Apologies in advance for the longish title, but it works. And apologies for the delay, but remember that I said I wasn’t going to put myself on a schedule.

Looking over the first part of this sequence again, I thought I’d just move right into the Jewishness of Jesus or something, but it’s apparent (to me, at least) that I need to make sure that we understand something more fundamental: Christianity is a religion. This is a tough concept for many to grasp. There is a popular bumper sticker that reads something to the effect of “Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a relationship.” I used to think this was cool. I now think it is, to put it mildly, ignorant.

I understand the sentiment. Christian theology, particularly evangelical protestant theology, emphasizes that not only is Jesus alive now, but that he also is readily available and interested in having a “personal relationship” with you, with me, and anyone who is interested. The idea is that Jesus isn’t interested in what we call “religion,” but in being our friend, our brother, our BFF or our “buddy.” After all, Jesus is, as the old hymn asserts, our “ever present help in trouble,” someone who, like our best friend, would run through a brick wall for us at any hour of the night. Who doesn’t want that? In a digital age, where so many of us now experience an unprecedented lonliness as a result of our addiction to online social media, the idea of an ever-present Jesus who is available to have a bona fide relationship with is simultaneously unbelievably attractive on the one hand and  completely incredible and incomprehensible on the other.

Fine. But evangelical Christianity misses out on an awful lot by limiting itself to only this appreciation of Jesus. Christianity may well have started out exclusively as an intense bond of relationships between Jesus and 12 hand-picked men and who knows how many other women and men. But the tradition that claims the name of “Christ” in his wake became very much what scholars understand as a “religion,” and it didn’t take very long either.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of “definitions” of religion, and all of them are somewhat incomplete, but I generally work with a descriptive definition that runs something like this:  A religion is “is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations” (props to Clifford Geertz) that orients us to whatever we understand as having ultimate significance for individual and communal lives through creeds, rites, symbols, memory, behaviors, beliefs, and other cultural elements of our lives. It may serve a deep psychological need, and it functions as a tie or bind that creates and sustains meaning and promote healing in our experiences in the world.

It doesn’t take much to pick out some examples from the Christian religious tradition that we could drop into each one of these elements in my description here, and in fact every different Christian denomination is likely to be different from another on certain “ingredients” here. Christianity has its system(s) of symbols, and those symbols are able to promote moods and motivations that orient us to “the ultimate” as Paul Tillich calls it, whether it is God or Jesus or Heaven or Bibles or whatever else our particular Christian system promotes as the ultimate concern. And certainly Christianity has, for millions, satisfied deep psychological needs of security, safety, healing, and the like.

It is important to keep the Christian faith located in this context, because there are treasures there waiting to be discovered that can renew our faith or revive our confidence in our tradition. In my opinion the latter is at a critical stage; confidence in Christianity strikes me as being shallow at best and virtually non-existent at worst. My hunch is that it is because we have bought into the idea that Christianity is a personal thing and not a religion, and when that personal element cools or disappears, there isn’t much left.