The Real Meaning of Religion

It’s not a bad word.

Recently, I was in a leadership training class. We were directed to pick one thing that most influenced our interactions with the world around us. The choices were: age, income level, gender, education, etc. We weren’t given much time to think about our choice. I found myself walking toward the giant sign that said “religion.” A huddle of about twenty people stood right next to me. I was pleasantly surprised to see others had joined me in my choice….until the instructor walked towards me.

“Which group are you in?” he asked.

At that point I realized the religion category was situated very closely to the age-level category.

“Religion,” I answered. As the words left my mouth, the group next to me squeezed in together, away from me. Suddenly, I was unpopular. My choice was synonymous with constraining and negative connotations.

As the instructor walked around and commented on the different groups and their choices, he noted that I was all by myself.

“Why did you pick religion?” he asked.

Suddenly, I felt I had become a representative of a word that has become hugely misunderstood.

“I didn’t pick religion because of rigidness or rules. I picked it because of my values and my beliefs as a Christian. Putting God first is what I believe in and try to do.”

I picked it because who I am as an Orthodox Christian shapes everything around me. I am so far from the saintly examples that inspire me, but my faith inspires every journey I am on in my life. It’s where it all starts.

And yet, today–It’s detestable.

People want to believe they think for themselves. But they don’t stop their misguided assumptions until they’ve spouted off to millions one of the most popular lies of pop culture Christianity today: religion is evil, religion is what the Pharisees believed in, and religion takes us away from a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

People don’t even try to understand this word anymore. They don’t see how they have misused it and watered it down. They don’t see that the awesome and powerful ancient religion of our Christian faith was what made St. Luke the Evangelist write the icon of sweet kisses of the Mother of God holding Jesus Christ, what inspired Mother Theresa to sacrifice her life to give to the poor, and what brings people back to God without any words or persuasion…just by walking into the house of God, they are stricken by its holiness.

It makes sense that something so deep and meaningful and so historically unchanged as the Orthodox church would be attacked in the way that it has been. But it’s still shocking. How can it be that Christians rationalize away the faith that brought them their faith? How can they not see the way we adorn the tomb of Christ and mourn his crucifixion on Holy Friday, while making Easter, Christ’s resurrection, the most celebrated feast day of the year in the Orthodox church?

I can’t think of a more personal relationship with Christ than walking into his house on a weekly basis and seeing his heroes surrounding me, feeling the sacredness of the communion as it touches my lips and the gratitude of God’s amazing forgiveness. How powerful that I don’t have to wonder which interpretation of the Gospel I believe in, because it’s the same interpretation my brothers and sisters in the Orthodox church believe. There’s no guesswork. It was never changed.

There’s a reason why Harry Potter and the Twilight series are so popular, other than the fact that they are well written and have compelling plots. People are longing for ritual and sacredness, but they are repelled from the church. Instead, they follow pop culture beliefs, and religious influences are found in the pagan rather than the influence of the early church, the original Christian faith.

When people don’t understand religion, the easiest thing to do is to throw it all out. And that’s how the whole “Why I Hate Religiong But Love Jesus” trend was born.

Here’s the equation: dilution + ignorance + oversimplification + using judgmental people to represent the church = Religion is bad.

That’s why, when my daughter goes to school and kids see the cross around her neck and the icon of Christ on her binder, they say “Oh wow. You’re really religious.” It’s why people squirm when the word “religion” is uttered.

Religion haters have buried the treasure without knowing it. They’ve bought the lie and in so doing have missed out on so much: the blessed sacraments of the church that regularly cleanse and renew us, the feast days of the church, the stories of Christians who died for their faith, the whole beautiful, miraculous amazing package of the holy Orthodox Church.

All because one word is so misunderstood and misused.

When people say “I’m a Christian but I’m not a religious person,” I wonder…Who are you and what do you believe in?

Because Jesus came with the church, the saints, the hymns, the sacraments….everything that you find in the Orthodox faith. The two cannot be separated. If you try to separate them, you will still end up with a religion, only it won’t be the religion that Jesus taught us to follow. It will be something invented by humans, trying to re-invent the wheel that’s already been turning for thousands of years.

To understand what religion is, it’s important to first understand what it’s not. It’s not the Catholic nun that slapped your wrist in private school growing up. It’s not the person who shamed you and told you that you were going to hell. It’s not the yiayia or babushka that harshly judged you for not crossing yourself properly, or having a child out of wedlock. That is not religion. That is the sign of being human and fallen and prone to judging. It’s everywhere, not just in Orthodox churches. But sadly, religion is the target for the anger toward judgmental people, and rigid people obsessed with rituals.

So, the next time you hear someone make an ignorant statement or badmouth religion, ask them where their source has come from. It’s so easy to believe what everyone else says, but what if they found out for themselves what the Orthodox church really is? What if they knelt at the icon of Christ and confessed all the sins that had been weighing them down for years? What if they spoke the words of the Nicene creed every Sunday and learned what the church really believes in? What if they were taught about the trials and tribulations of the church and how it has miraculously endured until today? What if they lit a candle and allowed themselves to feel the healing power of prayer among the saints and angels invisibly surrounding them?

Maybe then they would see that religion isn’t what’s bad, it’s what human beings have misunderstood it to be.

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Christina Pessemier is a writer, blogger, and mom of two.…
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