The End of “Religion”

Comments on the previous post’s negative use of the word “religion,” seem to suggest the need to say more. The use of “religion” as a name for something negative associated with belief in God is not new with me, nor within Orthodoxy. It has been a significant part of the most serious levels of discussion for the better part of the 20th century. Another word would have done just as well, perhaps, but another word was not chosen. “Religion” has thus become ambiguous.

In the American movement associated with recovery from addictions, “religion” is almost always used in a negative manner, even though its very programs are deeply involved with a spiritual way of living. Some people in the US describe themselves as “SBNR,” “spiritual but not religious.” They do so with some humor, but with a very serious intent. When a video in which a Christian says that he “hates religion but loves Jesus” goes viral, something deep within a culture’s consciousness has been touched, whether the words were well chosen or not.

As I’ve noted, Fr. Alexander Schmemann very famously made use of the term “religion,” to describe a very negative, even neurotic set of behaviors involved with the belief and worship of God. He was not alone. Other leading figures in Orthodoxy had used the word in the same manner. Fr. John Romanides wrote about the “disease of religion.” Christos Yannaras uses the term in much the same way. In an article discussing Fr. Alexander’s Journals, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, made this observation:

Throughout Fr. Alexander’s books, and especially the journals, is a running polemic against religion, as distinct from authentic Christianity centered in the revelation of God in Christ. The unspeakably tragic error, he insisted, was to think that Christianity is a subcategory of “religion,” when in fact Christ explodes from within history all human constructions of reality, religious or otherwise, thus illumining with the divine the world of which we are part. I have not gone back to check out all the books, and I never asked him about it, but it is striking that in the journals there is no reference to Karl Barth. In twentieth century theology, that running polemic that pits Christ against religion is most closely associated with Barth. One wonders if there was not some significant influence, or, quite possibly, Fr. Alexander arrived at these insights on his own. He clearly had no use for the proponents of “religionless Christianity” who had their fifteen minutes in the 1960s, but he just as clearly wanted to distance Christ and Christianity from what he viewed as the stifling habits and thought forms of “religion.” Even “piety” is regularly dismissed as a distortion, and he rails against those who came to confession with all sorts of complicated “spiritual problems.” (He spent endless hours hearing confessions, and hated it.) His answer to the scrupulous and the spiritually self-preoccupied was, “Live!” Which is to say, his answer was, “Christ!” Although Barth is not mentioned, and maybe was never seriously read, Fr. Alexander’s thought was, in important respects, strikingly Barthian. Barthianism with a real Church and a real Liturgy.

It is also useful to hear some of Fr. Alexander’s own words in this matter:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. ‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall, neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. . . . But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such a worship to Him.’ (Jn 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between God and man. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. [note – the word “cult” is used here in its technical meaning, i.e. the system of ritual]

If there is a complaint against “religion,” it is a complaint about its substitution of a merely human activity for the world-shattering work of the Kingdom of God. The Church, the Body of Christ, does not exist to underwrite the institutions of this world, no matter how noble or well-intended. The Church is not the guarantor of any culture or ethnic structure, though it frequently carries the burden of culture. The Church is not the mainstay of morality, though it teaches all to love all. The Church is not our protection against fears of the dark, for it thrusts us squarely into the heart of the unknown God, made known to us in Christ.

Those who take time to read Fr. Alexander’s journals discover the heart of a true priest, one who longed always for the reality of Christ’s Kingdom, and was sometimes privately dismayed by how quickly others settled for something less. He was particularly impatient (within himself) with those who substituted the trappings of religion for the true pursuit of God. Throughout his years as a priest he served as a professor and later a seminary dean. He was responsible for training priests. He communicated the fire of his heart and much of his vision to those around him. Most of the Church has been unworthy of the vision that was shared and settles too often for the comforts of the religion of which he warned. But this is to say that we become spiritually lazy, content with so much less than the Kingdom and with the spiritual poverty of our half-measures.

I rejoice, however, that God does not raise up voices to be unheard – and that the vision of the inbreaking reality of Christ’s Kingdom has been so well proclaimed in my lifetime. God give us grace to join the struggle!