Sunday, June 10, 2018

TTT #15 Faith and Religion are Not the Same, and Faith Is Far More Important

In recent years there has been a growing number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Although the 15th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . “ (TTT) does not address that issue directly, it is closely related. In this article (and chapter) I contend that it is much more important for people to have faith (be “spiritual”) than to practice religion.
Religion Divides, Faith Unites
Rev. Alex McGilvey, Manitoba, Canada
In the first part of Chapter 15 of TTT, I contend that there doesn’t have to be a split between faith and religion. That is because, ideally, religion is an expression of faith and nourishes the faith of the believer and encourages faith in non-believers. 
We live, however, in a world where much is far from ideal. And, unfortunately, quite often religion is quite different from, and quite inferior to, faith. Moreover, religion tends to be divisive. Religions often have “competed” with each other for adherents.
In an effort to overcome the tension among the religions, for decades some have encouraged, and practiced, interreligious dialogue. While certainly there is still a place for such dialogue among people of the various religious traditions, a more helpful movement is that of interfaith activities.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary indicates that the term interfaith dates back to 1932. But the common use of that term is considerably more recent. Still, it has become a widely used term; there is now even a website with the URL address
Part of the reason for the shift in terminology from interreligious to interfaith is due to the fact that religion tends to divide, but faith can, and often does, unite people.
On this basis, chapter 15 deals with the following matters in distinguishing the major differences between religion and faith.
►Religion as “Unfaith”
There is broad agreement that the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century was Karl Barth, the Swiss scholar who died 50 years ago in 1968. (I wrote a blog article, see here, about him on the 44th anniversary of his death.)
One of Barth’s seminal emphases was that religion is fundamentally “unfaith” because, in his analysis, it is the result of the efforts humans expend in seeking their own salvation.
To Barth, and many others who share his ideas, God cannot found by humans searching for God. God can be experienced only through God’s self-manifestation, which is the main meaning of the theological term “revelation.”
Faith, then, is not striving, but responding. Faith is not searching, but receiving. Faith is simply the grateful acceptance of God’s abundant grace.
►Religion Can Be Evil
Charles Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, authored a book published under the title When Religion Becomes Evil (2002). He doesn’t think that religion as such is bad, but he analyzes how religion in all religious traditions is susceptible to at least five basic corruptions leading to a variety of evils.
Kimball goes on to stress, and I agree, that “only authentic faith can prevent such evils” (back cover).
►Faith is Always Good

After a section in which I introduce Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s ideas about the difference between faith and religion, the closing section avers that “faith is always good.” Of course, that assertion is based on the way I have defined faith in the chapter.

To the extent that faith is response to God (by whatever name God may be known or Ultimate Reality encountered), that response will of necessity be a good thing.

If faith, in actuality, is being/living in a loving relationship with God as the result of direct encounter with God, how could that be anything but good?

[The 15th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), which amplifies what is presented in this article, can be found by clicking on this link.]


  1. This is very timely for me and uplifting, and I provides hope for the future. Our Sunday School class is reading Holy Wars & Holy Alliance by Manlio Graziano. Chapter 4 is being discussed today, which I am missing due to travel. I read the chapter on the flight yesterday and was amazed at the volume of genocides described as having occurred since the 1970s, both in number of occurrences and numbers of deaths. Despite the events happening in my lifetime, I was previously completely ignorant of many and of those I was aware, I was not aware of the scale.

    Unfortunately I am no longer blissfully ignorant, which made me more pessimistic for current affairs, with at least one world leader that prefers to use religion among other differences to divide rather than unite. Graziano has an idea for overcoming the problem and you are writing about it as well, so it is getting attention.

    The subtitle for Graziano's book is The Return of Religion to the Global Political Stage. I agree with you that replacing religion with faith and love would be much better.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Dennis. It is good to hear from you again.

      I had not heard of Graziano's book and was glad to read a bit about it just now. It seems to be a major work whose point, from what little I learned about it, strengthens my desire to emphasize faith rather than religion.

  2. I too am in the class reading Graziano's book, and today's conversation was a bit depressing. I was reduced to thinking of similar books including Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" and Selina O'Grady's "And Man Created God." Maybe even Finkelstein and Silberman's "The Bible Unearthed." All these books look at how religion is changed and used by political powers both within and without the religions. However, I think it is a mistake to try to put religion into too small a box. Religion is like government, a nearly universal social structure that varies widely in structure and form, and is inherently neither good nor bad.

