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.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15185875893212146794 Ttony

    Well said, Father. Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12746127431922685446 JD Curtis

    That was beautiful Father. Thank you.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 the 'fellowship meal of the people of God.'I would only like to add that I recently picked up both The Case for Christ and The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel. Both books are filled with facts concerning the Christian faith provided by the very best and most knowledgeable people in world on the subject. Christianity can withstand serious scrutiny and we are better equipped to be disciples when we know and truly believe that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07215093180074844386 the Egyptian

    why is the priest in the picture turned away from the people, ;>) just had to ask

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05283616249135071464 Charlene C. Duline

    Religion ceases to be religion – at least for some – when so many priests are being thrown away because anyone can pick up a telephone and accuse a priest and he is gone! Read http://ProdigalCatholicWriter.blogspot.com. Also see http://www.TheseStoneWalls.com by Fr. Gordon MacRae. From whence cometh our help?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01678341854029479678 Old Bob

    I echo Ttony and JD Curtis! You have described the modern irreligion, faux religion, exactly, and I thank you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06354592772973677609 The young fogey

    Spot-on!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13523683273450353313 Subvet

    Bravo Father, once again you get right to the heart of things.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15231518790287664980 venbede

    the EgyptianThe priest is not turned away from the people; he is facing the same way as the people!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15692160455833039396 Tracy

    I adore this post Father.It's so true that even good and great things can not replace true religion. The way you describe full blooded religion is both beautiful and inspiring.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02487748842744745860 StevieD

    The Dutch Protestant Church has recently decided in favour of retaining the service of an atheist pastor! At least they made a decision on atheism within the church, the Anglicans don't seem to be in any hurry.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15261940312418634427 WordWench

    I'm pretty certain I was in a literature class with this woman once, Father!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15571554907399914529 Joseph D’Hippolito

    For that matter, even 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.Father, I'm just wondering…1. Why is the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead any less "religious," in your mind, than the Catholic practice of praying for the dead or invoking the intercession of dead saints?2. Why do you mock the idea of someone calling upon the Holy Spirit to heal? Yes, a lot of "televangelists" are greedy phonies but that's another subject altogether. The Holy Spirit does heal, even in this day and age. The Holy Spirit hasn't changed since Pentecost…and, after all, if the Holy Spirit didn't heal in the church's early days (i.e, Peter and the lame man at The Beautiful Gate of the Temple), would Christianity have grown as quickly as it did?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Joseph, I said exactly the opposite, that a Mormon baptizing for the dead was very religious.It's a false religion, but it is religious. Where did you get the idea that I'm mocking anything? I believe firmly in the healing power of the Holy Spirit.I was only making fun of the charlatans televangelists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15571554907399914529 Joseph D’Hippolito

    Father, when I saw the phrase "For that matter…," I interpreted that as a sign of contempt toward Mormons and Pentecostals on your part. If I'm wrong, then I'm sorry. I'm just so sick and tired of the arrogance of so many people (particularly Catholics and Calvinists) toward other Christians who don't think like they do. Such people forget that if it weren't for Christ's atoning death and resurrection, then Christianity wouldn't be worth squat.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18047225919036250163 Robert H

    You capture the crisis of faith in the modern world beautifully! I truly sense a larger work here. I for one would love to see it. My thoughts along those lines were that the purpose of religion is to burn away the self to make room for higher matters. With the substitution of 'spirituality' for religion, not to demean the concept of spirituality, spirituality has served to refocus on the self.

  • http://openid.knightsoflasalette.org/frmariepaul Fr. Marie-Paul

    I look at it this way: the modernists do practice a religion, but it is all about the religion of self-worship. The examples you mentioned as "real religious" (my wording) all deal with those people who look externally to themselves, as to some greater external power. The current modernists look to themselves – internally – as promoted by new age styled beliefs. The power within. As Genesis says "Ye shall be as gods." Same old lie repackaged. The devil is wily at marketing evil.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01190034505222713593 tanya

    to the egyptian, the priest is standing facing the east together with the people adoring God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12349165859599995801 ik

    Thank you Fr. Dwight. It is sad that relativism even drives what we permit in our "nondenominational" environments. Today at a local food bank I took exception to the book of mormon, "another testament of Jesus Christ" and wanted to remove it. I was told that because we were nondenominational that that book had to be permitted. But I was told by practicing Catholics. when I told them that this book was not true, it didn't seem to phase them in the least. So, we sacrifice the truth to be politically correct. Sad times.


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