Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pure Religion

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

                        James 1.27 


Anyone who’s told anything about me before we meet most likely knows I’m a fairly ardent believer. Being prepped in advance, many raise the topic before we’re comfortably acquainted—i.e., sooner than I’d prefer. Most of them lead with a line that, frankly, drives me nuts: “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” What does that mean? And what do they expect me say? “Good for you?” Any positive reply would be disingenuous, because I don’t see a difference in being “spiritual” or “religious.” They’re both wispy smokescreens that can’t hide what’s behind them—trying to squeak past following Jesus and pleasing God by occasionally thinking about Them. I suppose being religious and/or spiritual is better than agnostic or antagonistic. But what good really comes from either? It’s like claiming to be a jock without putting any skin in the game.

It took squirming out of a lot of awkward moments to find an honest yet tactful response: “What led to that?” Most often, their answer reveals they’re strays and the term “organized religion” pops up as they explain why they left institutional faith for an amorphous, casual relationship with their Maker. “Yes,” I agree, “organized religion is a minefield. But that’s an old story. What do you believe?” After professing faith in a “Higher Power”—another grating phrase—the answer’s always the same: “I try to be a good person and show kindness to others.” Though I resist pointing it out, they’re a lot more religious than they think, since their description lines up exactly with what James says religion is.

The Three “R’s”

“Religion” gets a bad rap because it’s become a catchphrase for three different concepts—one glorious, another less so, and a third that misses the boat altogether. In fact, divergence between the three “R’s” runs so deep etymologists still argue about the word’s genesis. And—wouldn’t you know it—they fall into three camps. One group traces its origins to religionem, Latin for “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods,” which evolved into an eleventh-century Anglo-French word, religiun, meaning, “conduct indicating a belief in divine power.” Cicero tagged another source, relegare, “go through again, read again;” while he retains supporters, they number least among the groups. The largest camp settles on religare, “to bind fast,” as in placing an obligation on humans to secure their bond with the gods. Is it any surprise the three concepts of “religion” are consistent with its three etymological theories?

For purposes of clarity, let’s distinguish the three “R’s” with modifiers, pure, studied, and organized, leaving pure religion for last. All three center on faith, yet come at it from radically diverse angles. Studied religion focuses on a spiritually centric ideal and raises its principles as pillars of belief. Adherents of this religious type seek truth through pedantic learning, sifting lives and lessons of their founders, reading ancient texts over and over for new insights. They favor the theoretical over the theological, striving for human understanding instead of accepting faith’s mysteries. Organized religion starts with a noble objective: inventing a system to protect the original ideal from corruption. But its back-door approach, stressing obligation as our bonding mechanism with God, subverts its goal by codifying behaviors and attitudes to measure faith by performance. Pure religion (religionem), according to James, reverses organized religion’s dynamic. God’s obligation to live up to His promises binds Him to us. Faith in His purity and perfection establishes our performance standards. And while pure religion incorporates the fundamentals of studied and organized religion—understanding and defending the ideal—its glory rests not in knowing or doing, but in believing.

God’s Metrics

James boils down God’s metrics for pure religion to two basic principles that mirror Jesus’s distillation of all religious law: love God and love others. He says the religious person whom God accepts must care for everyone. In Biblical times, a husband took everything with him when he died—his name, his property, his rights, and so on—forcing his widow to rely on her children and the mercy of others. It was worse for orphans, whose loss turned them into the streets to beg for their survival. Throughout Scripture, “widows and orphans” serves as a euphemism for those unjustly rejected and overlooked, and repeated commands to see to their care essentially means loving without prejudice. Pure religion teaches us no one is unfit or undeserving of compassion, which gives us no legitimate excuse to hate or neglect anyone.

In keeping with Christ’s command to love God with our entire heart, mind, and strength, James insists we stay clear of pollutants that impede our love for Him. 1 John 2.16 breaks worldly pursuits into “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does.” Everything on these lists “comes not from the Father but from the world.” Satisfying unhealthy appetites, valuing what we see more than trusting what we can’t see, and usurping credit for God’s blessings diminish our capacity to love Him and spoil our religion. We want to be religious. We must be. Wan stabs at “spirituality” won’t cut it. But we also want to be the right kind of religious, the pure kind. Study is important, but not enough. Protecting Christ’s ideals is vital, but conformity to manmade standards alone undermines His purpose. Only by loving God and everyone created in His image will He accept our religion as pure and faultless.

God's religious purity standards: loving everyone ("widows and orphans") and resisting anything that lessens our love for Him.

(Tomorrow: Where’d They Go?)

Postscript: Tech Trouble and a Terrific Blog

All comments are forwarded to my personal email, alerting me the instant they’re submitted for approval. (Wish I didn’t have to do that, but every so often a black-hearted flamer can’t stop him/herself from unleashing a torrent of homophobic bile undeserving of anyone’s attention.) Of late, Earthlink is dumping anything sent via gmail, including comments from those of you with gmail accounts. I don’t know you’ve commented until I sign onto Blogger or get a spam report from Earthlink, which frustrates me by delaying my response. Often comments from other providers arrive after your comments and get answered before them. While I’m trying to get to the bottom of this issue, please don’t misinterpret this as anything beyond what it is—tech trouble.

Now, on to something far more interesting. T, a prized reader here, publishes a terrific blog, Breathe Beautiful, comprised of short, haiku-like poems illustrated with atmospheric photographs, accompanied by understated music. Her topics are very personal, often discreetly alluding to relationships and situations that prompt a rich variety of emotions, positive and negative. While faith isn’t the focus of Breathe Beautiful, the oscillations of life that T writes about so beautifully will remind any believer of its importance. Her blog is unique and fascinating, often challenging, and always worth visiting. Realizing I could never fully do it justice, here’s a shot.

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