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Religion versus relationship: Which will win?

Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

It seems that hardly a day goes by in which, especially here at ORU, we hear of the dichotomy of religion and relationship.

The dominant opinion appears to be that relationship trumps religion every time, that Jesus yearns for relationship and disdains, if not condemns, religion.

The argument for relationship and against religion goes like this: Relationship is true, pure, and full of life; religion is false, tainted, and lifeless. Perhaps what we see in this argument is an either/or fallacy, a proposition that presents only one valid choice among two, when perhaps, just perhaps, another option exists.

When I hear Christians, especially my students, condemn religion, I think I understand what they mean. It seems that “religion” connotes something akin to legalism, which is certainly worthy of the disdain of thinking Christians.

Jesus himself saw the dangers of legalism and called out, in no polite terms, those who embraced it. It could also be that “religion” connotes formalism, which promotes attention to outward, rigid practices and behaviors of a group.

A closer look at the word’s etymology, however, might prove enlightening. The origins of “religion” are in no way indisputable, but some of its roots can form a composite definition.

“Religion,” according to one source, derives from the Latin word relegare, which means “to read again.”

Another definition implies “to bind.” Taken together, these definitions suggest a kind of consistency, uniformity, and enduring quality in spiritual practices. Let’s face it: When we attend church regularly, when we read the scriptures regularly (or as some might say “religiously”) or when we observe the historical holidays of the Christian faith, we are being “religious.”

When I hear “relationship,” I perceive the ideas of closeness, authenticity, and communion. It’s hard to criticize any of these. Indeed, most Christians would agree that Jesus desires relationship with his followers; he wants them to consider his minute-by-minute presence in their lives and communicate with him intentionally.

Here I am reminded of the classic hymn whose words say, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me/and tells me I am his own.” This personal communion with Jesus is certainly subjective and can be had in innumerable ways; perhaps there is a unique way for every individual alive. What we must avoid is being prescriptive about how this personal relationship works, lest we fall into what those who disdain religion seem to fear the most—legalism.

When I hear religion defended, I perceive that its defenders have fears, valid fears, as well. Relationship alone seems to leave no room for the enlightenment and guidance provided by the scriptures. One can have a robust relationship with Jesus, but without the Word of God, it can become excessively subjective and run astray, even sliding into heresy.

It can even become self-centered, concerned with the pleasant feelings of the lone believer at the expense of true community and responsibility for others. Also, even in the most unorganized, informal expressions of Christianity we see in this country, there exist some order, some repeated practices, some customs deemed harmless or even beneficial.

A chaotic church service devoid of scripture is no church service at all; at least some kind of order and objective foundation is necessary for the care and safety of the congregants. Thus, among defenders of religion, others’ fears about formalism seem suspect.

The battle between religion and relationship might not be justified. Perhaps if we were all more careful in defining our terms, we would see that both terms, and the ideas they represent, are necessary for fruitful Christian living.

Perhaps, when we’re tempted to see “religion” as detrimental, we can use a more fitting term, such as “religiosity” or the potent word “legalism.” Perhaps when we’re suspicious of “relationship” and its misuses, we can define and limit it so the word expresses all that proper relationship should look like.

In a world full of wars about words, maybe it’s time to put down the swords, communicate competently, and seek the true and worthy twin victors in the battle between “religion” and “relationship”: clarity and compatibility.

Editor’s note: Keith Gogan is an assistant professor of English at ORU.

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