What is religion? What does it consist in? How does one know that one is religious? What is religion for? There seems to be 5 operative definitions of religion in contemporary culture: 1) Religion as Therapeutic 2) Religion as Moral Education 3) Religion as a Family Tradition 4) Religion as a Business Exchange 5) Religion as a Grace-initiated relationship. Let’s tackle them each one by one.
1. Religion as Therapeutic
The first view says that religion is there to make us feel better. Life is hard and filled with surprises and many complications. This is why everyone needs an outlet where they feel their stresses and woes can be relieved. This may be in the form of silent meditation sessions, joining yoga classes, going to a quiet holiday in the mountains, or joining some book club, or regularly going to a day spa. In each of these cases, one goes for the sake of a peace of mind, for relaxation, and for one to simply escape the frustrations of ordinary life.
Same goes for church. One goes to church, or prays, or attends whatever religious retreat because one is in need of peace. One needs to “get away” and receive some therapeutic healing, in the form of, say, soothing songs, motivational talks, or whatever. God is there to give you that peace.
If this is the view that one has of religion, then of course it follows naturally that “what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for me.” You like yoga – that’s your means of stress-relief; well I enjoy reading books. So why should your desire to attend yoga be forced upon me? You go to church because it “works” for you, and you feel better, but it just doesn’t “work” for me. So why should I go?
2. Religion as Moral Education
Or, one can say that religion was manufactured by men to maintain order and to instill morality into the people. Here every religion has a view of God, it is believed, that tries to get people to become morally better. It provides incentive (heaven) and it also provides an appropriate threat of punishment (hell). Here, when one sees someone who is morally “not up to par”, or feels oneself in need of becoming better, perhaps the best advice one can give to oneself is to get up and get to church.
Here, of course, it follows that one will see all religions as fundamentally the same: they are all there to make people become better. If Christianity didn’t work in morally motivating your kids, then send them to the Catholic Church, or perhaps encourage them by reading a different holy text.
And if one feels one is already sufficiently morally motivated – then why go to church? Why have a religion? I’m good enough without it. So it goes.
3. Religion as Family Tradition
In this view, religion is akin to celebrating Chinese New Year – your family does it every year, and you follow the custom, and you’ll even insist that your kids should follow this custom. But you don’t need to understand it, nor must you have any firm beliefs about it. This is simply what the family has always done, and will continue to do. To stop doing so will be to lose the family cultural identity, and to become alienated from generations and generations of an established cultural tradition.
So here we are: one will say that my kids are going to sunday school because I was raised in Sunday school. My kids will go to church because I was raised in this church. My parents went to church, and my grandparents, and so forth. So why should I break this family identity? I don’t need to fully understand it – I just need to maintain the practices that’s been handed down to me.
Hence, why should we force others to follow our family values or traditions? Everyone has their own customs, habits, and cultural identities, and everyone has the right to maintain it.
4. Religion as a Business Exchange
Here, one encounters the view that a proper dealing with God will result in many blessings in our lives. Just as in a business transaction, where such and such a price will result in us receiving some kind of good or service, so here religion is seen in the same way. I pray, I go to church, I tithe a lot – that’s why life is going so well for me. Here, as Tim Keller says, we can either grow cold or bitter. Cold, because when life is going well for us we feel entitled to it (because hey, I’ve been paying God my dues, and that’s why he’s returning the favor. All’s well and fair). Bitter, because when things don’t go our way, or when life suddenly becomes harder and unfavorable to us, we become annoyed against God – I’ve done all this for him, why would he let this happen to me?
Here God is treated like a landlord that we must appease.
5. Religion as a Grace-Initiated Relationship
Contrary to all the above views, there is Christianity in its biblical form. Here religion is not primarily about feeling better, nor is it fundamentally about making us better people, nor is it a mere external tradition, and it’s definitely not a business transaction. Here one encounters a holy and personal God who demands our whole existence. Here we have to realize our failure to acknowledge this Person for who He is, and because of that we deserve his wrath – all of us. But because God loves us, he doesn’t wish to condemn us, but instead sends a substitute to take upon the punishment we deserve, to live a life we should have lived – He sent his one and only Son to die for us and to be raised for us, and to provide for us the righteousness we need so that we may live in relationship with this holy God. Here God isn’t interested in half-hearted tradition keeping or mere business transactions – God wants us with him, to know him, because he knows that’s what we were created for. And nothing will satisfy us until we are most satisfied in Him.
This is a universal, exclusive relationship. And religion has to do with an objective truth, and a real person. Here, what “works” for one is not relevant. What is relevant is the God, who is in Christ, to whom we are accountable.