Saturday, February 25, 2017

There's religion, then there's religion

Some people use religion like a pot-head uses incense: it's about covering up the smell.

I recently had a relative of mine -- one who is still struggling with addiction -- suddenly become religious (apparently ... for a couple of weeks). That is to say, he developed some of the outward trappings of religion: he read the Bible a lot, and prayed a lot, and talked a lot about how much he was reading the Bible and praying. This is a person who had not shown much interest in religion over the years. And I still didn't see him showing much interest in religion, I just saw him spending a lot of time talking about how much he was reading the Bible and praying.

It's like the crowd we used to run with as teenagers: the stronger the smell of incense, the more I could be sure there wasn't anything wholesome going on. I think a lot of religion-haters have developed the same reaction to "religion" that I have to incense: in my experience it has been used as a cover-up, and so my first thought is that it's only there to hide the smell.

Reading the Bible and praying -- it's something that the religious people do, too. But thinking that's the whole of it ... It's like someone whose first experience with art was as a kindergartener with an 8-pack of jumbo crayons and a book of color-by-number line drawings. If that person, as an adult, still only had the 8-pack of crayons, we'd wonder about how much he was actually into art. Or if someone claimed hatred of art because it was all color-by-number, we might encourage her to get out more and see some of the more mature work of people who had kept with the discipline past elementary school. And yet even the mature artists' work might still use some of the same colors and shapes, and may have begun in the same kindergarten.

Sure, religion can in fact help hide the smell -- but mature religion doesn't stop there. Mature religion also goes to the cause of the stink. Mature religion does pray -- and seek the will of God -- and seek to become an instrument of his peace in this world. Mature religion does read the Bible -- and the words sink in, and begin to create in us a clean heart. The words take on flesh in us -- not as we talk about having read them, but as we begin to be the one who stops for the stranger, and knows the sorrows of our friends. True religion becomes less like my experience of incense, and more like a breath of fresh air.

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