The Trials and Tribulations of “Religion”
Time was when Christians were called atheists by people in the Roman empire because they didn’t believe in the gods. The Romans didn’t quite know what to make of this movement because it didn’t fit the pattern of the religion they knew, which was centered on cults and pagan gods, and so they didn’t identify Christians as a “religion.” Christians were perceived as a political club or an association and, as easily imagined, a burial society. Pliny called Christian societies “superstitions,” a technical designation for any cult outside the Roman context – from Celts to Africans.
The saddest part about the flak against generic religion these days comes when we remember that early history. Christianity was never intended as a religion, certainly not in the Roman sense. In the Acts of the Apostles, it was simply called “the way” and “they were first called Christian at Antioch.” Christianity began as an offshoot of Judaism, a stepchild grafted, as Paul says, onto the main branch. Judaism was also not a “religion,” but a way of life. It remains hard to define Christianity outside the framework of what people usually consider religion to be, whether Roman or contemporary. We stumble over the words.
We Christians have to admit our own mistakes. Over the ages Christianity began to look more like an institution than an organism. The trappings of religion, the pomp and ceremony, grew more expansive and elaborate over the centuries. Most importantly, wherever Christianity became attached to political power, bad consequences followed, as they do when any non-political movement becomes attached to political power.
America was supposed to be different. Here there was to be no overt connection to political power on the part of Christianity. Separation of church and state and all that. Except that it was not true: mainline Protestantism was, for centuries, the governing voice within and behind American political thought. As mainline Protestantism diminishes as both a movement and a dominant voice, evidenced by the shrinking numbers in protestant institutions, so also does that connection. In the vacuum that this has created over the last fifty years, newer and more shrill voices have been heard from. These latter voices are, I think, the “religion” that many people have rebelled against: hard and unyielding, seeming to lack compassion and human understanding.
When you look back over the history of this movement called Christian, of course it is checkered with good and bad moments, but please note that many of the bad moments came in the years when political power was tied to the church. In the early years, however, most of the energy external to the Christian community was spent on charitable works: hospitals, orphanages, and refuges for the outcast and the poor. That energy still pervades the spirit of the Christian movement, even if it may appear otherwise because of the loud voices.
One of my heroes was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who at the end of his life (cut short when he was hanged by the Nazis) proposed a search for what he called “religion-less Christianity.” We will never know what that was to be, but one can understand the drive. Whatever religion was in the Nazi regime, it was twisted horribly out of shape by the collusion between power and cult. Bonhoeffer had hoped to rid the Christian message of that stain.
There is something in Christianity that breaks the boundaries of religion as cult, religion as institution, and religion as negative politics. That something is eternal life, which is a new dimension of life entered by following the path of Jesus of Nazareth. It is not essentially life beyond this life, but rather a new way of being in this world and in your own time.