“I’m not the religious kind.”
Revd Canon Dr Michael Green became a Christian at 16 after a fairly wild past through the personal ministry of Richard Gorrie. His faith was nourished at Clifton College and at the Iwerne Minster camps. Michael was for many years a Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall where he taught Evangelism, Apologetics and New Testament Studies. Most recently, he has been helping to grow a start-up Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has written many books, including The Books the Church Suppressed, and I’d Like to Believe, But…
The religious kind
“NO Pastor, go and talk to someone else. I’m afraid I’m not the religious kind.” That is very often said, and I have a lot of sympathy with it. There is something creepy and sanctimonious, something effeminate and wet about that phrase “the religious kind.” I think of business people in black suits at the funeral of one of their friends, trying to imitate “the religious kind” for half an hour, and then emerging breathless from the funeral to the open air in order to light a cigarette and return to normality. Or take two very different examples of “religion.” One comes on the radio with the daily service and a handful of singers who may sound professional and bogus; canned religion is not attractive at the best of times. The other comes in a great stadium where the evangelist is urging people to come to the front for counseling; that can seem a mere playing on the religious emotions—and “I’m not the religious kind.”
Why do we so strongly dislike “the religious kind”? Is it not because we have almost come to regard religion and hypocrisy as the same thing? There is a very long history of this. In Isaiah’s day back in the eighth century BC, men and women were offering God all kinds of sacrifices, but their hearts were far from him. In Jesus’s day, the scribes and Pharisees gained the reputation for being hypocrites. Many of them must have been absolutely genuine. Some, however, were seen to pray long prayers in order to impress; to give ostentatiously so that everyone would see how generous they were; to make a great show of their biblical knowledge in order to shame others. Piety outside and corruption in side is a revolting mixture. Jesus had to accuse some of his hearers of being just like that; they reminded him of the white sepulchers that were such a common sight on the hills, set against the deep blue of the Sea of Galilee. They looked marvelous from the outside, but inside they were foul and full of corruption and dead men’s bones.
The link between religion and hypocrisy did not die in the first century. Think of the hypocrisy in those very religious days of the Victorian era: the immorality that flourished, the exploitation that went on alongside meticulous religious observance. And, rightly or wrongly, there are many who suspect hypocrisy in the high churchgoing figures among the middle class in America. God for an hour on Sunday maybe, but where is he on Monday? One thing I am very clear about. Many people assert very forcefully that they are not the religious kind because they hate hypocrisy, and they feel that somehow it is tied up with religion.
Closely allied to hypocrisy is begging. None of us like seeing beggars. It makes us feel uncomfortable; indeed, we feel put upon. But organized religion bears the image of the beggar. How many churches do you pass with a notice outside inviting you to restore this historic building? How many cathedrals do you go into with a notice inside telling you how much per minute it costs to run the place?
I understand the effect of all this. Indeed, that is why I said at the outset that I have a lot of sympathy with people who say they are not the religious kind. But all the same I think they are wrong.
Clearing the air
First, let me clear the air and have a look at those justifiable objections to the religious kind that have just been raised. It is true that a lot of bad things have been done in the name of religion. Bad things have also been done in the name of medicine, but that does not mean we never go near a doctor. A lot of good things have been done in the name of religion too, but that fact by itself does not make religion true. There is only one proper question for people of integrity: is the Christian account of the world and humanity true? If it is, then I want it, however many bad things have been sheltered under its umbrella. I want to throw the bad things out into the rain but not take down the umbrella.
It is perfectly true that some expressions of religion border on the nauseating, but what is nauseating to one person is meat and drink to another. I personally get turned off very fast by chanted services in cathedrals. Others get annoyed by prayer meetings, evangelistic rallies, or good old gospel singing. I have no doubt that there is a great deal of insincerity in church circles, and I have no doubt that illicit psychological pressure is exerted by some evangelists. But once again, back to the basic facts. Was Jesus, or was he not, the Son of God? Did he, or did he not, rise from the dead? If he did, then I can afford to be broad-minded about the types of religious expression I personally dislike. If not, then all of it is nonsense, a type of escapism for which I have no time.
