Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
It is a commonplace to hear people describe their Christian faith as “It is about a relationship, not a religion” or for people to say “I am spiritual, not religious.” The word religion has a highly negative connotation in our world today. The reasons for this is complex, but I would say it ultimately amounts to the way in which we have become increasingly familiar over the years with the way religion has been used to justify horrible oppression and abuse of whole people groups and individual persons over the centuries. In addition to that, there is a negative view of religion because most religions, including particularly the Christian religion, tends to stand in distinction from the prevailing social and cultural values and practices of non-religious, secular society that are not address oppression and abuse; in virtue of religion having a lower tier social status, the tendency is for any blame in tension between larger society and religion to fall on religion. So, the negative reputation for religion is not entirely deserved in my opinion, but nevertheless, there is a substantive point to engage with in the critique against religion: religion is not an unqualified, universal good. In fact, it can often be corrosive and toxic.
Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7.13-14 are perhaps best understood against the backdrop of religious practices and the destructive nature that many religious practices have. In Jesus day, there were many options for how to live out one’s Judaism faithfully. One could adhere to emphasis on purity and the traditions of the elders that the Pharisees and scribes prescribed. Or, one could follow the highly traditional Sadducees who allow little to no innovation within Jewish religious practice, especially when it came to doctrines such as resurrection. You could just in with the zealots that dreamed of God-lead a military overpowering of the Roman occupiers of Judea that took inspiration from the Maccabean revolt. Or, you could go out into the desert like the Essenes and dedicate oneself to a monastic-type righteousness until the day came that God would judge the world. There were a litany of ways to try to live out one’s Jewish faith. Yet, Jesus says the way to life is narrow, not broad. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount presents the narrow way that distinguishes itself from all of the other forms of Jewish practice, including most particularly the practices of the Pharisees and scribes.
Often times in todays word, we translate Jesus teaching about His way against the backdrop of “there is only one way to God” and that all who do not find this way are destined for judgment and destruction. However, if we interpret Jesus’ words against the socio-religious background of the day, Jesus’ words are more so warning against the various ways the Jewish religion had gone off-track and off-course for God’s intended purposes for the people of Israel. Jesus wasn’t telling the world “If you don’t come to me, it is good riddance for you,” but rather “Get away from what you are hearing from all the religious teachers that is taking your life and come to me to find true rest and life.”
In other words, religion, if we are not careful, can become more of a source of harm than it is a source of life. There are a couple reasons for this. Firstly, religion is one form of a socio-cultural process in which certain human actions, whether they be specific types of behaviors, speech, thoughts, or feelings, are given greater value over others. In addition, religion like other socio-cultural processes tends to valorize certain figures as embodying these practices and deserving of praise and honor as opposed to other, evil persons who resist and refuse to adhere to their religious ‘truth.’ All socio-cultural processes reinforce the repetition of specific actions, external or internal, through the valorization and demonization of specific individual persons who embody those practices. Both valued practices and value persons who legitimate based upon specific value canons of judgments, such as the Bible, the scientific process, etc. that give us the criteria by which to differentiate the good from the bad. To that end, religion is not that much different from the social and culture process that forms nations, governments, institutions, communities, families, etc. as they all espouse specific value actions, honorable and dishonorable persons, and the ways to differentiate between them.
What makes religion unique, however, is the way that religion legitimates the valuation of specific figures and specific practices; religions typically appeals to specific types of canons to ground their judgments. The canons is usually considered to be the holy Scriptures of the religion, but it may be also emerge from other sources such as divine inspiration, events of a wondrous nature, etc. What is central though, particuarly within the monotheistic tradition, is that the canons are understood to come from a transcendent God who is not observable, at least not with any normal sense of perception. Consequently, the canons for religious faith are usually rooted in some sort of historical process of validation, such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which are not usually amenable to direct study and verification.
The pitfall of this isn’t that only religions that can provide clear, empirical proof of their validity should be considered valid. Rather, the problem is that when our religious grounding does not readily give us active feedback on the goodness or badness of our actions, we can readily begin to justify specific practices and valorize specific individuals without any real basis for it to be challenged in the adherents to that religious system. We can readily imagine all these various ideas and these various persons who we deem to be good or bad because we do not have an immediately recognizable source of knowledge to help us differentiate. Even Scripture does not serve this purpose, as the hermeneutical reality is that people can very readily interpret passages to justify specific types of values and persons as being good or being evil.
This is not to deny that there is no process of feedback that God may give to us, but only that the means by which we grow to learn from God and comprehend him more deeply can not be so readily derived from higher-end, cognitive reasoning that relies upon specific perceptual information and knowledge to justify one’s actions. Insofar as we rely upon specific rules, specific abstractions, specific models, etc. to make judgments about religious practice and valorized figures, we are highly susceptible to outside influences other than the inspiration and agency of God.
