Glory to God for All Things

The End of “Religion”

Comments on the previous post’s negative use of the word “religion,” seem to suggest the need to say more. The use of “religion” as a name for something negative associated with belief in God is not new with me, nor within Orthodoxy. It has been a significant part of the most serious levels of discussion for the better part of the 20th century. Another word would have done just as well, perhaps, but another word was not chosen. “Religion” has thus become ambiguous.

In the American movement associated with recovery from addictions, “religion” is almost always used in a negative manner, even though its very programs are deeply involved with a spiritual way of living. Some people in the US describe themselves as “SBNR,” “spiritual but not religious.” They do so with some humor, but with a very serious intent. When a video in which a Christian says that he “hates religion but loves Jesus” goes viral, something deep within a culture’s consciousness has been touched, whether the words were well chosen or not.

As I’ve noted, Fr. Alexander Schmemann very famously made use of the term “religion,” to describe a very negative, even neurotic set of behaviors involved with the belief and worship of God. He was not alone. Other leading figures in Orthodoxy had used the word in the same manner. Fr. John Romanides wrote about the “disease of religion.” Christos Yannaras uses the term in much the same way. In an article discussing Fr. Alexander’s Journals, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, made this observation:

Throughout Fr. Alexander’s books, and especially the journals, is a running polemic against religion, as distinct from authentic Christianity centered in the revelation of God in Christ. The unspeakably tragic error, he insisted, was to think that Christianity is a subcategory of “religion,” when in fact Christ explodes from within history all human constructions of reality, religious or otherwise, thus illumining with the divine the world of which we are part. I have not gone back to check out all the books, and I never asked him about it, but it is striking that in the journals there is no reference to Karl Barth. In twentieth century theology, that running polemic that pits Christ against religion is most closely associated with Barth. One wonders if there was not some significant influence, or, quite possibly, Fr. Alexander arrived at these insights on his own. He clearly had no use for the proponents of “religionless Christianity” who had their fifteen minutes in the 1960s, but he just as clearly wanted to distance Christ and Christianity from what he viewed as the stifling habits and thought forms of “religion.” Even “piety” is regularly dismissed as a distortion, and he rails against those who came to confession with all sorts of complicated “spiritual problems.” (He spent endless hours hearing confessions, and hated it.) His answer to the scrupulous and the spiritually self-preoccupied was, “Live!” Which is to say, his answer was, “Christ!” Although Barth is not mentioned, and maybe was never seriously read, Fr. Alexander’s thought was, in important respects, strikingly Barthian. Barthianism with a real Church and a real Liturgy.

It is also useful to hear some of Fr. Alexander’s own words in this matter:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. ‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall, neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. . . . But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such a worship to Him.’ (Jn 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between God and man. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. [note - the word "cult" is used here in its technical meaning, i.e. the system of ritual]

If there is a complaint against “religion,” it is a complaint about its substitution of a merely human activity for the world-shattering work of the Kingdom of God. The Church, the Body of Christ, does not exist to underwrite the institutions of this world, no matter how noble or well-intended. The Church is not the guarantor of any culture or ethnic structure, though it frequently carries the burden of culture. The Church is not the mainstay of morality, though it teaches all to love all. The Church is not our protection against fears of the dark, for it thrusts us squarely into the heart of the unknown God, made known to us in Christ.

Those who take time to read Fr. Alexander’s journals discover the heart of a true priest, one who longed always for the reality of Christ’s Kingdom, and was sometimes privately dismayed by how quickly others settled for something less. He was particularly impatient (within himself) with those who substituted the trappings of religion for the true pursuit of God. Throughout his years as a priest he served as a professor and later a seminary dean. He was responsible for training priests. He communicated the fire of his heart and much of his vision to those around him. Most of the Church has been unworthy of the vision that was shared and settles too often for the comforts of the religion of which he warned. But this is to say that we become spiritually lazy, content with so much less than the Kingdom and with the spiritual poverty of our half-measures.

