|Which better describes you: are you a religious person or a spiritual one?
It has become common to categorize “religion” as something institutional, structured, and hierarchical. The term is broader than just Christianity. For many, it encompasses denominationalism (within Christianity) but also other faith structures. Hinduism, Islam, and Sheikism are often perceived as religions as are Catholicism, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In reaction to this - in part because our culture values individualism over institutionalism, and because trust has been broken by many religious institutions - there has been a shift for people to refer to themselves as spiritual instead of religious. This is especially true if god is not a being but an energy or an enlightenment. I may need the guidance or community of other spiritual journeyers, but spirituality is often a process of self-discovery.
The universality of religion and spirituality fascinates me. Every culture has it. Yes, there are also those within every culture who are skeptics. Yet it seems to be a hard-wired common denominator in all of humanity: we need a belief system. I believe the following statement is absolutely true:
We are all people of faith.
All of us are. Everyone who has ever lived, everyone who will ever live is a person of faith. The only question is this, “What is the object of our faith?”
Religious structures and spiritual journeys are evidence of this bias. However, they share a vulnerability: the system (of religion) or process (of spirituality) can slowly grow (and usually does) to the point of becoming laborious and unsatisfying. This is what characterized the culture of Jesus’ day. Jesus became famous for challenging the systems and procedures. He offered His listeners something completely different. Jesus said,
“Come unto me all you who are weary, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28-30), and “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), and “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).
Jesus clarified for His followers the nature and person of God, the object of their faith. He displaced the exhaustion of endless ritual with the refreshing assurance of God as Father (an idea not really predominate in the Old Testament). The New Testament authors (like in Hebrews 11) present for us a faith based on trust in the goodness of a personal God, not transactions completed in religious ceremony.
This is the game-changer. It is easy to say we believe faith is about relationship not rituals, but how well do we understand and know this One who is the object of our faith? Everything depends on this. What is His nature and character? His attributes? What are His activities? How does He engage with His creation? Are there limits to His authority and control (if, in fact, He has authority and control)?
That brings us to the secondary set of questions: if God is God - and depending on what kind of God He is - why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there war? Poverty? Corruption? Is there truly built-in, intentional meaning and purpose to life? If so, what is it? Why do people who ignore faith, religion, and spiritually often seem so much happier and better off than those who do?
These are extremely important questions. They cannot be ignored. Nor can they be answered with simplistic, “just trust and obey.” God has revealed Himself to us, and the nature of His work, so we can know Him. To know Him is more than religion. It is the life-long pursuit of seeking to understand, as best we can, the nature of His created order and all it contains (including ourselves). Because it is governed by faith, it means our pursuit will be faced with limitations. According to Solomon, God does this so we will revere Him. There will be things we will never understand. There will be mystery.
Faith that engages in this pursuit prioritizes the “Who” over the “what” and “why.” But not as an excuse to ignore the hard questions of life. As those commissioned to represent Christ well, we would be well-served to embrace discussion around questions of teleology (what is the purpose of life), ontology (what is the nature of reality), and epistemology (what we can know and how we can know it). Answers to the hard questions of life are not found in ritual or ceremony or in personal introspection.
Christianity is suffering from a credibility crisis. I believe it is because we have settled for a Jesus as the miracle-worker who solves our problems instead of the nature of a triune God who is Sovereign over all events - including the unpleasant ones. We want solutions for our problems. God wants His glory to be seen and experienced. And He does that in the torn tapestry of human history. That means using us, and all of creation, even though it is all now dysfunctional because of sin.
This does not mean we try to convince people of our faith through intellectualizing everything. That is a trap just like religion and spirituality. We should commit ourselves, though, to loving God with our minds, seeking to understand Him in the context of life’s realities including those perspectives and philosophies that misrepresent Him or even deny the reality of His presence.
We are a people of faith. Let’s embrace that faith so it expresses itself in the reality created by God, in the love and compassion we extend to one another as we ourselves have received from God. Let’s remember that faith is not an end in itself nor an incantation to make our problems go away. It is the foundation for having a relationship with the Creator God and the basis for representing that Creator in His creation.