When is Religion Not Religion?

One of the most disturbing things about the modern age is the fact that for many Christians religion has ceased to be religion. That is to say, it has ceased to be about a transaction between this world and the next and has denied the next world altogether.

Religion, if it is religion at all, is surely about man’s commerce with the supernatural realm. In this sense Paganism is a real religion. A priest sacrificing chickens or virgins to a monstrous deity in hope of supernatural protection and power is what I call religion. An animist, high on the fermented juice of the tropical tree, dancing around the campfire and cutting himself to satisfy the spirit of the river is a real religion. So is a Buddhist monk sitting in a snowdrift in his underpants humming his mantra and transcending the cold. For that matter, the Mormon baptizing someone for the dead or a televangelist praying down the Holy Spirit fire to heal, mightily heal is practicing real religion. It may be a false or misguided religion, but at least it is religion.

All of this is in contrast to the milk and water that much of mainstream modern Christianity has become in most Western cultures. There is no religion there because the modernists no longer believe in the supernatural. Their religion is not a transaction with the other world for they do not believe any world but this one really exists, or if they do believe in the other world, they do not believe that is is possible to interact with it. Instead what was religion has been reduced to three things: a meaningless ceremony; a set of mild moral principles; and an inclination to make the world a better place. While these things may be laudable in their way, they are not essentially religious. They are the bland leftovers from what once was religion.

The ceremonies they practice are meaningless because they have denied their meaning. The modernist goes through all the ritual. He uses all the words, but he doesn’t believe the ritual matters, nor does he believe the meaning that the words carry for he has learned to ‘de-mytholigize’ and ‘re-interpret’ for a modern age. Subsequently the miracles of the gospel are explained away, the gospel of grace is turned into a gospel of good ideas and the sacrifice of the Mass is turned into nothing but a ‘fellowship meal of the people of God.’

The second part of this religion that is not a religion is the replacement of clear moral teaching with mild mannered morals. There is no longer a congruent and consistent set of beliefs which are divinely inspired, but there is one over-riding moral principle: “We must all be nice to one another.” There is no reason why this should be so, but we insist that it is so because without it we would have no religion at all. It is certainly  nice to be nice, but niceness without real religion is nor much more than a set of table manners.

Finally, this religion which is no religion has eliminated dogma. That is to say, it has eliminated all but one dogma and that is,  “We must change the world.” Having abandoned any idea of a transaction with the supernatural, the modernists have replaced the idea of getting ready for the next world with the concept of making this world better. This is, at best, a religion of good works, and at worst, a tyrannical ideology.

What is paradoxical is that this ‘religion’ of meaningless ceremony, social courtesy and good works is practiced by the descendents of the Protestant reformers who inveighed against a religion that was no more than empty ceremonial, social standing and good works. They who were so opposed to a religion of works have turned their religion into nothing but good works. The only difference is, they don’t believe their good works will get them into heaven because they don’t believe there is such a place as heaven.

Unfortunately, this religion which is no religion, has influenced, invaded and infected much of modern Catholicism as well. Too many Catholics have also swallowed the idea that religion is essentially about being nice to one another and making the world a better place. While these good traits are certainly the fruit of true religion, they should not be confused with real religion itself.

Instead, full blooded Catholic religion engages in an interaction with the other world. Through the celebration of Word and Sacrament we believe that the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross is brought into the present moment and applied to the needs of human souls for their eternal salvation. This essentially religious act is the ladder between earth and sky. It is the linkage point between heaven and earth. God comes down as he always does, and transforms the human soul. Through this miracle in the heart of ordinary life the soul is opened to something called ‘grace’ which is God’s own power poured forth. This action of faith and love defeats the powers of darkness, brings Christ’s forgiveness and healing into the here and now and plants the seeds of hope that will transform the soul, transform the family, transform the church and transform and redeem the world.

This is real religion. Everything else that is great and good springs from this, and nothing–not even that which is great and good can ever replace it.

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