It has become popular to attack religion… even by religious people. Many Christians say they are not religious, they simply follow Christ. Some Christians say that Christianity is “Not a Religion, but a Relationship.” Christianity is not alone in this. The imam in our neighborhood would say that Islam is an Ideology, not a Religion. Of course, Christianity IS a religion, and so is Islam. It is interesting, however, the fact that many religious people are seeking to separate themselves from the term “Religion.”
Part of the problem with the term “Religion” is its ambiguous nature. We don’t like ambiguity, we like duality. We want something to be perfectly good, or despicably awful. But that is just not the way things are.
When we read the Bible we read of Jesus arguing with the religious leaders and we often draw the easy conclusion that Jesus was against religion, and that the religious context of 1st century Judaism was fully rotten. Yet reading the writings of Jewish religious leaders of that time, many of the leaders agreed with the ethical teachings, at least, of Jesus. With this understanding, one would see that Jesus wasn’t attacking all religious leaders, but those for whom their (personally embraced and lived out) religion had taken them away from God.
Jesus utilized religious structures and institutions (such as synagogues and the temple) for quite a bit of his ministry. He challenged (some) religious leaders to reject hypocrisy and be a godly example for the people. He embraced the religious role of prophet, and at times accepted the religious role as Messiah (although rejecting some of the interpretations of that role).
I rather like the following quote by Jesudason Baskar Jeyaraj, a professor of OT studies in India, because it accepts the ambiguity of religion while seeing the potential of a positive role for religion. The perspective from India helps because of the positive and negative roles various religions have played there for millenia.
“Religions play an important role in building the nation. Religions are not merely limited to an individuals’ faith or set of beliefs and performing rituals. They are closely linked to society and influence the culture and customs. Religions are powerful in changing the lives of individuals and a community for better or worse. Leaders of different religions can teach and lead the people to believe and observe superstitions and practice human sacrifices, sati and caste and racial discrimination. They can promote religious and social oppressions. They can flare up riots and conflicts between communities and fuel violence and bloodshed. Religions, thus, can threaten the peace and harmony among people and even destroy communities. On the other hand, religions can build a society by teaching good values, liberating the people from all sorts of religious, social and economic oppressions and bringing peace and harmony among communities in a nation. Many of us do not understand the positive and negative power of religions when used by their leaders or politicians for their own gain. A systematic study of religions at home, schools, colleges and the work place can help the people to know the merits and demerits of religions and to meet the need of building better relation between faith communities. <“Inter-faith Relation for Transformation and Higher Education,” Asia Pacific Journal of Intercultural Studies, January 2006: 65-86, p. 65>
I believe that Religion can have a positive role in society once we understand its ambiguous character. The positive role I am speaking of in this case is not related to the doctrinal correctness or truth of the individual religion (as important as that may normally be). In this case, I am talking about the role that religions provide in giving meaning to individuals and communities, due to the fact that we all are religious beings… regardless of the nature of the religious (or “anti-religious”) system we embrace and live by. Religions as an organization and as a leadership structure can be part of societal evils or part of (or part of part of) the solution. Institutions, including religious institutions, are power structures in a society. Far too many of those who have authority within such structures, love the power more than they love God.
In missions outreach, a missionary typically focuses on the role of the faith associated with his or her religion to transform individual lives. But a missionary should never ignore the power of his or her religion to have societal roles— roles that heal, that destroy, that rot and stagnate. As Christians, we like to believe that the Gospel message, if accepted and lived out, would have a healing role, both individually, but societally. But history provides too many evidences that as an institution, the Christian religion has too often been derailed the religious. Missionaries need to do better than simply create the religious.