Rector's Blog, Why I'm Religious and Mostly Ok with it
It has taken me a long time to be comfortable with the fact that I am religious. But I am, in fact, i’m religious. It’s not just that I believe in God or think Jesus is pretty great (though those things are true) – it’s that I am a religious Christian - and I am mostly ok with that.
This may seem like I’m being intentionally clever, since I’m a priest – which means I’ve literally made religious vows, and am religious for a living. But the truth is I was very uncomfortable with being associated with religion for a long time. It is frustrating and unnerving to share a religion with Christians who marginalize, disenfranchise, endanger, and harm others in Jesus’ name. For many years I identified as “spiritual not religious” and it is sometimes tempting to chuck religion and just try to love Jesus on my own terms. So today I want to say a few things about why I’m religious, and why I’m usually mostly fine saying so.
Let’s get the obvious reason out on the table first: I am religious because I grew up religious and it feels very natural to me. I left church for a while and stopped being religious. This happened when I decided I could not be part of an organization that wasn’t gay-friendly (which is the language we used at the time). But when I recommitted myself to the Christian faith and found a church compatible with my values, becoming religious again seemed very natural. I was raised with the understanding that believing in God meant making specific and regular time for that relationship a basic part of my life. It was easy not to be religious when I wasn’t sure I believed in God, but once, as an adult, I realized I believed – finding practical ways to practice that belief just made sense to me.
I want to be clear that this is not the same as saying religion is comforting. I hear people say that religion is comforting, and I guess if your goal is to have something that reinforces the notion of life after death and a benevolent force in the universe, then yes that is comforting. It actually is. But my experience of being religious has often been very inconvenient. It is demanding. Being religious has forced me to confront ideas that challenge and upset me, that push and confuse me. Religion means having to deal with and be invested in other people even when I don’t want to.
Another reason I am religious is that I cannot always be spiritual. As I said, I used to be spiritual but not religious. I had a spiritual awakening in my younger days, and it was not in a church – it was on a cliffside trail overlooking a beautiful body of water and it was deeply mystical and a moment of deep spiritual awe. And also I do not have those moments daily, or even weekly. I cannot always be spiritual. But I can put myself in a place where I am openly and consciously confronting and wrestling with my beliefs. I can surround myself with prayer because even though I don’t always feel like praying, if I’m in the room where others are praying, I’m more apt to give it a shot even when I don’t feel like it. I’m religious even when I’m not spiritual.
But maybe the biggest reason I’m religious is that Jesus was religious. Jesus didn’t write a book or tell people to find God in their hearts: Jesus built community, and I don’t think that was accidental. It’s a commonly held notion that Jesus wasn’t religious, that he just wanted people to be nice to each other, but then humans came along and screwed it up by trying to turn it all into church. That only works if you don’t read any of the stories about Jesus and aren’t interested at all in the context of his life and ministry.
Jesus wasn’t a rugged individualist and he didn’t preach personal salvation. Jesus didn’t write a series of private devotionals for your personal prayer life: Jesus gathered a group of people together and made them share life. Jesus may have healed some people privately, but he consistently instructed them to then rejoin their communities and share life with others. Jesus believed in practicing your shared beliefs in the context of intentional community. There’s a word for that.
I’m religious because I cannot practice the Love of Jesus all by myself, and I cannot do it on my own terms. I have to live with and learn from others who are also loving Jesus. I do not get to curate my own personalized bespoke spiritual life: I belong to you and you belong to me and together we belong to God. Being religious helps me to live as if this is true.
I understand that religion can all be very dangerous. An unhealthy religious community can do untold damage. I get why people leave. I have left. And I do not believe all religious communities are good or that religion itself is inherently good. It is Christians in America who have been the most harmful to LGBTQ+ persons. The majority of the people who are seeking to take away reproductive rights are doing so in Jesus’ name. It’s Christians ministers who often counsel women to stay in abusive relationships and promote patriarchy. The majority of Americans identify as Christian, and still we do not seem interested in eradicating homelessness or systemic racism. It’s fair to see these things and be skeptical about religion. Especially Christianity. Jesus said that people would know we were his disciples by the way we loved one another – but we are mostly not known for our love. Peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness are not our calling cards – even though they should be.
This is why I am sometimes uncomfortable being religious. It’s why I still get itchy about being called a Christian even though I am very publicly and very openly a Christian.
But I believe in Jesus. It’s not just that I think he was an interesting teacher or a compelling visionary. It’s that I believe he is God and that I am meant to follow him. And that requires something of me that goes beyond my own comfort or convenience.
And I will say this: I am mostly ok with being religious because, honestly, being religious has changed my life. It has forced me to listen differently. It has placed me in relationships I’d never have had otherwise. Being part of a religious community has forced me to confront my own racism and sexism. Being part of a religious community has put me in a position to be loved and cared for by others even when I don’t think I deserve it. Being part of a religious community has made me feel seen and heard and pushed me to see and hear others in new and challenging ways. Being part of a religious community has made me reexamine my spirituality, to look at it rigorously and skeptically, to deal with disappointment and not let go. To be faithful whether I want to be or not.
If you believe in Jesus, if you think you are a Christian, then I believe you should consider being religious. I also believe you should demand that your religious community seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. I believe that being a religious Christian is meant to help you recognize and honor God’s presence in every person you meet. I believe that being part of a healthy Christian community does not mean you’re always (or even often) right: It means you’re willing to learn every day, because you are interested in trying to place Love at the center of your life. When you find a community like that and try following Jesus together, you might end up being religious. And you might even be fine with it – most of the time.
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