The False Dichotomy of Religion versus Relationship with God

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In 2007, the year I graduated high school and the year Facebook began to popularize, the “religious views” section of my profile stated: “Relationship with Christ—religion has nothing to do with it”. This statement wasn’t something unique that I came up with, but rather the mantra of evangelical Protestantism, the faith tradition of my upbringing. The Baptist and non-denominational faith communities instill in their congregants the belief that true Christianity is not a “religion” comprised of rules and rituals, but simply a personal relationship with Christ without rules or rituals. They continue to state that religious traditions and regulations are merely a trap set to deprive people of that deeper friendship with Christ, and adherence to such traditions can keep people from experiencing eternal life if people cling to religion “instead of” developing that relationship.

The intent that surrounds these ideologies is honorable. Faithful evangelical Protestants have an intense love for Jesus and heart for worship, and it frustrates them to see people who bare the Christian title going through the motions of worship and tradition, while showing no evidence of Christ otherwise in their daily life. As faithful Catholics, we sympathize with such frustrations. It pains us to see our fellow Catholics recite the words at Mass without meditating on their meaning and receive the Sacraments without openly embracing the graces that flow from them. Evangelical Protestants address this issue by creating unofficial categories for all those who identify as Christians, as seen through statements such as, “You should have a relationship with God instead of being religious”.  This, however, is a false dichotomy.

In the words of Father Claude Burns, who wrote and recited a poem addressing the issue of relationship vs. religion, “blaming religion for contradiction is like staring at death and blaming the hearse…those who choose to sit in the pews and refuse the good news is not the fault of religion”. Anywhere you go, you will find those who are blindly going through the motions without a true heart for Christ. While this is a severe problem in the Church that needs to be addressed, the answer is not to abandon the traditions Christ handed down to us; quite the opposite, we should cling tighter to them and strive to teach their meanings more diligently. Christ never condemns traditions in themselves, as many Protestants claim, but only the empty practice of them. True religion will enhance and deepen our ongoing relationship with God if practiced as He intended: with a full and focused heart. Similarly, the fruits produced from our relationship with God should stir in us a desire to be faithful to His commands and to the Church He built. “Religion” and “Relationship”, therefore, are not contradictory to each other, but rather they are beautifully intertwined and feed off one another.

As a former evangelical Protestant, this is something I had to slowly come to learn. Though confident as I was in my decision to become Catholic, realizing that it is the historical Church established by Jesus and commissioned by the apostles, I remained hesitant to become too devout in her Traditions and too dependent on the Sacraments. The Christian teachings of my upbringing imparted in me the belief that my relationship with God should be the foundation of my faith and becoming too religious would hinder that friendship. The Sacraments themselves showed me the faults in the latter part of that statement.

Indeed, my relationship with Christ is the center of my faith. The Sacraments have brought that relationship to a more intimate level by allowing me to experience God with all of my human senses. In the Holy Eucharist, I taste Christ. In Reconciliation, I hear Christ’s physical voice, spoken through one of his servants, say “I absolve you of your sins”. When the incense is used during mass, I smell the prayers of the faithful being lifted up to the Heavens. I feel and see Christ’s love daily through my Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. None of this is to say that my relationship with Christ was not deep or sincere as a Protestant; it certainly was alive and real and I was growing daily as a Christian. However, the religious rituals of Christ’s one Church have brought me to a new level of intimacy with Him, and this is because He physically dwells in the Sacraments.

Father Claude ends his poem with this final remark: “So as for religion, I love it. I have one because Jesus rose from the dead and won. I believe when Jesus said it is finished, His religion had just begun”. As someone who formerly claimed to hate religion, I now echo these thoughts. I am convicted that the Christ who came “not to abolish, but to fulfill” gets the greatest glory when His religion is practiced the way He intended: with hearts open and alert, striving to know Him more.

Fr. Pontifex Responds to Jefferson Bethkes Hate Religion, But Love Jesus

11 Replies to “The False Dichotomy of Religion versus Relationship with God”

  1. Great job, Tiffany! This concept, rallying against religion, still irks me greatly. It pains me to see people love Christ so fiercely, and meanwhile reject “Religion” as an enemy and thus jettison His Bride, the Church.

    The Church hierarchy is appalling to many American Christians as man-made tradition at its worst. Yet, it is in times like these, where the HHS mandate MUST be fought against, that we see the wisdom of organized religion. We’re organized like an army. Think about it… in the “non-religious” individualistic relationship with Christ Christianity, they’re like an amoeba in the face of evil. No one to physically take charge and rally forth. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, the epitome of organized religion, already knows that this is a battle to be fought, and how to begin fighting it. We already have a person, a bishop, in position to lead us into battle, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in particular. And our Bishops on down have instructed every lay Catholic in their diocese exactly how they should fight this mandate.

    These political times have made me so thankful to be a part of an organized religion. Our country is in need of a spiritual battle. Thankfully we have some Evangelical brethren who are indeed with us in opposing the HHS mandate on the grounds of abortion alone (fewer, of course are with us on the birth control stance as well).

    While I understand it is against all of their sensibilities to agree that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church could have been put in place by Christ himself in order to battle evil most effectively… I can’t help but see their lack of organization and wonder who’s design is that? Disorder isn’t from God.

    I wonder if a person’s view of evil has a bearing on their acceptance of hierarchy in the Church. Now, I know that our Evangelical brethren know evil exists, but the degree to which someone believes it prevails in our world and must be fought by the Christian Church makes me wonder if they are more or less accepting of organization in Christianity -> Religion.

  2. Excellent article !!

    Can I first thank you for writing a post that is NOT about children or marriage?! I am a new widow and my kids are grown/nearly grown and Im frustrated that 98% of Catholic ladies blogs are about nothing but children and marriage…those are big/important issues to us, but if women forget how to talk about anything but husbands and children, we risk isolating ourselves when each of us get to where I am (unexpectedly) now.

    I am also a convert from Evangelical Protestantism and you did a lovely job of explaining that mindset and who the dichotomy really IS false. I dont even think I can improve on it or add to it…thank you for putting this all down an a handy place to reference.

    1. I agree, Tammy. While I am not a widow, I am 60 and children are grown and gone. We do have twin grandsons, but I also like to read what women have to say, that doesn’t always have to be centered around marriage/kids. I too am a convert after being in Evangelical fray for some 30 years. Great and grateful to be back in the CC the past 10 years!

  3. Excellently put, Tiffany. It’s amazing you find time to do all that you do and get to sleep. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. Thank you all for encouragements and additional insights! 🙂 Adrienne, I completely agree that the issues our country has faced here recently have been best handled by the Church organized the way Christ set her up. Great analogy about the need for an organized army in (spiritual) battle.

    Tammy, I have found that I have little to write about in great length when it comes to marriage and motherhood, but geopolitics and theology is my favorite topic. I’m happy that you have been blessed by it! 🙂

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