on religion

I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that what traditionally marks religion isn’t devotion to God, but rather a strong belief that God doesn’t really know what he is doing.

First a little theology and background:

In antiquity religion denoted the cultic veneration of God. Cicero defined it as the cultus deorum. Religio could sometimes be used of the relation to other people to the degree that a comparable veneration was owed or paid to them. Cicero distinguished religio as moral duty from the taboo-fear of superstitio. This distinction differentiated the Latin term from the Greek threskeia, which embraces all forms of cultic veneration, even those that are excessive or erroneous, and which occurs also in the NT in this sense. Closer to Cicero’s religio is theosebei, which is not closely tied to the cultus. In Cicero pietas is an attitude of soul which in relation to the gods finds expression in cultic acts. Yet Cicero does not equate piety and religion. He relates the latter term much more to rites and their observance. Nor does he call the knowledge of God religio. In his work on laws he describes this knowledge as the mar of differentiation between human beings and animals, but he does not call it religion. Nevertheless, he regards a knowledge of the matter of the gods as necessary to bridle the expression of cultic veneration.

Unlike Cicero, August in his De vera religione (c. 390) stresses that the knowledge of God and the worship of God are inseparable in religion. For him, then, there is a close relation between religion and philosophy. Doctrine and worship belong together. In this regard he appeals to Plato, but he finds the supreme example of the connection of doctrine and cultus in the church. The true religion is to be found where the soul does not worship creaturely things but the one eternal and unchangeable God. IN his own time this perfect religion was identical with the Christian religion whose teachings Almighty God himself had set forth. These consist of the prophetic intimation and historical recording of the saving provisions of divine providence for the renewal of the human race.

By tying together worship of God and knowledge of God Augustine sought to do something very honorable which was to essential combine thought and practice. However, the problem comes in the perversion of this that happens because we really, at our cores, don’t think God knows what he is doing. We invert this order, making our worship of God become a source of knowledge about God, thus making how we want to serve God become the criteria for what we think God wants.

In other words, we tell God what we will give him and then expect him to applaud our service.

Or we think that God has really left a lot out, forgetting maybe what he wants, and that we need to fill in the blanks, and make others follow our lead in doing that.

This is true from the earliest days and is at the heart of alienating religion. That’s why I think Cicero was right to separate the two. If we truly know God we will likely respond to him as we should. But, far too often we want to serve him without really knowing or trusting him. We create forms of worship he never mandated, and then make this worship the criteria of inclusion among his proclaimed people.

Sometimes God does tell us how he wants to be worshipped. He told Moses the clear guidelines. And he laid out who was to be included, how they were to be included, what they were supposed to do and not do on what days. God can be quite specific when he wants to be.

When he’s not specific we can’t be specific for him. Because it’s showing that we don’t know, like, or trust what God has done when he has freed us from those specific forms and giving the Holy Spirit to be the true marker of who is and who is not part of the people of God.

Worship becomes then not only separated from the knowledge of God, it becomes a barrier to the knowledge of God, creating a false knowledge, and false attributes, always enforcing the forms of worship rather than the fruit of the Spirit and the reflection of Christ.

It’s easy to not trust the Holy Spirit’s work in people. Peter could have rejected Cornelius because Cornelius did not match the liturgical patterns of Jewish Christianity (the true Apostolic form). In fact there was a movement in the early church to do just that, something that was addressed in Acts 15. However, Peter would not have been part of the church any longer himself had he done so. The Spirit forms the church, and Peter followed.

So too today. Which is why I have such trouble with so many forms of leadership which mistake form for knowledge and enforce non-Scriptural patterns as being somehow authoritative for God’s demands. That’s why I have trouble with contemporary emphasis on leadership development that emphasizes roles and organizational structure far beyond what Scripture indicates. It creates a cult of personality and emphasize non-Spirit charisma over and above spiritual gifting and Spirit leading.

Religion that doesn’t trust God is found in both the newest and the oldest forms of the Christian faith, and we see this even in the New Testament letters. Paul is writing to churches who don’t trust God and so created their own misshaped patterns that had to be rebuked or adjusted.

God tells us what we need to know and sent the Spirit to teach us all things. That’s not always answering the questions we might have, however, even as we are taught what is necessary. We can in response either trust God and be free in the freedom he has brought, free in diversity and free in expression, worshiping in manifold ways out of the particular knowledge and gifts the Spirit has bestowed. Or we can betray God, enforcing rules not his own that we attribute to him, thinking that our contrived worship is in fact knowledge rather than whim and habit.

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