I used to believe, “It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship.” Yet, we are told in the New Testament, of course, that there is a good and bad type of religion:
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:19-27).
So, simply hearing (and, presumably, accepting—or cognitively assenting to—what we hear) without doing is not practicing “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.” The doing part is participating in the kingdom of God here and now by caring for orphans and widows (i.e., the marginalized and oppressed, or “the least of these”), but the prerequisite for this doing is being “slow to anger,” ridding “yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,” and keeping “oneself unstained by the world.” This points to the capacitation for the doing, or the requisite transfiguration that intuitively enables one to participate in the kingdom of God by loving one’s enemies, caring for the oppressed, and giving a voice to the voiceless. We cannot, however, do this difficult “work” on our own, in a sort of stale, imitative style that fights against our fallen nature and resulting passions; we need to instead be gradually transfigured so that such “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” unfolds naturally and intuitively rather than forced and contrived.
“Religion” that aids this capacitation through transfiguration is pure and requires more than the so-called “freedom” to act apart from so-called “man-made rituals.” In my more Evangelical days, I had no categories for understanding the rhythms of liturgy and daily memorials, rituals, processions, etc. and didn’t respect or trust the 2,000 years of wisdom and experience that produced them, and therefore didn’t see any reason to follow them. Lumping these rhythms in with “bad religion” is to not give them a chance, is to expect the worst of them without legitimately understanding them and without giving them the benefit of the doubt. The “me-and-Jesus” routine is ultimately a manifestation of modern Western individualism to which Evangelicalism has fallen prey and envisages human beings as souls encased in flesh, where the flesh is simply utilitarian (or worse), like a jeep for getting around (or getting in the way).
We are all interconnected corporeal and spiritual beings, the spirit and body both declared “good” by God. In this sense, in a postlapsarian world, we cannot expect that the “freedom” to hear without doing or the freedom to maintain a “me-and-Jesus” relationship will restore the image of God unilaterally or just because we really, really want it. We need to do something to participate in the kingdom of God (as James says above), but we already saw that there’s a problem: How can we be transfigured—or restore the image of God in cooperation with divine grace—to capacitate ourselves for this doing?
As corporeal fallen beings we need similarly physical “rituals” or liturgical rhythms of which we are constantly mindful to cultivate the virtues of humility, compassion, patience, self-control, love, gratitude, obedience, self-denial, etc. So, for example, if we take becoming “slow to anger” from the pericope in James above, we can’t simply try really hard in the depths of our soul to control ourselves, since anger (and all vices) manifests itself through physical contact with the physical world around us and in our own physical expressions of anger. So, the “ritual” of fasting, for example, is an ascetic discipline that—through attentiveness to what I should avoid eating and the resulting self-control—transfers into the “real world” as attentiveness to our own vices/temptations and therefore results in greater self-control; it is a practice drill for the real world, but one that truly transfigures and cultivates the virtues. Again, as corporeal beings, we innately react to and are transfigured by the sight of beauty entering our physical eyes (icons, architecture, symbolism, vestments, lit candles, etc.), the smell of pleasant odors entering our noses (incense, the wood of the iconostasis, beeswax candles, etc.), the sounds of sacred melodies entering our ears (hymns, chanting, bells, etc.), the tactile sensation of various textures on our bodies (kissing icons, touching the vestments of the priest as he passes by with the Eucharistic Gifts, prostrating with your forehead to the ground, the heat of the candle’s flame, etc.), and the taste of appetizing flavours on our tongues (the Eucharist, feasts, breaking the fast, etc.).
All of this combined may look like worthless “religion” to some, but to those of us who enter into it daily (which can’t be explained, but only experienced over time), it is the physical liturgical rhythm that acts on our corporeal selves and senses to catalyze, animate, and give shape to our transfiguration and cultivation of virtues. We may fail at entering meaningfully into the rhythms, keeping the fast exactly (or at all), keeping a prayer rule, etc., but we also fail at life, at having compassion on the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed; the two go hand-in-hand and we try knowing we will fail, though—with God’s grace—we sometimes grow incrementally.
To have the “freedom” to do “whatever I want” (and I’m hyperbolizing here, but mean it more as the rejection of so-called “constraining” rituals or disciplines in favour of a “me-and-Jesus” or “me-and-my-Bible” individualism) breeds the vices that reflect this doing “whatever I want.” To prostrate in prayer every day for years and years, however, instills humility; to wait until the end of a 7-week long fast period has ended to eat that burger you’ve been craving instills patience; to bow and ask forgiveness from a 4-year-old kid on Forgiveness Sunday instills compassion; to pray the prayer of the publican, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” thousands and thousands of times in one’s life and to recite every Sunday immediately before receiving the body and blood of Christ, “I believe and I confess that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first,” is likewise to instill humility and commensurate compassion, love, and peace—internal and external; to know that I will carry the body and blood of Christ in myself as the Theotokos bore God in her womb without being consumed encourages my cooperation with divine grace through participation in these disciplines that trigger the transfiguration that will allow me to also bear God in myself without being consumed.
As members of an individualistic society, I think we are more prone to—even revel in—shunning “obligations” and “disciplines” (and heaven forbid we bring up the dreaded word, “obedience”!), even the liturgical rhythms that are shared by and therefore profoundly connect the many faithful across the globe. The more negative definition of “religion” that’s become fashionable among low church or free church folks is likely related to moralism, appeasing a wrathful deity, and obligations that immediately condemn us if we don’t follow through in every detail; this is indeed a false religion. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, especially since the ancient forms of Christianity were here first before it became popular among Evangelicals—while completely separate from and with no categories to understand or esteem this liturgical world—to emphasize a “me-and-Jesus” relationship. Instead, we need to resuscitate the word “religion” so that it aligns with the scriptural model of pure religion that James endorses.