If you’ve spent any time in church or with Christians, it’s likely you’ll have heard the phrase, ‘Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship!’ This is in practice the faith’s party slogan, and could perhaps be considered one of its central doctrines.
This, of course, is despite the fact that the beliefs of its adherents nonetheless fit very neatly into the dictionary definition of ‘religion’. Webster’s defines religion as:
1.a (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural.
(2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.
2. A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices.
By this reckoning, it seems that until Christians start throwing out their Bibles, putting away their worship CDs, staying at home on Sunday morning, and denying the divine, they’re part of a religion whether they like it or not.
So, why is there such great eagerness to avoid the term?
On the one hand, it seems fairly clear that it arose from the need to downplay the more ‘legalistic’ elements of the faith. Christianity had gained a reputation for being founded on adherence to a set of rules, and though this is certainly not without precedent within the history of the Church and its sacred scriptures, it was an approach which was less desirable to recent believers. Jon Steingard describes it as a revolutionary generational shift: ‘It no longer mattered what you looked like, or whether you followed all the previous generation’s “rules”. It was the relationship with Jesus in your heart that mattered.’
On the other hand, this aversion appears also to result from the claim to a unique superiority. ‘Other religions,’ they would say, ‘are about following the rules of gods who aren’t real and their messengers who have since died. Our Jesus, however, is alive and we can know him personally!’ Such a position, no matter how appealing to its adherents, evidently ignores the personal devotional aspects found in other religions, and instead seems to paint them as a caricature.
Now, at the core of it, relating to other people can be very difficult. The ‘other’ is an enigma. You don’t know what’s going on in their mind, and are reliant on interpreting information and social cues through speech and body language. As a result, sometimes the wrong word can get you into a lot of trouble, and two people may walk away from the same conversation with completely different accounts of what took place.
If relating to other people can at times be difficult and ambiguous, adding God into the equation looks to have little hope. You’re now relating to a being who you cannot see and who you cannot hear audibly. What are you left with?
When you ask Christians to define their relationship with God, you’re unlikely to get a straight answer. Nonetheless, it seems clear that its essence is internal: either founded on spontaneous thoughts or feelings that arise, or personal interpretations of external phenomena. I’m sure I don’t need to point out the main danger and drawback of such an approach, but for clarity, I’ll do it anyway: it’s incredibly subjective.
To counter this subjectivity, the Bible is often set forth as the benchmark against which to base your relationship with Jesus: if what you believe Jesus is saying to you is in line with biblical teaching, it’s probably from him (or if not, at least it’s not heresy); but if it’s contrary to the Bible, it’s more likely just your imagination, or worse, demonic.
I find it odd how each person’s Spirit-given interpretation will usually sit neatly in line with their own personal views.
The prime difficulty with this is that interpreting the Bible is in itself a very subjective process, and there may be times that Jesus or the Holy Spirit are called upon in this very hermeneutical matter. To take a contemporary example, there is still great controversy surrounding whether or not LGBTQ+ people can be accepted into the Church without qualification, and there are a diverse range of opinions on this subject. Within such a debate, passages from the Bible are called upon and form the basis of any propositions; people from different viewpoints will therefore suggest different interpretations of the same text. But here’s the true clincher: they’ll usually claim that their interpretation is in line with what the Spirit has spoken to them.
Now, this situation – and many other examples can be given – leaves two main possibilities: 1) The Spirit is having a bit of fun and telling people different things; 2) only one person’s interpretation is right, and everyone else is misguided. The first of these would fairly be dismissed out of hand, and the latter may be adopted, though with the caveat that, ‘I am the one with the right interpretation.’ But at this point, how can you discern? You certainly can’t appeal to the Bible, that’s how the problem started. Is it a numbers game instead? Or a matter of the loudest voice in the room? No answer I’ve received so far has been close to satisfactory. As an added flame to my skeptical fire, I find it odd how each person’s Spirit-given interpretation will usually sit neatly in line with their own personal views.
However, that’s more in the matter of doctrine and disagreement, how about simply the feeling that Jesus is with you and loves to spend time with you? And the words of personal affirmation – or perhaps challenge – that he speaks over you?
The difficulty here is that most of us have an inner monologue; it’s how we process thoughts. You probably have one going on in the background right now as you’re reading this. Unless of course this is just me, in which case feel free to call me crazy and close the tab. When I’m assessing a situation or reflecting on a difficult conversation, I do so by voicing my thoughts as words inside my head. Often these are words that I would prefer to keep private, hence the common sitcom trope in which a character will voice their undesirable thoughts and, panic-stricken, ask, ‘did I just say that out loud?!’
If you’re told that such thoughts come from God, then every inner voice you hear will end up reinforcing this view.
If we’re conflicted, this monologue may feel a little more like a dialogue. We have the grounded voice of our ‘true self’, but then also another voice may reassure us that everything is ok, or challenge us that we’ve done wrong. If you’re someone who suffers from issues around self-esteem, there may be an unwelcome voice that enjoys putting you down. Not only this, but if you’re about to have a difficult engagement with someone, you may play out a few different versions of possible conversations in your head to assess the potential outcomes. In conclusion, your head is not a particularly quiet space.
