Anti-Tradition Tendencies in Protestantism: A Defense of ‘Being Religious’

It seems that people don’t like the concept of ‘being religious’.   There are all kinds of anti-tradition tendencies in protestantism, particularly low-church evangelicalism, which tends to reject Creeds and traditional religious rituals including hymn singing, liturgy, and observing the church calendar (lent, advent, epiphany, etc)  There are many books and movements about this anti-religious sentiment, including ‘How to be spiritual without being religious’, ‘Why I hate Religion but Love Jesus’,  and my favorite, a book I have at home called, ‘How to be a Bishop, without being religious’.  Jeff Bethke is evidently one of the more recent phenomena along these lines.  In a recent time article (3/5/12) he is quoted to say “Why I hate Religion, but Love Jesus”  His now-famous poem, which he has posted on youtube has drawn a lot of intention, including the New York Times and reformed pastors like Kevin DeYoung, who pointed out, “If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion.”

I’m interested to hear what others think, but I think that one reason that “being religious” gets a bad rap is that people think that being religious is following a practice by rote– in other words, not authentically engaging in the forms of practice, but just going through the motions without being personally engaged.  I’ve heard friends who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church or Lutheran Church talk about how they went through the motions as kids without ever having it explained to them what they were doing or why.

Rote means to do something by habit or memory, without full comprehension of what is being said or done.  But obviously this is not always a bad thing– it is, in fact, part of habituation, and can be for good or for ill, depending on the habit that is done by rote.  If you memorize scripture, as some young Jewish boys do, or as some young evangelical (Awana) kids do, you may repeat it by rote, but I think its hardly bad that you know it, even if by rote.  And suppose that someone develops a blind habit of eating healthy, avoiding french fries or jogging 5 miles in the morning before doing anything else.  Its hard to imagine anyone saying to them, “well, your jogging is so mindless!” or “you eat so healthy, sure, but do you even think about it?”– I think that certain habits can be considered good, even if they are not thought through consciously at every moment.

In the same way, we may develop habits, such as reading scripture each morning, or praying, or even memorizing liturgical prayers or communal hymns which we say, at times, without thinking consciously of what we are saying.  

But it is not clear to me that doing such things, even by rote, is necessarily a bad thing.  It is clear to me that doing such things is better than many other habits, such as eating 7500 calories a day ‘by rote’ or not exercising ever ‘by rote’ or gossipping, being jealous, or smoking ‘by rote’– i.e.– without thinking about what we are doing.  Better to have good thoughtless habits than bad ones.  I only wish I jogged 5 miles each morning by rote– without thinking about what I am doing. 

But being religious also has connotations, I think, of being the same over and over– which most people can find boring, because we always want something new.   But when we or the church coddle this desire for novelty, we nuture a superficiality which can accompany this pursuit of ‘always something new’.

Simple Free started on a simple premise– that we wanted to keep things simple, and anchor our practices and worship in the tradition of the church– so that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, spend hours each week deciding what to do and then rehearsing it like a performance, etc.  We have used the exact same service outline for the last 3.5 years, and we haven’t revised it.  We could, and we probably will at some point.  But the point is that we don’t need newness, novelty and different things each week to keep us engaged. 

We are creatures of habit, like it or not, and establishing and sticking to practices habitually and in a regular committed fashion can bring a great deal of satisfaction and encouragement. 

We don’t have to eschew the past in order to have an authentic spiritual experience.  There is no doubt that religious practices which are done thoughtlessly too long can bring about a certain deadness of spirituality, but at the same time, religous practices which are rooted in a longstanding religious tradition can bring to us a richness of spirituality, in what they lack in novelty.  There is a reason why some practices have stood the test of time, and turning back to some of the ancient religious practices of the Christian tradition can be a powerful source of spiritual renewal. 

May God have mercy on us all.


7 responses to “Anti-Tradition Tendencies in Protestantism: A Defense of ‘Being Religious’

  1. Thank you for thoughtful comments as usual Andy. That there were traditions and litanies in the early Church is not doubted by any credible scholar. Let me say this, however, we need Performance Indicators. By that I mean to say that continuing on with something that has no impact, brings no change, and does not uplift, is ridiculous. Rote can become a replacement for seeking relationship. Prayer for me includes some repetition and structure but I expect an encounter with the Lord every time. By that I mean, new ideas may come to mind while I am praying, or deep joy, or peace. I am not opposed to litanies or form in service and feel, as you do, that novelty itself is a replacement for intimacy with the Lord Jesus. Prayer is hard work and so is well digging. The deeper the well, the finer the water. I don’t care if a person uses litany; just use it to seek Him with all your heart!!!

