Sunday, April 13, 2008

Christianity Is Not a Religion; Its a Relationship!

This statement refers to one of the more common catch phrases in Christian pop-culture. The words are not new, but a new meaning has been exchanged for the old. Preferred by a younger generation (mine), "Christianity is not a religion, its a relationship" persists as a favored response to various forms of the inquiry into what exactly Christianity is. It is dogmatically proclaimed, despite the proclaimers' typically accompanying dogmatic denouncement of all things dogmatic.

So, what does it mean? Originally, "Christianity is not a religion, its a relationship" (henceforth, CRR) was meant to highlight a prime example of why Christianity is so different from other world religions. That is, it is the only one providing salvation that is not by works but rather by grace. How has this changed? Due to the phrase's twenty-first century correlative relationship with Christianized postmodernism (I am not necessarily defending causation, here...), it tends to be paired with a worldview that resents authority and structure. The phrase often emerges in conversation whenever the discussion leans toward systematic theology, doctrine, etc. Conversation will frequently proceed as follows:

Person A: In my reading of Romans, I've been thinking that we really should be exposing churchgoers to sound doctrine by encouraging them to increase their Biblical literacy. What do you think?

Person B: You really need to remember that all doctrine does is make people cold to their relationship with God. Doctrine is religious. Christianity is not a religion; its a relationship!

Person A: But solid Biblical doctrine is is the framework for a Christian worldview. It is essential for knowing what we believe! Do you think the same thing about systematic theology?

Person B: All doctrine and systematic theology do is make people think that they can understand God. There's no loving relationship there. No one can understand God because he's so big, but we can love him and have a relationship with him!

In this context, CRR is used in conjunction with the claim that doctrine makes a relationship with God grow cold. These are frequently found together, even if the anti-doctrine claim is not explicitly stated (e.g. when CRR is a reaction against the mention of doctrine, etc.). Furthermore, systematic theology is cast aside as a worthless, futile attempt at knowing the "unknowable". To many who champion this phrase, religion is synonymous with "habituated, meaningless action governed by doctrine". Put differently, knowledge claims are considered arrogant, rigid pursuits of the "organized" Church. It is this perception which gives birth to such heated anti-doctrine, and leads people to say things such as "I love Jesus, but I hate the Church." One must ask, does the problem lie in the use of doctrine and systematic theology? Within the Church itself? Could the problem instead be in the heart of the human being rather than their adherence to Biblical truth?

In this belief that knowledge is unattainable and an arrogant pursuit, truth is affected because knowledge is a tool by which truth can be discerned. CRR has become an assault on truth as well as knowledge, and has created a false dichotomy by setting up an "either knowledge and adherence to truth OR a loving relationship" situation (of course, this is constructed under the assumption that no loving relationship could have possibly existed under "religious" conditions). When knowledge is eschewed, the desired relationship of these (often young) reactionaries is improbable and likely impossible. The postmodern CRR proclaimer has thus made (explicitly or implicitly) these claims for his or her faith:

1) God is completely mysterious, and we cannot ever understand him.
2) Knowledge is the opposite of a relationship, and if you think you know anything, your arrogance will keep you from a loving relationship with God.

In response, a few things must be considered. Beyond the obvious self-refutation at work here (the truth claims being stated as known fact), claim 1 is only a partial truth. True, God is mysterious and we will not in this world fully understand him. However, it does not follow that we can never understand anything of him, especially because he revealed what is necessary for humans to know about him through Scripture. Knowledge cannot be legitimately abandoned in this case.

In claim 2, knowledge and relationship are not antithetical. Rather, reciprocal relationship depends on knowledge. A friend of mine, Jeff Miller, has given as an example the following scenario: if he were to ask a man to tell him about his wife, the man would not be justified in saying "I don't really know much about my wife, but I don't need to. I just really, really love her!" Another example is that one cannot love chocolate ice cream without the knowledge of chocolate ice cream itself. So it is with our relationship with God. We cannot even begin to know how he loves us, or how to love him in return without understanding who he is, who we are, and what he has done for us. While knowledge can certainly be devoid of relationship, relationship cannot stand without knowledge.

Through its implicit (sometimes explicit) assumption that Christianity should be independent from systematization attempts through the uses of Biblical doctrine and systematic theology, CRR has become a convenient way to flee from the "burden of orthodoxy" into the warm, fuzzy land of unregulated emotion. Campaigners of CRR tend to desire that Christianity be freed from the "oppressive" constraints of "organized religion" in order to be purely felt and personalized. However, without doctrine, where would the theology of such a faith be limited? What god could one end up serving? The possibilities are truly limitless. Therefore, the phrase itself is not necessarily a problem, but beware of the worldview that favors it and has transformed its meaning.

1 comment:

Kevin Winters said...

Part of the issue in relation to the knowledge/relationship pair is that many of the primary so-called postmodern thinkers would say that we have an understanding or a grasp of the object or the Other before we have propositions to further articulate that understanding. It is not that the pre-propositional understanding is meaningless, but that it is not conceptually articulated.

In this case, then, those who propose CRR are simply prioritizing the latter (second R) and denying the former (first R) rather than clarifying their relationship (as the primary thinkers would). While we would argue that the relationship and understanding (rather than knowledge) is prior to and thus grounds propositional knowledge, we should not deny the latter.