I rejoice, however, that God does not raise up voices to be unheard – and that the vision of the inbreaking reality of Christ’s Kingdom has been so well proclaimed in my lifetime. God give us grace to join the struggle!

41 Responses to “The End of “Religion””

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  1. mary benton says:

    Father Stephen,

    As always, I find your posts thought-provoking and enlightening.

    However, I found myself distracted by your repeated use of the term “neurotic”, as in “a very negative, even neurotic set of behaviors”. My understanding of the term neurotic is that it is an outdated term for certain psychological problems, usually related to excessive anxiety. While excessive anxiety is not desirable, you seem to be suggesting a more pernicious meaning.

    As a God-loving neurotic, it would help me if you could clarify the meaning you intended in this and the previous post. This will help me to re-read them with deeper understanding. Thanks.

  2. James Freeman says:

    I find the whole world tends to be a bit neurotic. Think of it as a whole world of people running around missing the point, and all the while quite certain they have the inside track on reality. I’m just glad God keeps a remnant so he’s not too terribly tempted to end it all. P.S. been doing a Dr. Who marathon, and appear to be using his voice for my internal monologue.

  3. davidp says:

    Sometimes I think the NT people saw something in Christ that we don´t see because of our religion…just like some of the NT people like the pharisee-types and others who did not see in Him back then and now as the source of “life”!

  4. James Freeman says:

    To be quibblesome(my word I call dibbs). There is something to be said for religion. Like you said in a sermon, if you can’t pray cross your self, do prostrations, if your body is there your mind might decide to jump in and see what’s going on. ‘Religion’ is the wrong way to go about it, but there are definitely less advantages starting points.

  5. dinoship says:

    Oh how I agree with you Father!
    I have witnessed the watering down of the genuine Fire – compromising for “Religion”. It makes a feeble caricature of the authentic life we are called to live and the authentic death we are called to die. The Martyr is the true Christian example. The minute we lose what is termed the martyr’s “phronema”, we miss the whole point. We mustn’t just take up our Cross and follow, we must be inflamed, honored and enamoured with these ‘crucifical sufferings’. (We even turn into voluntary what befalls us involuntarily).
    There is no better evangelizing than an authentic Christian who is aflame with the martyrs’ ‘phronema’
    p.s: That’s why fasting is seen as joyous and energising by the lovers of Christ’s way.

  6. David Gilchrist says:

    I believe it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that Religion could be the enemy of true faith (http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=1572&C=1513)
    But the apostle James uses the word θρησκεία – usually translated ‘religion’: can we allow ‘the world’ to corrupt a Biblical word??

  7. fatherstephen says:

    Words
    Words come and go in their meanings. They’re useful for communication. If the world grabs one we’ll find another. Trying to control language is a losing battle. Though, at times, even an iota is worth the fight. Many Orthodox writers today even use the word “ecclesia” instead of the word “Church” because of carries many English connotations that are not Orthodox. But language will always shift from day to day. It is the wind blowing through our mouths.

    Mary: I use the term “neurotic” in a fairly broad sense. M. Scott Peck said that everyone was either “neurotic” (taking more responsibility than they should”) or can’t remember his term at the moment (taking less responsibility than they should). I mean by it, a somewhat anxious concern for what cannot be controlled and letting our concerns substitute for the real world. It well describes the inner dialog that haunts most people’s minds and becomes their reality.

  8. fatherstephen says:

    They haven’t corrupted θρησκεία, merely one of the English words used to translate it. :)

  9. PJ says:

    “Even “piety” is regularly dismissed as a distortion, and he rails against those who came to confession with all sorts of complicated “spiritual problems.” (He spent endless hours hearing confessions, and hated it.)”

    Am I the only one who finds this attitude unsettling and less than admirable — not to say quite rude? His sheep came to their shepherd for help, expecting charitable attentiveness, and they received instead secret loathing?

    There is much that is good about Schmemann, but I can’t deny that I’ve been left cold or disconcerted by some of his work.

