Religare: to bind together again

The word “religion” has fallen on hard times. It seems that everywhere you look, people are denigrating religion. Ironically in some ways, this is truer nowhere than in evangelical circles.

Secular people have phobias about “institutional religion.” Jesus Movement types (and Depeche Mode) emphasize “relationship, not religion.” And in my current denomination, the PCA, in many quarters at least, we are at pains to distinguish “the Gospel” from “religion.”

For many of us in the PCA, “religion” connotes rule-keeping, earning “brownie points” with God. We are convinced that when secular, post-whatever people hear this word, they, too, have a rules-based system in mind. “There’s no way I can keep all the rules in the Bible,” we suspect they are saying, deep down in their hearts.

Believe me, I resonate with much of this, and have preached and spoken this way over the years. I am willing to admit that there is a time and a place for this approach. It is a real shame that many Christians have made it seem like Christianity is all about keeping a list of “do’s and dont’s.” (In my opinion, perhaps the most compelling “anti-religious” voice in Christian history is that of Soren Kierkegaard, who considered man’s deeply engrained self-righteous religiosity to be “the sickness unto death.”)

However, in the spirit of wanting to provoke the minds and hearts and imaginations not just of conservative evangelicals but also of our post Christian culture, there is another take on “religion” which is at least as valuable.

When it comes to discussing religion with people, just define it. Go back to the Latin, which means literally “to bind together again.” This is how Thomas Aquinas and the unbroken pre-modern Christian tradition (up until the 15th century Italian Renaissance figure Marsilio Ficino) thought of “religion.”

Why don’t we? Perhaps it is because we have let secular modernity define the terms for our spirituality, instead of allowing our souls to be formed (Thomas would say “habituated”) by Scripture, tradition, and the embodied community of Jesus.

What is it that religio binds back together? Everything that fallen man has separated: body and soul, person and community, scripture and liturgy, word and sacrament, sex and love, heaven and earth, male and female, earth and technology, head and heart, (poor) people and economic health, faith and obedience.

That (among other things) is what secular people, including evangelicals, need to hear.

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