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The reconciliation of opposites?

20 August 2009

I read two different blog posts this morning, and was struck by the contrast between them.

In one Tom Smith writes about ubuntu:

The church is so often like a medical scheme that screens those out who will be taxing on comfort.  We become friends … to a point.  Yesterday I had a wonderful response to the post on Ubuntu (the response was on facebook) …

And in the other, Ben Myers visited a popular megachurch, and described the core message thus:

As for the preaching, it was motivating and highly inspirational: the sermon’s title (sorry, I’m not kidding) was “Ten Kinds of People That God Can’t Help.” The main idea was that you should “invest” your time in positive happy friends, instead of making bad investments in friendships with hopeless, unhappy people: “Why are you trying to help people like that when even God can’t help them?” The sermon’s best one-liner: “The Bible isn’t a book about God’s love for man; it’s a book about man’s love for God.”

So where do we take our lead from, the Zeitgeist or the Heilige Geist? And how do we tell which is which?

As for the best one-liner — “The Bible isn’t a book about God’s love for man; it’s a book about man’s love for God” — I am reminded of the debate about whether Christianity is a religion or not. There can be no doubt about where Hillsong (the megachurch described by Ben Myers) stands on that. If religion is man’s search for God and Christ is God’s search for man, the Hillsong is undoubtedly on the side of religion.

Ben Myers’s description of megachurch worship also throws new light on something else — when we had a group of visitors who were interested in the emerging church movement at Vespers at St Nicholas Orthodox Church in Johannesburg, one of them, remarking on his observation of Orthodox Vespers, said that there was “nothing digital”. Ben Myers’s impression of megachurch worship was that it was nothing but digital:

The Protestant reformers used to complain that the Roman Catholic priest was “doing worship” for the whole congregation, standing in their place and performing everything on their behalf – and a similar complaint is often made about today’s Pentecostal megachurches. But I think the function of the screen raises a much more interesting problem: not merely that the congregation is worshipping vicariously through the onstage performers, but that the entire worship event is actually taking place onscreen.

Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.

It has been repeated so often that it has become a cliche. But religion seems to be remarkably persistent, and the relationships to become more and more attenuated, excluding the people that even God can’t help, and finally being reduced to digital images on a screen.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 August 2009 10:30 am

    Hi there,

    This is post is relevant to my current thought train and I almost missed it! When you post more than one in a day things get missed :).

    Isn’t it fair to say that this Christ “relationship” plays out within a Christian “religious” framework. What I means is meeting together, observing communion, baptizing new believers, having churches overseen by elders… it’s all framework stuff whereas the believe in Christ as the substitute paid for the forgiveness of our sins is the relational part.

    I’m kinda thinking of an amalgamation between “appropriate relationship” and “accurate religious observance” makes for healthy Christ followers?

    I hate going against the grain because I could so easily be wrong, but then correct me with patience and longsuffering.

    In Christ,


    • 20 August 2009 8:43 pm


      That was more or less and aside, and a reference to a much longer argument that wasn’t central to this post. It would take too long to explain it all in a blog comment, but perhaps this might help – an extract from a paper of a friend of mine, called Religion versus God:

      The purpose of this paper is to suggest:
      a) that religion is in itself a highly dangerous thing
      b) that the faith of the Bible and the Church is not religious
      c) that insofar as religious characteristics enter the faith and life of the Church they are hostile to its true nature and must be eradicated.

      It is stupid to use the word `religion’ to mean Christianity. It is a misuse of words even in Europe and the UK. In this country it is highly
      discourteous to the non-Christian religious people. Here we see clearly that either Christianity is just one religion among many or it isn’t a religion at all.

      Let us make a tentative definition of `religion’. Religion is an attempt by man to escape from his circumscription by making and maintaining an association with a presupposed superhuman or transcendent reality. I avoid the word `God’ in the last phrase so that the definition will include not only theistic religions and animisms but also the yearnings of the Buddhist and the ethical humanist, and the group loyalty implied
      in African ancestor worship, and the pseudo-Christian nationalism that is so strong in the peoples of Western Europe and their offshoots (e.g. Land of hope and glory). The great thing about this religion is that it starts with man. It is due to man’s initiative, man’s searching, man’s
      desire to find something greater than himself that he can stick to like a barnacle.

      Now with all due respect to the good non-Christians, and to those great men like Toynbee who are offended by our `scandal of particularity’, we say that Christianity is unique, it has a different start. The Bible all through speaks of God’s initiative, not man’s: not man’s ideas, but God’s action; not man’s attempts, but God’s success.

      I say `religion is…’; it can be a thing, definable. Christianity isn’t such an entity at all. I can’t define it. It is not, it only speaks; and when it speaks, it speaks of God.

      So we come to the other half of the title. We have attempted a definition of religion – how about defining God? I cannot. The two terms are not comparable at all. I can really no more talk about `Religion versus God’ than I can about `Beetles versus Calvinism’ or `The breast-stroke versus polarized light’. What can I say about God? That he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Yes, but this is no definition – it gives no account of God as a thing or even a concept, but only in terms of rela
      tionship. This is all he has shown us about himself. All heresies were, and are, religious attempts to say about God what he himself has refused to say, to soften the paradox, to make attractive fiction out of intractable truth. Truth, as Chesterton said, is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it. The Catholic Church has said, in effect: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; what that means, we can’t say. It’s all we know and we’ll have to make do with it. We cannot understand God, he stands over us.

      If you like I could send you the whole thing to read.

  2. 20 August 2009 6:56 pm


    This post highlights the dichotomy in today’s church. That is why I feel so drawn to some of the ancient paths represented by the Orthodox tradition.

  3. petersoncello permalink
    5 September 2009 3:21 pm

    How do you think James understands the word ‘religion’ in James 1:26-27:

    If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (ESV)

    The rhetoric of “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship” has long bothered me, not only because that seems a false dichotomy (couldn’t something be both?), but because the Bible clearly says that “pure and undefiled” religion is a good thing. The word ‘religion’ only appears a handful of times in the Bible. It would seem that those few references should have a major influence on how Christians understand the word.

    So, my comment on your friend’s paper (that is, the bit of it I know from your comment, since I haven’t read the paper itself), is that religion in itself is not a dangerous thing. It can be either good or bad, as we find in James 1:26-27. Indeed, could it be that “pure, undefiled” religion is the real kind, and “worthless” religion the sham kind, according to James? And the faith of the Bible and the Church is characterized by “pure, undefiled” religion.

  4. petersoncello permalink
    5 September 2009 3:29 pm

    By the way, I strongly suspect that “religion” as your friend understands it is indeed opposed to God. I’m just questioning whether the Epistle of James uses the word in the same way your friend does.

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