  2. Angus,
    Thank you! I agree (and probably didn’t emphasize that enough) that rote can become a replacement for seeking relationship– that is absolutely true. Neither rote nor novelty without relationship is what we should aim for– rote can be something we turn to in our laziness, just like novelty can be.

    Thank you so much for taking time to read and respond. It means a lot! Miss you guys!! -andy

  3. Hi Andy – It’s funny for me that you just wrote this. I’ve been pondering this lately. Basically, something happened recently that gave me the impression that a group was mocking the sacraments, and I’m hoping to start a dialogue with them about it.
    I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum of “personal relationship vs. rituals” – as if they’re exclusive, and I use to be resolved that they were. I may have even been more of an extreme person because I saw anything like it as deterring people from believing in God, and so I was somewhat bitter at them. I’m thankful for what I’ve learned in recent years (in part from you! 🙂 I’m hoping I can show others (e.g., college-age folk) how to see the beauty of certain “rituals”, and being an added means of personal depth with God.

  4. simplefreechurch

    Thanks Jeremy! I hope your life in Minneapolis is going great! Hope is a great church!!

  5. Heather McDonald

    This discussion fits in perfectly with my thesis. I am writing on sacred space/sanctuary (and its importance) & ritual, emotional saliency & making-special come up a lot. Here’s something from my work:

    “Rituals help one see with fresh eyes and discover new ways of imagining and addressing reality. Rituals maintain the world’s sacredness by making things around us more precious, more worthy of our care and by enriching life (Moore, 1992). Rituals complement rational, scientific, and abstract ways of knowing with poetic, artistic and incarnate ways of knowing (Boys, 1984). Rituals build a bridge between the cognitive and the affective, the secular and the spiritual and the past and the present by passing on core values (Harris, 1992). Sacredness breaks into people’s lives through rituals and through a reliving of founding myths [and religion] of the culture, bringing holiness to the chaos of a profane, secular life (Arbuckle, 1987). Through its use in each stage of enculturation, ritual is a way that Religious Education can sow “ the dynamic seed of the Gospel [and foster] the harmonization of [student] culture …in the light of faith” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997, par. 73). Rituals, therefore, have a creative power and teach as they are experienced, devising new bonding axioms which reveal “who we are” (Huck, 1973, p. 5) and who we are called to be.”

    Been immersed in this a lot lately!

    Love you,

  6. simplefreechurch

    Heather– thats great stuff!! We have to talk about this more… Sure thinking of your move and praying it goes well!!

  7. Hello I’m new to these parts and would like to add my two cents but promise to keep it to a “simple” inciteful observation.

    When one chooses while in opposition/separatism to reject the ‘isness’ of Catholicism, one never does.

    In truth, any “catholic” nature found within Protestantism is merely a retention of what always was, that isness of Catholicism or Roman Catholicism which you may or may not prefer.

    BTW (Roman Catholic Church, Roman Church, RCC, etc… are not the official or correct/complete title for the entire Church Catholic however understand that some or most outside Catholicism and this includes Anglicans, Lutherans or other so-called high-church Protestants, use the title Roman Catholic to refer to this other entity for various reasons regardless of the inaccuracy. The official title on Church documents and throughout history has been simply The Catholic Church)

    When speaking of low-church evangelical Protestants, I have often noted try as they may to avoid tradition, history, formula of prayer (rote prayer) and,… “ritual”, they merely reinvent new versions without consciously acknowledging it to be so. Criminal to the “simple” mind yes. Lying to ourselves perhaps? Perhaps.

    Q. Does not the wedding ceremony or graduation or for that matter every Christian baptism contain ritual?

    I suggest to my Protestant brethren that “ritual” is not an evil practice, if it is, why than is it present at every highpoint in our lives? Nor is tradition an evil word and I mention the pains to which some editors take when producing their bible translations wherein the word “teaching” replaces tradition from the ancient tongue in verses where context supports it.

    Closing, whether one openly embraces or denies ritual, rote prayer or Christian tradition within worship, study and your holiness (spirituality) should not immediately suggest a person is not, “authentically engaging in the forms of practice”

    One can just as easily be, “going through the motions without being personally engaged” when NOT utilizing what you label as the “traditional religious ritual”. Yes people have been misled similar in fact to a used-car salesman selling you a lemon.

    We should all acknowledge the following to be true,
    1) The religion of Christians is Christianity
    2) those who practice Christian ritual have not eternally erred nor are they immediately lacking of, “personal relationship” with God.
    3) and here is the aah moment – we are called to be holy not spiritual. Our natural state now and in the world to come is not that of a spirit hence the false dichotomy of pitting religion against “spirituality” which should be transparent.

    sidenote: excuse the play on simple which I gleaned from your blog title and upon reading the About page I understand to be the taken name for your small community of believers.

    “you do not have eternal life” He said. Food for thought I think 😉

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