the beauty of weak religion

lambs on New Zealand coast

Weak religion is a beautiful thing as long as, in spite of its imperfections, it resists the temptation to become hardened into bad religion. By “weak religion” I mean religious cultures that are necessarily flawed and imperfect, but flexible and alive. They will all slip occasionally into being “bad religions” for a time when they begin hurting people and making the possibility of love and justice more difficult, but a weak yet healthy religion owns its weakness, awakens to the living Spirit, and makes continual course corrections.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, these course corrections have been huge, such as when the prophets pointed out the problems in the Jewish sacrificial system, when Jesus taught about forgiveness, true Sabbath and love of enemies, and when the early Christian church embraced the Gentiles. Central themes of trust, justice and love always seem to be at the forefront of these course corrections.

The worst thing in the world would be a strong religion – a religion that has become brittle and rigid. If God could have perfectly delivered a flawless book of timeless truths that required no interpretation (as it could only in fantasy), it would have killed the spirits of us all. We would have no participation in it – just a submission to its crushing finality.

We need religion to be accepted as a weak and flawed enterprise – a dance of individuals and communities trying to make sense of their interactions with each other, with their natural environment and with that Something More – the Mystery that we experience but can’t grasp. Beautiful, weak religion is a journey, a chase, a longing for the unimaginable that we only glimpse, yet somehow we are transformed – even “known.”lambs on New Zealand coastThe Bible, in my opinion, is a depiction of precisely such a journey – full of the weakness and transformation of religion over time. Institutions and those in power, however, tend to be troubled by this weakness and the resulting inability to control people, and so they pretend that a religious culture is much stronger than it is or possibly can be. Two common mistakes, in my opinion, result from pretending that written records are “inerrant” so that they can be wielded like a club or from using practices like communion and membership to control those who are included and condemn those who are not – not based on the desires of those seeking life but by the self-protective rules of those in power. And so weak religion becomes bad religion, rigidly blind to the ways in which it is stuck harming people, and religion itself gets a bad name.

Fortunately, we continue to see “through a mirror dimly” – called to follow a tantalizing invitation to love each other along an always-surprising path of discovery. God remains beyond the realm of our senses, beyond definition, which is where we need God to remain if we are not to be overwhelmed. Remember, even when Jesus walked in Palestine, his revelations tended to baffle more than make clear, and he needed to teach in soul-stretching parables.

So let’s embrace our faith communities of all kinds, full of errors and weakness, yet often full of beauty and hope and love. And let’s avoid the mistake of ever assuming or pretending that our religion was some flawless, lifeless “perfection” that could only succeed in crushing our longings forever.

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