Now, if you were to label one of the voices in your head – either your inner monologue or your conversation partner – ‘God’, you run in to a lot of trouble.
Suddenly that voice in your head that challenges you to be better is not just an inspirational part of yourself; it’s now a means of divine sanctification. Similarly, the voice in your head that speaks words of comfort is not just personal reassurance; it’s a loving Father singing loving words over his child. We don’t even need to get into the demonic implications of the parts of our brain that bring about unpleasant thoughts and images.
If you’re told that such thoughts come from God – or his unpleasant nemesis – then every inner voice you hear will end up reinforcing this view. As a result, over time your thoughts and interpretations of experiences will add up to what you then consider a relationship. In truth a relationship with yourself, but from a Christian perspective, it’s your relationship with Jesus. How can you tell it’s Jesus and not just you? It’s in line with the Bible, of course.
I’d like to demonstrate the difficulty in this line of thinking. I’m a fan of the British TV series, Doctor Who. In particular I enjoy the tenth incarnation of the Doctor as portrayed by David Tennant, a character whom I look up to greatly. Now, suppose I was told from a young age that what I saw on the TV was not simply fiction, but portrayed real events. At first I might be skeptical, but if told enough times with sincerity by people I trusted, I would start to believe them. Now, if I were also told that the Doctor could watch me just as I watch him, and has the ability and desire to communicate telepathically with me, I might start to wonder if some of the voices in my head were actually him reaching out to me.
Reinforced over the years, this would undoubtedly go from tentative speculations to a fully-formed relationship inside my head. Based on what I knew from him in his TV show, and the knowledge that he desired to contact me, I would have likely built up a whole shared history between us through what he has said, and the experiences that we went through together. My conviction only strengthening in time, it would take a great deal to convince me that what I saw was indeed only fiction. How could it be? After all, I’ve known him personally for years!
Switch out David Tennant for Jesus, and Doctor Who for the Bible, and you’ll see the problem.
An imagined relationship with the Doctor may lead to a slightly warped view of reality, and perhaps some social ostracism. Nevertheless, it probably wouldn’t harm me much beyond that; it would probably just offer a comfort that some powerful being were looking out for me. In a sense, this is likely what many feel from their relationship with Jesus. However, I feel that there are some subtle undertones which suggest that such a relationship is less than healthy.
There isn’t sufficient space to explore this in detail here, but I hope that I may offer a few brief thoughts. In particular, an image that I have come across a couple of times lists phrases that are typically used by abusive partners. What is curious is that the words do not sound out of place when put in the mouth of God. Consider the following:
‘You’re nothing without me.’
‘You’re not worthy of my love.’
‘You brought this upon yourself.’
‘If you even think about leaving me…’
‘You’ll never find anyone as good as me.’
‘I’m only doing this because I love you.’
‘Don’t listen to anyone who doesn’t understand what we have.’
A little disconcerting, isn’t it?
I explored in a previous post the way in which Christianity makes it as difficult as possible for its followers to leave, through either accusatory explanations or emotive threats. In addition to this, one of the core principles of the faith is that we are sinful people in need of a saviour (Psalm 51.5, Romans 3.23), this salvation can only be found in Jesus (John 14.6; Acts 4.12), and through the work of the Holy Spirit we are made better, more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3.18; Galatians 5.16). As a result, the elements of us that are bad can be attributed to us, or some evil spiritual power. However, the good parts of us are there on account of Jesus.
Just as someone trapped in a toxic relationship is often deaf to the warnings of their friends, so those within Christianity tend to disregard criticisms from those outside the faith.
For people who are continually told that their deeds and actions can come to nothing without Jesus and that they are helpless without his grace, any chance for divine validation will surely be grasped at with both hands. To those who don’t know Jesus, of course such things are folly, but those on the inside understand it (1 Corinthians 1.18, 3.19).
I was once on the ‘inside’. These teachings didn’t really bother me, after all, they were true! It wasn’t until the doubt concerning the veracity of my beliefs came from other sources of study and reflection that I started to view the claims from a different perspective. Just as someone trapped in a toxic relationship is often deaf to the warnings of their friends, so those within Christianity tend to disregard criticisms from those outside the faith. ‘They don’t know Jesus like I do, they don’t understand.’ Not only that, but they are surrounded by the voices of others in the same boat, reinforcing one another’s beliefs, and encouraging them in the face of their doubt. ‘Stay! It’s better than the alternative.’
I often found myself at church looking around and wondering, what do they know that I don’t? Do they have a better relationship with Jesus than I do? It may be that I truly am missing out on something, but I suspect that these questions are raised more commonly than I’d thought at the time. Perhaps I did know what they knew, but it did not convince me in quite the same way. In any case, reflecting now on what this relationship involves, perhaps I’m better off not knowing.