The Trap of Religiosity18 July 2022
The Christian faith is a ‘path of life’. It’s a way that continues as long as people live, with no stops and no delays. It’s continual movement, parallel to our daily life and activities. Along this road we encounter an open world, full of changes and transformations, rife with surprises and unforeseen circumstances. This is why our sights should always be open, our range of view broad, and our field of vision wide. We almost never know what will befall us. We can never know what will happen to us when we take the next step. A new danger is always lurking and some change is always a possibility.
But this continuous march also has its own beauty. Because it keeps Christians on the alert and ready for anything new; always prepared to meet the unexpected, the unforeseen. This is in keeping with human nature, which changes all the time. It’s also in keeping with things which constantly involve new situations. So the ‘path of life’ is human life itself, but as shown to the world by Christ with his presence among us.
This continuous march, however, is also the point which presents the greatest difficulty, even when it’s a march towards freedom. We know from the exodus that the Israelites soon grew weary of wandering in the Sinai desert. They reached the point where they asked Moses if they could return to slavery in Egypt rather than continue their exhausting journey to Canaan. The constant vigilance exhausted them, while the unknown, even if it was the promised land, was no match for the loss of the good things of Egypt. The daily change of locality made them feel rudderless.
Something similar often happens with Christians. Life in the form of constant progress towards perfection fills them with fear, discourages them, makes them feel to be wayfarers and strangers. This truth has, in itself, become a weight for many people today, though it made the apostles and the faithful in the early centuries ready for every danger and persecution. They prefer the security of an earthly city to the expectation of the celestial one. Of course, we’re not talking about those who are lost on the ocean of materialism. They’ve never known the beauty of the open sky, because they sank into the mire early on. We’re speaking of those who made a start and gave up somewhere along the way. They’ve been caught in the trap of religiosity. By observing external forms, they’ve changed the ‘path of life’ itself into a form, the sole aim of which is to protect their transitory life from changes dangerous to their fragile internal balance. In this way, faith becomes a means rather than our final end. Ultimately, this distorted faith, which is enveloped in a cloak of religiosity, is a snare which holds us fast and renders us unable to continue our march towards ‘Jerusalem above’.
A clear image of the dangers of religiosity is provided by the Gospel extract which is part of Christ’s sermon on the mount, where the ‘path of life’ of the true disciples of Christ is contrasted to the external religiosity of the Pharisees. The Lord cites three examples which show clearly the trap of religiosity, the transformation of progression into stagnation.
The first is how people pray, how they seek God’s mercy. Shortly before this, Christ had taught his disciples the Lord’s prayer, the ‘Our Father’. It’s a short, comprehensive text which consciously avoids the long-windedness which was the norm at that time. It’s not only short, but new, as regards its content. Essentially, Christians are to ask God for two things: that his kingdom come and that their sins be forgiven. These are the two requests which are summed up in the short prayer ‘Lord have mercy’, which is a summary of the Patristic tradition.