  10. Michael Bauman says:

    On the other side of the coin: Many of the SBNR folk I have met over the years are that way because the fundamentally don’t want anyone or anything interfering with their will. They don’t want to be accountable to anyone (even God) for the state of their soul. The occult is frequently involved.

    The negative connotation of religion and SBNR have this in common, they are both idols created by the human mind to replace God.

    Legalism and amorphous ‘spirituality’ are opposite sides of the same idol.

    The Church is an icon, each parish is an icon and each person in each parish has the oppourtunity to become an icon (and already is at some level). Even icons eventually pass away as we experience the presence of the Holy Trinity in the sacramental life of the Church and attempt to live in a sacramental fashion. In the opening of one’s mind and heart, the kingdom is revealed even in the person sitting next to you.

    Perhaps it would be better to frame the question in those terms rather than over the defintion of a particular word.

    Nevertheless, almost everyone needs guideposts (rules, training wheels if you like). Any created thing can be either an idol or an icon. It depends on whether we worship the created thing or the one who created it.

  11. dinoship says:

    PJ,
    I also noticed that, but instantly stifled the criticism in me like a dangerous serpent. Nothing good ever comes out of it and one can never know things the way the Lord knows them.
    Let us remind ourselves that:
    “He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins…”
    —St. Maximos the Confessor (Third Century on Love no. 55)

    and:

    “Fire and water do not mix, neither can you mix judgment of others with the desire to repent. If a man commits a sin before you at the very moment of his death, pass no judgment, because the judgment of God is hidden from men. It has happened that men have sinned greatly in the open but have done greater deeds in secret, so that those who would disparage them have been fooled, with smoke instead of sunlight in their eyes.”
    —St. John Climacus

  12. PJ says:

    Dino,

    I know this is potentially dangerous territory, but given that this “hatred” of listening to confession is apparently linked to his skepticism about “piety,” I think it is fair game. I’m not trying to judge Fr. Schmemann, who was surely a much better Christian than I — I’m just rather bewildered and disappointed. You have to admit, it’s strange. Especially in an age where almost nobody goes to confession (at least in the Catholic Church).

    Maybe I am misunderstanding Fr. Neuhaus.

  13. Andrew Kollias says:

    Religion is deed. It is interaction with a god and the resultant parameters which determine our behavior. Different gods beget different behaviors because our god is whatever thing we show deference and worship. Our god is whatever we allow to determine our behaviors. It is the constant upon which all else depends. For us men this constant should be the one true eternal God who is Incarnate in Christ.

    The resultant interaction with Christ is the communion with Him which is the Church. For the Church is where is Christ and Christ is where is the Eucharist because the Eucharist is the Incarnate Word of God which is Christ. This is the Orthodox Church for the Eucharist is not where is the Orthodox Church but rather the Orthodox Church is where is the Eucharist.

    I make no pretense to know how the Church works. Its rites and rituals I shall defend because somewhere within them is Christ. From them I am given the one thing needful and so I need nothing else.

  14. Karen says:

    PJ, in context, it seems that Fr. Alexandre Schmemann hated hearing confessions because of how the religious and cultural neuroses had corrupted people’s practice of it. He perhaps hated it in much the same way that Jesus hated the hypocritical “piety” of the Pharisees. Think of how many times God in in the OT Scriptures rejected and expressed His disdain for the prescribed sacrificial offerings from the hands of the Israelites because of the hypocrisy in their hearts. I am frequently frustrated by my own attempts to confess because of the difficulty of honestly discerning and laying bare the real burdens and needs of my own heart. One of the things I’ve had on my “to do” list for a while is to meet with my Priest to discuss the practice of Confession and specifically ask for his directives of how to make a good one.

    Father, I’m not sure, but I think one term for the opposite problem to neurosis is anti-social personality (sociopath) or something like that. Both reflect a kind of narcissism, but in different ways.

