I attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve where a guest Jesuit priest officiated. I was struck by his distinction between faith and religion. He defined faith as each individual’s personal relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and his religion, whether it be Roman Catholic or another Christian denomination,Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. was only one of the ways an individual manifested his faith in the Almighty. It struck me because his point of view sounded somewhat revolutionary coming from the lips of a Catholic priest (though he was a Jesuit) and also I think because it was so simple. In a few short sentences he unwrapped the confusion so often surrounding faith and religion. I’ve always known it was possible to have a strong faith in God and yet not be a devoted practitioner of any particular religion. And I’ve also come in contact with many devoted religious practitioners who didn’t seem to have any relationship at all with God.
I suppose that’s how it’s possible for us to get involved in so many wars fought over the question of religion. When religion becomes fractured from faith, when religion becomes a hollow echo of its true purpose, which surely must be to deepen each individual’s love and knowledge of the Almighty, then religion becomes just another excuse to hate each other.
Do we truly believe God cares how we worship Him or by what name we call Him? Don’t our own names sound different when spoken in a different language? So why should the Almighty’s name not sound different when spoken in the native languages of His children spread across this tiny, troubled world? Is there a greater blasphemy in God’s eyes than to take an innocent life in His holy name?
Do those who cling to the dogma of their religious practice but do so without the close, personal and loving relationship with God that true faith demands, believe their way to heaven is paved automatically by their devoted adherence to religious practice? I think they deceive themselves, especially when such practice results in the deaths of the innocent, harsh judgment on another group, or race, or even an individual child of His making.
Heaven is reserved for those who exist in a state of perfect communion with the will of the Almighty. It is not a state we can achieve by piling judgment and burdens on the backs of our brothers and sisters. It cannot be achieved by taking, by dying, by succumbing to the temptation to think we are better, more deserving, more righteous than any of His other children. Heaven for all of its exclusivity, is built on inclusiveness, on love, on sharing, on life, on building bridges not tearing them down.
Conflict is easy. Self-justification is easy. Standing firmly on our side of the fence secure in our own self-righteousness does not lead us to the perfect communion of heaven. Nor does falling back on religious dogma to justify our own self-centered point of view.
By its very definition, heaven demands that we reach beyond ourselves, that we reach beyond our limited perceptions rooted in our personal self-interests and consider God’s point of view, which most likely is not wholly in agreement with our own. It is for us to bend in His direction, not the other way around.
So now let us return to the initial point of this discourse…the distinction between faith and religion. The two do not necessarily act in concert, but nor do they have to be opposed either.
For me, and I think for the majority, the two enhance each other. My faith deepens my devotion to my religious practice and the rituals of my religious practice help me to push through the limits of my personal understanding to reach a new, more intimate and complete understanding of God. For me it is not a question of faith or religion, but faith accompanied by religious practice. I find comfort in both. I find God in both, and isn’t that the point of both?
So if your religious practice is empty of a close personal relationship with God, consider developing your faith when you are away from your routine of religious practice. It may feel awkward at first, bringing God into your life outside of church, like those tentative first steps of a developing friendship. But just like a friendship, each tentative step leads to greater familiarity and comfort with each other and paves the way for greater intimacy and love each passing day. And if your faith exists outside a formal religion, perhaps you might find comfort in a community of God’s faithful. Look how much you already have in common with such a community. All of you are gathered for the single purpose of worshipping the creator of all that is and ever will be.