Religion is Relationship, Not Regulations

Life is so much easier when you have rules to follow.  As a parent, I appreciate the value of rules.  It’s much easier to deal with my six year-old son when there are clear rules in place about what he is expected to do and how he is expected to behave.  His child’s world is pretty black-and-white much of the time, and the rules that govern this life keep things on track most of the time.

However, as I am also the parent of a teenager, I have made a surprising discovery about my daughter:  as she gets older and moves ever-closer to adulthood, rules are tending more and more to take a back seat to relationship.  Gone are the days when I (or her mother) can simply recite a rule in response to a situation and have that go unchallenged.  The black-and-white world of our daughter’s childhood has given way to the various shades of gray of the adult (or almost adult) world.  And rules don’t always make the path clearer:  often, they just raise more questions.  I am discovering that instead of falling back on rules in our relationship, I am increasingly having to engage our daughter in conversation – really serious conversation, sometimes – in order to understand where she is coming from and for her to understand where I am coming from.  To put it another way, our relationship is becoming all about, well, relationship, and that is wonderful in many ways.  But it is also a bit messy, sometimes lacks clarity and not infrequently leaves both of us puzzled.

This movement, it seems to me, is one that inevitably happens as parents and children grow up together.  And it occurs to me that it is this same movement that happens – or needs to happen – as we grow up in our spirituality.  If we look at the teaching of Jesus presented in the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus is not all about the rules.  In fact, he ticks off people who are all about the rules quite often.  Jesus’ priority is not on rules and regulations, but rather on relationship:  the relationship we have to ourselves, to our fellow human beings and to God.  Jesus is happy to fall back on well-regulated tradition when it serves relationship (so, for example, he participates regularly in traditional Jewish worship), but he is equally happy to jettison or re-interpret the rules when they do not serve that relationship (made clear, for example, in his approach to the rules about sabbath-keeping).  In fact, the underlying critique of the religion of Jesus’ time is that people have made it all about rule-keeping, all about laws and regulations, and forgotten the importance of relationship with the God who purportedly values these laws and regulations.

St. Paul, whose writings actually predate the Gospels in their final form, is even more clear about this movement from law to relationship.   In fact, Paul is very clear that reliance on law, on rules and regulations, cannot help us.  One gets the impression that Paul would like to say that the whole of the Jewish Law is a mistake, a failure, but because he believed that it was divine, he could not allow himself to come to that conclusion.  And so, he finds a different role for the law:  it cannot help us, but it can help us see how much we need help.  The help, as far as Paul is concerned, comes from a relationship with God grounded in Christ (Paul’s clearest, most systematic presentation of his thoughts along these lines is found in his Letter to the Romans).

As the Christian community moved forward from the New Testament era, however, it seems it was not so easy to live with God simply in the grace of relationship.  Human beings seem to like rules and regulations, and eventually there was an abundance of them within the Christian community, in the form of copious numbers of doctrinal definitions and canon laws.  And over the centuries, Christians are often found falling into the same trap that Jesus observed in many of the people of his time:  replacing genuine relationship with religious regulation.

And who can blame us, really?  After all, relationships are messy and complicated, defined mostly in tones of gray, rather than sharply defined in black-and-white.  What is easier?  To believe that in following some rules (like the Ten Commandments or the Code of Canon Law) we shall receive salvation?  Or, to be told that in order to find salvation, one must take the time to develop a life of prayer that calls upon you to increasingly confront the truth about yourself, to abandon most of your conceptions about God, and discover the spirit of God dwelling within the silence that lies on the other side of your chattering mind?  It is so much easier to just get your ticket to heaven punched according to the rules than wade into the murky waters of contemplative prayer.

Yet, I have become convinced that this is exactly what we are called to do.  Salvation is, after all, not about getting to heaven, not about being admitted to an afterlife that is an idyllic version of planet Earth.  It is, rather, about experiencing wholeness at the deepest level of our beings, a wholeness that transcends our ordinary experience of life.  The word “salvation” carries in its etymology the notions of health and healing.  And reducing our spiritual life to following a set of rules and regulations cannot accomplish that.  The Christian spiritual tradition is rather clear that spiritual health and healing comes only when we make ourselves vulnerable to God, only when we make the decision to be present to God and allow God to be present to us.   In other words, health and healing are to be found in a relationship with God.

Certainly, churches play a role in helping that to happen.  Our worship makes the grace of relationship that is always available to us more concrete.  There is infinite value in having a community to support us as we make our life’s pilgrimage.   Congregations are filled with people at many different places on this path, and so there is an abundance not only of support but of wisdom and experience, as well.  Communities of faith challenge us in ways that help us to grow if we do not run away from them.  And communities do need some rules in order to function effectively.  But our relationship with God when we are in our 40s and 50s should not resemble the relationship we had when we were six or seven, just as my way of being a parent to a six year old cannot be the same as it is with a teenager.  We must grow in our relationship with God.  That is the way to find the healing and wholeness that, deep down, we are really seeking.

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