Perhaps you have heard the statement, “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.” Many believers hold steadfastly to this formula. Others, however, can only shake their heads at it. From their point of view, Christianity is the epitome of religion. To deny this fact is completely absurd. As is the case with almost all debates in Germany at present, this one is also being conducted in a heated manner.
In order to be able to give a clear answer to the question of whether Christianity is a religion, we must examine both opinions more closely. I will first look at the definition of the term “religion” and then consider the Christian argument.
Definition of religion
Anyone who has studied the concept of religion in depth will have found that the one satisfactory definition of the term “religion” does not exist. It has changed over time and is used differently in different cultures. For example, the term “religion” was not associated with faith until modern times. Further, the word “religion” by no means appears only in the context of a belief in a deity. Some of the great religions are monotheistic, that is, they assume only one deity. Others are polytheistic (they worship many gods), as in the Hindu religions, for example. And in still other religions, belief in a particular god or gods plays little or no role, such as in Buddhism. Gods are not negated in Buddhism, but they are not really helpful on the way to Nirvana. Sometimes I even have the impression with my fellow human beings that quite profane things become a religion, such as music culture, sports or political ideologies.
Religion encompasses belief, experience, ethics, behavior, worldview, philosophy, mythology, cosmology, religious acts, culture, and more. It encompasses a wide range of components. Together, these components form the framework of the concept of religion.
The term is so fuzzy that there have been repeated pleas in religious studies to dispense with the term altogether. But this would make the understanding of religions even more complicated. We must therefore accept that the meaning of the word “religion” cannot be uniform and that a definition always remains only an attempt.
So what is religion in the broad sense? One could perhaps say that religion is an encounter of man with a supernatural or sacred reality. (Ernst Feil in RGG4)
Is Christianity a Religion?
If this definition is taken as a starting point, Christianity is nothing other than a religion, because in essence it corresponds to this definition. According to Christian theology, God has revealed himself to man again and again. His greatest revelation took place in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. So the fact that the Christian faith is a relationship with the one God through Jesus Christ does not argue against it being a religion.
Why Christians find religion problematic
Why do Christians have such a hard time calling their faith a religion? Apparently, they want to set themselves apart from other religions and suggest to secular people that the Christian faith does not consist of ancient traditions or ritual acts, but corresponds much more to an active relational event between God and man. Their concern is justified, because the Christian faith is not a faith in performance, but a faith in relationship. I can well understand the Christians’ concern, but I still don’t think that their way of arguing is purposeful. It is not conclusive and will always meet with resistance.
I have fewer reservations about the term “religion” and also have few reservations about other religions. The fact that people belong to other religions shows me that man is a spiritual being who seeks contact with supernatural reality at all times in history and in all places in this world.
How Christians Should Talk About Their Religion
Like Paul on the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34), Christians always have a basis for conversation with people of other religions, because they know the one for whom the others are also seeking. Or as Paul puts it, “Now I declare to you what you worship unknown” (Acts 17:23).
In Paulʼ conversation with the interested Athenians, it is particularly striking how appreciative he was of his interlocutors. Although the Athenians worshipped a multitude of different gods, which were obviously also unknown to them, he addresses them as “especially pious people” (Acts 17:22). Unfortunately, Christians do not always succeed in being appreciative in conversation with those of different faiths. Peter also placed special emphasis on Christians treating others gently and with appreciation when they give an account of the hope that fills them (1Peter 3:15).
It is also interesting to note that Peter uses the word here from which the term “apologetics” comes. Apologetics is a discipline whose concern is to defend the Christian faith. However, a large proportion of self-proclaimed apologetics seldom behave in conversation with their fellow human beings as Peter urged.
Christians should speak meaningfully and respectfully, as well as argumentatively coherently, with interested parties and skeptics. After all, Christianity is not just one religion among many, but represents a speciality, because its founder and its history are special phenomena. I will explain this in a later article.