MIDDLE EAST, December 25, 2014 — “What is it that you call religion?” a reader once demanded to know from me.
My observation is that darkness has basically passed off as light – what has over centuries been referred to as ‘religion’ is mainly falsehood – whether it is the mindless sectarian violence in the Middle East, India, Africa or Northern Ireland, or the widespread debauchery of clergy (exposed in the West, hidden in the East) and the politicization of religion in any country.
But what abides by the biblical definition in James 1: 27 is worthy of consideration: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Regardless of what belief system we follow, we can all endorse that precept, so why call anything else religion?
It is a gift to be simple, it’s a gift to be free,
It’s a gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we see ourselves in a way that’s right
We live in a valley of love and delight.
– Elder Joseph Brackett,(Quaker)
( 1797 – 1882)
Through the ages, the word ‘religion,’ itself has become divisive and erects walls between people instead of creating harmony in our search for the Truth. Religion as we mostly see it today is a counterfeit of true faith, an imitation whose authenticity is difficult to discern.
If you consider the popular understanding of religion, it mainly looks within – to piety, practical and moral instructions, to outward appearance, appellations, pilgrimages, etc., and venerates a place of worship rather than worship itself. None of all this centers on what Scripture specifies as true, viz., caring for the most vulnerable in society, rather than practicing lofty, self deluding religiosity, and not being polluted by the world.
But James 1: 27, clarifies what God himself accepts as pure and faultless, and these are values that are collectively regarded as important.
For Muslims Surat Al-Ma’un (the “small kindness”) Sura 107, also defines true religion:
- Have you seen the one who denies the Recompense (the Judgment)?
- For that is the one who drives away the orphan.
- And does not encourage the feeding of the poor
- So woe to those who pray
- But are heedless of their prayer
- Those who make show [of their deeds]
- And withhold simple assistance [Al-Ma’un: small kindnesses]
Swami Brahmananda, largely responsible for the initial development of India’s well known Ramakrishna Mission has said, “There is no true religion or spirituality without kindness and love.”
Rituals, traditions etc., are indeed meaningful to many – and people can respect the dutiful customs of others even if they don’t follow them because they prefer their own unique ways.
But rituals and traditions even if they are cherished, well established practices, do not constitute true religion.
In 1 Corinthians 1: 27 we learn that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Simplicity not complexity was Jesus’ emphasis in Matthew 18:3: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What is the implication here – how do we become unpretentious and childlike?
When I lost my religion, I discovered a beautiful revolution.
-Gregory A. Boyd, author, ‘The Myth of a Christian Religion’
If we study the life of Jesus in the four Gospels, what comes through clearly is his astonishing, meek and uncomplicated life. The poet Tennyson wrote, “He was rich in commonsense; in simplicity sublime.” His teachings were direct and straightforward, he used simple language for ordinary people to understand, in stark contrast to the proud, priestly Pharisees.
Author Stephen Covey’s new book The 3rd Alternative offers transformative solutions to society’s challenges, but tactfully the book does not address pervasive religious issues. Covey points mainly to defective business theories, but there is also a paradigm in religious circles that fails to build upon the fact that humble, unschooled people are often spiritually rich in understanding. Being theologically unschooled or lacking religious knowledge does not mean being spiritually poor. But the humble who are at the bottom of the theology-knowledge pyramid are often considered as being at the bottom of the spiritual pyramid as well.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The dissenting reader of my column wrote: “You cannot follow someone you consider God without being a part of religion.” But that’s going by the clichéd, popular definition of religion, it does not necessarily follow.
We can worship God in spirit and in truth without membership in an accepted religion.
We can connect with God on a personal level; we don’t have to be religious. Jesus did not say, “My religion is the way…” instead he invites people to relate to him personally, maintaining, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
One incident in Matthew 27:50-51 after the crucifixion dramatically indicates direct access to God for all: And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. What was ripped apart was no ordinary curtain; in the Jewish Mishnah, the sizable temple veil, described as thick as a man’s hand was 60 feet in height, and 30 feet in width.
The Ryrie Study Bible has the following footnote at Ex 26:31-35: “Josephus reported that the veil was four inches thick, was renewed every year, and that horses tied to each side could not pull it apart. It barred all but the High Priest from the presence of God, but when it was torn in two at the death of Jesus of Nazareth (see Mark 15:38), access to God was made available to all who come through him.”
A person who believes in God is a Deist and one who doesn’t is an Atheist. But a disciple is someone who meets certain requirements.
Not everyone for instance who deeply respects Gandhi, would qualify as a Gandhian. This would also apply to somebody who claims to follow Christ.
A Christian is someone in a genuine personal union with Jesus, yet there are over two billion people who call themselves Christians. Why did Jesus warn that the way is narrow and few would find it? Do these notional followers adhere to his tenets, or is their allegiance merely to a popular western religion so defined to exploit his name?
In fact, believing in Christ is not even possible without divine intervention. In John 6:44 Jesus declares, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
The scriptures emphasize that it is God who reveals himself to us, man does not choose him. The Bible teaches that spiritually “dead” human beings are not inclined to believe (Eph 2:1, 5). Lifeless corpses cannot make choices, and “dead” human beings would never choose God on their own. That amazing epiphany happens only in God’s timing, yet man’s free will is not overruled – we cannot choose Christ as a trophy earned for doing good works, but with our free will we can refuse the gift of salvation, which is unmerited grace.
God reveals who he is to people – but we cannot think less of anyone God’s revelation may not have touched yet.
From its source and traditions, it’s obvious Christianity is a dogma crafted in the West – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism are Asian, and Islam is of Middle Eastern origin.
Until now we have described all these beliefs as ‘religions,’ but why should we continue employing that misnomer – can’t we change our thinking? Scholars presumably find the term useful, but the description has caused more division rather than advanced human understanding of faith in God.
When we grasp the universality of the Creator, we can stop seeing people as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians etc., – people are just people.
“God has no religion,” noted Mahatma Gandhi, so why should we follow something humanly contrived?
We can mindlessly pledge our allegiance to one specific man-made religion and choose to be divided from our fellow man in spiritual pride. Or in humility and concern for others, as pilgrims on our brief journey of life together, we can share our longings to know the One who created us all because knowing God is love – not religion as defined by the world.
Frank Raj is based in India and the Middle East where he has lived for over three decades. He is the founding editor & publisher of ‘The International Indian’ (www.theinternationalindian.com) the oldest magazine of Gulf-Indian society and history since 1992. Frank is co-author of the upcoming publication ‘Universal Book of the Scriptures,’ and author of ‘Desh Aur Diaspora.’ He blogs at:www.no2christianity.wordpress.com
Read more of Frank’s work in No 2 Religion, Yes 2 Faith in the Communities at the Washington Times.
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