Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
One of the greatest challenges facing the Christian church today is the tendency to mistake religion for faith. The eminent Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras writes: “The greatest problem of Christianity – and of Orthodoxy also – is that they have ‘religionized’ Christianity and have turned the Church into a religion. In this way, they cultivated fundamentalisms, hatreds, divisions, a magical perception and relationship with God, also a competitive disposition of one towards another, and a self-centered view of life.”
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos echoes Yannaras’ sentiments when he tells us: “Christianity appeared in the history of mankind as the end of religion and the creation of the experience of the Church….Christ abolished the illness of religion.”
How are these two notions – religion and faith – different? Religion implies the external elements of belief in God—rites, rituals, cultural customs, church laws, physical structures, and a sense of “membership.” We say we “belong” to a particular church. Religion is often identified with an institution or a variety of theologies, many of which are designed, especially in the West, to speak to reason and logic.
On the other hand, faith, in Christian terms, is a relationship with God, an unseen, ongoing encounter with God in Christ. It requires surrender and humility and personal behavior reflecting that surrender. It is above all, interior – nurtured by prayer, a matter of heart and soul – not logic. It is recognizing the numinous, the “unseen in the seen of our life.” It gives rise not to an institution but to a spiritual fellowship (koinonia) which draws its origin from God and its strength from that inner ongoing relationship with Him.
While religion and faith are interrelated, faith always precedes religion. No matter how weak it may be, it is faith that defines us, not its external definitions and forms. After all, the primary purpose of Church is the healing and cure of our souls – not the mere preservation or expansion of an institution. Yet it can be the institutional model of church that can actually drive people out of the pews – if a vibrant, enthusiastic, depth of faith involvement is missing. As the Orthodox priest and author, Fr. Stephen Freeman notes, “organized religion can often be the curse of spiritual living.”
How do we personally avoid this?
1) Put faith first. We need to get our own spiritual house in order. We may relate to God/Christ more in terms of a religion than in an ongoing, interior relationship. Church for us may be something we go to rather than a mystery we live. We may just go out of habit or for cultural reasons, or off and on – oblivious to the fact that a love relationship with God requires commitment, constancy, and faithfulness. Our prayer life may be “hit and run” rather than a daily time not only to speak to God but to listen for His voice in stillness. These things speak to the interior nature of our faith, not just its external expressions. This is the bedrock of Christian Orthodox identity: faith as a deep spiritual encounter.
2) Use the tools. Our faith is mediated to us precisely in and through the Church, the koinonia. While not perfect, everything we need for our personal spiritual growth comes to us from that fellowship of faith. That is why Jesus’ coming, as Metropolitan Hierotheos writes: “abolished the illness of religion and created the Church.” How do I regard and relate to the Church? Do I come to Divine Liturgy to participate in it or simply to watch it? Am I regularly late or do I leave early? Do I receive Communion? When is the last time I went to Confession? Do I make an effort to actively learn about my faith through Bible Study or Adult Religious Education, or personal spiritual reading? Do I have a sense of responsibility and connectedness to my fellow believers? These “holy tools” can keep us focused on the interior life of our heart and souls – not simply on the busy nature and frenzy of typical church activities.
3) Recommit yourself to God in Christ. With the above questions and others, bring your faith to life again. Re-dedicate your life to Christ – every day. Experience the fire that came upon those first Christians at Pentecost and inspired them to share their experience of Jesus with the rest of the world. They had no Church building, no developed and written theology, no external structures, a minimal organizational arrangement, no committees or elaborate liturgy – all they had were the stories about and the experience of Jesus, the Christ of God. That was enough to set them on “fire” and compel them to bring that wondrous faith to the then-known world. I pray that the power of the Holy Spirit set ablaze that fire in your hearts! Remember, please pray for me.
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