Given all the discussion about the word “religion” lately due to the irreligious and religious rappers out there on Youtube, I thought it would be a good idea to interrupt our regularly scheduled blog series “What’s The Word on Scripture” and talk about the word religion. This post is taken from the appendix of The End of Religion. Let’s jump in.
Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is the proclamation of the end of religion, not of a new religion, or even of the best of all religions. . . .If the cross is the sign of anything, it’s the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all of the world’s problems without requiring a single human being to do a single religious thing. What the cross is actually a sign of is the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems—that it never did work and it never will.
—Robert Farrar Capon
There are always some people who feel that unless you delve back into the ancient languages that the Bible was first written in, you can’t make a good case for something. Without that, they feel like the story is incomplete. So for those of you who like that stuff, I offer this.
The writers of the documents that we now call the New Testament wrote in first-century Greek—the most common written language for the known world at that time. They obviously wanted their message to be received by as many people as possible. There are two Greek words they used that we sometimes translate “religion” or “religious” in our English Bibles. Each one is used in a derogatory or a highly qualified sense. Deisidaimonia means literally “dread of demons” and is used to refer to pagan religion. It might be better translated superstition or superstitious and is certainly not intended to be a complimentary word.
Threskeia primarily refers to the ceremonial worship of a deity and can be used to identify any externalization of someone’s internal beliefs, whether positive or negative. Threskeia, then, refers to the outward trappings that may or may not be associated with any genuine faith. It is this word that James plays with in James 1:26-27, reframing it in terms of the love ethic of Jesus.
Jesus never calls people to threskeia religion (and certainly not deisidaimonia religion), but always emphasizes faith itself. The Greek word for “faith” is pistis in noun form and pisteuo in verb form, which is usually translated “believe” and sometimes “trust,” because we do not have a natural verb form of the word “faith” in English. How about our English word “religion”—where does that come from? The etymology of “religion” seems to have two Latin possibilities: relegere, meaning to read something over and over again; or religare, which is a combination of re (to return or to repeat) and ligare (to tie or to bind). Following this second option, religion can mean a returning to restraint; a fastening of the self to something that is considered important; a kind of anchoring or reconnecting. Positively understood, then, religion is “a reconnecting to something important.” Negatively understood, religion simply means “a return to bondage.”
I understand that some people use the word “religion” to refer to a healthy outward expression of their inner faith, and that is wonderful. For the most part, when I look around me today, including looking over my shoulder at thousands of years of religious history, what I most often see in the name of religion is a ritualized return to bondage. The concept of religion has been closely associated with the repetitious tying of oneself to inherited beliefs and behaviors, traditions and theologies. Too often this leaves people mindlessly committed to the institution or clan that stewards the traditions, rather than the God who surrounds each of us with his love.
Religion ties us down. Jesus came to set us free.
This post originally appeared on www.bruxy.com on January 30, 2012. It is posted with permission.
Bruxy Cavey is the Teaching Pastor of The Meeting House—a church for people who aren’t into church. (Get a laugh from their 18 sec welcome video.) This multi-site community in the Greater Toronto Area creates safe places for spiritual seekers to ask questions and develop thoughtful faith. Bruxy’s accessible style, historical rigor, and refreshing candor make him a popular guest on television and radio programs and at universities across Canada.
Come hear Bruxy speak on Friday May 11 at 7:30 pm at Lakeside Church on 7654 Conservation Road in Guelph. The session is FREE and open to the public.