Friday, August 29, 2008

Want God, Not Religion?

Yesterday was the activities fair on UND’s campus where student groups of all sorts set up in front of the union to recruit new members by giving away swag. I stopped in at the campus ministries table, Archives coffee house (free samples), the cycling club, and was handed a bottle of water from a Christian group related to one of the churches in town. Their signs and bottles read, “Experience God, Not Religion.”

Now I know this is a common sentiment among people and has been for some time. The word “religious” carries a lot of emotional baggage and negative associations in contemporary culture. Dallas Willard told an audience at Sioux Falls Seminary a few years ago that today’s generation has a greater sensitivity for spirituality but also a strong skepticism of the institutional church. So “religion” has been replaced by the word “spiritual.” People would now say that they are “spiritual” rather than “religious.” Dan Kimball, one of the emergent leaders, recently published, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church” as a response to this very issue.

My niece, who is a wonderful girl…freshman in college this year, has on her Facebook page under the heading of “Dislikes: Organized Religion”

This sentiment is just so utterly frustrating to me.

The H20 folk say this on their website, “h2o is a revolution - a revolution of people who want God, not religion. We are trying to follow Christ - the greatest and most humble revolutionary of all time. We are a community of young adults who won't be satisfied with knowing about Jesus, we want to know Him experientially, personally, relationally - the same way you know a good friend.”

All fine, I suppose. But ironically follow that statement with, “h2o is a ministry of Cottonwood Community Church. Cottonwood is a member of a group of churches called Great Commission Churches. (If you are interested in h2o's statement of beliefs, simply check out the one listed on Cottonwood's website here.) In addition, h2o is connected with other campus ministries and churches across the nation and around the world through GCM (Great Commission Ministries). Whether you are thirsty to join our humble revolution or you are searching for answers to spiritual questions, we invite you to check out h2o - you might just find what you're thirsty for.”

So, this group claims to be providing an experience for those who don’t want to be bogged down with the messiness of doctrinal disputes and “dead” rituals that constrict their idea and experience of God. And then in the next breath or paragraph go on to provide links to their denominational affiliation and statement of beliefs.

Umm…what happened to the “no religion” bit? Now don’t get me wrong, I get what they are trying to say. I just think they are wrong to suggest it.

From my perspective a religion-less experience of God is chaos. As soon as we begin, even casually, to frame in who and what God is, what we believe about God and ourselves, and perhaps even the use of the word God itself, we have already trespassed deeply into the nature of religion.

I would prefer to rehabilitate the term “religion” rather than to further its demise.

One of the shocking things is how well this church’s statements fulfill Robert Bellah’s critiques of American religion.

Bellah suggests, “many Americans...[feel] that [their] personal relationship to God transcends her involvement in any particular church” (228). I would suggest that in our contemporary pluralistic state that this extends beyond denominational affiliation even unto traditional religious boundaries.

Bellah also comments on the American phenomenon of revivalism saying, “the emphasis on personal experience would eventually override all efforts at church discipline. Already in the eighteenth century, it was possible for individuals to find the form of religion that best suited their inclination. By the nineteenth century, religious bodies had to compete in a consumers’ market and grew or declined in terms of changing patterns of individual religious tastes” (233). With the demise of discipline, so goes the praxis side of doctrine.

Without the religious structure that H20 and many others oppose (or at least suggest they oppose), what results is what Bellah has termed “Sheilaism.” He says, “Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and who describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” ‘I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.’ Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many, In defining ‘my own Sheilaism,” she said, ‘It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.” I suspect pushing the issue to the logical absurdity as Sheila has, the H2O folk would temper their statement.