Do You Really Want a Relationship Instead of a Religion?


One of the highly favored juxtapositions within some segments of modern American Christian thought is that of religion vs. relationship. The premise, as far as I have ever been able to divine, is that there is something about the content of religion that is somehow antithetical to the content of a relationship, specifically the “personal relationship” that is proposed between the believer and Jesus.

Granted, this is a rather vague description, and I’ve noted how often “religion” is not often given any sort of robust description, which naturally makes it a convenient scapegoat as it can theoretically contain any of the things that one wishes it to, as well as conveniently short-circuiting any potential conversation from the start. After all, if the question begging premise of a disjunction between religion and relationship (or even religion and Jesus, as I wrote about here) is allowed to stand, then of course religion will always get short shrift.

Thrown into this mix is often another juxtaposition between “rules” and relationship, the “rules,” of course, being part and parcel of the religion bit, which is usually the most robust description ever really offered. The notion here is that religion is “all about rules,” whatever that is supposed to mean, whereas a relationship is about something else that at the very least is more than just rules. Again, this question-begging premise has the advantage of shutting a conversation down from the outset, and as a polemical tactic is often fairly successful.

Thus, religion tends to get characterized as being all about the rules, presumably conjuring the image of adherents who are constantly focused on rules rather than relationship, thus hollowing out their hearts and abandoning the essence of what a relationship with God should entail.

However, as I have pondered this juxtaposition for some time, I’ve realized that in the same way that religion is very often never robustly defined, so too this “relationship” is also not usually robustly defined either. Instead, the term tends to function more as a shibboleth or a least a stand-in for something that isn’t this other thing that is supposed to be worse than a relationship. If religion is all about the rules, then relationships presumably are not all about the rules, seemingly offering a freedom of sorts.

But what, exactly, is this freedom? And what precisely are we imagining a relationship to entail?

I submit that if we really think about the implications of a relationship, most of us would truly rather have a religion.

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In the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus launches into a section where he contrasts the old law with the new law thusly:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17-18)

The Law, of course, is itself full of rules, but in Jesus’ understanding its prescriptions and proscriptions do not exhaust its meaning. This much should be obvious in that he says that he is not abolishing it, but fulfilling it. The law, as the writer of Hebrews will say, is a shadow of greater things, and in Jesus’ sermon he begins to show how the Law will be fulfilled through a series of juxtapositions that reveal the spirit of the Law that flows out of the letter of the Law. One might even state that the relational aspect of the Law is developed in conjunction with its prescriptions and proscriptions. This is why Jesus concludes his introduction by saying:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

A fitting example of this occurs in his teaching on adultery. The text of the Law is both unambiguous and ambiguous at the same time; the law specifically forbids adultery without exception, but does not give a robust description of what is being proscribed. Adultery denotes voluntary sexual intercourse between someone who is married and someone who is not his or her spouse. However, it says nothing about the intents and motives that can occur in one’s will without actually engaging in the act.

In Jesus’ discourse he says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The letter of the law does not spell this out, even though it is likely implied in the spirit of the law, given the natural end of marriage. However, one could be unfaithful in one’s heart without actually committing the act, and thus be “righteous” in the sight of the law, having not violated the letter of the law.

Jesus here rejects the sophistry that would allow for this sort of justification, and demonstrates the fulfillment of the law not by rewriting the letter of the law but rather by clarifying its meaning and thus intensifying its strictures. With sublime perspicuity St. Chrysostom comments:

Note how Jesus also in this passage commends the old law. He does so by comparing it with the new, a comparison that implies that is of the same family, so to speak. More or less, it does share many family resemblances. He does not find fault with the old law but in fact makes it more strict. Had it been evil, Jesus would not have accentuated it. Instead, he would have discarded it. (St. Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 16.4)

Instead of discarding the rules, by revealing the relational aspect of the law the “rules” are actually intensified. To follow the Law is not just a checklist like some would make it out to be; the commandments must be followed not just because they are rules but because they reveal God’s will for our lives and fulfill our relational potential. One can in this sense not simply bifurcate the “rules” from the relationship, imagining that they are somehow in conflict. It would be akin to asking if one would rather have a heart or lungs.

This accentuating of the strictures of the Law is disconcerting, and was so for the disciples. When Jesus demonstrated the fulfillment of the law by revealing the nature of marriage and inveighing against divorce, his disciples respond:

“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)

For them the deeper meaning of the “rules” was something that they apparently didn’t want. Under the old law divorce could be perceived transactional, and thus marriage could be understood in a similar manner. As long as the prescriptions for the divorce were carried out, the Law was being followed. The particularities of what constituted grounds for this were a matter of debate even in Jesus’ day, but its clear from the reaction of the disciples that Jesus’ clarification and intensification for he law was something that went beyond what they thought it meant to fulfill the law. So striking was this accentuation that they exclaim it’s better not to marry at all rather than have to live into the fulfillment of the law.

If we are going to characterize religion as being “all about the rules,” then in Jesus’ accentuating the Law in the new Law there would actually be more “freedom” in the old law, as is evidenced by the disciples’ reaction. They no doubt thought that the old law was burdensome enough (as seen through the debates about what exactly one had to do to fulfill the law), but Jesus (in their mind) makes it even more burdensome, rendering it something better to do without.

