In most of the contexts where I am teaching, I eventually get around to discussing the difference between religion and faith. Religion is the codified set of customs, rules, regulations and norms essentially define the way for follower of the particular approach. Within that code, interestingly enough, is almost always a description of who can break what part of the code and when that is possible. These codes are sometimes written but are most often a combination of written material accompanied by a significant amount of oral commentary.
Faith, on the other hand, is often seen as a living, dynamic relationship between an individual and the deity. While the code of the religion shapes and describes the nature of the relationship to a certain extent, the goal of faith is an ever-deepening, more fulfilling relationship with the deity.
That distinction helps me and others understand some of what goes on in our human search for God. All too often, though, it can easily break down into a simplistic, black and white argument over whether the rules are more important or the relationship. Which side of the argument you end up on says a lot about your personality and spirituality.
I have been on both sides of the argument, although I do have to be honest and state that my being on the rule side happened very early in my faith life and didn’t last very long–it seems I was born with a mental condition that turns rules into suggestions for debate, something which I discovered isn’t acceptable in military or some religious circles.
After a long spell on the relationship side, I began to re-examine the value and place of rules. It all started one day in Kenya. I was a very young teacher in a school for training pastors for an independent African denomination. I was filled with idealism and wanted to teach with as much openness to their culture as possible. In my desire to strip Christianity to its most basic by getting rid of all the North American add-ons possible, I chose to get rid of one cultural attachment that I had always hated anyway. I taught without a tie.
That isn’t all that startling these days–but way back then in the late 1970s, ties were still an essential part of the Christian faith in Canada. But I was in Kenya and they were an independent denomination and they didn’t need cultural baggage like ties cluttering up their development of an indigenous African understanding of our common faith.
Great idea, I thought. They get an unfettered faith and I get an unfettered neck–everyone wins. Except that one of their rules was that preachers and teachers wear ties. All my male students wore ties and jackets to class and everywhere. All the other male faculty wore ties and jackets to class and for everything else. My lack of a tie wasn’t a liberating step on the way to a truer and deeper relationship with each other and through that to God–rather, it was a road block because everyone was upset but no one knew quite how to tell this rule-breaker that although they appreciated my teaching, they needed me to wear a tie.
Eventually, the school principal found a way to get the message across and I went to class with a tie. Eventually, I began wearing a clerical collar, since that was appropriate and desired for my position within the church. Breaking the rules didn’t enhance any relationships–following them did.
I believe that relationships are basic, whether it is the relationship between me and God, me and students, me and parishioners, me and anyone. Anything that gets in the way or hinders the relationships is a problem. But I have seen that I can’t automatically class all rules as a hindrance to relationships. Rules can also enhance relationships and enable them to grow and develop. I might not have like wearing a tie in tropical heat (or winter cold for that matter) but if wearing that tie helped me relate better to students and church people, then I will follow the rule. Even today, I would not think of stepping into a Kenyan class room without a tie or clerical collar. It is also hard for me to step into a Canadian pulpit without a tie, probably because of my African rules.
The trick in the end is discovering and using those rules that enhance relationships and changing those which harm relationships.
May the peace of God be with you.