Summary: Helping ourselves and others relate to Jesus not as one who started a new religion… nor who can be known merely through religious tradition… but who defies religious confines… and who seeks relationship.
Intro – One of the more interesting dynamics in my own process of having ‘holy conversation’ is when someone asks what I do. When they discover I’m a pastor… I’ve seen all sorts of things go off. Discomfort with their behavior, discomfort with what they then expect from me, or even just fascination. Not so different from what you experience if you are said to be a ‘Christian’… or even that you go to ‘church.’ Suddenly there is something on the table that defines you and defines you in relationship to them.
> At the heart of the matter is the nature of religion… religion as it’s generally experienced and related to in our current culture.
Religion is a term that in itself can be neutral. Religion in it’s most basic use simply refers to “an institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine.” (Encarta) Our current cultural use has come to emphasize the outer form of such structures and the more negative cultural perception is that the outer form is empty inside.
“Religion” holds a strange dynamic – it’s both dangerous and safe. It is dangerous in that we may not trust what that religious person` thinks of us and what they should get us to adhere to. On the other hand it can be a safe way to frame a discussion because we can talk about things as externalized… as merely a cultural or traditional difference that should have no real implications for our lives. It is much safer to talk about Jesus in the context of religious traditions than to discuss who he really is and what he really said and did.
This challenge has always been at hand regarding Jesus…
Jesus is speaking to her deep spiritual need. Through the Spirit’s leading he helps her see the deeper thirst of her soul… not yet met through her many relationships. Just when you expect a transforming moment… she asks a safe religious question … and Jesus transcends being contained in religious traditions and differences. He ultimately makes clear that he is the hope she is waiting for.
> What a fascinating encounter…. fascinating because I think this conversation is still going on today. (We may want to talk about spiritual life but instead are asked where our church is… whether we saw the PBS show about some obscure asect of religion… or hear about the recent religious leader who’s been found in a scandel
> We need to keep Jesus lifted from the limitations of cultural religious understanding. After 2000 years of religious forms of “Christendom” that bears his name…. we stand as a testimony of a risen and relating Christ who transcends all that has been developed and done in his name.
Note: Also Jesus has also been co-opted into many ideas that deem themselves more about ‘spirituality’ than religion… which I hope to discuss in weeks ahead..
How do we help relate to Jesus outside of ‘religion’?
I. Recognizing the underlying aversion to ‘religion’
One of the most common sentiments heard today… is that “I’m not into organized religion.” Many will express valuing spirituality…. but not organized religion. We do well not only to try and understand what the aversion may involve… but also to become the best interpreters of religious aversion and re-presenters of Christ who transcends such religious nature.
The anti-‘organized religion’ sentiment is SO understandable. But if we reflect on it a bit, I think it becomes clear that
The essence of the anti-‘organized religion’ sentiment is not that people mistrust organization (we organize our lives in countless ways) but rather we mistrust human authority and control… which operates more notably within structures and organizations.
We are those who live in “the land of the free” and are a bastion to the world of those who revolt against tyranny… and insist on certain rights and voices for all. (Even though many may now criticize our failures… they are shaped by our success.) Distrust of absolute and abusive authority is in our fabric. (Europe has the history of church and state united in an evil collusion… and America and Latin America have their own forms of religious power being imposed.)
Added to that backdrop… a generation who became anti-establishment… and has experienced even greater disappointment and disillusionment with the established authority figures in life. We have an increasing loss of character and commitment by those in authority (workplace exploitation, political & corporate corruption, scandals, divorce, abuse, etc).
> This leads people into a misguided sense that being independent of anything organized is to be ‘free.’
However… the limits of just trying to avoid the problems of organized religion with having our own spiritual ideas to follow or following some new author who says they are not religious… really just shifts rather than avoids human authority and power. One simply becomes ‘a religion of one’ (or ‘a church on one’, etc) and the concepts really carry all the same vulnerabilities in the long run. The truth is that we can leave what we deem as organized and become our own religion (with more parallels than most would like to admit)… but in the end it implies that everyone else is untrustworthy and flawed but that I am not. It can prove to be a rather foolish and arrogant assumption.