But the danger of religiosity lurks everywhere, however, even at the time of prayer. Here it appears as the severance of prayer from the rest of our lives. This is something the Lord points to directly. Prayer is proper and effective only when it’s accompanied by forgiveness of those who’ve wronged us. This is something that seems simple and easy to apply, but in practice it isn’t, unless it is part of our everyday actions. Our prayer frequently consists of submitting to God a series of requests, from the reasonable to the most outrageous and absurd. Often it’s also a time of spiritual euphoria, a flight from the world and the bitterness that fills us. Prayer is a time and place where other people can’t bother us. This is how we usually handle it. And this is precisely where the trap lies: in transforming our prayer into something impractical, utopian, outside the daily changes in our life and, in particular, outside our relationships with others. It’s precisely this danger that Christ points out: the transformation of our living communion with God within our everyday reality into a religious practice cut off from life. But he doesn’t restrict himself to pointing out the danger. He also shows us how to avoid it: by seeking forgiveness from those we’ve hurt, from those we’ve distressed, from those we’ve cut off from communion with us because of our hostility. Communion with God is proper and effective only after we’ve restored communion with other people, without asking whether they’re the ones to blame. Otherwise our prayer’s just a Pharisaical, religious form…
The second example is particularly apt because it’s linked to fasting. By its nature, fasting is a practice that lends itself to the external satisfaction of human egotism and to a false sense of superiority over those who don’t fast. At the time of Christ, the Pharisees were distinguished from the other Jews precisely by the observation of the fasts. Not only did they fail to hide it, but they trumpeted it in order to underscore their superiority over others, their religious supremacy. Christ condemns this transformation of fasting from an instrument of vigilance to an end in itself, to self-promotion of the pious person and the bolstering of their individualism. Fasting is a means of exercising self-control and is, at the same time, an opportunity for social work. It’s a recollection of the communion of paradise and a challenge to take up philanthropic activity. But human vainglory altered it into a mere form and a means of self-aggrandizement and self-justification. Those who fall into the trap of religiosity transform fasting into promotion of the self, into an intervening wall separating their own piety from the impiety of the many. The history of the Church shows that it’s well aware of this danger. As early as the apostolic age, Saint Paul faced it, using words which are a continuation of those of Christ: ‘Those who fast should refrain from judging those who don’t; and those who don’t fast shouldn’t judge those who do’.
Christ also brings a third example which shows how easily we’re fooled and turn steady progress into stagnation and inactivity. The question here is: where is our treasure? This is where it becomes clear whether our Christianity is deeply-rooted. Because, as the Lord says, our heart is where our treasure is.
The deviation is easier here, because it’s linked to our everyday practice. The treasure is whatever we think is of value, whatever we ask God to give us, whatever we pursue with might and main. And often this isn’t the kingdom of God and its righteousness, but some purely secular benefit. Most of the time, we also subject those around us to this treasure. People serve things rather than the other way round, which would be more appropriate even from a purely human standpoint.
Religiosity seems not to play any role here. Attachment to things of this world seems not to be linked to religiosity, even in terms of external formalities. And yet it may be that this is also possible. Because, in practice, people will do anything to prevent their treasure being affected. So they’ve developed theories about the usefulness of money, about the kudos of good Christians who have earthly goods, about Christian management of these goods and so on. And all of this so that they don’t lose their earthly treasure, that which they’ve substituted for God. They do everything possible to forge a link between their pure faith and their idolatry. They’re satisfied with artificial and pallid religiosity, provided their treasure’s safe.
All three examples have common features. They show how easily people forget the journey and instead dwell in a false and transitory present, thinking that, in this way, they’ll achieve security. But at the same time they show that, in the depths of their soul, they feel the need to keep in touch with God. Their inner dichotomy is expressed through the creation of a shallow religiosity which not only fails to solve the problem but actually intensifies it. It’s a pointless and futile effort to serve two masters at the same time, despite the Lord’s assertion that such a thing isn’t possible. False religiosity prevents them from seeing things clearly and binds them to a corner where they feel safe. But then, with the passage of time, they fall further and further behind the people of God who are on the move. They remain by themselves in the wilderness, weak and insecure.
In one of his sermons, Christ says that if someone sets a hand to the plough and looks back, they won’t be accepted into the Kingdom of God. The meaning of this is simple. If you hear the call of God, you have to stop flirting with other things. You’re duty bound to continue moving forward with the Church, without hesitation and without becoming detached from the others. Otherwise you’ll soon find yourself outside the people of God and far removed from God himself. And you can’t stop; because if you do, you’ll be left behind and will become easy prey to enemies and egotism: you’ll submit to the passions, the vanity of material treasures and fake religiosity. And this artificial religiosity not only fails to save, but actually takes us away from salvation.
The trap of religiosity that observes the formalities and is self-centered isn’t a characteristic feature of Pharisaism alone. It’s perched above us at every moment, ready to tear us apart spiritually. This is why the Church calls us to constant vigilance. To spiritual watchfulness which keeps the spirit alert and the heart ready to react in a timely manner.