What Religion Is

I’ve had several conversations recently with friends and acquaintances about what religion is, and I’ve read a couple book manuscripts about it.

Those who are pro-religion tend to refer to religion as a root system. It’s like the bulb of a plant, and from that bulb grows our spirituality. Without roots, our faith is unhinged from anything. We become spiritual-but-not-religious, New Age syncretists.

Religion is not this.

But this isn’t religion. I think, instead, that God is the bulb, the roots. It is from God that our experiences of God grow.

Those who are anti-religion say that religion is an exoskeleton that is meant to protect our experiences of God. But instead it suffocates our spirituality. They say that we should ditch religion, get out from under the exoskeleton, and let our spirituality live.

Religion is not this.

But this is not religion. Religion can become this, but the proponents of this view tell us that we can have spirituality without religion. That’s naive, because it’s not possible. Modern religious bureaucracy is a suffocating exoskeleton, but that is not religion.

Here’s what religion is: religion is a trellis.

Religion is this.

We have experiences of the Divine, and we attempt to communicate our experiences of the Divine to other human beings. We use symbols to do that communication: words, images, bodily postures, etc. This is “culture;” that is, it’s how we cultivate our experiences of the Divine — how we take the messy field of experience and plow it into rows that we can work.

And it turns out that others have done this before us. Many others. They have used words and images and bodily postures to cultivate and organize their experiences of the Divine. And others have seen that and thought, “Hey, my experience of the Divine is like that. Let’s throw in on this together.” And they do. And there you’ve got religion.

Religion is the trellis that our experiences of the Divine climb on. The handholds, if you will, by which we organize our experiences of the numinous.

God is the bulb.

Your experience of the Divine is the vines and fruit.

Religion is the trellis on which those vines and fruit grow, on which they thrive, and on which they reach heights that they could never otherwise reach.

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  • Ethan M

    He is the vine as we abide in him we bear much fruit and the trellis of our community of faith helps us to maximize both our connection to the vine and our bearing of fruit.

    That is beautiful..

    Also this post reminds me that I need to get my tomatoes in the ground.

  • Tony, this is an extraordinary piece of writing. Thanks for building a model that beckons us, that grounds us, that gives words to stuff that so many folks experience.

  • Brian P.

    I like tomatoes.

    And cucumbers. And watermelon. And corn.

    And much, much more.

    The sun causes much to grow from the dirt, filling a cornucopia with genetic diversity.

    Imagine, if all of it, came from one common, shared ancestor.

    Perhaps though, “God” is the bulb. Which came from a prior plant. Which came from a bulb. And on.

    Perhaps God is the bulb in that in the bulb there is a paradox.

    Even the trellis itself is made of wood–plants that lived and died and serve a structural purpose even in their death.

    Eventually, the wooden trellis too will decompose into the soil (maybe a few decades for the microbes to break it down?).

    And that too the sun will infuse its energy into for some future–slightly different from today’s–seed to grow.

  • Jon G

    I often think of Religion as a tool (perhaps a hammer). It can be used to build a house or bludgeon a skull. Either way, it is meant as a means to an end. It tends to go bad when people treat it as an end in itself.

  • So Tony is each religion its own trellis, or is the trellis emblematic of all major faith traditions, each growing and articulating experience together, upward toward “the sun” (Truth?)? If so, then this is a great metaphor for a kind of Knitter/Hick-esque pluralism (or mutualism), but if the specifically Christian God is the bulb, then do the “Christian” vines have some kind of privilege over the other religious vines? Or is each faith tradition its own trellis? Sorry if I’m taking this too far, I just really like the metaphor but if I employ it I won’t be able to avoid the interfaith implications. Thanks!

  • Religion is unbelief, including and especially Christian religion.

  • What about wildflowers or the open prairie…maybe the messy field of experience is really beautiful. I got so excited that I planted way too early and now I have those cheap plastic holiday tablecloths throughout my yard.

  • A. Biedermann

    I like the spirit of what you write, and perhaps that’s the most important thing, but I disagree. I’m not sure why not religion but God should be the bulb/root–this to me does not express the total transcendence of God (nor can God as the root allow for the possibility that God should feed and shine upon many different plants). Beyond the favorite metaphor game, there is a serious issue of anthropology here. Does culture come after experience–spiritual and otherwise–and serve as a support for pre-existing experiences. (An important issue raised by Schleiermacher’s anthropology; historical theology is useful here.) Most recent (post-romantic) thought says no; culture itself shapes, nurtures, and even makes our experiences possible. Seeing experience as primary to culture can lead to a mistakenly individualistic spirituality. God does not work around culture and religion, only through it. That is not a celebration of culture and religion; religion can thus impede and corrupt God’s energy for growth. In fact, it always does this to some extent. (So amen to “religion is unbelief;” a shout-out to Barth?) But let’s stop pretending like we have some purely sui generis spiritual experience as individuals apart from the language and culture which makes us human.

    • tom c.

      I agree with A. Biedermann (and really like the way this point is expressed).

      I wonder, though…What if the “trellis” were just the left over wood from previous generations of plants that had grown this way, in this configuration; there would be no trellis separate from individual experience. Thus the dead wood is what allows for the possibility of present flourishing, and flourishing at some point in time is necessary for the growth of structure.