As for hypocrisy and money-grabbing, these need not detain us long. Just because there are counterfeit coins about, that does not stop you from using money, does it? Indeed, if there was no “good” money, nobody would bother making counterfeit bflls. So the existence of hypocrisy in religious circles is no reason for rejecting religion. Rather it suggests that there is a genuine article as well as numerous forgeries. Take a good hard look at Jesus in the Gospels. There is not a hint of hypocrisy about him. He was the first to denounce it in others. And it is with Jesus that we are concerned. Following him means following the one who denounced hypocrisy and would have no part in it at all. Just because some of his followers have failed to live up to that should not stop you from giving it a try.
On the money-grabbing issue, I think the church has deserved its appalling image. It does give the impression that it is always out for money. The church should proclaim that it has found great treasure in Jesus Christ and that, unlike most treasures, this one is to be given away free. Jesus was always impressing upon people that entry into the kingdom of God, or the Great Supper, or friendship with himself (all three add up to the same thing) was absolutely free—for black and white, Jew and Gentile, prostitute and Pharisee alike. Free. Don’t let the church prevent you from discovering the most wonderful person in the world, Jesus himself.
Having, I hope, cleared the air, I now want to ask some pertinent questions of any who are hiding behind this “I’m not the religious kind” motto
Is there a religious kind?
First, let me ask you, can you honestly say there is such a thing as a “religious kind”? Don’t pretend it is comprised of the effeminate, the aged, and the dim-witted. I think about some of the people in the Oxford church I used to serve: a leading gynecologist, a factory worker, a librarian, a horticulturist, a garage owner, a builder, an architect, an engineer, a man who began his Christian life in prison, a lawyer, an atomic scientist, a university professor, someone on the dole, hundreds of students, the majority of whom were studying scientific subjects, members from Iran and India, Sri Lanka and South Africa (black and white), the United States, Canada and Sweden, Germany and Hong Kong, Japan and Australia, Kenya and Uganda, Sudan and Nigeria, and so on. The diversity of their attitudes, their backgrounds, their educational achievements, their temperaments, their ages, their interests, their everything was so vast that it would be ridiculous to class them all as the religious type. Christians are not just one type: they are all types—extrovert and introvert, tough and weak, old and young, black and white. Their diversity has only one unifying factor, but that factor—Jesus Christ—is strong as steel.
Can you say that the first disciples of Jesus were the religious kind? Perhaps a mystic like John was, but what of rugged, hardworking fishermen like Andrew and Peter? What of freedom fighters like Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot? What of money-grabbing tax collectors like Matthew? What of the drunkards and sexual perverts at Corinth who became Christians? What of the thieves and magicians at Ephesus? It is ludicrous to suppose that the people who first followed Jesus belonged to the religious kind. The Jews, in fact, had a word for the religious kind, and another far from complimentary word for the ordinary folk, “the people of the land.” All Jesus’s first followers came from this latter group: all were the nonreligious kind.
A nonreligious faith
Don’t let your dislike of religion keep you away from Jesus. In a very real sense he came to destroy religion. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not playing with words when he coined the phrase “religionless Christianity.” That is precisely what Christianity is. It is not an attempt by virtuous men and women to please God and win a place in heaven. It is God coming in his love and generosity to seek folk who would never seek him, holding out his arms to them on a cross and saying, “Come to me, and let us share life together.” Not a religion but a rescue. That is why the earliest Christians were so keen to stress that they had no temple, no altars, no priests. They had no religion in the normally accepted sense of the term; hence the Romans called them “atheists.” Instead they had a person, who knew them, loved them, and never left them. Nothing could separate them from his loving presence. So prayer became not a ritual but conversation with a friend. Worship was not a ceremony for Sundays but the natural outpouring of love and adoration to the Savior by his people when they met together. They needed no churches, for where two or three were gathered together in his name, he was in their midst. They needed no priests, for Jesus had opened immediate, equal access to God’s presence for every one of them. Christianity, properly understood, is the earthiest of faiths; it does not separate the secular from the sacred but keeps the two firmly together. The Lord is as interested in what I do at eleven o’clock on Monday morning in my daily work as he is in what I do at eleven o’clock on Sunday in a church service.
