I love Jesus. I love the Bible. I love the Church. And Christianity is a religion.
Now, that probably elicited two kinds of responses. There are the people who will hear my statement and say, “Duh, Jag. That is about as insightful as saying an apple is a fruit.” I agree with this imaginary person (in spite of their curt response). Christianity, although unique in its religiosity, is a religion.
Yet, there are others who will be appalled by my categorization of Christianity as a religion. I can hear their heartfelt and stern rebuke, “Jag, you must know that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. Christianity is about loving Jesus; Christianity is not about following rules or tradition.” (This statement also indicates my working definition of religion in this brief article.) I agree with at least half of this. In fact, how could I not agree with someone who specifically states that Christianity is about loving Jesus?! Nonetheless, there is an underlying misguided assumption in this response that I strongly resist.
Namely, this view creates an unfortunate and unnecessary equivocation of tradition and ritual with impersonal obedience. For example, I grew up in a Christian context that believed Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions were wrong about God not because of their theology (because the people I hung around with did not study theology), but because their worship was ritualistic in involving liturgy, the recitement of prayers, kneeling, and icons. For my friends and family, these forms of worship were robotic. True worship, in contrast, was through spirit-filled, active, authentic worship through song and preaching. Worship is not about repeating actions or words; worship is about meaningfully participating in the speaking truth about God and receiving the Word of God. The problem, however, is that this stance excludes the possibility that a Christian’s participation in tradition-filled, ritual worship can be authentic and meaningful. This is precisely why I resist the well-meaning statement, “Christianity is a relationship and not a religion.” In effort to protect the true worship of God from impersonal obedience, Christians create a dichotomy between true worship and participation in ritual.
My aim to return to “Christianity as a religion” is not to dissolve the necessary component of authentically loving and trusting Jesus. Rather, I desire to return to a Christianity that appreciates and even values tradition and ritual as holy and a good means of worshipping God. I desire a Christianity that loves its religiosity. Let us be habitual in our actions and worship; let us train our hearts and minds through means of recited prayer and repeated action. And let us do so with full-force engagement and appreciation for God.
So what does this mean? For starters, I am not just telling everyone to be more Reformed, or more Orthodox, or more Roman Catholic. Rather, I am telling everyone to recognize the tradition and ritual within their own traditions and appreciate the religiosity of their own worship traditions. If you are Southern Baptist and non-denominational, appreciate your tradition’s valuing of a personal relationship with Jesus being demonstrated through music and preaching. If you are Pentecostal, appreciate the value of God’s robust and explicit love in ecstatic and lively demonstration. Don’t deny the context in which you worship and thus separate yourself from the saints of old (or today) within your tradition. Live robustly in your tradition, and seek to appreciate and open yourselves to the religiosity of other traditions. As Christians, we should be excited about the boundaries of tradition and ritual (whether implicit or explicit) which enable us to approach God in community. In summary, Christianity is a religion and that is a good thing.