Can a christian be non-religious?

I started writing this post at the start of June and have been struggling with it for some time. What I’ve had to do is re-write from scratch as I have just run into too many problems which I shall elucidate upon below.

My initial aim was to ask whether or not it was possible for a christian to be non-religious. My Facebook profile, under the heading of “religion” states that I am a religionless christian. This, however, is highly dependent upon my particular interpretation of the word “religion. So my intention was to look at the different ways in which religion was defined (by the dictionary, by the majority of people in our westernised society and by what the bible had to say) and compare them to see if and how christianity really fitted the criteria.

The trouble came when I tried to write up the definition from ‘society’s’ view that wasn’t either too narrow-minded so as exclude many valid viewpoints or too vague so as to lose any and all significant meaning. Eventually, I worked out what the problem was: it was a question over whether religion was something someone believes or something someone does. I asked the following question on Twitter:

“Do you view religion as something someone does or something they believe? Or are the 2 inseparable?”

These are the responses I received:

“Does”

“Some believe, some ‘do’. I’ve met Christians who are devout & passionate about faith, & some who do it for the social life.”

“depends on the person – “religion” is a belief, “Religion” is an act. In my experience, they don’t always go together.”

“depends on the person. I know some who believe, some who do and some that go hand in hand.”

“when my human was non-religious she thought it was a story people believed. She didn’t know it was something people “do”.”

“Both. Without belief, actions are just rituals and without action, beliefs are just empty words.”

Possibly the last of the responses comes closest to my own view. I think of religion as being typified by ritual. But christianity need not be. Of course, some denominations do define themselves by such rituals, whether it be by liturgical chanting, having communion in a very rigid, set format or marching a cross around town on Good Friday. But none of these are specified in the bible as being necessary. On the contrary, the hallmark of christianity is faith, not works. But then we have to bear in mind the book of James where we find the closest thing to a christian definition of “religion”:

“If anyone thinks to be religious among you, yet not biding his tongue, but deceiving his heart, this one’s religion is in vain. Pure and undefiled religion before God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

He goes on to say, famously:

“My brothers, what is the gain if anyone says he has faith but he does not have works? Is faith able to save him? But if a brother or sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, and any one of you say to them, Go in peace; be warmed and filled – but does not give them the things the body needs – what gain is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. But someone will say, you have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

In other words, a correct understanding of christian belief necessarily entails action. Christianity has no room for those who would like to consider themselves theorists only. But these actions are not rites and rituals. Rather, they are actions that help people practically, something no amount of chanting or crossing yourself will ever achieve.

So can a christian be non-religious? Absolutely. You can turn christianity into a religion, if you so choose, but to let become christianity is a not the best idea. I finish with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“To be a christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us.”

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4 responses to “Can a christian be non-religious?

  1. “In other words, a correct understanding of christian belief necessarily entails action. Christianity has no room for those who would like to consider themselves theorists only. But these actions are not rites and rituals. Rather, they are actions that help people practically, something no amount of chanting or crossing yourself will ever achieve.”

    Whilst I agree with the sentiment of this blog entry, I must admit that I disagree with your conclusion, particularly with the above paragraph.

    You still have a strong disdain for liturgy and chanting (and other forms of more traditional worship), insinuating, if not outright saying that they are wrong.
    You also imply that true Christianity should only involve actions that help people practically, something that chanting and crossing yourself will never achieve.

    Bearing in mind that these are simply forms of worship, used to glorify God, (as we are instructed to do in the Bible), how is chanting liturgy any different to singing the latest Matt Redman or Tim Hughes song in a congregational setting? Singing or taking communion together offer no practical help to people in the meaning that I think you intended, yet you are happy to take part in these forms of worship whilst denying the validity of other styles, based on what I believe is your personal preference of style of worship. Essentially, you struggle to connect with God through liturgy or chanting and therefore these “religious” acts are devoid of meaning and validity to you.

