Yesterday, I talked about John Lennon’s classic ballad Imagine, and how it bears a strong resemblance to the last few chapters of Revelation. But I deliberately avoided spending time on my favorite part of the visions of John of Patmos and John of Liverpool, because I think this topic deserves a post all its own:
No religion, too.
As we noted yesterday, the second verse of Imagine dreams about a world where there’s ‘nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too’. And Revelation 21:22 notes that after the Restoration, there won’t be a temple in the city, because God is the temple, and Revelation 21:3 says God’s dwelling place will be among the people.
The absence of religion in Imagine is because, according to the song (inferred by me), we’ve finally figured out that faith too often gets in the way of peace and progress, and therefore does more harm than good – so we’ve unshackled ourselves from it.
The absence of religion in Revelation is because we don’t need a system of rituals in order to speak to a God who literally lives with us. Religion hasn’t been discarded in Revelation, it’s been fulfilled.
But I think the fact that both visions point to a religionless world is noteworthy and the concept is worth pondering.
Christianity often tends to function as if its reason for existence is to perpetuate and promote the religion known as Christianity. But it’s important to remind ourselves that when Jesus’ plan for the church comes to fruition, religion (including Christianity) will be obsolete.
As Alabama worship music juggernaut Big Daddy Weave puts it, ‘There’s a place where religion finally dies’.
Therefore, pastors – like fire marshals and social workers – ultimately exist to work themselves out of a job, the book of Revelation seems to say. This clumsy, flawed, ambiguous and inconsistent man-made thing we call Christianity is necessary for now, but it’s apparently only a temporary means to an end.
I find that to be very helpful news. It gives us a prize to keep our eyes on during all the messy, confusing and frustrating religious machinations of this life.
But I think this ‘no religion too’ idea offers more than comfort about where we’re headed. I think it’s also an invitation into what life with Christ can be like, right where we are now.
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A couple years ago, a non-Christian friend of mine attended the baptism of one of his nephews, and was quite startled that the music team chose to play the R.E.M. song Losing My Religion during the service.
My friend though it was wholly out of place. Disrespectful, even.
Baptism is the ‘Thank you, Sir. May I have another?’ initiation into religion, and to my friend, the band seemed to be jumping straight to the kid’s teenage years, when he’d stop drinking the Jesus Kool-Aid and drift into a vague, non-spiritual, secular existence like the rest of his generation.
I tried to tell my friend that this was actually a very apropos selection (at least the title; I don’t claim to be an expert on the song’s lyrics), because baptism is really about joining a family; entering into a relationship, not a religion.
I don’t think my argument made much of an impression on him, but the conversation sure stuck with me.
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Similarly, a few years ago, there was a Christian contestant on the CBS reality show Survivor, and in the first or second episode, her teammates targeted her for elimination – because she was a Christian and that’s, ‘like, weird or something.’ (I’m paraphrasing, but just barely.)
She caught wind of the plot to vote her off, and she pleaded to save herself, saying, ‘I’m not a religious person. I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ!’
And as self-contradictory as it seemed to unbelievers’ ears at the time, her statement is quite legit, in the same way that Greg Kinnear’s character in the 1997 film As Good As it Gets wasn’t spouting nonsense when he defended nude portraiture with the line, ‘She’s not naked – it’s art!’
The Survivor contestant was indeed cast away that episode, but her pseudo-non-sequitur statement about religion and relationship stuck with me.
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Mostly because I’m right there with her.
I lead a music worship team in my church nearly every Sunday. I write a Christian blog a couple times a month. I have a Twitter handle devoted exclusively to my faith. I volunteer in Christian retreat weekends once or twice a year. I pray in the car more than I listen to music. And I’m seriously considering a run at the priesthood.
But I don’t see myself as a religious person at all.
When I think of ‘religion’, I think of lifeless, empty and contrived rituals that do little or nothing to bring participants closer to the Divine. But for me, the highly structured liturgy of the Anglican Church is full of meaning and purpose – and every moment of it has the potential to help bring participants into the presence of God and shine light on His plan for us. It’s most certainly human-made, but I’m convinced God chooses to honor what we’ve created in His name, and engage with us through these services (and elsewhere).
Now, I suppose that none of what I just said removes the worship services I participate in and help lead from the category of ‘religion’, but it doesn’t feel like religion to me – and therefore I don’t feel like a religious person.
Religious people are preachy and bossy and holier-than-thou. They frown a lot and dress uncomfortably. They’d rather bore you with Bible verses than have a real conversation about what matters to you. They try to win you for Christ by telling you you’ll go to hell unless you choose to be as miserable as they are.
Religion seems more like a prison than a palace.
But for me, faith is the opposite of a prison. I enjoy life more than before I became a follower of Jesus. I have more friends than before, and our relationships are rooted in much deeper soil than mere common interest or the fickle whims of whether we enjoy each other’s company or not.
I’m more analytical and I’m kinder. I laugh more and I play more. I like myself more, and I like other people more.
And believe it or not, I’m less preachy now. I used to try to convert people to my views about politics, economics, etiquette, career choices, music, movies, TV, history, dogs vs. cats, taxonomic nomenclature and laundry soap. Nowadays, I have more important things to focus on, and I try (not always successfully) to let my actions and my lifestyle do most of the preaching for me.
And back to that prison vs. palace thing, I never feel more free than when I’m worshiping and praying.
Free from the after-I-die punishment I deserve because of my sins, as Christian doctrine suggests. But more relevant to the here and now, I feel free from the need to have all the answers – about anything. It’s not up to me to decide what’s fair, what’s just or even what’s true, because I’m not the ultimate authority of my universe.
And that is a real relief.
On a related note, I also feel free from the very dreary notion that my life is just about me, and that my impact on and relationship with the universe amounts to nothing more than memos and spreadsheets, lawn mowers and dog poop and what’s in my garage and what’s in my pantry.
If humanity’s raison d’être is nothing more than to perpetuate and promote the species known as humanity, that feels just as bleak and pointless to me as a religion with the same aim.
Life without religion is freedom, without a doubt. But life with faith is freedom with purpose.
Peace be with you.