Unafraid of Religion
A Poem by Mike Garner
God of all people
Will you speak beyond the cloud?
Humanity’s wilderness journey
Living without hearing
The ultimate pedagogy
Love others as yourself
Can we search together?
Religion begins with the search for God. According to James (the Lord’s brother), religion is an awareness that God is watching to see how we will live in a world of injustice where evil exists alongside goodness. That God is watching is made clear by James, because religion is to be practiced ‘before God’.
If any think they are religious,
and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts,
their religion is worthless.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their distress,
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The purpose of religion is, for most people, overlooked. The purpose of religion is to change the practitioner or believer into a person of self-control, peace, and love; into one who actively pursues the healing of the world through suffering-love. Anything else is inconsistent with the purpose of religion; it is an aberration. Learning to love, to be spiritual, is the heart of religious pursuit. Believing that God is watching and is pleased by this activity is good religion.
The perennial questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ must necessarily be followed up with ‘How can I control my desire?’ and ‘Is life about compliance with religious authority or about learning to love?’ According to James, serving the weak and defenseless, those whose lives have been touched by death, is religious practice. It is notable that James ignores all symbol and ceremony in his brief and rich statement on religion. For this reason, religion must first be inward, giving birth to a will that is at odds with the world.
The search for God is part of human experience. The gospel of John’s statement on the identity of God is universally above any other idea; God is love. John’s statement rests upon the foundation of monotheism in which God is ‘one’, a living Spirit (Deuteronomy 6:4). Luke recorded Paul’s sermon to the Athenians and accredited the search for God by various people groups as God’s purpose in the development of humanity (Acts 17:22-31). The search for God is to be honored when it is functioning within the constraints of good religion.
Christianity is based upon the concept of revelation. The consummate revelation of God is Jesus Christ; the word made flesh, the apex of God’s self-revelation to humanity. The incarnation of God is not merely an idea brought about by natural progressive thinking about deity. The incarnation is a revelation confirmed in the resurrection of Jesus and in the present through the faith experience of Christians who live out the purpose of religion.
Religion is an individual inward pursuit for the divine. Because the inward need to understand reality and hope for, or have faith in, a living God is universal, religion is a social reality subject to the incorporation of aesthetics and ethics. Further the institutionalizing of religion requires religious authority, signs, symbols and ceremonies to guide others toward James’ concise statement of pure and undefiled practice. The goal of religion is spiritually mature human beings who express the divine as exemplars of the respective faith who live independent from the pedagogy of signs, symbols, ceremony and the basics of their faith.
The Religious Teacher
Religion is such an odd reality in relation to the thoughts and practices of human beings. Multitudes of people claim to know God and use religion in ways that cannot be reconciled with the purpose of religion. I am fond of saying, “Any religion that promotes violence is not worth the paper its scripture is written on”. It is amazing how many persons claiming Christianity ignore their own ‘religion’ and think I’m talking about ‘other’ religions.
Because of the way most Christians read the bible they are unable to receive the nonviolent instruction in the violent stories of the OT. Stories of violence in the name of God are immediately suspect and subject to critique. These stories reflect more about humanity than they do God. The state and religious institutions always co-opt the name of God for their own purposes; this is so with every religion. The deification of the state and religious authority is a common form of idolatry. This idolatrous abuse is so common that it is recorded in the Decalogue under the prohibition for assigning the name of God to the vanity of human affairs.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
James provides some advice that all religious people need to heed. First is control your speech (1:26) and second is to avoid presumptuous knowledge that would lead a novice to thinking they are prepared to teach (3:1). The basic instruction of religious thought for mass consumption is essential pedagogy. However, a person who does not get beyond the mass presentation of religious thought is easily puffed up with limited knowledge and tends toward absolutist readings of scripture.
The religious teacher’s life is unlike the life of others simply because they are responsible for their pedagogy, to move those they teach to ‘pure and undefiled’ religion. A religious teacher is a person who, like the prophets, has lived a life before God in which God has looked over their formation and guided their life. A teacher of religion has paid a price for their status as teacher; this is so for any religion. A teacher will be a voracious reader, is driven toward theological thought in all matters and will be moved to write for the sake of others.
The writings of a religious teacher is not simple advice for feeling good about one’s self, they are not aesthetic works on achieving success. Rather, the writing of a religious teacher is an effort to bring God into the world through the application of theology to all of life. Writing is an expression of wisdom in every religion. Wisdom (beyond pedagogy) always wrestles with the responsibility of humanity before God and the absence of God in the world. These two, human responsibility and God’s absence, are the playground of a good religious writer. Good religious writing that is consistent with the ‘search for God’ always meets real world issues with spiritual insight.
 I am working with the concept that the search for God is that our ‘knowing in part’ is a constant to be met with spiritual growth and articulate maturation as we move closer to God. In this sense, the response ‘I’ve found God I don’t need to search’ is naïve.
 See: Mike Garner, Theological Adventures