Flip the script (part 2)

Religion. Spirituality. Are they the same thing? We might think of spirituality as our relationship to the divine, and religion as its institutional expression. But as closely related as the two are, there’s a fairly common cultural bias against religion and for spirituality.

Much of it has to do with the negative role religion has played in many people’s childhoods. Kids felt forced to go to church against their will, for example, or to toe a rigid line, or to witness how hypocrisy and bad behavior were rationalized away. Religion is thus seen as inherently oppressive, a shackle on people’s freedom.

“Spirituality,” meanwhile, is held up as the kinder, gentler alternative. It means tapping into your sense of transcendence and awe at being connected to something larger than yourself. And in a highly individualistic American context, spirituality becomes the cosmic version of “You do you.” You get to decide what you mean by “god” or the “divine” or whatever you want to call it/him/her/them, as long as you don’t break any laws.

I am, of course, oversimplifying the matter a bit. But that’s the story that’s commonly told: you escape religion to discover your spirituality.

It’s true that religious traditions too often take on a life of their own while God takes a back seat. Rituals and practices become ends in themselves, yardsticks by which we measure devotion in ourselves and others. But the answer isn’t to separate spirituality from religion. It’s to deepen our spiritual roots so we can have the stability to examine where religion has gone off the rails.

This is, in essence, the underlying issue behind Jesus’ debates with his opponents, and Paul’s debates with the Judaizers (the Jewish Christians who wanted to impose circumcision on Gentile converts). In part, it’s a question of how one understands righteousness, and we can see this in the passage we’ve been exploring from Philippians. Here is the passage again, this time in the New International Version:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Phil 3:7-9)

Paul was grateful for his Jewish heritage (e.g., Rom 3:1-2). But following a crucified Messiah and embracing a gospel of grace changed the way he thought about it. He was keenly, viscerally aware of how wrong he had been to persecute the church, and equally amazed at the grace in which he now stood. Compared to the magnificence of that mercy, to the unthinkable riches of having an intimate relationship with Christ, everything else seemed like garbage.

And note in particular how Paul flipped the script on righteousness. The Judaizers, probably thinking they were doing the right thing, were pushing Gentile believers to get circumcised. Implicitly, it implied a theology like this:

But Paul reversed that:

No amount of supposedly righteous behavior — a righteousness of our own based on religion — can make us right with God. Being in right relationship with God is not our doing, but God’s; it comes only by grace, through faith.

Why should that matter to the Philippians? Because much of Paul’s concern was about their behavior toward one another. Right relationship with each other — including the humility to care about each other’s needs and not just one’s own — begins with a right relationship to God.

And as we’ll see, a right relationship with God changes our perspective on what matters.