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.