The term of religion has become chameleon-like, taking on the color of whichever environment it happens to find itself. As I sit in teachers meetings at school I hear there term used as a complement to a kid they respect. “Yeah, and she’s really interested in religion”, they’ll say. Turning to me they add, “You’d really like her.”
I doubt it. “Really interested in religion” translates as “really interested in cultural mystical practices and well versed in synchrotism and hypocritical tolerance.” Apparently I seem exotic to the other teachers, so they think I like anything else that seems to match.
But this is better than the other usage I commonly hear. “Mom is really religious” is a worse condemnation than, “alcoholic” or “ex-con”. Alcoholism warrants sympathy, and is a more understandable vice than being “religious”. I recently heard a discussion between the principle and a student who visited your standard Mid-West Bible College where they couldn’t find enough scathing remarks to say about the fact that the students there invited her to go pray. Could you believe that? What kind of nonsensical Bible College has their students praying?!
What this means is that the culture at my school finds the visible practices of Christianity more foreign than other world religions. It’s not that they have some damning critique they have of it, its just bizarre and worthless in their eyes.
I do not suggest that we respond to this attitude by placing Christianity in the context of the other world religions and explaining why we picked it over the other ones. This may be helpful for some people, but for the kids at my school, they will be too smitten over the sexiness of the other cultures they won’t have time to see it for what it is. Besides that, Christianity is really a religion.
Let me explain, or rather, allow me to let Fr. Alexander Schmemann explain. Religions exist in the world in order to life man up to God. They reveal humanity’s longing, hope, and need. There is a wall between God and man, and religions exist as ladders to get us high enough to see, or may sneak, over.
For the other world religions there is longing, but there is no hope of fulfillment in this life. Christianity, while it doesn’t avoid death by any means, turns the dilemma on its head. Instead of raising us up to God, God comes to dwell with us. God’s great plan is to span the chasm between creation and Creator but allowing His Son to take on humanity. When Mary said, “Let it be done to me according to your will”, the orientation of all the world’s religions became misguided. When God lay wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger in Bethlehem, religion was abolished. Emmanuel, “God is with us”.
Thus Fr. Alexander Schmemann says, “Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of religion.” It is so only because it has Christ, and He is present with us even now. “And in Him was the end of ‘religion’ because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man – and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion – was restored to man.”
Christianity isn’t about cultures, it’s about truth. It’s about the things that Christ has made sacred, which is everything. Certainly there is sense in which Christianity is a religion, but it is nothing but another thing built by another culture in order to fill a cultural role unless Christ becomes present to us. All our Christian cultural habits are nothing unless it clears away space for Christ. All of our theologizing and philosophizing are false unless they help us understand how Christianity is not a religion.