Growing up Christian fundamentalist, I often said religion was a man-made set of rules. I didn't believe in religion, I said. I believed in a relationship with God.
But this was a false dichotomy. Attempting to sunder Christian relationship from Christian religion leads to a sort of spiritual nihilism: a belief that any established Christian traditions are abstractly contrived, that traditional, ancient forms of Christian worship do not have intrinsic value.
This was what frustrated me about modern Protestantism. I spent six years wandering through Protestant churches before coming home to Catholicism. What I found during those six years was a sundering and splintering that had gone on so long, heresy was mainstream.
It no longer mattered what you believed about Christianity so long as it was true to you. Experience trumped everything. There was no need for creeds, fasts, holy days of obligation. It was your relationship, you decide what's relevant to you. Except not really. Because it had already been decided that the Eucharist, Mary and the creeds were totally irrelevant.
Which is to say, it wasn't until our family began attending a traditional Presbyterian church that I heard the Nicene Creed for the first time ever.
As a small example of how far splintered Protestantism is, I recently met a pastor in a coffee shop who had left his church to start a new church (his former church was also a split-off from another church). This pastor told me he centered his services around... improvisational comedy skits. No worship. No communion. Just comedy skits. Which I gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "bring in the clowns."
To my mind, this is not healthy reproduction where a good tree bears much fruit. This is bad reproduction, the kind that happens when you make xerox copies from a bad copy--all subsequent versions becoming more grainy, less true reflections of the original.
In the 70's and 80's it was all the rage to leave mainline denominations and reinvent the Christian wheel. The odd irony is that non-denominational churches have become their own denominations with the same kind of triumphal, stifling pride they accused traditional denominations of having. It doesn't surprise me that the meanest and most hateful emails I've ever received are from devotees of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.
I now believe it's a staggering act of hubris to reinvent the wheel of Christianity and even toss out words like "religion." We've reinvented the wheel so much it hardly even resembles a wheel anymore. Hello, comedy skits as church.
The thing is, I'm also guilty of reinventing my own Catholicism. I am not a very consistent, good Catholic. I take the birth control pill. I don't get to Sunday Mass as much as I should. I am horrible at fasting and am easily annoyed by purist Catholics who make Catholicism inaccessible to outsiders.
Still, I revere the constraints of Catholicism. It gives me the structure within which to work out my salvation and my relationship with God.
In a lot of ways I'm like a pinball shot out of the spring-loaded chamber. I am wildly inconsistent. The vagaries of my human nature often get the best of me. But the lanes and channels of the pinball machine keep me in line. Which is to say, it's far better for my soul that I am wildly inconsistent within the "man-made" lanes of Catholicism than out on my own, trying to reinvent ways of relating to God.
For me, the word "religion" has been redeemed. The great gifts of Catholicism are the lanes and channels by which I develop my relationship with God. Catholicism is a very human religion, meaning: Catholicism aids my humanity by giving me touch, sight, taste, smell, feeling. Catholicism doesn't ask me to be a disembodied spirit. It stoops to my humanity. I've become far more human inside Catholicism than in all my years outside it.
Yes, there are obligations in this religion just like there are obligations in relationship. Despite widespread claims, I've discovered that religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive.
Even the most authentic, genuine relationship will suffer if it is neglected. A relationship is a living thing and cannot go without attention, love and....obligation. True love is sacrifice. Jesus said, "greater love has no one more than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." (St. John 15:13)
Entering the Catholic Church was a painful, difficult sacrifice for me. I went alone. I went kicking and screaming. But the Eucharist and Mary were worth every sacrifice. Indeed, going alone and remaining alone are crosses I gladly bear because love has redeemed religion.
And religion has become one of the sweetest, purest words I've ever known.