On Christian Religions

This is essentially a continuation from my blog post at the beginning of this week about Faith versus Religion.  If you haven’t read that yet, you should probably do so before reading this.

I started off with the premise that ‘religion’ is the word & deed that we do as Christians, and ‘faith’ is the particular content of Christian belief.  PC commented that faith was a more personal concept, while religion a more communal concept.  Steve commented that there’s a range to the concept of religion, including both the basic acts that one does as a Christian as well as the structures and institutions of what Christians do in general.  On Facebook, Isaac commented that faith is a particular virtue that characterizes a healthy relationship, while a religion is a relationship with God or gods.

For the most part, these different angles come together like this: faith is an internal expression, and religion is an external expression.

The implications of this can be startling.  Take, for example, Roman Catholicism and American Fundamentalism.  When it comes to the basics of doctrinal beliefs (God is Trinity, Jesus is both God and man, the cross of Christ is our only source of salvation), they’re basically on the same page.  Yes there plenty of theological differences, but the essential faith is pretty darn close.  Outwardly, however, they’re night and day.  Walking into a white-walled Bible Church where there’s just a line of pews and a pulpit versus walking into a sanctuary filled with beautiful artwork and riddled with symbolism are two very different visual experiences.  And what’s done in those rooms is also very different.  So different, in fact, that most Fundamentalist Christians condemn the Roman Mass as heretical, non-Christian, not worship, and in return, Roman Catholics consider Fundamentalist Christianity to be a very impoverished shadow of the true worship of the Church.

What I’m getting at is that if one can define ‘religion’ as ‘an outward expression of an inward faith,’ then there are different religions of Christianity.  Back in the day, I think this was actually a normal feature of our language too: Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Congregationalism, etc. were all different religions.  Most people would agree that they’re all Christian religions, but at the same time they’re distinct religions.  I suspect the reason this way of speaking has mostly disappeared is due to the emphasis people put on ‘faith’ over ‘religion’ nowadays.  There’s this idea that if we can just focus on the faith that we have in common (albeit with some ‘small’ differences), then we can be better unified as one body.

There’s a kernel of truth to that sentiment, of course, but it tends to forget the obvious: nothing inwardly believed can go outwardly unexpressed.  We have to live out our faith.  And there are different ways that we do that.  I’ve read a number of books lately about spiritual dispositions, spiritual temperaments, and whatnot, but that’s different.  Those speak to personality types and individual gifts and so forth.  What they don’t address (either on purpose or by ignorance) is that there are literally different ‘religions’ of Christianity.

Let me give an example.  Devoted Anglicans go to Eucharist every Sunday, pray the Office daily, and pursue their spiritual gifts in their own lives.  That is the religion of the Prayerbook: sacrament + office + private devotions.  It’s not a personality type, it’s not a personal preference, it’s a religion that is received from the Apostles through the Early Church and through the Prayerbook.  Most Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, go to church every Sunday for a primarily-sermon-driven worship experience, buttressed with music and scripture readings, and then participate in a Bible study during the week, in addition to exercising their individual spiritual gifts.  It’s similar to that Anglican Prayerbook religion, but still distinctly different.  And, just for kicks, contrast both of those with the “organic church” movement by Frank Viola in which nothing the Church does together is planned, but always spontaneous and varying.  That’s a radically different religion, inspired by the same basic faith.

Now, all this having been said, I’m not 100% sure that this is the right way to go about defining ‘religion.’  Maybe what I’m describing could be better termed as ‘tradition.’  But whatever the case, these are real distinctions that hold Christians apart from one another, and as long as we ignore them, they’re never going to be addressed, let alone reconciled.  And to be honest, having recognized these basic religious differences between Christians is very comforting to me, because when I interact with friends of a different Christian religion, I feel better-equipped to deal with the deep-seeded differences between us.  Now I know why I’ve always resisted being labeled as “the liturgical guy,” because it’s not a personal preference meant for certain people but not others, but an actual religious system designed to unite the entire Church community.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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