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  • Bradley Jersak, Andrew Klager, and Sean Davidson

True and False Religion (Part I): A Conversation with Brad Jersak, Andrew Klager, and Sean Davidson

This is the start of a series on true and false religion. The label “religion” or “religious” has undergone a semantic drift or sorts in recent years so that it has taken on a negative connotation to mean something closer to moralism or doing things to win God’s favour. Religion also has a positive or pure definition from James 1:27 “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” and of course refers to the many world religions. To kick off this series, the following is a conversation with Brad Jersak, Andrew Klager, and Sean Davidson on true and false religion.


BRAD — Via Bruxy Cavey (on Twitter): "Nowhere in the NT, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ, who is both God and man has broken down the wall between God and man. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion." —Alexander Schmemann

ANDREW – I'll weigh in by making three points:

1. I've found that many (not all) of the "religion is bad" folks view forms and structures as superfluous in the sense that they've transcended these now ... they're somehow "above" this sort of thing. As a specific example, these could be the "I don't need icons to pray" folks because I've transcended this. Well, I'm not good enough to say this. I need them. I could allow my ego to take me in this direction though, but I know I shouldn't. I need religion. The perception that I've transcended "religion" seems to betray an "I'm spiritual, not religious" mentality that they would probably reject if it came from someone else.

2. Folks like myself, Brian Zahnd, Derek Vreeland, et al. are worried about this "I'm spiritual, not religious" mentality and crowd, yet many who would self-identify as non-religious or oppose religion do operate within forms or structures that are alternatives to the "spiritual" crowd and are therefore "religious" by our definition. They just don't often acknowledge this structure ... but it's there, at least far more than with the "I'm spiritual, not religious" crowd. Is this "religion" meant to appease God, etc.? No, but it's a way of organizing themselves and giving meaning to their many gestures and forms — whether in worship, leadership and governance, teachings, practices, priorities, values, elevated texts, etc. — that give it a form and structure around Gospel principles, i.e., what I would call religion.

3. But probably my main problem is that the "religion is bad" folks seem to have labelled what they oppose as "religion" when those who practice what they reject don't call it "religion" themselves. So, if "religion" is doing things to appease God or some form of moralism, those who do this or subscribe to this don't themselves call this "religion." So, why do/should we? Yet, apropos pt. 2 above, this could be much like if I called Bruxy, et al. "religious" as a commendatory descriptor even though he also rejects this label. Should I do this? Would he agree with me if I did this? Is it then inaccurate? And if so, is the “religion is bad” folks’ use of the word "religion" inaccurate too?

A lot of confusion and a lot of talking passed each other, I've found. But it’s also difficult to organize it all in my own head.

BRAD – When I judge another as religious in the pejorative sense (religiosity), I am being religious in the pejorative sense (by self-righteous comparison). When I practice religion in the faith practice / worship expression sense, it behooves me to practice vigilant self-assessment lest I become religious in the pejorative sense. Christ warned us of the dangers of religion for show, identifying religious swagger as an ever present danger—so without pointing the finger at others, it serves me well to examine myself (as in St Ephraim’s Prayer) to ensure that my religious practice is not sliding into religiosity. I don’t do this by iconoclasm (ditching robes, candles, or icons) but by inviting the Spirit to search my heart for signs of pride. Even “I’m spiritual, not religious” is normally a prideful claim that seems to me rather religious. Oops … See me fall into a religious judgment right there. It’s insidious.

SEAN – If “religion” has more than one sense, why are we inclined to use it polemically/therapeutically as if it has only one sense? Doesn’t it add to the confusion to admit two senses while practically excluding one of them? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to distinguish good religion from bad religion?

BRAD – Yes, I do that already. Another way I do it is by purposely showing visible signs of religious faith practice even while editing for a ministry with an unfortunate name that I can’t change. It’s also why I specifically cite Orthodox hierarchs who decry religion: to show that when they use the pejorative sense, they are also reforming the pejorative use away from valid faith practices such as liturgy and ritual. By citing Archbishop Lazar, John Romanides, and Fr. Alexander Schmemann, I am acknowledging the real use of religion as a common negative term, but pushing back at how it’s being defined. It doesn’t help to deny that it is used primarily as a negative now, so it is worth speaking into better ways of using it negatively, rather than leaving it to the spiritualists and low church iconoclasts.

That said, because I lean to you, Klager, Brian Zahnd, and Ken Tanner on these things, my own normal practice as an editor is (1.) To post articles on Clarion Journal that use the positive sense (by those guys). That use (religion as undefiled justice and Christian faith practice) is dominant on that site. (2.) And on Christianity Without the Religion articles, to avoid using religion in the negative without specific qualifiers (e.g., Christless), following James’ implication that religion can be either pure or impure, Christ-centered or Christless. I’ve ensured that Greg Albrecht (president of Plain Truth Ministries that produces the Christianity Without the Religion magazine) posted a clear definition of how he uses it (performance-based religion) for the same reason. In other words, Clarion Journal uses it positively and Christianity Without the Religion uses it negatively but only with a qualifying adjective.

SEAN – Yes, I know you do it in your articles and elsewhere. Just wondering about our tendencies to reduce the meaning in our slogans, sound-bytes, sermon titles, etc.

ANDREW – I wonder about that too, though I also think that what Brad has written is good. That said, I think even entering the non-religious game runs the risk of getting caught in a circular pattern of religiosity (by Brad’s definition) that’s difficult to escape because it’s built right into statement “I’m not religious” that thrusts us into this game to begin with. The statement “I’m not religious” is too close to the prayer of the Pharisee, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like . . .” (Lk. 18:11) — especially since, as I noted above, those who we’re thankful that we’re not like don’t use this label for themselves or what they’re doing. We’ve given it to them, which seems too close to name-calling (applying a pejorative that they don’t apply to themselves) if we really think about it.

And I’ll add that while those who do the things we don’t like and who we call “religious” but that don’t call themselves religious, those who do the things we appreciate (acts of justice, forms and rhythms of worship, etc.) do call themselves religious. In other words, the “I’m not religious” folks apply the label to those who don’t apply it to themselves, but they don’t apply it (or they qualify it) to those who do apply it to themselves. This seems to add to the confusion but also seems to speak to Sean’s question above: Why should we use one word with two definitions and exclude or qualify one of these definitions? Those who call themselves religious should get the upper hand or benefit of the doubt above those who don’t call themselves “religious,” no?

That said, I still agree with the substance of what you and Bruxy say and write, which — if I can do that — seems to only add to the confusion. But maybe this confusion is instead only a necessary tension we need to keep struggling within, a paradox in which the answers lie in the parts that overlap and inexpressible blank spaces.


Brad Jersak is Instructor of Peace Theology at the Institute for Religion, Peace and Justice, of which Andrew Klager is the director. Sean Davidson is Assistant Curate at The Church of the Resurrection in Toronto's East End.

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