      Of course, if that were the metaphor for religions, then we ought to expect a wild, natural scene, not a manicured garden…

      (A caveat: I’m only just now on my first coffee of the morning, so I may be foggy-headed.)

  • Brian P.

    Made of wood slats, used to help stand up.

    => Crutch.


  • JPL

    Beautifully said, and dead on.

  • ben w.

    Tony, you may not be aware that there is a book written using this same metaphor titled: “The Trellis and the Vine”, published by two Brits in 2009 (Amazon –> ow.ly/awvkF). Their purview is a narrower, considering vine growth as growth in Christian maturity and christlikeness, while the trellis are those necessary parts of discipleship and ministry that support the vine growth. They argue (which I’m sure you’d agree with) that many churches fall into the error of perpetuating the trellis and seeking its expansion devoid of developed notions of the Church’s true aim: vine growth. I’d highly commend it to anyone.

  • I liked this post, Tony…I’m still processing the metaphor, but regardless, it’s a refreshing change from all the “Jesus has nothing to do with religion” stuff floating around these days.

  • The trellis is a great metaphor Tony!

    I also like the metaphor of the sail:

    Religion is like the sail on a ship. If you have never sailed before–never taken a lesson–you can actually do harm to yourself and others (e.g. capsize your boat), but if you use the sail properly you can actually have these wonderful experiences with the wind (nooma). Of course some sails are bigger than others and some sails work better, but in the end a sail is meant to be moved by the wind.

  • Dagmar Bollinger

    Religion is the trellis that our experiences of the Divine climb on. The handholds, if you will, by which we organize our experiences of the numinous.

    Thank you, Tony. Great description of of religion. I am incorporating it into my final paper entitled: “What is the premise of religionless Christianity (and what does the Church look like in religionless Christianity?).” The paper is a response to Diana Butler Bass’ latest book called “Christianity After Religion.” I highly recommend it.

    Paper is due tomorrow … still crunching … making up for time spent at your Oak Arbor Church seminar. I loved it!

  • Scott Gay

    Recently having read C.S.Lewis’ last interview(1963) he listed three books that most influenced him. One was Edwyn Bevan’s “Symbolism and Belief”(1938). He agrees with your analogy. Just a couple quotes:
    “For Christians the human spirit reaches its highest possible point in Christ, and for that reason the Christian Church believes that in Christ may be seen that for which the whole universe has come into existence. I say advisably in this context Christ, and not Jesus, because the Christian view does not confine the life of Christ to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but regards it as continued in the Christian society”.

    “I spoke just now of one misconception to be guarded against …as being the leap beyond experience…whether it be by the believer in God or by the disbeliever in God, from no ground of facts, and I have tried to explain how each of them basis his hypothesis on a certain part of the facts presented by the world we know, though on a different part”.

  • Jordan

    I like your connection between religion as an aspect of culture and people. There is an interrelationship between the two; religion structures our experience, and we structure it. A gestalt, if you will. I take these ideas from Ernst Cassirer, philosopher of culture, who read a lot of history, anthropology, religion, linguistics, etc etc, the whole gamut. He’s worth a look, anyway, I think.

  • star silver

    All you’ve done is construct a (wonderfully accessible) metaphor for the sociological notion of framing. It’s a well-formed metaphor you have here, to be sure.

    (We’ve been studying framing and its antecedent notions for more than half a century. It’s depressing to realize that, even now, most people do not understand such a basic element of human perception and comprehension.)

    However, to use your metaphor, any gardener will point out that a poorly constructed trellis will do more damage to plants and to plant yield than will letting the plants grow wild. So in a country where the only commonly available types of trellis are dysfunctional, one is better off without any trellis at all. Wild plant growth is preferrable to the sort of warped plant growth that results from faith in a truly dysfunctional trellis.

    In the same way, in a country where the only commonly available forms of religion are dysfunctional, as is occuring in the U.S. with the growing political power of hardcore dominionist and quasi-dominionist fundamentalist evangelicals, one is better off without any religion or trellis at all. You might argue that spirituality would thrive best with a functional religious trellis, but those have been trampled into kindling by the hardcore religionists, so the only healthy alternative available right now is for spirituality to grow wild without any religious trellis at all.

    • star silver

      “All you’ve doneis ” was supposed to come across as “What you’ve done is”. I only just now noticed that it could be misread as a demeaning or hostile comment. Sorry.

  • DP

    Reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s “small gods”.

    Great book, everyone atheist or religious should read it.

  • Sammi C

    Oh blah blah blah! So many words, so little meaning.

    Can wisdom and insight come from a pompous and trivial metaphor?

    Religion is NOT a trellis, vine, bulb, fruit, seed, plant, leaf, stem anything metaphorically horticultural. It is a social system based on shared stories. It is a well-established preaching trick to appropriate a nice image and then claim insight from it, and followers can nod sagely, “oh how true! isn’t he wise!” and feel that they too are clever from sharing an image.

  • jim

    Wow! I like this analogy. This is so much what our church is, or what it is trying to be. There is more to it than just sharing our experiences with God. We also try to help others and listen to those in pain. I’ve got along way to go but I’m glad to be part of a community that is doing some of these things.

  • eric brown

    interesting way of seeing one’s method of experiencing the divine. i often enjoy seeing other’s point of view, it helps me define my own walk in ways i had not seen before.

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