Yes, Christianity is for nonreligious people. It is not going too far to say that if you insist on being religious, you will find Christianity hard, almost impossible. You will find it almost impossible to become a Christian, because your “religion” will get in the way: you will feel that somehow you are better and more pleasing to God than your irreligious neighbor, which is exactly what the Pharisees felt—and what kept them away from Jesus. And you will find it almost impossible to be a Christian, because once again your “religion” will get in the way: you will feel that the Christian life depends on your religious observances, and not on the Lord. You will be inclined to keep a little religious corner in your life for God and not allow him to have the whole thing. You will definitely find it much harder to become and to be a Christian than the person who is not “the religious kind.”
The matter of truth
And now a few other questions for the man or woman who is not religious. Are you concerned about truth? That is a vital question. Do I hear you say, “Of course I am”? Okay, then you and the Christian are interested in just the same thing. Jesus claimed, “I am ... the truth” (John 14:6). He claimed, in other words, to be the ultimate reality in personal, human terms. If you are interested in what is ultimate and what is real, then you cannot remain disinterested in Jesus. You may examine his claims and dismiss them as untrue. What you cannot do, if you maintain a deep concern for truth, is to pay him O attention, shrug your shoulders and say, “I’m not the religious kind.”
The matter of courage
Next question: have you the courage of your convictions? I once met an atheist at a discussion group, an able man doing doctoral studies in physics. When we were talking personally at the end of the meeting, I asked him if he had ever read one of the Gospels with an open mind, willing to respond to Christ if and when he was convinced by what he read. His reply surprised me, but on reflection I think it may be true of many others. He said, “I dare not.” What a remarkable admission! Here was a man used to assessing material, making judgments, committing himself to theories in physics on the ground of the evidence; yet he was afraid to do the same with the New Testament in case it should convince him and draw him to the Christ he was evading. Surely, if he had the courage of his atheistic convictions, he should have been quite willing to read the Gospels. It would give him firsthand material to use in mocking his believing friends. But no. He did not have the courage of his convictions.
The matter of cost
The next question is very similar: dare you take your stand with a minority?Jesus warned potential disciples to sit down and count the cost of what following him would mean. Were they prepared to stand with ten thousand men against an opposing force of twenty thousand? If not, they would have to make humiliating peace terms in double-quick time. It is not pleasant to admit you are wrong about the basic issues of life and death. Not easy to join the despised Christian company. Not easy to tolerate being mocked at work for your allegiance to Christ. Not easy to allow Christ to affect your morality. Of course it isn’t. Jesus never said it would be easy. He said that following him meant death as well as life. Death to the old way of living, then accepting new life, new power, new standards from the Lord. All this is very tough. Many people disguise their cowardice by adopting other attitudes, such as indifference:
“I’m not the religious kind.” But cowardice it remains. The Man of Nazareth is too demanding, too uncompromising, too loving, too upright for the soft and compromising, the lazy and those who like to go with the crowd.
The matter of fulfillment
Another question I would like to ask the person who is not interested in religion: do you want to find fulfillment? Jesus once described the kingdom of God as finding treasure. Imagine a farmer plowing his field, drearily, monotonously, without any special expectations. Then his plowshare hits a box. He investigates and finds to his amazement that the box is full of diamonds and rubies. Whose heart would not beat faster at such a discovery? That, Jesus implied, is what discovering God’s kingdom is like. For the kingdom is brought to us in the person of the King; and the King is Jesus. Really, then, Christianity has nothing to do with “religion” and its demands and observances.
The Christian life is concerned with relationships. First comes the restoration of our relationship with God, then the restoration of our links with others, as the basic harmony brought by Christ spreads outward. Relationships are among the most precious things in life. Yet too often they are spoiled by selfishness, racial prejudice, jealousy, or pride. Jesus Christ unites people and brings harmony where once there was discord, and that spells fulfillment at the deepest level of all.
