Do you know what’s going to happen to the next person who tells me – or implies, insinuates or otherwise intimates – that real Christianity is a relationship, not a religion, and that ergo, Catholicism sucks?
Well, neither do I. Because by that time, my eyes will have glazed over, I will have started hearing voices and I will definitely not be responsible for my actions. So to prevent my ending up in court, I just need to get on my high horse and say it. In fact, you should repeat it after me:
Sure, in this very anti-religious age, we like to emphasis the relationship. And that’s only right. It is the heart of Christianity: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the soul and spirit, the very essence of Christianity.
But here’s the thing. We are still human, and we still live in a material, created universe (which just happens to be AWESOME.)
Our heart needs a rib-cage. Our souls need flesh, and the relationship that is Christianity’s core also needs an external, supporting structure. We call this structure the Church.
And yes, it looks like a religion. It has a rituals and ceremonies. It has bells and smells. It even has a centralised bureaucracy. Because we need them. We are not disembodied spirits floating around with this invisible “relationship” with God. We are human.
We do human stuff like make meaning in rituals, we need human stuff like systems and codes, and we like human stuff like smells and sounds and the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pieta, or a Carthusian chapel, or gold-leafed icons of Christ Pantocrator.
Wherever two or three Christians are gathered, Christ is there. (Mt 18:20) But wherever eight or nine Christians are gathered, then you’re going to start needing formulas, and rites, and agreements, and a supper roster. Now, expand that out to over a billion (just in the visible Catholic Church alone), and you are going to have something that looks suspiciously like a religion.
A religion that is the largest charitable institution in the world.
A religion that created the greatest artworks of Western Civilisation.
A religion that founded universities, hospitals, schools, and the scientific method, a religion that created the very idea of Europe, and without which, you actually could not have the modern, secular state with all the rights and welfare cheques you take for granted. (Sometimes, a mixed blessing, I’ll grant you.)
Yes, Catholicism is unashamedly religious because it is part of a religion, Christianity.We’re proud of it. So proud in fact, that I’m going to say it again. Christianity is a religion. Christians are religious.
Deal with it.
Now, of course, religion without a relationship is horrid and unnatural thing. It is “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” (2 Tim 3:5) It’s a soulless body, it’s dead. It’s a freaking zombie. But a body with its soul, a body truly alive, is a beautiful and good thing. And “religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
It’s not a choice between relationship and religion. We need both. We get both.
Ok Laura, deep breaths.
I think I’ll finish with the words of St Paul to St Timothy. No one knew better the dangers of religion gone bad, but neither do I think anyone quite knew the power of religion got right. Toward the end of his life, he wrote,
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:14-16)
To which I can only say, God, I love my religion.