  15. fatherstephen says:

    PJ, et al,
    Concerning Fr. Alexander’s observation of “hating” hearing confessions. Perhaps laymen won’t understand his comment – many priests will – and good ones. First, to listen all day to confessions is simply tedious at best – it’s a great spiritual struggle. If the content of confessions is petty, banal and of virtually no spiritual merit, it can be difficult in the extreme. Confession has often been badly taught and badly practiced. Many view confession in an almost entirely forensic manner (legally). Thus they look for their infractions, but never see themselves. There really is true repentance in a forensic approach other than “I’ll try to do better,” which is deeply problematic. Here is one of the places that “moralism” most deeply effects the lives of Christians (Orthodox and Catholics). If you have a great burden to teach something more (which Fr. Alexander certainly did), then a deluge of the very thing you see as symptomatic of a Church that is missing the point of its own existence could indeed provoke loathing.
    Fr. A’s journals were read with great interest by many priests whom I know, who in private conversations discussed how “on target” Fr. A’s observations were – (and we rarely ever say such things to each other). I’ve wondered at the publication of Fr. A’s journals (I know they were edited). But they have been invaluable for a number of priests – helping to rescue from despondency and renew a right commitment.

    Confession in the OCA (Fr. A’s Orthodoxy) and in the Catholic Church are very different animals. We go a lot.

  16. Paula Hughes says:

    The main point of this piece is the wisdom of avoiding ‘Churchianity’ as Antony Bloom put it, the worship of the Church and tradition, and turning its means into ends in themselves. Probably this has always been a serious danger and always will be.

    But here is what stands out for me. Fr Schmemann is a controversial figure and I have seen him described as anti establishment and even almost heretical in his teachings and as egostistical, and far from an ideal priest in his personality. And to some , all of St Vladimir’s seminary as suspect as well.

    And he is not alone in attracting negative press. Fr Seraphim Rose is loved or scorned depending on who is talking. I have wandered the internet and found sites where Karl Barth ( and I much admire his strong and principled voice) and Bonhoeffer and Tillich and Merton were all said to be people to avoid reading because of their personal failings. Kallistos Ware and other ecumenical clergy are also disdained as semi-heretics.

    For me, this just turns into noise and confusion. Everybody has enemies ,it seems. How does the average lay person even begin to know which voice to listen to? Not everything the Fathers said is without contradiction and controversy. Is that not why we are supposed to be able to trust what the Church teaches us? Or do we lean on our own understanding? We are attracted to people who think the way we do, but what if we are all astray? I get confused and the Epistles tell us that God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.

  17. SteveL says:

    Scott Peck, from _The Road Less Traveled_:

    “The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world, they automatically assume they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world, they automatically assume the world is at fault.”

  18. fatherstephen says:

    Paula,
    It’s certainly difficult for a layperson (and some priests) to feel their way forward and know what to trust. There are a number of routes – book sales and internet traffic are not good measures. I prefer to read the fathers and the Tradition, and to look at the mainstream of Orthodox thought. It may be somewhat difficult in our modern media days to know what mainstream is. But, to use Fr. Schmemann as an example. It is good to find out exactly why someone says what they do (some things I’ve read are simply slander and are not true – so that what someone says isn’t always reliable). I know of no patriarchal Church (“local Church” as we call them) that judges Fr. Alexander to be a heretic. I know many who studied under Fr. Alexander and they all held him to be a good priest. I met him in 1978, but did not spend enough time to have formed a private opinion and would not have been competent to have one).

    Fr. Seraphim was a good and holy monk (again I know many who knew him personally). I do not think that he was a “theologian” in a professional sense and I find some of his judgments (mostly outside of his books) to be generally repetitions of the rhetoric that was flying between ROCOR and OCA in those days – most of which was decidedly unhelpful. But Fr. Seraphim has many good points.

    As to the heterodox (Barth, Merton, etc.) everyone would have to be judged on their own merits, or the merits of their writings. There is no man who lives and does not sin, and nobody’s thought is without flaw (even among the Orthodox). We’re not out there competing with various schools of “infallibility” whether Rome’s or fundamentalism’s. Orthodoxy is the true Church and it’s teachings are true.

