Christianity has certainly been turned into a religion — that is a path to get to God — with the attendant practices, moral demands, and institutional requirements. But, at its heart, it is something different, something more radical. So what do I mean by saying that Christianity is not a religion?
In this connection, I quote Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University and author of a book that grew out of his work in a prison ministry, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. I quote Beck not because the point is original to him. It was implicit in Martin Luther and explicit in Karl Barth. Fleming Rutledge, author of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, also stresses it. Beck makes it clearly, briefly and without jargon.
“Christianity isn’t a religion.
“All religions–from Buddhism to Hinduism to Judaism to Islam–have at their core a central conceit: That humans can make our way toward God. Or, if not toward God, then some form of enlightenment. In their essence, religions are pathways, routes we follow toward the divine. The farther we progress down the path–adhering to the Torah, obeying the Koran, walking the Noble Eightfold Path, or following the Dharma–the closer and closer we approach God or enlightenment.
“The same goes for non-theistic correlates of religion, all the paths and techniques of self-improvement and self-actualization. You work the program and improve.
“Christianity, by contrast, is the end of religion. Christianity provides no path toward God, no route to the divine, no ladder to climb toward the heavens. Christianity proclaims the exact opposite. There is nothing you can do, no step you can take. The gulf between you and God is unbridgeable. Between you and enlightenment there exists an abyss.
“Christianity isn’t a religion because it isn’t a path toward God, a spiritual regimen to follow. Oh, to be sure, people turn Christianity into a religion all the time, twisting it into a moral self-improvement project. But whenever Christianity is turned into a pathway, gives you a plan to get closer to God, it is no longer a proclamation of the gospel.
“Christianity isn’t a ladder to heaven you have to climb, a moral mountain you have to scale, an inner fathom you have to plumb. Christianity is history. An event. A report. News. Glad tidings. Christianity is a story, the story of God coming to us, the ungodly, while we were stuck, powerless, and helpless. While we were dysfunctional and wicked.
“Christianity isn’t a religion because, in the end, there is nothing you can do to get close to God. But here’s the news: God has already come close to you.”
Ash Wednesday and Lent’s beginning is a good day for this startling reminder. Often Lent gets turned into a kind of spiritual Olympics, a program for getting to God through giving up chocolate and other slightly more arduous spiritual disciplines. Matthew 6 emphasizes three classic practices: prayer, fasting and (alms-giving) care of the poor. All of these, to be clear, are good things. By all means, do them.
But not as your heroic efforts to get to God. Not in order that God will then love or approve of you. Do them as your response to the God who in Christ comes to us, even when we don’t have our act together, when our lives are a sorry mess. In Lent, we tell this story, this history, of the One who enters into the depths, at great cost, to find us and bring us home.
Growing up, I thought Christianity was really — boiled down — about being a good person. Actually it’s not about that. It’s about Jesus and a grace so radical it shatters every human distinction and pretense.