And No Religion Too?

There are a number of benefits to playing bass in the church band: I have the option of not shaking hands with people, I have a valid reason to jump to the front of the communion line, but best of all, I get to see people’s faces as they process the song lyrics they’re singing. A few weeks ago, as the offering plate made its way around the room, the band picked up our instruments and started into United Pursuit’s “Simple Gospel.” The verses are all about knowing God and experiencing God, but then the chorus kicks in…

So I’m laying down all my religion
I’m laying down
I want to know you, Lord

While many in attendance were already familiar with the song —it’s a favorite among our college students—, I saw a handful of eyebrows retreating and regrouping along furrowed foreheads. And that’s when it hit me: “religion” has got to be the most broadly defined and poorly understood word in our language.

A dictionary, a textbook, a faith community, Twitter, and the United States tax code all have completely different definitions of religion, so it’s hard to know where to start. I see two definitions at work in my immediate context though:

– – -Warning: potentially boring theoretical stuff ahead- – –
When I use the word religion, I’m referring to the beliefs, practices, and foundational stories that remind us who we are (and, if applicable, who God is). Under this definition, atheism can be a religion, and so can America or Star Wars. Everyone has a religion of some sort because everyone holds something to be sacred, everyone has stories that have shaped their views of the world, and everyone has habits that are significant to them. Of course, this is the broadest possible sense of the word.

More commonly, the word “religion” gets associated
with crusades and picket signs and terrorism.
Empty words, empty rituals, empty pews—
this religion is something hollow and mechanical and oppressive,
a loveless and lifeless system
that makes others conform instead of helping them grow.
When people speak of the evils of religion,
when people claim spirituality without religion,
when people longingly quote the famed John Lennon lyric
“and no religion too,”
this is the kind of religion they’re talking about.
When our music on Sunday refers to “laying down all my religion,” it means abandoning oppressive systems and going back to simple faith and prayer and obedience to God. It means leaving behind the cultural rules and regulations and focusing on seeing the world through God’s love.
It’s also a major oversimplification of a very complicated word,
so while I agree wholeheartedly, I also kind of hate it.

Notice how different those two definitions of religion are. By the first definition, I could no sooner “lay down my religion” than I could change any other aspect of my upbringing. Religion is a part of my identity, and yet, as I encounter new ideas and new media, my religion grows and changes. Let’s call it “living religion.”

By the second definition, religion is a cultural system we have to buy into, a system preoccupied with who’s in, who’s out, and how to stay in. There’s much more choice involved in how we carry it out, and sadly, that type of religion is often used to justify our more violent and oppressive tendencies. I’d like to go ahead and call that “dead religion.”

Before we go writing off dead religion though, consider this:
In the book of Ezekiel, God brings life to the dry bones,
and a river flows forth from the temple and brings life to the Dead Sea.
In the gospels, Jesus not only speaks of resurrection, he actually does it,
first with Lazarus and then with his own body,
and we are promised resurrection as well, not just spiritually but bodily.
And the book of Revelation goes a step farther,
revealing a resurrection of everything
heaven and earth and all of us remade into something new and holy.
So even though I focus more time and energy on the living religion,
I know there’s hope even for the dead religion,

that even in our systems of rules and regulations,
God is still at work redeeming us.

In any faith community, you’ll always find a mix of living religion and dead religion.
In our personal faith journeys, we all likely have a mix of the two as well.
So when we use the word, let’s be careful to define it, to think through it, and to make sure others in the room know what we mean
because even the definitions I’ve used here are far too simple.

What does the word “religion” mean to you? Does it frustrate or comfort? Does it excite or oppress? Is it something you lay down or something you lift up? I look forward to hearing more of your stories.

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