    We don’t need to judge theologians. We should read, pray and live for Christ. If something is helpful and seems right (not odd) do it. If it’s troublesome, ask your confessor. Above everything, love God and your neighbor (and your enemy).

    Listen and weigh things. If something seems to have a mean spirit about it, be careful. Fear does not make for good things. Pray and trust God.

    If it’s a heresy, listen to the hierarchy of the Church. We already have too many self-appointed elders in the Church who judge bishops.

    Please don’t take what I say as authoritative gospel, either. I’m an Orthodox archpriest and I try to watch what I say, but I’m no elder nor do I want to judge another priest. I’ve read a lot – that might count for something but not for more than it is.

  19. PJ says:

    RE: Confession

    I suppose I have a rather realistic outlook about the whole thing. I think that it’s a miracle that people humble themselves, admit their sins, and ask forgiveness. I don’t doubt it gets tedious; we owe our priests an enormous, enormous debt of gratitude. But is it so bad that people simply recognize their transgressions and earnestly confess their sorrow? Is the average confession insufficient somehow because it lacks an existential epiphany? Isn’t the remarkable nature of the sacrament found precisely in its almost pedestrian nature? Grace is right there for the taking! Just humble yourself and open your heart!

  20. PJ says:

    You orientals need a Cure of Ars to teach you a thing or two about hearin’ confessions. ;-)

  21. drewster2000 says:

    [test comment]

  22. drewster2000 says:

    Re: Confession

    When you’ve walked a mile in another man’s shoes, then you can comment (with love & grace) and expect to be heard. Until then listen, watch & wait. Silence is golden.

  23. John Shores says:

    can we allow ‘the world’ to corrupt a Biblical word??

    In my estimation, only those claiming to be Christians can “corrupt a Biblical word” by virtue of not being like Christ. “The world” has nothing to do with it.

  24. > There is no man who lives and does not sin, and nobody’s
    > thought is without flaw.

    This understanding is necessary when looking at any person, even the recognised saints. We hear about the saints often enough, but with a little digging, we see something that they say that makes us do a double take. No one is infallible.

  25. fatherstephen says:

    It would have been well of me to say that we have to judge “words” rather than “people.” Nothing gives us an infallible guide – for if it did it would only lead us to destruction – since by “infallible” we often mean something that can be rationally followed. Our rationality is meant to serve us, not guide us. It is the perception of the heart that leads.

  26. Arnold Karr says:

    Religion, presumably Christian, is mentioned in James 1:27 – “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” I intend to find and read Fr. Schmemann.

  27. Arnold Karr says:

    Might I caution my fellow commenters not to get so bogged down defending a word that we miss the point the word is being used to convey?

  28. William says:

    I come quite late to this conversation, but I thought it might be worth offering a quote from St. Nikolai Velimirovic that might have some bearing on the conversation about the word “religion.” This is from his “Faith of the Saints” catechism, which was given to me upon becoming a catechumen years ago:

    “The Christian faith should not be compared with other religions and, strictly speaking, it ought not to be called a ‘religion’ at all, in the pagan meaning of the word. For it is not a religion among religions, but it is the faith in Christ and Christ’s revelation. It is God’s personal, unique and final revelation to men for the sake of men’s enlightenment and salvation. …”

    That being said, I never begrudge anyone for calling the Christian faith a religion or talking about a devout believer being “religious.” I use those terms myself. I just try to discern what the person means when they say the word, and I try to make sure people know that when I use it, they understand what I mean.

  29. John Shores says:

    William – I wonder if people of other faiths could make similar statements that theirs is a “faith” and not a “religion.” If they did so, would you regard them as religions or would you give them the same legitimacy as your faith (other than that you disagree with the basis of their faith)?

