Many people today categorize themselves as spiritual but not religious. What I hear them saying is they believe in God and spirituality, but many forms of religion these days take them the opposite way.
Many practices of religion get in the way of living in a truly loving, spiritual way, and people feel forced to choose between faith and religion. It’s good to remind ourselves that the two are not the same.
Let’s define faith as the Spirit in which we’re made to live; the love from which and for which we are created; the values embedded in the foundation of our spirituality.
Faith centers us in the truth that we love God by loving all our neighbors as ourselves, caring for those who are struggling, seeing the image of the creator equally in every person, following the call to work for justice.
Religion is how we put that Spirit and those values into practice. It’s supposed to be the expression and implementation of those values in our individual and collective lives; sadly, it often is not.
As we know, religion easily gets detached from the faith in which it’s meant to be grounded. It rejects the Spirit and values it’s supposed to embody, choosing to go a different way.
Making religion align with faith
We don’t need to look hard for examples: culture wars, holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, Nazi extermination camps, white churchgoers firebombing Black churches, KKK crosses lit in Jesus’ name, Capitol rioters carrying Bibles and rosaries.
Religion gets reduced to theological propositions about who’s in and who’s out, who deserves unconditional love, who should be attacked. Religion is turned into a wall, a weapon, a rejection of not only God’s children but the God who created them in the multiplicity of the divine image and likeness.
Prophets of all ages and all religions call people back to the foundation of their faith when religious expression becomes unmoored and needs to repent and change.
Jesus embodied this prophetic tradition. He called out those who turned religion into rejection. He felt a harsh backlash from those intent upon defending their religion at the expense of their faith.
He reminded the religiously observant that faith isn’t about following rules and laws and theologies; instead, love and love alone fulfills all that God seeks from us.
That is our faith. That also should be our religion.
We’re imperfect people, so our faith and our religion will always be an imperfect match. That’s a given. But we’re called to be vigilant in seeing how we can make our religion align more closely with our faith.
New ways of being faithful
Our prophetic role is to challenge religious expressions – including our own – that pull us away from faith toward something else: power, control, self-importance, domination, ego, judgement, privilege, bullying, ostracizing, self-aggrandizing, rejection, and fighting.
The letter attributed to James reminds us that if our religion doesn’t put our faith into practice, it’s thoroughly lifeless. Or, to paraphrase Paul, religion that’s lacking in love amounts to nothing more than noise. It leads nowhere.
Any religion separated from faith is going to wither and die – and it should. We see this happening in so many expressions of religion today. It’s a necessary step. These forms of religious expression are withering away so something more faithful can be reborn in their place – the cycle of death and resurrection.
There’s the marvelous line in the gospel of Luke about leaving the spiritually dead to bury their dead. We’re at that moment. Leave those deadened by these forms of religion to bury them.
Instead, let faith inspire yet another time of reforming in ways both old and new — new ways for this old faith to thrive, new places to offer healing and discovery and growth, new gatherings where we can be comforted and challenged and transformed.
New ways of being faithful.