Compartmentalized Religion

In his book, Paul A Biography, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright compares Paul’s understanding of religion with our own. He writes, Today, “religion” for most Westerners designates a detached area of life, a kind of private hobby for those who like that sort of thing, separated by definition (and in some countries by law) from politics and public life, from science and technology. Such an understanding is far from how Paul understood religion. Wright continues, In Paul’s day, “religion” meant almost exactly the opposite. The Latin word religio has to do with “binding” things together. Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and other public rituals were designed to hold the unseen inhabitants of a city (the gods and perhaps the ancestors) together with the visible ones, the living humans, thus providing a vital framework for ordinary life, for business, marriage, travel and home life.

For Paul religion wasn’t something separated from the rest of life, it had to do with the totality of life. It had to do with how you related to your neighbors and  political authorities. It had to do with what you ate and with whom you ate. Religion had to do with the biblical hope that one day God would act decisively to establish his kingdom and make this world what God wants it to be.

All of this is a far cry from the various compartmentalized views of religion that exist in the church today. For many, Christianity is primarily about how you get into heaven. The important thing is to do whatever is required to be “saved.” For some, the requirement is simply asking Jesus to come into one’s life. For others, the requirement is baptism and the other sacraments. For still others, religion is heavy on personal morality. In this view, we are indeed saved by faith alone, but how we behave reveals what we actually believe.  All of these versions of Christianity share one thing in common. Our job in this life is to make sure that we do whatever is necessary to gain a spot in the next life.

For Paul, as well as Jesus and the prophets, the vocation of Israel and the Church is not primarily focused on the afterlife, but on this life.  Our vocation is to help God bring into being the way of life God intends for all humanity. This not only has to do with personal morality and interpersonal relations, but with the laws and social policies that govern our common life. It has to do with taking seriously the “this worldly” implications of praying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our fundamental prayer is that heaven and earth become one in this life, not just the next life.

I have a hunch that one of the reasons religion has become in Wright’s words, “a private hobby,” is that it allows us to avoid dealing with the challenging issues of this life. If religion is about personal morality, then I don’t need to think about how it affects economic policies, immigration reform, and foreign policy. If religion is about personal morality, then I don’t need to think about whether my political commitments are consistent with my faith. If religion is primarily about getting to heaven, then I don’t need to take seriously how far we are from heaven on earth so long as I help others do what is necessary to get to the big dance.

Let us pray with renewed fervor, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,’ and then let us be the kind of religious folk who help God make this kingdom a reality.

Roger Greene1 Comment