This, of course, wonderfully highlights much of what St. Paul talks about when he juxtaposes the bondage found in trying to fulfill the Law and the freedom that exists in the Spirit. For him it is not even really about the rules per se. To be sure, in his thought they are an impossible task (and he echoes Jesus’ invective against the Pharisees for heaping laws upon laws without keeping it themselves), but this impossibility is not because of the Law itself but rather because the Law can only reveal sin; it is powerless in and of itself to do anything about it.  This is the bondage that is found in trying to keep the Law, because at root the problem isn’t burdensome rules but rather the reality of humankind’s bent towards sin.

This is amply revealed in the disciples’ response; they imagine freedom in a libertarian sense to be as little constrained as possible in what they either must do or not do as far as the Law is concerned. In the issue of divorce, the commandment seems to be more about a transaction; provide X document and go on one’s way. The precipitating circumstances in which this could occur were open to debate, but the point from which the disciples viewed it was to follow the letter of the law and consider oneself righteous.

But Jesus’ teaching here turns this on its head; the Law concerning divorce, he says, was provided precisely because of the reality of sin; he relates it to their general hardness of heart. Thus it should have been evident (he implies) that one cannot build righteousness on a provision concerning the reality of sin. Hence we find the later prophets railing against this very issue, and often use the relationship of marriage to describe the relationship of God and his people.

The freedom that the Spirit brings is thus not going be through an abolishment of the Law, but through its fulfillment. The freedom isn’t to be as little constrained in what one can do or not do, but rather is the freedom to be free from the enslavement to sin. The will is not not meant to be subject to sin but, since it is in the image of God, is meant to be attuned to God’s will and subject to it. That is why St. Paul employs the language of the transition from being “slaves to sin” to being “slaves to righteousness.”

The disciples in this account prefer the old Law, because while it requires much of them, it requires less than what Jesus is proposing. It is in this dynamic that the juxtaposition of rules and relationship might be more fully explored.

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As I consider my own relationship with my wife, it is obvious to me that our relationship isn’t by any means exhausted by rules. However, they do help to give the relationship shape and cause it to stand out from other relationships and thus be a meaningful and good thing in and of itself.

For example, in our wedding vows we swore to forsake all others, which means that our relationship is an exclusive one. That of course doesn’t preclude other kinds of relationships, but the marriage relationship is one that is defined (at least in great part) by its exclusivity. Whether one wants to characterize this exclusivity as a “rule” or not, it nevertheless is true that the relationship only exists in its fulness insofar as that exclusivity is maintained.

In our vows we also swore to care for each other, to protect, serve, etc. These are all things that have a relational aspect to them and are realized in myriad ways, but due to the nature of the relationship and of the vows it entails that these things are duties first and foremost before they are anything else.

Thus, while I often “feel” love for Megan and do the things I have vowed in concert with those feelings, the deeper reality is that love is only really love when those things are carried out irrespective of their coordination with my feelings of love or whatnot.

There is a blessing and a burden inherent to this.

The “burden,” if one wants to characterize it as such, is that I am required by my love to do the things that love requires for my wife in every situation and circumstance. My feelings or desires are ultimately not a trump card for this. If I am to be true to my vows, then I must submit to my wife when I don’t want to, to serve her when I don’t feel like it, to subsume my wants and desires to her in respect to her good and the good of our marriage.

The blessing, however, is that since the deep truth about love is that it is an action of the will and not merely a response of the heart, I am not required to always have my feelings operate in conjunction with my will. And given their fickle nature, that would be an impossibility to expect.

It is curious that Jesus tells us to love God with all of our heart, since love in its appetitive sense simply cannot be commanded. This points to the fulfillment of the Law that Jesus accomplishes in that the deeper truth is revealed. My love is ultimately to have my will act in such a way that it becomes the delineation of my desires, to bring the two into harmony. This can never be fully accomplished in this life, but it doesn’t have to, which is why the parameters that the “law” of our relationships form are something to be cherished rather than eschewed.

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The truth is that relationships are hard. In my own marriage I don’t always “feel” the love that I have for my wife; many times its merely a physiological response to being exhausted or having a headache. In those moments the last thing I feel is love and the first thing I want is what I want- usually pity, a Diet Coke, being alone, etc.

But the beauty of my vows is that they give me the content of what my love should be. My heart will always be a deceitful guide and will too often look after its own wants and desires or even just through sloth fall into apathy or malaise. But the “rules” of my marriage always give me a way to love regardless of how I feel or what I think or what I know or don’t know. And even further they give me insight into the deepest part of love; to sacrifice my own wants and desires and feelings and hopes and dreams and the like for the sake and the good of my wife.

Jesus made it very clear what it means to love him:

“If you love, obey my commandments.” (John 14:15)

Truth be told, I think most of us would rather have a religion rather than a relationship, at least if we are going to conflate “rules” with religion. To follow the rules requires less than a relationship, as following rules can be accomplished in an external manner. But as Jesus’ Sermon of the Mount indicates, the relationship we are called to be in with him demands even more. If anything a relationship implies we become more beholden to them, as the force and depth is accentuated within as we become more attuned to the deeper truth behind them. The freedom that a relationship brings is not in some antinomian abstraction but rather in the concretization of one’s will in accordance with God’s will, since the end of our freedom is to have our wills aligned with God’s.

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By deviantmonk

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