    The Bible teaches that we should gather together to glorify God and to edify one another. The public cuts of worship that we carry out are for those purposes only. They are to glorify God and to edify other believers. So, liturgical chanting, where the truths of God are spoken/chanted out loud, Glorifies God and reminds others of who God is, building them up and strengthening their faith. Crossing yourself, when done in faith rather than superstition, reminds others that there are other believers and glorifies God by showing others that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross governs our actions.

    All these actions are simply public visble actions to indicate a personal invisible faith. We must be less hung up on judging those who worship differently to our preferred method and focus more on the heart behind our own actions.

    So, let us focus on glorifying God through everything we do and less on trying to decide who or what is worshiping God in the correct manner. Can you be a non-religious Christian? If your definition of religion is simply “going to church regularly and taking part in traditional forms worship” then yes. However, if your definition is more correctly “doing something regularly with other believers in order to glorify God and edify others” then no. We are relational beings and need to spend time with each other. We just have different ways of doing this.

    Thoughts?

    • I’m still not convinced liturgy *is* worship. Rather, it is a way of limiting free expression and it’s shamanistic chanting is a reinforcement technique; something really quite nasty, nomatter how true the words might be.

      To put it pithily, ‘religion is when the routine becomes the rule.’ If we make up petty schedules for ourselves to keep and rules which are not imperatives, then we set ourselves up only for failure and guilt. That’s not the christianity I find in the bible.

