Religion is toxic. Spirituality is cool.
How many times have we heard people say: ‘I’m not religious but I’m spiritualme ? Maybe we even express it ourselves.
Theologians like Karl Barth (“religion is an inherently unfaithful enterprise”) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“Christianity without religion”) also decried religion as a pale substitute for true spirituality.
Abraham Kuyer therefore rings centennial when he shamelessly refracts the Christian religion through its Calvinist prism to discover “good news for science, art and culture”.
Calvinism was the religion necessary for human flourishing, according to him. It “united God and humanity; the individual and society; head, heart and hands. It was the religion of all life lived in the presence of God (coram Deo).
“Calvinism” may suggest to us a narrow dogma of predestination and a God who arbitrarily sends people to hell or heaven. But Kuyper refers to something much broader and richer.
Although he did not actually define religion, his view of human life well lived was as lived “in all its breadth and depth, individually and collectively, to the glory of God.”
What do most people think of by “religion”? Terms such as “boring rituals”, “endless sermons”, “hypocritical priests” or “outdated bigotry” express common complaints. And are often justified.
But is that the whole story?
This week our online learning community “Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper” addressed his second of the lectures on Calvinism, delivered in 1898 at Princeton Theological Seminary in America: “Calvinism and Religion”.
As I wrote last week, these lectures are probably the best introduction to Kuyper’s thought, given at the height of his career to an English-speaking audience unfamiliar with the Dutch context.
It describes a Christian worldview providing a framework for dealing with three fundamental human relationships: with God, with others and with the world.
His first lecture explains the concept of worldview. This second conference addresses human relations with God and the spiritual world: religion.
His subsequent lectures address the implications of this “religious” dimension: in politics, science, art and the future. True religion opens for him the possibility of a positive transformation in the world, both at the level of individuals and of society.
This second lesson is probably the heaviest and most theological. To be honest, if I had been among the 40 original listeners, I would have had a hard time keeping up with it – if I hadn’t already fallen asleep. But then I would have missed deep insights still crucial for us even in the 21st century.
Kuyper asks four questions about religion before offering his “Calvinist” answers. Contemporary theologians and philosophers viewed religion as an extension of human personality. So Kuyper starts asking, in effect: Is religion just a human phenomenon? Who is religion talking about: humans or God?
Religion “produces a blessing for man, but it does not exist for man”he replies. While God planted an innate sense of himself in every being, making humans religious, “religion is primarily about God and only secondarily about humans.”
His second question is, does religion need an intermediary church, a priest or a sorcerer between God and the soul? Pure spiritual religion, he replies, is without any creature intercession and involves direct communion between God and the human heart.
All believers, not just a priestly class, share in the priesthood of Christ. This view that religion was for the common man motivated his concern for the “little people”, de kleine luyden, the blue-collar Christians from whom he derived his main support in the Netherlands.
Thirdly: Does religion concern only “sacred” matters, private matters of the heart or morals, or does it involve all of human life?
Rome, he argues, draws a sacred/secular dividing line with clergy and cloister in the Holy of Holies, pious laity forming the Holy Place and ordinary faithful in the Outer Court “establishing nine-tenths of practical life apart from all religion” and, as during the carnival, “preferring the often sinful pleasures of the world” to devotion to the church.
No, he replies, true religion implies that ‘to anything he can apply his handin agriculture, commerce and industry, or his spirit, in the world of art and science, (man) is…constantly standing before the face of his God,…and above all, he must aim for the glory of his God.’
Lately: does religion reflect our default way of life as normal or point us to a new way of life? that is, does it aim to change the world? Can religion be a positive force for good in our world?
True religion cannot regard the present human condition as normal, but abnormal, below the intention of God.
Religion is therefore necessarily soteriologicalhe writes, meaning that it is on the regeneration of individuals and the restoration of all that was lost by the fall.
Which engages all spheres of life affected by sin. Which is every sphere of life.
Jeff Fontaine, Director of the Schuman Center for European Studies. This article was first published on the author’s blog, Weekly Word.