Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What does it mean to be religious?

In a recent opinion piece in the online CNN by Jay Parini, (a college professor, poet, novelist, and author of a biography of Jesus called “Jesus: the Human Face of God,”) Parini refutes a Gallup poll saying that Vermont is the least religious state in the union, with only 22% of the people there willing to call themselves “very religious.” (This is opposed to Mississippi where 61% of the people said they were “very religious.”)

In his piece Parini asks the question, “But what does it really mean to be ‘very religious’ and not just spiritual?” He says of himself, “. . . I've been keenly interested in the question of religion, having written a biography of Jesus and practiced Christianity as best I can for much of my life.” He talks about the contrast between traditional religion (churches and church services) in Vermont (struggling) and in Mississippi (every corner and radio station), and then warns about assuming an absence of religious trappings means an absence of spirituality (or vice versa, that religious trappings mean people are truly religious or closer to God).
He says, “Indeed, when I step into my local co-operative food store in Vermont, the bulletin board is crammed with listings for local meditation groups or yoga classes or panel discussions on ‘spirit and nature.’ The community spirit is strong in this state, and the value of helping one's neighbor is cherished here as much as anywhere. And these values include things like spending money on education, on good health care for all, and making sure that the land itself is responsibly used, with a keen awareness of environmental consequences. Indeed, Vermont was chosen the No. 1 greenest state in a recent poll.” 
Following that he shares how Mississippi, “ranks near the bottom in health care for low income people and environmental responsibility.”

Parini says that in his college classes his students are on a quest, asking questions about spirituality, and he leads them in discussions of the Psalms, ancient Taoist poems, Islamic writings, Christian poets, etc. Then, he adds something that is very bothersome to me from someone saying they try to “practice” Christianity and have written a biography on Jesus.
He says, “Jesus himself put forward the essential questions: What does it mean to live an ethical life? What is this mysterious thing called ‘spirit’ and how does it relate to questions about God? How do we live, as people of faith, in communion with each other as well as God? In so many ways, Jesus was the ultimate seeker, hungry for the deepest kinds of experience. He looked for, and found, astonishing answers, inviting us to follow him in our quest. . . . I would refer the good pollsters at Gallup back to the story of Jesus, who when asked by pesky Pharisees where the Kingdom of God could be found, said: ‘Don't say, look, it’s here or there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’”
This to me epitomizes (or at least strongly implies) the lies the devil has sown within our culture. That to be “spiritual” or “religious” equates to being OK with Jesus. He has portrayed Jesus as a seeker, hungry for deep experiences, looking for answers. And this man is a college teacher with enough influence to write an opinion piece for CNN. I am not sure what “practicing” Christianity means if we neglect the foundation of Christianity—a Savior, Jesus, who died for our sin so we might be reconciled to God through Him. And, the Kingdom of God is the King's domain. It is where God rules. If you haven't surrendered your life to Jesus the Kingdom of God is not yours. Colossians 1:13 makes it clear that those who've received Jesus' salvation are those who are in the Kingdom when it says, "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

This is scary, and it is a path of deception that leads people to the pit. Jesus was not a seeker, and being spiritual doesn’t make us OK with Him. Ask the questions, but if they don’t end at Jesus—and not Parini’s Jesus, but the Jesus of the Bible who says He is the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through Him—then they may have fooled you or a loved one into a place of thinking that being spiritual is being reconciled with God. You can die “spiritual” and be eternally separated from God.

Jesus didn’t come seeking answers, He came bringing answers—and His are the only right ones. God says of Jesus, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:3) Then, 2 Peter 1:3 tells us of Christ, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” Colossians 1:15–17 makes the incredible statement about Jesus, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Sounds like He has the answers.

John writes of Jesus in John 1:1–3, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” And, Jesus doesn’t say that when the Holy Spirit comes to us He will be along side us looking for answers as well, but rather that He will, “. . . guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)

This is a very different Jesus than it sounds like Parini is portraying (at least in his opinion piece). It is the Jesus who is the beginning and the end, who is God and the only way to the Father, and who is coming back to execute the Father’s judgment. The Bible makes it clear that you are either saved by Jesus blood, or you aren’t, and there is no inbetween. All the “religion” in the world won’t save you or reconcile you to God. Only Jesus will. Being “spiritual” doesn’t cut it. And, Christianity isn’t a moral or ethical code to “practice,” on par with other religions or “green” lifestyles—it is God living in you, by faith in Jesus as your Lord for your salvation, living His life through your surrendered life.

My fear is that we have become a culture that has substituted things about God and religion for God. We are immersed in “spirituality” in whatever form we “feel” is OK, and being “spiritual” or “religious” we feel safe. We admire ourselves as “seekers” instead of humble ourselves as sinners. We pride ourself on our open-mindedness, when in fact Jesus was very close-minded saying that it is His way or no way. We worship the creation instead of the Creator, and we think a “good life” makes us Godly. These are dangerous lies, but they make us feel so good about ourselves and help us avoid confronting a surrender to the holy God of the universe who sent His Son to die.

Jesus is the way. And the Bible reveals the real Jesus. We need Him, not another biography about Him. He already revealed Himself and the whole Bible reveals Him. The title of Parini's piece is "Why Vermont is not Godless." We need to understand, being "spiritual" is not being Godly. If they don't have Jesus they are Godless. And that applies to all of us, whoever we are and whatever state we are in.

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