The word "religion" is derived from the Latin "religare" which means to "bind". It is commonly held that being religious means to be bound by religious practice, a set of beliefs or a moral code and, in many cases, complex purity laws. Being religious is the antithesis of the freedoms announced by secular humanism. When Christianity is lumped into the basket of "the great world religions" in the name of inclusivity and tolerance, Christianity loses its specific characteristics, the most important of which is its denial of religion in the traditional sense.
The evidence for this is the many instances, portrayed in the gospels, of Jesus confronting the religious authorities of the day. This is particularly sharp when Jesus in John's gospel turns out the money changers in the temple and boasts that if the temple was destroyed, he would rebuild it in three days, a reference to his resurrection and the church become the body of Christ. Paul, the earliest writer of the New Testament took up this anti-religious stance. He did so from his background as an observant Jew when he realised that religious observance was often a path to self-righteousness that blocked a necessary encounter with the living God, a trope taken up by Martin Luther fifteen centuries later.
The death of Jesus on a cross, outside the city walls and abandoned by his disciples was a scandal to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, something unheard of in the religious and philosophical society of the time. Hence Christians should reject the description of being religious. A better description is being "of the faith". Faith is neither blind nor incredulous but trust in that which has the ring of truth. It is crucial that this difference be acknowledged because it is the difference between being bound and being free. Christians are properly thought of as those who have been freed from religion. After the death of Jesus, God was not now present in the Jerusalem temple, the centre of religious power, but among the faithful, among the little ones of the earth. At the moment of his death, according to the synoptic gospels, the veil of the temple that separated the holy of holies from the common people was torn from the top to the bottom.
The symbolism is clear, God is now not separated from the people. God was to be found among the faithful, who became the body of Christ alive in the world. This is confirmed by the Pentecost event. This represents a move from "organised religion" to a spirit filled assembly in which God dwelled. This change of relationship between God and the human, from being distant in power and place to being closer to us than breathing, made God personal to everyone. Those of the faith shared a common experience of the indwelling of Christ and it is out of this that the Church is formed as a band of brothers and sisters rather than a collection of those who obeyed commandments, believed certain doctrines, or practiced various rituals. Of course, liturgical churches recite one of the creeds that define belief. However, creeds are more of a placeholder that establish the grounds for the experience of the Spirit. Coming to faith is primarily an experience of the heart that is upheld by the doctrines of the church. Belief that is based on rational propositions quickly loses its hold on a person because it has no basis in desire.
Something happened to the Church between it being a persecuted sect to being accepted and affirmed by the emperor Constantine and eventually found itself institutionalised. Before long, popes exercised religious and secular power through the Church's claim to hold the keys of the kingdom and hence who was bound to heaven and who to hell. So much for the Church being a spirit filled gathering of the faithful! The Church claimed enormous power for itself by first adopting the essentially Greek idea of the immortality of the soul and adding to it divine judgment after death. Christian faith had at this point become religion. It is significant that the teachings of Paul were relegated to a place after the gospels in the New Testament, a position that indicated the importance of the gospels over them. It is also significant that the Reformation and the Barthian revolution took their starting points from the Pauline epistles.
Religious practice, for Christians, consists of acts that affirm the place of one in the community of faith. The sacrifice of animals at the altar of the temple is replaced by the Eucharist. Members of the congregation take within themselves the body and blood of Christ, so that literally, Christ exists in them as the food they absolutely need to live freely. Preaching becomes not a morality lesson, or a call for religious solidarity, or a call to arms but an explication of the Word that frees us to be truly human as Christ was truly human. Preaching is necessarily iconoclastic because it destroys the idols of the heart that limit our freedom.
While the secular world seems obsessed with freedom it does not know the radical freedom of the Christian. That freedom requires the extinction of all idols that continue to dominate the secular world. While secular freedom is still bound by death and lived in the shadow of death, the Christian life, while acknowledging that death is the ultimate enemy, finds its life in Christ who transcends death. Eternal life is not life after death but life from the eternal Word that was in the beginning with God. By contrast, life that is derived from the temporal (secular) is always vulnerable to non-existence i.e., death.
A closer look at original Christianity and of contemporary theology reveals something quite different from the common view of Christianity as being "among the religions". For example, the god that Islam worships cannot be confused with the God that Christians worship. Allah is not YHWH, neither is the Christian God the god that atheists so stridently object to. He is not a divine person who exists as the ordering force in the universe whose law must be obeyed thus limiting human freedom. Rather, this God is met in the very depths of human suffering and hopelessness on the cross of Christ. Hardly a glorious image of a divine lawmaker, physical or moral. But if one takes original Christianity seriously, with the help of Paul especially, we find that the Christian life is not fundamentally about morality. We can say that there is no such thing as Christian ethics or values, there is only the formation of a people who are drawn to Christ. They are so drawn because they recognise themselves in Him, as the one who suffers death and abandonment as we all do.
Christians have agency in their lives that is only limited by their relationship with the people they find themselves with, their neighbours and their families. This decentring of the self that nurtures the life of others, comes with baptism in which they die and are raised into the freedom and life of the risen One. Christians don't behave according to principles or laws but by being the persons that they have become. They carry the image of Christ. Ethics is swallowed up in spontaneity of the soul.
So, with these conclusions derived from original Christianity, where does that leave the Church? Bonhoeffer's description of the Christian as a man come of age who has no need for the tutelage of the law but who lives in the Spirit is affirmed by the above. His notion of a religion -less Christianity is a little more difficult because it opens the way for a stripped-down form of worship concentrated on the cerebral. The essence of religion is that it claims something that belongs to God for itself. Or to use an aphorism; "God lies at the end of no human path." Much of the Old and New Testament is a protest against religious piety. Surely this is an error of the heart that worship should correct. The embellishment of worship with music, art, costumes, processions and liturgy is not a sign of religiosity but a festival of love, praise and joy befitting the worship of the "most high". To the world this looks like "Religion" writ large but to participators it stirs up the depths of desire and represents the joy and freedom that Christ brought to us with a heavy price: his murder by the "religious".
The distinction between religion and faith has always been with us. It has become even more crucial in our time, in our conversation with secular humanism, that so easily associates Christianity with superstitious self-seeking and dismisses it out of hand. It is time that the church stood up for its heritage and distinguished itself as having a legitimate voice and a genuine hope.
This essay was helped by long conversations with the Rev. Bruce Barber of Melbourne.