  30. fatherstephen says:

    John shores,
    Sort of a lesson in rhetoric. Grouping various “faiths” under the single heading of religion, is actually a way of diminishing all of them. I would not mind if any “faith” system said anything it wanted about itself. The point would be to actually listen to what it says. It’s a very arrogant statement that is sometimes made, “After all, aren’t they all really the same?”

  31. William says:

    John Shores,

    If people of other faiths wish to make similar statements about their faiths, I would not waste a moment trying to contradict them. I think St. Nikolai’s quote above serves not so much as a statement about other religions but more as a way to direct attention away from a sense of Christianity as a “system” (even if it does have something of a system to it) or some other abstraction and instead toward a sense of Christianity as being entirely connected to Jesus Christ as a person and all that he reveals by his appearance and the apostolic preaching of it — and our response to that.

    As for whether I’d regard another faith as a religion. Why not? I already said above that I refer to Christianity as a religion sometimes. There’s a general use for the term, well understood by most people I’ve ever spoken with. There’s also a use for specifically disowning the term when it serves to make a point, such as the one St. Nikolai makes above.

    I don’t know how much it matters how I view the “legitimacy” of other faiths. I feel it is legitimate for people to follow their consciences as best they can in an attitude of humility. And with this in mind, I grant that people find themselves in multitudes of circumstances that in so many ways condition how and what they will believe. I try not to judge anyone about that. But in the sense of whether I could view another faith in itself to be as objectively legitimate as the Orthodox Christianity to which I am committed, well, how could I?

  32. dinoship says:

    Modern religious “syncretism” seems to also ignore that Christianity appeared in the history of mankind as the end of religion (John 10:8), and as the experience of the Church/Ecclesia. Its Founder is not (like Mohammed, Buddha etc) a man revealing to us stuff about someone else, namely God (this is what we have in all “Religions”); but God revealing to us stuff about Himself directly (more correctly called an “Apocalypse/Revelation”) . No other person in the history of mankind is, or even would claim to be, “the true Vine”…

  33. Karen says:

    William, I really appreciate the perspective in your last comment to John and how simply and straightforwardly you have put everything–and especially the last paragraph. Thanks for sharing that.

  34. fatherstephen says:

    Dinoship…other than several American cult leaders at any one time. We produce messiahs like this place was the Holy Land. Dime-a-dozen! :)

  35. dinoship: also, some hindu gurus claim to be the manifestation (or incarnation, if you will) of a god. I think I’ve even read a book (whose name I have forgotten) from an Orthodox perspective of someone who went chasing gurus in India. (There is no claim that searching for Hindo Gurus is an Orthodox activity — just a description of his eariler life.)

  36. Andrew says:

    There’s no end of trouble, when hobbies get thought of as religion, and vice-versa!

  37. Arnold Karr says:

    Messiahs were also a dime a dozen in the centuries preceding and following Jesus as well. I think the estimate is ca. 150? The historical Jesus denyers may have it partly right. I can imagine there being so many charismatic preachers of a restored and improved kingdom, more than a few named Joshua, that oral tradition settled on a composite of the best of. Pure speculation on my part, but who knows?

  38. Andrew says:

    AK said:

    I can imagine there being so many charismatic preachers of a restored and improved kingdom, more than a few named Joshua, that oral tradition settled on a composite of the best of.

    Healthy pursuit, so long as it’s the proper kingdom (= “Pascha”) being espoused. Isn’t this the issue in the Church today?

  39. dinoship says:

    I should have made it at least a little bit clearer:
    There are no witnesses that gave every last drop of their blood for one who claimed that he is “only true Vine”. Not one of the apostles testified and was martyred for a belief in an ‘ideological’ system, for “love thy neighbour” etc. they were martyred for what they witnessed. A Crucified and Resurrected claimant of being Truth and Life Himself.

  40. fatherstephen says:

    Arnold,
    Except for the eyewitnesses, their writings, and the Church? The kind of historical skepticism you suggest is over the top. The “oral tradition” seems to have been quite fixed and in close agreement, and to have been written within the life-times of the eye-witnesses.

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