Relational Religion

There seem to be two sides to the Church: personal and ecclesial, or romantic and structured, or relational and religious, depending on how you want to put things – I’m going with the second pairing, more or less arbitrarily. Anyway, among evangelicals and others who are intensely interested in the romantic side of Christianity, there is often a great discomfort,  I almost want to say fear – at the least a desire to demote – the structured side. There’s a suggestion that they cannot both be held and held strongly at the same time, hence phrases like “it’s a relationship, not a religion!” that supposes the alternative to be a religion, not a relationship.

It’s easy enough to say, no, that’s wrong, it’s both – but that might not be so helpful without considering why “organized religion” is so often considered dangerous in the first place. Why not have both? Well, Christianity, especially in the West, and more especially Protestantism seems to have a tendency to be a bit bipolar. I think that tendency is exacerbated, or perhaps even created, by the relative ease of forming a new denomination in opposition to the old one. At least in Catholicism if a person is possessed of a very legal mind he can go off and study Aquinas, and if he’s very emotive he can go contemplate the uncreated, and if he’s not at an extreme he can just go to an ordinary sort of church, and none of them can say that the other is altogether wrong, provided he doesn’t disagree with the Catholic Church on matters of doctrine, or do anything really crazy. But a nondenominational Protestant doesn’t really have to do that, so instead of forming orders or rites, they form entire new denominations, or unaffiliated churches, or whatever else. That being the case the legal sorts of folks can have a church all to themselves in which to lay down a bunch of laws on what a person can and cannot do in order to be a member, in finer and finer detail: don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t play cards, don’t cook with olive oil during Lent, etc. On the other hand, people who are of a more romantic bent can form a church that’s always railing against the legalists, enthusing about their relationships, and singing sentimental soft rock songs. More importantly, if a person is temperamentally incompatible with the church he was raised in, he can just go and find a church that suits his personality. It’s ruinous!

So it appears that there are only two alternatives: Law or Relationship. Kind of like when it comes to faith and work it’s often looked at as faith or works. And, furthermore, orderly liturgics and hierarchy are likewise seen in opposition to Relationship, and either tolerated from necessity, or hardly tolerated at all. There are probably also churches that are fed up with what they see as the disorder and self-indulgence of the relational folks that they go way too far into the legal aspect of things – I just haven’t personally been to one of those. There are also some churches that go for a bit of a mean – I think the Lutherans may do that – a certain amount of order (but not so much as those papists!) and a certain emphasis on the personal. Well, there are certainly worse things – but there are also better things. The Catholics (when they’re at their best – which unfortunately isn’t always the case) and Orthodox have a different idea – to be both unashamedly liturgical and enthusiastically personal. The Liturgy (or Mass) is, I suspect, what holds these two positions together: be as formal, unbending, and elaborate as you like – we’re eating and drinking the flesh of God! and that can’t not be massively both personal and communal. So you’ve got the liturgics, which are basically theology and history in music, and you’ve got things like the Jesus Prayer and an incredibly relational Trinitarian/Incarnational theology, which are held together by common faith and the certainty that it would be very wrong for a group of people who want to emphasize the one thing at the expense of the other to go off and start their own “denomination” (AKA schismatic group); like cutting off a foot or a hand and expecting it to go off and fend for itself. In that sense Tradition works like a bridle, keeping the age of the personalities of the congregants from having their head and careening off in these zig-zags of: Too much Law! Too little structure! Legalism! Emotionalism! Fear! Self-indulgence! And so on and on and on. Ultimately, it’s a very bad idea for a church or denomination to set itself up so that unity relies on compatible temperment and taste.

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One thought on “Relational Religion

  1. I like your post, but would like to add my two cents. As with the Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics also set up different kinds of church bodies that cater to different people, so that their congregants can also “go and find a church that suits [their] personality.” And to a point, that is not ruinous at all. One can prefer this Greek church over that Russian church, or this intimate little body over the huge one, or this priest over another. As Chesterton lauded the Catholic Church for being able to hold together believers who greatly differed in temperament and mission, so we can also be glad that the same is true of the Church universal today.

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