    While I am on books, the longer text in TTT #15 discusses Frank Schaeffer. As it happens, our class has also read "Sex, Mom, & God" by him. It has a telling subtitle, "How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway." A choice quote from page 135, "The 1970s Evangelical antiabortion movement that Dad, Koop, and I helped create seduced the Republican Party." Frank Schaeffer has moved on, but the anti-abortion fury he helped ignite burns on, a stark reminder of how easily religion can get tied into a knot.

    I can't quit until I get to the Venn diagram by McGilvey. It shows three overlapping domains of religion, faith and spirituality. Are they somehow parallel to the trinity? I can see a hint of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in there. In any event, while spirituality is seemingly subsumed in faith in this blog, I think it makes sense to keep the distinction. Spirituality has lots of definitions, but to me it seems to primarily be a sense of transcendence, an awareness of something bigger than ourselves. That stands over and against the concrete steps of the pilgrimage of faith. Then in religion we have other people, ideas, and tradition to interact with. Perhaps it is all an awkward human reflection of the trinity. Anyway, I love going to great parks to experience that transcendence, even if it is a little short on religion and even faith. Yet I think my religion and faith need that experience.

    1. [This response was posted yesterday, but I am reposting it now with grammatical corrections.]

      Thanks, Craig, for reading my last blog article and for posting substantial comments, as usual.

      Yes, perhaps religion is "inherently neither good nor bad." But religion, usually as it has been linked with power politics, has often been used in bad ways. And that is why I want to emphasize faith over religion, for faith, as I contend in the article, is always good--if it is really faith in God.

      And, yes, Frank Schaeffer knows about using religion for power. Prior to the book you mentioned, which I have read, he wrote "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back" (2007). I enjoyed meeting Schaeffer and hearing him talk about his life (and faith) a couple of times when he was in Kansas City a few years ago.

      I put the Venn diagram in the article--but I am not sure I agree with it. I was intrigued, though, with your idea that somehow it might be linked to the Trinity--but I don't think I can agree with that.

      The thing I don't like about the diagram is faith, religion, and spirituality all being "equal." To my way of thinking, there is certainly overlapping of the three, but I think the faith circle should be much larger than the other two. In that regard, I found a May 31 article by Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women to become an Episcopal priest, to be quite good. It is titled "Why Being 'Spiritual' Is Never Enough." (Here is the link to that article:

  3. Here are pertinent comments (sent by email for posting here) by local Thinking Friend Ed Kail:

    "I have long appreciated the view of John Westerhoff in his book 'Will Our Children Have Faith?,' where he asserts that religion is ABOUT faith: the language, artifacts, rituals etc. that can express faith. In a sense, religion is the map and the travelogue of a journey, while faith is the journey itself."

  4. Thanks, Ed, for introducing Westerhoff and his book/ideas. It sounds as if he would agree that faith and religion are different and that faith (the journey) is far more important than religion (the map)--although often, I'm afraid, religion(s) hasn't/haven't served very well as a map.

  5. I am still trying to work through this.

    At the beginning of my sojourn I wanted a faith in a real and true God. I had observed creation, and the manifestation of the spirit world - both the good and the bad. Each spirituality had a linkage to some religion, even those whose faith was in faith. Religion seemed the only viable way to evaluate the spirituality. Without religion, faith seems to be wishy-washy. The problems with religions are a) the God, and b) the people within its borders who are evil. There are good gods and evil gods. There are good people of faith within religion, and there are evil people of faith within religion. The biggest problem seems to be truly evil people of faith who pervert the religion. This is observed around the world and throughout history. I choose good religion of a good God, and good people of faith within its boundaries.

    Sadly, good people of faith seem to be easily perverted by outside influences, like vices or politics - inclusive of all. None are altogether righteous, but at least some people of goodwill attempt to be, frequently assisted by the faith of their religion.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      Given the way I have written about God (such as in TTT #1) and faith (in this article/chapter), I stick by my assertion that all true faith is good. That is because faith is response to encounter with / experience of God. So the problem, as I see it, is not of "evil people of faith within religion" but of evil religious people whose faith is weak so they live subservient to something other than God.

      Faith has to be examined (as I say in chapter 16 of TTT) and also guarded from being perverted by outside influences--even religion, at times.