I think of a painfully shy student who found a living faith in Christ during his first weekend at the university. Within six weeks he had opened up like a flower and was relating with far greater freedom to others. I think of a couple whose marriage was on the point of breaking up when both partners were brought to faith in Jesus. Their new relationship with Christ brought them closer together than ever before, and their marriage is now strong and happy. I think of a soldier, loathed for his conceitedness and rudeness, whose whole attitude to others changed radically when he allowed Jesus Christ to take control of him. I think of two schoolboys who could not stand each other until both of them found Christ over the same summer vacation; thereafter relationships were on a completely new plane (I should know, for I was one of the boys). This same Jesus draws together those whom every pressure in the world is driving apart. He does it in Northern Ireland, as genuine believers (as opposed to the “religious kind,” be they Protestant or Catholic) have for years met across the border at night to pray for one another, support each other’s widows, and tend each other’s wounded. He does it in the Middle East as he brings together in one fellowship of true believers the political irreconcilables—Jews and Arabs. He does it in South Africa, between believers of different races. Time and time again I have seen all three of the above situations with my own eyes. But I know no other force on earth that can do the same. Jesus is treasure indeed, for he brings fulfillment to all our relationships, once we allow him to repair our relationship with God.
The matter of destiny
There is one other question I would like to ask the person who is not interested in religion: are you interested in your future? Who is not? Our education, our aspirations, our longing to succeed, our hunger for promotion are all geared to this end— securing a better future. But what happens after we’ve obtained our heart’s desires? Is there not an emptiness at the top? Money does not satisfy permanently, nor does sex, nor does fame, nor does manipulating others. And many of the people at the top know it. The actress Raquel Welch has been quoted as saying:
I had acquired everything I wanted, yet I was totally miserable
...I thought it was very peculiar that I had acquired everything I had wanted as a child—wealth, fame and accomplishment in my career. I had beautiful children, and a life style that seemed terrific, yet I was totally and miserably unhappy. I found it very frightening that one could acquire all these things and still be so miserable.
After all, what is life about? Are we bound for extinction, or is there some life beyond the grave? If you are really concerned about your future, you can scarcely avoid considering the matter of final destiny. Pascal put it at its most entertaining when he suggested that the afterlife is like a wager: if you believe in God, you are at no disadvantage in this life, and at considerable advantage in the next. If you do not believe, but find in the next that there was a next, you are most unfortunate! But to be more serious, what sense is there in shutting your eyes to the one person whom others testify as having broken the grip of death and having come back to tell us not only that there is an afterlife but how to get there? In business or in trade it would be accounted sheer folly to go for short- term gains and neglect capital appreciation—or depreciation. Yet that is just what people do who take no thought for life after death. They go for short-term goals, and prefer not to notice the fact that their capital, their life, is depreciating toward zero, when it could, if rightly invested, appreciate indefinitely. Christians assert, not just on the basis of documents written two thousand years ago but on the basis of continuing worldwide experience, that Jesus of Nazareth has broken the ultimate barrier in our universe, death. They may be right; they may not. That is what you must decide after investigation But to shrug off the whole issue with, “I’m not the religious kind,” is sheer folly, if you think at all seriously about your future
Faith has two sides
Sometimes people say, “I’m not the religious kind,” with a touch of wistfulness, similar to the way they say, “I wish I had your faith.” My answer to that is simple. You can have my faith. Faith is nothing other than trust; and trust, to be any good, must have two sides to it. First, there needs to be good evidence of trustworthiness; then there needs to be genuine commitment. It is as simple as that. You have faith in Rolls- Royce engines when you fly in a jet, don’t you? That means that in your opinion Rolls-Royce engines are reliable; it also means that you are prepared to entrust yourself to their trustworthiness. So it is with Christianity. You need first to be convinced that there is a God, that he cares about us, that he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and that it is possible for you to get in touch with him. Then you need to entrust yourself to his trustworthiness.
In the pages that follow, we shall be considering the various topics in a progression that will, I hope, help you to appreciate the trustworthiness of God and also encourage you to entrust yourself to him. Then you will have my faith. Then you will be able to say, “I’m not the religious kind, but I think I may have discovered the key to the universe.”
© Michael Green 2005
Source: ch 2 "I'm not the religious kind." from Michael Green, You Can't Be Serious! - 12 popular reasons for avoiding Jesus, Monarch Books (2005) pp13-23 and is here used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher.