Sometimes, it’s hard for me to separate religion from faith. I think of religion as a set of activities that I can do to make me feel good about myself spiritually (and sometimes, religion is what I do to make other people feel good about me spiritually, too). Faith is something at my core, the essence of who I am, that drives who I am and how I see myself and others in relation to God. The problem is, that even as I write this, my groping definition of faith feels vague and incomplete to me.
The fact that faith feels vague and incomplete while religion feels concrete and specific is probably why people gravitate toward religion more than faith.
I suspect that a lot of religion is oriented around good behavior, where “good” is defined within a society and within the community of believers that one associates with. Faith, while perhaps looking to God for the formation of a kind of goodness, is something that has less to do with good behavior in the moment and more to do with the long-term process of connecting one’s identity more fully with God than with the controllable things in the world.
This is not to say that goodness is immaterial to faith but it is to say that faith is primarily concerned about an audience of One whereas religion is concerned about an audience of many.
As with any tension in life, it is difficult to maintain a balance between two or more forces that cause the tension. Generally, people give in to one of the forces that cause the various kinds of tensions we live in. In the tension between religion and faith, it is easier to give in to the force of religion because it is most tangible, most understandable and therefore, most controllable.
In 1987, during my junior year at Michigan State, I decided to exchange my agnosticism for a beginning kind of faith. My agnosticism was really nothing more than a passive-aggressive stance toward God because I was angry with him about my life experiences to that point. Ever since I was a young kid, I had thoughts about God that, even though they were somewhat vague, had a single constant to them: I believed somehow that God was personal.
And that was why I was pretty pissed off at him and why I held off for 21 years a decision to give him a chance to bring some meaning to the fairly painful experiences I had as a boy. I was pissed because I couldn’t reconcile a personal God with the experiences I had in my youth. I’ve always wondered how I would’ve responded if I had possessed an impersonal view of God. How would I have responded to God if I thought he was just an Initial Cause, something that somehow spun up the Universe and then left us alone in all of this pervasively flawed, magnificent wonder?
Somehow as a kid, I made a connection between what I saw in the world and a God with personality, power, language and some kind of disposition toward people. I don’t know how to explain making that connection, but I still believe they are the critical characteristics of God that make God accessible and knowable.
In June this year, I will pass a 25 year landmark. For 25 years, I have been trying to better integrate my life with my belief in God. Honestly, the difficulty comes not from my love for God but rather from my inability to act in ways that give some kind of indication that God’s presence in my life has made a difference. For sure, when I compare myself today to the kind of person I was in 1987, I have grown a lot and I think I can say fairly that I am a better person than I would have been without some kind of faith in God to guide me.
Yet, after all this time of fairly intentional desire and effort to know God and to please him, I am still selfish, impatient, angry, distant, judgmental, intolerant and greedy. I am laaazy. Though there are parts of who I am that I like, there are also parts of myself that I hate, that I detest. And I hate that I cannot get rid of those parts. And by “hate,” I mean venomous, contemptuous hatred that I sometimes paradoxically direct at others, and at times, sensibly, I direct at myself.
So all this to say that for good and bad reasons, I tend to not get too engaged in Christmas or the Good Friday/Easter weekend. This is because annual celebrations don’t resonate with me. It’s because the birth of Jesus means less to me than that he lived among people and died in the effort to help us. He could’ve arrived suddenly and magically in a cosmic Jesus Prius — having not descended from the lineage of Jewish legacies — and I would still believe in him. The means by which Jesus came to earth is not that important to me.
What matters to me is that he lived.
And it doesn’t matter to me that we celebrate his death and resurrection at this general point in time every year. It’s mostly religious anyway. Chocolate bunnies and colored eggs aren’t symbols that connect me to God.
What tends to work more for me is to be reminded of the life of Christ through the year. I know this sounds like some kind of cheesy aphorism but it is generally true. I felt emotionally connected to God my first couple Christmases after 1987 but not after that. This is probably for two reasons: the novelty of God’s presence in my life wore off and I got back into the commercialism of the holiday.
I am a closet religionist. Dave the Religionist lurks in hidden places and once in a while, he outs himself. It is for this reason that I try to avoid the religious impulse and most likely, I over-compensate to keep religion at bay.
I think it is my badness, my obvious and not-so-obvious defects that compel me to avoid religion. Intuitively, I believe there is no intrinsic power in religious experiences. For other people, there may be power in their religion. For me there is not. My hope, then, has to be in a God who knows me and loves me. My faith is in a God who knows my deep flaws, who sees my hypocrisy and fallibility, and still doesn’t give up on me.
The funny irony of this post is that in the writing of it, I just realized I am reminded of Jesus Christ, which is part of the point of Easter Sunday. I suppose, though, the paradox is that it wasn’t the holiday itself that led me to remembrance but the act of writing — something which is deeply important to me — that called my mind and my heart to remember God.
So, today and for any other day in which you are reminded of God, observe it in a way that is personal and meaningful for you. Perhaps another way to distinguish religion from faith is that one is what you believe because others have told it to you and the other is what you believe because you have questioned it, played with it, rejected it, tested it and finally taken it for yourself, not because someone else told you to, but because it belongs in you.
And perhaps more importantly, there could be a few beliefs that people tell you should not or cannot exist in a person’s faith but you take them inside you because for you, they have meaning. Religion has cultural momentum; faith overcomes that inertia. There are many examples in the scriptures that show people taking on a belief that was not well-received in their community but which was pleasing to God.
We have an audience of One. We each understand that One in different ways. That’s okay because truth isn’t necessarily found in conformity. Perhaps today can be a time when we clarify what that Audience means in our lives not because others have told us what it means but because we have found that meaning on our own.