What this means is that we can begin to valorize specific practices and figures in a way that may not be truly representative to God’s purposes. This is often what happens within various Christian traditions, as the figures of the tradition, whether it be Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, etc., are all taken in later history to be highly valorized figures whose teaching represents and gets to the heart of the Christian way of life. What gets overlooked, however, is how those figures were (a) influential for the day based upon the social and cultural issues of their time and (b) the different issues and concerns that we face in the present day. We laud these figures not just as significant reformers that opened up our eyes to the Scriptures and the way of God, but we begin to form traditions around their teachings that we then lift up as reliably representative of God’s way.
For instance, I highly value John Wesley’s theology. However, there is a distinct different between Wesley’s time and today. Wesley was at unique point in history, where the Enlightenment was beginning to take hold of Western Europe and the Christian faith was beginning to emerge as something of a more ecumenical between various traditions rather than sectarian in nature between the religious traditions. In that world, Wesley could exposit the Scriptures in powerful ways that was instrumental in bringing people to come to Jesus to have their sins forgiveness and experience a powerful change in their life. Yet, we live in a very different day of wide-spread societal confusion, where sectarianism is more apropos to describe our secular society. Insofar as Wesley was getting to the hearts of the Scriptures, we need to hear his voice, but insofar as Wesley was interpreting the Scriptures against the backdrop of the social transformations of his day, it is important to be mindful of how the teachings of the Wesleyan tradition may not on its own ground provide a confident and reliable foundation for discovering the love and power of God. Indeed, the mass confusion and disagreement within churches and denominations of a Wesleyan heritage today demonstrates that attempted to extract some teaching and tradition from Wesley that is extracted from his social and intellectual context to be used for our day doesn’t necessarily lead us to the narrow way of life that Jesus speaks of.
Here is where the problem comes from all of this: our religious traditions may come to emphasize certain practices and persons as highly valued and extolled for reasons that may not representative of God’s ongoing activity and purposes throughout history as much as it is specific, socio-cultural identification with and attachments to those traditions. However, since our main ground for these traditions is historical validation, such as Wesley being instrumental in brining about a wave of Christian commitment and fervor that has dramatically changed the Western hemisphere, without clear and specific feedback to help distinguish between what to keep and what not to from our traditions, we are liable to emphasize things within the traditions that are deemed suitable for our specific concerns and purposes in our time and place in history.
To give an ancient example of this, significant portions of ancient Judaism under Hellenization began to emphasize specific practices that distinguished Judaism from the rest of the world, such as circumcision, Sabbath, dietary customs of the Torah, and maybe even sexual practices. The Jewish traditions developed and exposited many precedents and principles for obeying the various commandments of the Torah about circumcision, Sabbath, and diet. However, it was Jesus who split with these religious traditions as notably practices by the Pharisees. The Apostle Paul rejected this as a form of righteousness that wasn’t God’s righteousness. There was something important that was missing by Jesus and the early Jesus movement, even as Jesus and the early Jewish Christians went to the same religious canon of Israel’s Scriptures as the Pharisees did.
At the core, I would say the problem was this: that the traditions began to emphasize something other than the love of God, both as a practice and as one who was to be valorized. All the other practices from the other commandments were given center stage and those people who were deemed to embody these commandments were given high social preference and honor. In the midst of this, God and His loving purposes expressed in the Scriptures and, as Jesus goes on to speak about, that were being made known through the Holy Spirit were being missed. Instead of understanding the world and each other through the Word of God, they understood the world and each other through the specific traditions that were instrumental in trying to address specific social struggles and tensions of that day.
This gets me to the heart of true religion: where our valorized practices and valorize individuals are centered upon God. This is at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity. While the doctrine of the Trinity may be taken as an abstract doctrine to give us something we know about God, at the heart of the Trinity is ultimately an expression of the way we know God through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This epistemic basis of the Trinity grounds our understanding of the Father through the Scriptures, the central value we place on knowing Jesus Christ and His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and the importance for the Spirit to help us to comprehend and love God throughout the course of our lives. The worship of the Triune God shape the practices, person, and canons that ultimately shapes our faith. While other ideas and other practices have their circumstantial place within the Christian faith in dealing with specific questions, dilemmas, situations, etc., none of these things should take the central place that the worship of the Triune God has in our lives as Christians. To do so risks putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable, making our religion to serve the purposes of those ideas and practices that we deem important for reasons that are more grounded in our own, changing socio-cultural circumstances than the ever-continuing purposes of God. It is here where religion can go off the rails from the God who gives life to the other things or persons who can not give life, as helpful and beneficial as they might be in certain circumstances.
The narrowness of the gate to find life that Jesus speaks of should be heard as a perpetual clarion call to continuously ground our religious practice and teaching on the God of Israel who made Himself known to the world in Christ and is actively at work in us through His Holy Spirit, with attention to whether the traditions we give are treated as the foundations for our faith or, rather, as signposts to help us understand the faith as it was given and passed down for two millennia. As foundations, our traditions can lead our religiosity astray. As signposts, however, it can help point us to the source that we then come to immerse ourselves in and comprehend through more direct acquaintance, perception, and comprehension.
So, it is about religion, but a religion grounded in the worship, love, and comprehension of the Triune God.