Monday, July 26, 2010

The Right Religion

Evaluating our religious trappings and expressions can be a precarious process that threatens to, in typical vampire fashion, suck the lifeblood out of our meaningful worship moments and gatherings. All the same, evaluation is so vitally necessary precisely because deviating from good practice will forever remain easily instinctive. While I have already broached the subject of praxi fide before, some of that warrants repeating here. Belief and practice are inextricably linked, and both communal and personal expressions of them are wrapped up in what can best be summarized as "religion." I get so tired of the foolish statement often uttered by well-intentioned evangelists, "It's not a religion. It's a relationship." Imagine attempting to apply that type of false dichotomy to marriage, suggesting that a healthy relationship is possible without ANY outward expressions of that relationship manifested in the 'rituals' of quality time, giving gifts, physical touching, words of affirmation or acts of service (borrowing from Gary Chapman's The 5 Love Languages). It's not a choice between a relationship or expressions of relating. It's relating through expressions of a healthy relationship. So it is with our most important relationship - our relationship with God; and practicing a right religion will be symptomatic of a healthy relationship with him.

"Religion" can be defined as: the service and worship of the divine or supernatural through a system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices maintained within a given culture or community. Such a definition is helpful, but leaves us with the notion that if there is indeed a 'received' system "maintained within a given culture of community," it would not only be necessary to identify the various spectra of communal and personal expressions of that "system," but also ways of deviating from that system as well. Thus, in evaluating observable religious practice, two axis can be offered to form a "grid" for 'plotting' religion in relation to a community or culture. A horizontal axis would be the 'normative' vs 'deviant' continuum, and the vertical axis would form the 'official religion' vs 'popular' (or personal) continuum. Click to image to the right to expand it. In this manner, we can identity where a practice falls in relation to 'received' practice in the culture, in relation the religious authorities appointed to facilitate or conduct the religion, or in one's own personal piety. Along with this graphic, some other definitions may also be helpful.

What is meant by these 'types' of religious practice?

Normative religion: adhering to the accepted practice and beliefs received and codified within a given community (i.e. Sacred Scriptures or cultural consensus).

Official religion: practice and beliefs conducted and/or required by authoritative leadership (i.e. priestly or royal figures).

Popular religion: personal piety of the private practitioner influenced by criteria decided upon by the motives and needs of the individual.

Deviant religion: operating outside acceptable normative parameters related to religious thought and ritual.

These categories help us to organize and make sense of the wide diversity of religious expressions evident in ancient Israel, as well as understand how their history offers beneficial lessons for us today. It also helps us to evaluate religion even in our present day with regard to our own Christian context. For example, a popular idea might have arisen among some Christians that differs significantly from what is taught at the official level of professional theologians within a given tradition. Likewise, certain doctrines and practices can be acknowledged as having been 'received' and codified by all Christians everywhere, thus making them the norm from which someone might deviate.

My contention is that any culture's religious expressions fall somewhere into this rubric, but of course in my own case, it is applied specifically to Christianity. Therefore, the 'norms' of Christianity are determined by what the Apostles and church fathers showed to be the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. This creates the normative Christian religion that official leadership is tasked with leading people to follow. At the popular level, it remains the responsibility of each believer to follow the normative religion prescribed by orthodox authorities. It is sobering to realize that leaders can deviate from the accepted norms, and lead others to do so as well. Not only this, but individuals can, at the popular level, deviate from official orthodoxy also. Certainly any pastor might find it disconcerting to discover what superstitions are entertained by those regularly exposed to his preaching (and thus should know better).

For ancient Israel, all of these categories are well represented in their history. Official normative religion is well demonstrated by the orthodox worship conducted in the wilderness Tabernacle or at the dedication of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Yet official deviance is shown through Israelite kings following after the neighboring Canaanite gods and, by virtue of their royal office, leading the rest of the nation to do the same. While normative religion is easy to experience through the popular psalms, hymns and poetry of David, Hannah and others, popular deviance is detectable in the household idols used in the period of the Judges.

The personal ramifications are weighty. Having become confident that authorities over me are leading in and facilitating normative Christian religion, it falls to me to follow it and adhere to those norms at the popular level. It is possible that the leadership could deviate from orthodoxy in some obvious manner (as with the Episcopal Church; ECUSA), thereby forcing me to find new leaders that follow Christian norms. However, so long as my leadership is officially normative, my popular and personal piety must align with it. Some in our culture will champion one's right to choose their religion, but it seems more healthy to exercise that choice to adhere to right religion. After all, it expresses my relationship to God, so there is nothing more important to be right about.

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