Freedom for the word “religion”

The members of my spiritual direction cohort, by and large, love David Benner’s book Soulful Spirituality. In it he is working on reinforcing how my spiritual life is embodied –– we are also incarnations of the Holy Spirit in our unique and dependent ways. I am not as big a fan of this book as my friends, so far. I’ve been told it gets better. Even if it doesn’t, we will always have The Gift of Being Yourself, which is one of Benner’s gems.

I may have been in a mood when I was reading, but I became fixated on Benner’s binary assumptions regarding “religion” and “spirituality.” This is a common dichotomy, so I don’t know why it began to bother me. It’s not like I haven’t heard it all before.

For instance, at Psychology Today’s site, a contributor talked about the same issue. She wrote:

The purpose of religion, in general, is to unite a group of people under the same values and principles and to facilitate their collective and individual communication with a Higher Power and/or philosophy. In other words, religion was meant to enhance spirituality.

That said, it must also be said that it is entirely possible to be a very religious person yet be totally out of touch with spirituality and its essential connection to an authentic Self. On the other hand, true spirituality unites a person with his or her authentic Self.

By the way, I think the author, Andrea Matthews, capitalized “Self” because her interest and writing leans into “The territory of the Self” and “differentiating between the authentic and the inauthentic” leading to a “peaceful internal home.” Psychoanalytic and Jungian people, in particular, use a capital S Self to differentiate from the false, unrealized, unintegrated, lower-case self. (Me too, sometimes.)

You don’t need to hear all my arguments about her Christless musings. I just want to offer one argument about “religion” that made me feel better.

Religion is a modern invention

I decided to find out when people in the so-called “West” started using the word “religion” in the way Benner and Matthews use it. As when Matthews starts with “the purpose of religion” and she assumes we all understand the abstraction called “religion” and can sort various groups under that definition. I had never studied it, but I had the idea that “religion” is probably a modern invention, like a lot of powerful things contributed by the Enlightenment and Europe’s project to colonize the world and remake it in its own image.

Brent Nongbri

I came up with a very interesting book that confirms my suspicion: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) by Brent Nongbri. He is now a professor at the Norwegian School of Philosophy in Oslo. But he was raised in Texas and got his doctorate at Yale.

My thought was the way Benner is talking about religion does not match the Bible’s worldview. Like so many things, the word “religion” had been redefined to fit the straight-jacket of European (and now American) thinking that posits a unifying theme and then collects like things under it. We are all being fitted into abstract categories as if that is important. I often squirm under the abstraction “identity,” which comes from the same thinking; now we all must choose an identity to become authentic. On the map we are all wrestling with the abstraction “nation,” defined by lines which cut through family systems and language groups and create endless conflict in service to a European imagination; the U.S. wall along the border with Mexico is a visual reminder.

Nongbri’s thesis is straightforward. For the past two centuries people have assumed “religion” is “a universal human phenomenon, a part of the ‘natural’ human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history.” This modern notion has been criticized in the last thirty, postmodern years. The main criticism comes from the fact that no ancient languages have a term that really corresponds to what modern people say when they mean “religion.” In fact, the names of supposedly old religions can be traced back to the recent past. “Hinduism” for instance, starts showing up named around 1787 and “Buddhism” in 1801.

The isolation of something called “religion” as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics and science is not a universal feature of human history. If you take a look at the Bible, no one is thinking that way. If you look at the Bible from a European Protestant lens, through which all the past looks like a projection of European thinking, then you can find the separation. But once you begin to imagine a world in which God is present in every activity and, indeed, enlivens the planet, then these abstract separations can’t be found.

James Tissot — The Tribute Money (Le denier de César), 1886-1894.

It is not in the Bible

For instance, in Matthew 22 Jesus famously said, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The modern lens sees a dichotomy in the verse between the secular government and the religious establishment, or between the realm of humans and the realm of God. I find the stultifying arguments that Bible students have had my whole life over this quote pretty tiresome, much as I was finding Benner’s dichotomy between religion and spirituality. The endless arguments about abstractions are a modern imposition.

I don’t believe Jesus or the writers were seeing the world through such a corrupt lens. Nongbri notes that Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, reflected 1 Tim. 2:1-2 when he interpreted what was “owed to Caesar” were prayers on his behalf. In the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan understood Jesus to be encouraging people to give up their property and lead an ascetic life like he was living, free of Caesar’s things.  No one in the Bible thought Caesar’s things should be religion-free (like John Locke) or thought religious things would be threatened by secular authorities (like Roger Williams).

I don’t like being an abstraction in the lens of some powerful leader corralling me into their Eurocentric organizing principles, especially when they do it in the cause of religion or spirituality. Moreso, I like trying to walk with Jesus in the light of God’s revelation in the Savior. When I am suckered into seeing through the eyes of modern thinkers — and that is not unlikely since they made the situation we are in, I feel caught. I think Jesus is still calling us out. Paul says, in Col. 2 (and Gal. 4)

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces (basic principles) of this world rather than on Christ.

I suspect Benner is going my direction and also wants me to be close to my Savior. But I would like him to tighten up his thinking. The idea of religion is a recent abstraction that has become a debilitating “basic principle.” I think people fill the idea with good meaning and use it in good faith to good ends. But I don’t want to live under it and I do want to get in touch with what the rest of the church in history taught and what many non-Europeans intuitively know.

1 thought on “Freedom for the word “religion”

  1. I know podcasts aren’t your favorite, but this reminded me of a recent Rob Bell podcast episode in which he does the deconstruction of religious institutions while also some rescuing of the word “religion” from its abstractions. I don’t know if it stands up to any scrutiny but I appreciated Bell’s storytelling and his very incarnational understanding of religion. It could be a little Christless too, but I know Rob is not. https://robbell.podbean.com/e/900-ligaments/

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