  2. “Religion is the same all over the world. It is a prescribed set of doctrine, rules, rituals, and ethics. It celebrates sacred space, exalts holy-men as gurus and tries to muscle its way into the culture. For 2000 years many have practiced Christianity as a religion, essentially no different than the others, except in who it claims to follow. But if one of us was serving a Living God, wouldn’t it look very different?
    When we cram the life of God into a box, we rob it of its life and power and only distinguish it from other religions by claiming a more truthful doctrine. Could that be why Jesus didn’t teach his disciples how to gain a following or build institutions. He didn’t teach them how to meet on Sunday mornings at 10:00 with a worship band and a leader to lecture the others. He didn’t give them a prescribed set of behaviors that people were suppose to follow as the means to serve God.
    No, he invited them into his Father’s house, and a reality of relationship with his Father that would transform them and opened the way for them to share that love with others. That you can’t put into a religion and trying to only chokes out any hope of relationship. Putting creed and doctrine above a growing friendship with him supplants the reality he offered us, no matter how correct our doctrine or moral our ethics.
    Don’t get me wrong. Truth is vital, as is righteousness, but without love they are also empty. Learning to live as a beloved child is far more transforming than the greatest principle you can follow. The life of Christian community isn’t found by sharing religion together, but by embracing a journey of growing relationship with him that transforms us by his grace and power.
    Losing Your Religion
    What does this mean for us? Should we stop calling ourselves Christian or judge those who do? Should we come up with a new term to franchise so we could separate the ones who live it relationally from the ones who are caught up in religion? If we did, we’d only be making the same mistakes that have diminished our life in Jesus over the centuries.
    The truth is that Christianity as a religion is a dangerous disfigurement of the God of the Bible. But not all who call themselves Christians live religiously. Given all the excesses and failures of Christianity, I am delightfully grateful that the Gospel of Jesus is still relatively intact inside its doctrine. Unfortunately it only lets new believers live free for so long before burdening them with religious obligations.
    And I meet many believers and leaders who have a profound faith and are seeking healthy ways to communicate that journey with others. I rejoice in that, as I do the amount of compassionate aid that such groups share with the world in need. But too many people miss out on the life Jesus offered them by practicing it as a religion instead of growing to know him.
    Ultimately the transformation from practicing religion to living inside a relationship with God is not an institutional battle; it is a personal one. We could tear apart all of our religious institutions today and nothing would change. I’ve been in many a house church filled with people who see the institutional church as the problem and are oblivious to the fact that they’ve just moved their religion into a home, where close fellowship only makes it more oppressive.
    So how do we know if you’ve been tricked into religion?
    When God is a distant concept to you instead of a real presence.
    When you find yourself following another man, woman, or a set of principles instead of following Jesus.
    When fear of eternity, not measuring up, or falling into error drives your actions.
    When you find yourself in empty rituals that do not connect you in a real way to him.
    When you are burdened by the expectations of others and feel guilty when you can’t do enough.
    When you look at others who struggle with contempt instead of compassion.
    When the approval of others means more to you than remaining in the reality of his love.
    When you hesitate to be honest about your doubts or struggles because others will judge you.
    When you think of holiness as an unachievable duty, rather than aglorious invitation.
    When you think righteousness depends on your efforts instead of his grace working in you.
    When following him is more about obligation than affection.
    When correcting someone’s doctrine is more important than loving them.
    When God seems more present on Sunday morning, than he does on Monday.
    If you have only known Christianity to be a set of doctrines, rules and rituals, I have great news. Jesus came and died to open up access between you and his Father. Religion supplants that, distracting us with discipline, commitment and hard work that never yields the fruit it promises. If you’ve been worn out by religion, don’t think you’re alone. Others are just pretending, afraid they are the only ones, too. Life is only found in him.
    Switching Back
    There’s something about our flesh that craves the illusion of safety that religion affords. Anyone of us can find our heart easily turned toward following rules instead of engaging him. When we recognize that happening, we can simply turn our hearts back to him and choose to move away from the religious traps and connect once again with God as our Father.
    Living the Gospel means we live in his love. We come to know the Father’s love for us and then sharing that love with him, and with others he puts in our path. (John 13:34-35). No other motive will suffice; no other is necessary. This is where the journey begins and this is the only place it can continue.
    Returning to our first love isn’t as difficult as we like to make it. For me it just means finding a quiet place and talking to God. When you find yourself caught in religion, tell him you’re tired of chasing a religion that isn’t working and you want to know him as he really is. Then, wake up each day with a similar prayer on your heart. Watch how he makes himself known to you in the simple reality of living each day. Follow the nudges he puts on your heart instead of the obligations and rituals. Find others who are on this journey and find ways to share the reality of a growing relationship and help guard our hearts about following into empty religious practices.
    If you’ve been steeped in religion for a long time, you’ll find yourself going through a very disorienting time. One woman I met called it a Pharisectomy, which is simply having your inner Pharisee removed. You might feel guilty, lonely, lost, or fearful in the process. Your former religious friends may feel threatened that you’re no longer doing the things they do. But in time you’ll find yourself sliding into the reality of relationship with him that is as increasingly real, transformative and engaging.
    Among It, Not of It
    So let’s not go to war with religion, railing against its failures fighting against its dictates. Instead let’s do what Jesus did–let’s live beyond it. Let’s find a reality of freedom and authenticity in him that can walk alongside anyone with patience and gentleness. Religion is what people crave when they haven’t found life in him. Taking their religion away won’t fix that. The only thing that will is helping them see a reality of relationship with God that makes all our religious activity unnecessary and unattractive. Jesus could be in religious settings and not be captured by them. He could care about a Pharisee as much as a prostitute.
    Live among religion if he asks you to, loving toward those mired in it but you never have to be of it. The Gospel opens the door for us to re-engage the transcendent God, to know him as our Abba and to walk with him through the twists and turns of life, sharing his affection with others.
    Live in the reality of that relationship and you’ll find it quite naturally finding expression through you as you love and treat others the same way God treats you. People who refuse to live to fear, conform to ritual or put doctrine above love will find themselves having ample opportunity to help others on this journey as well. A dear friend wrote me recently who was feeling a bit swamped by all the people seeking out his help these days, “You didn’t say anything about being safe is like hanging up a “counseling available” shingle.”
    We live in a great day. The emptiness of tradition is being seen for what it is and people are hungering for the reality of relationship. Live there each day and there’s no telling where that will take you or who you’ll end up walking alongside as Jesus becomes your life.
    Then you can live free, not just for a few days or even three months. He came to set you free eternally!” ~ Wayne Jacobsen

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