema, or body, spirit, soul, in another. Religion tells me -- all of me -- what to do.
Most important is that religion involves ritual, and we humans cannot live without ritual. Even Evangelicals go to church once a week (unless, apparently, Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, because the nuclear family is very important, after all).
What I find personally very important about established ritual pertains to my devotional life. Prayer was originally spontaneous for me (and therefore spotty). Then my Bible Camp counselors taught me the A-C-T-S model (Adoration-Confession-Thanksgiving-Supplication). Later, searching for more, I got into Richard Foster and Dallis Willard, among others, and sometime learned about the practice of lectio divina. Many Evangelicals are turning towards such authors composing contemporary classics in classical Christian devotional practices. It's interesting and salutary, of course, that these authors are involved in recovering practices, figures and movements long forgotten by Protestantism and Evangelicalism -- as Protestants. Yet, as much as I have learned from them, it still seems to me like I am picking and choosing what to do and when and how to do it.
I suppose in Catholicism one picks and chooses what to do and when to do it (Orthodoxy with its required fasting seems more structured to me), yet in each tradition it feels like I've got several road maps ready at hand: traditional prayers for meals, traditional times and ways of fasting, Ignatian retreats, and so on. And why should we turn back to patristic and medieval devotional practices without turning back to the patristic and medieval Church(es)?