September 2006 - Volume 11, Issue 2

Keeping Religion Relevant

By Msgr. Frank Wissel

Photo of fireReligion is commonly regarded as a good thing. To say of a person that he or she is very religious is considered a compliment.

But the truth of the matter is that religion is not necessarily good. It can be, but it can also be bad. Religion, in its affect on human life, is as ambiguous as fire and water. Fire can be a blessing or a curse. It can also burn a house to the ground and kill all of its occupants.

Water is the same. It can cool and refresh. It can also flood and destroy. So it is with religion. Throughout all of history, religion has been both a blessing and a curse. How, then, are we to distinguish between the two? When is religion good and when is it bad?

Contrary to popular opinion, we cannot tell the difference by checking the labels. In light of current conflicts throughout the world, many would argue, for example, that Christianity is a good religion and Islam is a bad religion. But that answer will not do. It is too simplistic. Religion can produce fanatics or people of noble character. It is true that Christianity produced St. Francis, whose gentle and loving spirit has enriched the lives of millions.

It is also true that Christianity produced Torquemada, the old Spanish inquisitor, who was responsible for the murder of 2,000 heretics.

The same action is evident in the pages of the New Testament. There, we read about Jesus, whose name represents acceptance, forgiveness and love.

There are other characters and religious leaders in the new scriptures who prayed to the same God, read the same scriptures, sang the same hymns and worshiped in the same place, and yet many considered themselves better than others.

There is a story in the Gospel that accounts for a large part of that difference. Jesus and some religious leaders were engaged in one of their frequent debates. The leaders criticized Jesus and his disciples about eating without washing their hands. Initially, one would think that this would hardly be a heated discussion because most of us agree that it is good policy to wash our hands before eating.

Most likely the washing of hands was a symbolic gesture of asking to be cleansed before eating in order not to be contaminated with sin. It could have been a symbolic expression of being grateful for the food. It actually grew into a rigid outward ritual. It had nothing to do with life.

For religion to be relevant, it must show itself not in rituals but in how compassionate, patient and non-judgmental we are and most especially in our capacity to love all others.

Let's be not only relevant, but also realistic. In the eyes of Jesus, only one thing was supremely sacred and that was a person. Everything else was secondary.

Photo of a waterfallThere is a difference between not liking a person and loving that same person. There are people who I have met in my life that I didn't like. I tried to follow my mother's advice when she would say to me, "If you don't like somebody, stay away from them", and "if you don't have anything nice to say about someone, say nothing at all."

But she would emphasize to me - and this is where the relevance of religion really comes in - that in a time of need I would still help that person. And all of this comes from an inward attitude, not an external ritual.

Let us look well to ourselves in this matter. Religion has always had a fatal tendency to get disconnected from life, and to float away on a spiritual cloud. Jesus never allowed that to happen to his father. He kept his faith right in the thick of daily living.

By following his example, by remembering the supreme sacredness of every person, we can also keep our religion relevant to life and even change the world.