Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dirty Religion

I could feel Jonathan Edwards gasping in his grave. When I used to be an installer, one of the technicians asked me if I was either a religious person or a spiritual person? I don't think he could appreciate the irony of asking a Pentecostal that question. My guess is that he didn't like the institutionalized church that much. Edwards was a controversial Reformed pastor in New England before the colonies had split from Britain. He led the American wing of a mass cultural movement towards emotionally charged preaching and personally experiencing God in contrast to traditional ritual and sacrament. Whether we like his theology and methods or not, the movement changed American spirituality forever. Religion was considered a good thing, back then at least.

We have inherited our understanding of personal salvation and compelling preaching from Edwards. It has become so fundamental to our thinking and practice that it is difficult for us to imagine Christian piety without this emphasis. Yet we spurn Edward's language above all. Consider the title of the book he wrote to defend the movement, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival of Religion! It is hard for a modern Christian to even read this title with the last two words attached. To us, the word religion represents a dead, worthless, institutionalized, fossilized, and meaningless approach to God by rules and rituals. The word has evolved to represent everything that Edwards fought against. Why?

The term 'religion' and Jesus seem to be twin brothers. The word religion was once honored and loved, but has been dragged through the mud and crucified as a criminal. The problem is that in the same way we have treated the word, so has society treated the church. The stones Christians once threw at corrupt religious hierarchy have been picked up by normal people and are being thrown at all faith communities as hateful, backwards thinking, money hungry churches bent on a jihad of starting wars and ruining the world. Our calls for reform in the Church have become calls for liberation from the Church.

Religion is a lot like marriage. Both can be wonderful. But when things turn toxic they are a blight upon the world. For many of us, the only thing that holds us back from a deeper experience with God is the fear of the mocking labels we ourselves have put on that pursuit. We make fun of those people. We are scared of a word. We are scared of being religious. We are scared of becoming culpable with its many sins. We treat religion as if it were a diet, a passing fad.

Why can't religion be an intimate relationship with God? Why can't church help foster that in me? Why can't the Spirit inspire us and speak through us while we participate in sacraments and services? Is religion really dead? Or am I the one that is dead on the inside?

As my local church continues preaching through Corinthians, I hope that we can be curious and courageous explorers of the spirituality Paul assumes to be good, religion that is full of love and helpful miracles. I hope that we can leave our fears about spiritual gifts and manifestations behind along with all the choice names we have for their abuse. I hope that we can uncringe our toes and relax our tense shoulders and allow God to make use of whomever God may choose to speak of word of encouragement and let us know that God is still in our midst.

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