All too often people say that I’m spiritual, but not religious, trying to separate their relationship with God from “organized” religion.
I think this is a mistake and today’s lectionary readings help us understand why.
The word “religion” comes from the Latin word that means “bind.” Religion is meant to bind us to God in community with others.
In today’s Gospel (Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23), the religious leaders would bind people to customs and outward practices. But Jesus warns them, “The worship they offer me is worthless, for what they teach are only human rules.”
As Gustavo Gutiérrez explains in Sharing the Word Though the Liturgical Year (p. 214):
Defilement has nothing to do with not washing our hands. Instead, it comes from harming others, forgetting their needs and believing that we are clean.
…One way to water down the gospel is to transform it into a series of formal rules which need to be obeyed only externally.
So often I hear people arguing over rules and rubrics, missing the point that they are meant to help the people be a people who are “wise and intelligent,” as Moses notes in the first reading (Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-8).
But it is James (1: 27) who puts it most clearly:
Religion pure and undefiled is taking care of widows and orphans in their need and keeping oneself uncorrupted from the world.
A religion that just insists on rules might overlook the marginalized in their midst and fall into the trap of a religion that is far from the Word that became flesh and lived among us.
Such a religion lets itself be corrupted by the world of conformity to rules and selfishness.
Megan McKenna puts it nicely when she notes, in Breaking the Word, p. 163:
It is important to remember that when the word ‘world’ is used in the Scriptures, it primarily means the dominant political, nationalistic, economic and social structures that demand obedience to their rules and regulations to the detriment of what is right and just.
Religion that lets itself be formed by the worldly powers of greed, selfishness, exclusivity, and pride is not religion. It does not tie people to each other and to God but sets us up to consider ourselves as pure and despises others.
A spirituality that does not tie us to God and others is other-worldly and does not represent the loving God, Jesus, who lived among us as a flesh and blood human.
Give me both – spirituality and religion – but with integrity.