Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “What is the Essence of True Religion?”

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What defines true religion? What ultimately constitutes true worship? How do we know that we aren’t rationalizing our own selves and calling it religion? How do we know that we aren’t creating God in our own image and likeness and using religion for our own purposes?

Paul Tillich once distinguished between what he termed: Pseudo-religion, Quasi-religion, and True-religion. He defined them this way:

Pseudo-religion uses explicit religious language and sometimes even intends it in its real sense, but ultimately it doesn’t open someone up to anything beyond what is highest within the individual self. In the end, it recycles human consciousness and doesn’t open us up to the transcendent, to air beyond us. It uses the word “God”, but its “God” doesn’t take us beyond what is highest inside of ourselves. “God” is a higher power, an ideal, and a power beyond mundane consciousness, but “God” is not a transcendent power, a real person capable of parting the Red Sea or raising the body of Jesus. Nonetheless this “God” can be wonderfully positive in challenging us to what’s highest inside of ourselves. It makes for a religion of positive thinking.

Quasi-religion doesn’t use explicit religious language, but takes its adherents beyond what is highest inside of a person to what is highest inside of humanity itself. Many ideologies are quasi-religions. They demand that we sacrifice ourselves for something higher. Our own personal dreams are less important than the larger dream of humanity itself. Thus, an ideology such as Marxism, Greenpeace, or Feminism can demand that we sacrifice our own dreams and even our lives for the common good. While not using explicit religious language and sometimes even being explicitly atheistic, quasi-religion attains some of the qualities of true-religion, namely, it pushes its adherents to altruism, self-sacrifice, and purpose beyond idiosyncratic preference.

True-Religion might or might not use explicit religious language but, either way, it opens up its adherents to a vision and a reality beyond what is highest inside of the individual person and highest within the collective ideal of humanity itself. It opens us up to the transcendent, to a God who is real, beyond us, relates to us, and who asks very real things of us in terms of a response. True-religion, unlike its counterparts, does not recycle air that is already within our reality. In a manner of speaking, it brings in air from the outside, from beyond. The God it relates to is not a power already within the consciousness of a person or within the consciousness of humanity itself.

But how do we know if we have attained that? How do we know if our own religious practice is real, quasi, or pseudo?
Jesus answered this by saying: “By their fruits you will know them.” The authenticity of our religious practice should not be judged, as is commonly the case, by any of these criteria: Simple sincerity (“He’s so convinced and sincere!”), religious passion (“He’s on fire with God!”), dogmatic vigilance and purity (“He has such a passion for truth!”), commitment to justice (“He is so committed to the poor!”) faithful religious practice (“He has never missed church in his life!”), or even self-sacrifice (“He is willing to die for this!”). Any of these qualities can be present in a person and his or her religious practice might still not be true. Imbalance, fanaticism, and flat-out hatred can sometimes produce these qualities or be unhealthily mixed in with them. The older brother of the prodigal son never left his father’s house and never did a thing wrong, but he was still unable to enter his father’s joy.

How do we judge true religion?

Perhaps there isn’t a simpler or clearer formula than the one St. Paul gives in the 5th chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians. He tells us that there are two spirits we can live by, the spirit of world (the “Sarx”) and God’s Holy Spirit.

The spirit of the world is marked by envy, anger, bitterness, gossip, factionalism, slander, idolatry, sexual misconduct, and arrogance; whereas the God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, is characterized by charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, constancy, mildness, fidelity, chastity. Simply put, when our daily lives are characterized by envy, anger, bitterness, factionalism, slander, sexual misconduct, and arrogance, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we are living in God’s spirit, irrespective of the purity of our religious practice or commitment to a cause. We are living in God’s spirit only when our lives show charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, constancy, mildness, fidelity, and chastity. Living these qualities is true religion, nothing more and nothing less. We know we are breathing air beyond our own only when these qualities show forth in our lives.

Though we might delude ourselves and fool others for awhile with a religious practice that is something less than life in the spirit as Paul defines it, anything less that the real thing will ultimately have us standing, bitter and envious, outside the Father’s joy.