I read a lot about religion, and over time I’ve accrued a series of phrases and buzzwords that I immediately mark as red flags. It’s not that these phrases are particularly aggressive or heretical, but when I hear or read someone using them, I can almost guarantee that I’m not going to take the person as a source of wisdom or authority. For me, the phrases are too assumptive or too simplistic to belong in deep conversations about Christianity.
1. “the Bible clearly says/ just read the Bible” This is probably the one I encounter the most, so much so that the single word “clearly” all but guarantees I’m going to stop you right there. The Bible is a complex anthology of sacred texts (of differing canons) written by different groups in different places and different languages over centuries. It takes education and contextual understanding to make sense of parts of it. If it was so clear, there would not be the thousands of contrasting interpretations. “Just reading the Bible” does not always provide clarity. Sometimes it provides comfort, sometimes it provides information, and sometimes it strikes you with a piercing Truth, but it does not give simple statements of single interpretation.
2. “it’s not a religion; it’s a relationship” I’ve written about this one before. If religion means legalism and relationship mean mysticism, then maybe, but instead of redefining words, I think it better to understand that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Religion is a good thing: dogma and creeds and liturgy and sacraments and tradition are all good things. What good is a relationship with no definition, no structure, no boundaries? And what good are those dogmas and creeds and liturgies and sacraments and traditions without sincerity, trust, and love? To say that religion needs a relational aspect is fair. To say that Christianity isn’t a religion is absurd. The phrase “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship” itself is a creed. To think that Jesus is worthy of worship is a doctrine. To have an hour of praise music followed by an hour of sermon and an altar call is liturgy. Religion is not a dirty word or a dirty practice.
3. “reconcile faith and science” This is another false dichotomy that even those who agree with me fall into. I don’t need to reconcile faith and science because they were never apart/opposed. Yes, I know about hyperliteralism, and I can tell you why I think it’s bad theology, bad historical criticism, and bad science, but I refuse to let a fundamentalist view that only arose in the late nineteenth century dictate the philosophy of my faith. Natural philosophy (science) can only be applied to the material. Other philosophies, such as ethics, apply to other aspects; existence is not limited to the science lab. And there is a vast overlap in the study of creation of the study of the relationship between creation and creator. Substance, cause, and nature are relevant to both theology and physical science. To separate the faith from the study of physical world denies how much matter, well, matters in religion (creation, incarnation, resurrection, new earth, sacraments, etc). To imply that they need reconciliation implies that they could ever be equal terms that oppose one another.
4. “neither adding nor taking away” This is more of the reductivism of “the Bible clearly says” that implies the terms of faith are clear and obvious to wants to understand. This phrase also makes the Bible the first, last, and only word on Christianity, ignoring oral and historical tradition. It’s often used to show distain for holidays like Christmas, beliefs like purgatory, or pretty much any part of liturgy. Interesting, the phrase itself comes from the commands in Deuteronomy. Christians and Jews have added a lot to their faith since the time of Moses; Christians much, much more so. Further, the phrase is often used by people with only 66 books in their canon and who do not follow the 613 commandments to the Jews, meaning they have both added and taken away.
5. “uninterrupted tradition” This is almost a response to the “neither adding nor taking away crowd” and usually comes from the Catholic and Orthodox side. Yes, we rely on Church tradition and we can trace doctrines to the Bible and Church Fathers. But while we like to pretend we’ve been consistent for 20 centuries, the truth is that religion develops and changes over time and through cultures. I believe the basics are still there (such as the creeds), but if a 3rd century Roman walked into a 21st century Latin mass, I don’t think they would immediately be on board. Tradition, just like the Bible, is important, but neither is static.
6. “going back to the early church” Maybe my problem with this phrase is more about the entire Restoration movement. But this phrase expresses several presumptions: 1. Christianity has moved significantly away from its origins in a negative way, and 2. a group has determined what the early church really intended, and 3. it is preferable to change back. Each of those need to be addressed fully before even having a conversation about going back to the early Church (however that is determined). Again, there is the idea that religion should be static. There is also the emphasis of stripping away centuries of scholarship and tradition. There should be a relationship and a continuation between the early Church and the modern Church, but there is no “going back.” You can’t undo the past.
7. “simple Christianity” Much like “clear” scripture, this assumes that the basics are all that count and that they are easily identifiable. I don’t think Christianity is simple. The disciples, who lived and talked with Jesus for three years, sure seemed confused a lot. The faith is complex in two ways. The first is that if you devote your life to actually loving God and loving your neighbor, life is full of sacrifice and hard work. It is difficult to stand up for the poor and marginalized and to risk your own security in order to build the kingdom. There is nothing simple in Christian charity. Sinning is easy; loving your enemies is not. Secondly, the religion is complex philosophy. There are questions and claims about who we are and why the universe is here and how we fit into a larger existence. There is the interaction of the Creator and his creation in tangible, forceful, mystical ways. If you think Christianity provides all the answers, then you aren’t asking the right questions. Some questions aren’t meant to be given simple answers. Rather, they are meant to be wrestled over, struggled through, lived with. And I guess that’s the biggest problem with religious conversations scattered with buzzwords and phrases: they ignore the real and necessary complexity of the faith.