Before moving to Juneau, I lived in Denver.
One of the things I have not missed about my former locale is the hubbub over Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow’s public demonstration of his religiosity. His name has become a verb. To “Tebow” is to get down on a knee and start praying in the middle of an athletic event or anywhere else one feels motivated to do so.
I do not question Tim Tebow’s sincerity, but is this what it means to be religious? Some might argue to the contrary that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door.” (Matthew 6: 6)
Several years ago I was called by a reporter of a major daily newspaper down South. She wanted to talk with me about “the religious position” on same gender marriage. She assumed that the religious position would be opposed to marriage equality.
But is it?
I suggested to the reporter that asking a minister about “the” religious view on a topic was akin to asking a legislator about “the” political position on a piece of legislation.
She told me that would be ridiculous; there are many political perspectives on any given issue.
The same is true, I responded, about religion.
Pop culture often equates being religious with particular positions on hot button topics or praying after a touchdown, but there is more than one way to be religious. In this country, “religious” is often assumed to be synonymous with “Christian,” which, of course, it is not.
Even within Christianity, there is a wide spectrum of differences. We are an increasingly pluralistic society when it comes to religious beliefs and practices. In a society that is committed to religious freedom, it is essential to honor a wide variety of religious views as well as nonreligious perspectives.
No one viewpoint, religious or not, is privileged over another.
They all have to compete in the free exchange of ideas.
A Christian example of this is Paul’s visit to Athens where he encountered many religious people. He did not demand that they adhere to his beliefs; rather, he went to the public market and made his case for the God he worshipped. Some were persuaded by his arguments and others were not.
So what does it mean to be religious? The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible defines religion as “respect and awe for the sacred and divine, strict observance of religious ritual, or conscientiousness in morality and ethics,” but this raises as many questions as it resolves.
What is sacred?
Which rituals do we observe?
Why do we do so?
What is moral and ethical?
How do we demonstrate conscientious adherence to the values we espouse?
How do they influence our behavior and our perspectives on social issues?
There are a number of answers to these questions because there are many ways of being religious.
From my perspective, being religious has less to do with specific ritual observances and more to do with expressing the things I value most highly. It also means connecting with something larger than myself that both fills me with wonder and holds me accountable. For me, that something is God. Being religious has to do with the search for something “more.” I believe there is more to life than self-interest and self-preservation and that there is more than what the eye sees and the rational mind perceives.
This “more” calls forth beauty, mystery and awe. It obligates us to care for all of creation and hold it in sacred trust. Being religious also includes a commitment to compassion and respect for all people. All of us, without regard to race, class, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, age or ability, are created in the image of the loving Creator.
For me, this entails working for a just social order where people are treated as if they are so created. Being religious translates into advocacy for equality and the promotion of peace and justice in public life as well as in personal pursuits.
So, what about you?
What is it that you value? What holds you accountable? Does it involve being religious? In what way? I would like to know what you think.
• Phil Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.