The False Dichotomy of Religion or Relationship (Part 1)

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Yesterday, my fabulous co-blogger Ms Fabiola Garza published a post about the necessity of religion (as opposed to simply spirituality). To be a good Christian implies being religious. Take a moment to go read her post, if you haven’t already. Her post piqued my interest, because this is related to a topic which I come back to on occasion: the supposed dichotomy between religion, on the one hand, and having a “personal relationship” with Christ on the other.

I have a great many Protestant (especially, evangelical) friends, as I once moved as much or more in Protestant circles as in Catholic ones. I have therefore encountered this attitude fairly frequently within my own circle of friends (though I also know more than a few who also reject it). It is trendy today–especially amongst Evangelical Protestants, but also among Ca eventholics who take their cues from Protestants and/or the rest of the surrounding culture–to insist that a relationship with God must be individual only, a personal thing into which no one else may enter. Religion—with all the rituals, the doctrines, the morality, and (*gasp*) the dogmas—is seen as a hindrance to this kind of relationship.

This is a logical conclusion which begins with the premise that each person must decide for himself what he believes, which is itself but a step (if a mis-step) from Luther’s insistence on individual interpretation of the Scriptures. If I have the right to choose whatever I may believe, why make it hard for myself? And what is less hard than merely being “spiritual” or developing a relationship with a God Who does not ask for me to change?

This is also a trap for the proselytiser, who may be tempted to try and present the most palatable form of religion he can in the hopes of “winning” more converts. It is, after all, much easier to sell a Cosmic Comforter than to explain that while God Is infinitely loving and forgiving, He Is also the Judge Who may in the end find us guilty and unrepentant, and thus sentence us to the eternal death. There can be a bit of difficulty in explaining how God’s love extends so far as to allow us to reject Him. Would that the street-corner evangelizer could remember that we are not capable to converting anybody on our own: we can but be the instruments of the Holy Spirit in this task.

Neither simple “spirituality” nor the vague idea of developing a “personal relationship” with God*[1] ultimately places any tough demands on us. This is not to say that either of these things is bad, in the proper context. As Ms Garza puts it,

“Christians proclaim a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus gives us love and grace and we in turn respond in worship and in striving to live the life of love he has called us to. Christians are called to respond, to be religious. Even further than that we are called to be religious as a community.

My good priest friend put it this way: Things spiritual are gifts from God to us. Things religious are our response through community to the love of God.”

And this, I think, is the crux of the issue. God wants us to develop a personal relationship with Him, it is true. But that personal relationship must be in the context of a corporate relationship as well. The two go hand-in-hand, as Saint Paul puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians,

“For as the body is one, and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body, so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free; and in one Spirit we have all been made to drink. For the body also is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?

And if the ear should say, because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were the eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God hath set the members every one of them in the body as it hath pleased him. And if they all were one member, where would be the body? But now there are many members indeed, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not thy help; nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you. Yea, much more those that seem to be the more feeble members of the body, are more necessary. And such as we think to be the less honourable members of the body, about these we put more abundant honour; and those that are our uncomely parts, have more abundant comeliness. But our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, giving to that which wanted the more abundant honour, That there might be no schism in the body; but the members might be mutually careful one for another” (1 Corinthians 12:12-25).

In a mystical sense, we are collectively the body of Christ, each of us being one part of that body. This means that a personal relationship with Christ also requires a personal relationship with each other, and ultimately a corporate relationship with God. This should be no surprise to even those who prefer only a “red-letter” relationship, since it was Christ Himself Who tells us,

“Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Elsewhere, He also tells us, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 15:15).

All of which implies that there is a right way to have even a personal relationship with Christ. And since there can be no meaningful spiritualism without actual spirits, there must be a right way to engage in spiritualism.

I shall continue this discussion further in my next post, where I hope to address the role of doctrines and dogmas a bit more.


[1] Notice a qualification here: developing a “personal relationship” with God is far more demanding if we are trying to be serious about it. Relationships are never easy, and developing a good relationship with God can be difficult even when we do so on a merely individual level. I suppose that I should add here that as an extension, Luther’s “personal interpretation” of Scripture is also difficult, since it now places a large burden on each individual believer to interpret Scripture correctly. This burden is still present in the Catholic Church, but the difference is that we have the infallible teachings of the Church to help us. That is, however, the topic for another day.

[2] Image from the Church of the Holy Ghost

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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6 thoughts on “The False Dichotomy of Religion or Relationship (Part 1)”

  1. Avatar

    The problem with sola scriptura (or the five solas in general) is that their very teaching is a type of doctrine. Christians cannot observe this “parole evidence rule” that all things in religion must be judged by scriptural text verbatim, unless they adhere to a false doctrine that rejects the Church as 1) the human authors of Scripture, through the Spirit 2) the humans who decided what Scripture would be, through the Spirit 3) the humans who were there before the Scripture was written and decided upon, through the Spirit, 4) the same body which interpreted the Scripture for over 1000 years before Martin Luther came along, through the Spirit, and 5) the same body of Christ that continues today, through the Spirit, who dwells within it, as the Bible explicitly says.

    Yet intrinsically, the biggest problem is that the doctrine of sola scriptura is a circular logic that requires faith in an anachronism: which came first, Jesus and the Church, or the Bible in its current form? The only historically accurate answer is Jesus and the Church. Therefore, the Bible can only affirm the pre-existing faith of the Church; it cannot then form its foundation, or override that which is the living Word who dwells within the Church itself.

    And St. Paul says so in the infamous letter to Timothy so often quoted by sola scripturists: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” This line does not say “the Bible is the ultimate foundation of the Church and faith must be interpreted in the same way that the Pharisees used to interpret the law of Moses: verbatim, with legalistic adherence to the text.”

    And when this letter to Timothy was sent to the pre-existing Church, and when this letter precedes the Gospels of the evangelists, as well as the Council of Laodicea or Nicaea or any other, it only reveals that in fact, the Church needs the Bible, but is not founded upon the Bible, but rather She is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.” And from them the Bible was canonized only BECAUSE it was in line with the apostolic faith. Thus, the Scripture is only valid BECAUSE it was tradition first, and not the other way around.

    Thank you for putting up with my long comments.

    1. Avatar

      Wonderful comment Colin. Worthy a a separate blog post itself. I know I am writing this three years after you commented, but I hope you don’t mind a I quote you.

  2. Pingback: Religion, Relationship, and New Life - IgnitumToday : IgnitumToday

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