Sometimes you need to take a step outside and a look back.
You need perspective. Reminding. A different angle or lens.
Most all of us have grown up immersed in or at least surrounded by Christianity in some form. So much so, that we tend to lose sight of its basic structure, its history, its beliefs. This can happen even for adherents.
Over the next several weeks, we will be giving a survey of the basic elements of Christianity as a religion.This has been very helpful, grounding, and encouraging for me. And I very much hope it will be good for you as well to get a little bit of an outsider’s look if you have been an insider, or a bit of an insider’s look if you have been an outsider to Christianity. For insiders (those who have been immersed in it), it is easy to forget to look at Christianity as a religion.
So first off, we must begin with, what is a religion?
Here is a preliminary definition that I find most helpful:
Religion is a way of life, organized around certain experiences and convictions, having to do with ultimate power.
Now let’s break down this weighty definition. (Hopefully it can serve to “take back” this word from its many negative connotations that have accumulated over the years.)
- First of all, it is a way of life. Religious people do not think of religion as some segmented part of their existence, but as pervasive of all their life. It is not a matter of simply worshipping one hour a week, but of perceiving all of reality from a different perspective, and acting because they have that perspective. So it is a way of life.
- But it is also organized. Religion is not simply something that happens in the head, or in the feelings, or in individuals. It is a matter of bodies and communities. It is a matter of what bodies do, and what communities do when they are together. Therefore, it is an organized way of life.
- It involves certain experiences. The experiences are what give birth to religions, and what religions try to communicate. Joachim Wach, former Sociologist of Religion at the University of Chicago, has given us a marvelous definition of religious experience as: a response to what is perceived as ultimate, involving the whole person, characterized by a peculiar intensity, and issuing an appropriate action. Religious people do not think that they are making this up. They think that they are responding to something that is ultimately real. And because they are responding to this ultimately real thing, they must also organize their life in a certain fashion.
- Religion involves more than experiences, it involves convictions. Religions construct the world in a certain way. They interpret reality in a certain way, so that its adherents who share these experiences and convictions really do have a different world than those who do not share those experiences and convictions.
- Finally, the phrase ultimate power is very important. People who are religious are not organizing their life around the pursuit of money, the pursuit of pleasure, or the pursuit of political power. Rather, they are responding to that which goes beyond the human manipulation of power–to something that is transcendent, that goes beyond the pleasurable, the beautiful, the useful, even the good, to that which is in some sense ultimate.
Religion, then, is a way of life organized around the experience of ultimate power, and is characterized by certain experiences and convictions.
Tomorrow we will look at eight basic terms that are used in all religions, but have a specific meaning within Christianity.
I am using material from lectures given by Luke Timothy Johnson for The Teaching Company’s The Great Courses series.