My theory: faith sees the glass half-full; religion* sees the glass half-empty.
Faith says, “You are a marvelous creation of God, made in the Divine image.”
Religion says, “You are a sinner who is incapable of anything good.”
Faith says, “Your story begins with creation.”
Religion says, “Your story begins with the Fall.”
Faith says, “Of course you have made bad decisions, but grace continues to move through your life.
Religion says, “Of course you have made bad decisions; this is why you’re in such a mess and must suffer the consequences.”
Faith says, “God waits for you to respond to divine love.”
Religion says, “God waits for you to be ashamed of your sins and to decide you will change.”
Faith says, “Trust God to work through your deepest desires and your best judgments because they grow out of who you are as a child of God.”
Religion says, “Don’t trust yourself at all, but rely only on the authority of God’s Word, or the Church, or those charged with leading you.”
Faith says, “God saved you because God loves you and eternally desires your company.”
Religion says, “God saved you because you were a miserable failure and needed saving.”
Faith says, “You are continuously being created by God, becoming more of who God dreamed you to be.”
Religion says, “You are continuously in need of help and repair, spiraling down into sinful patterns unless God helps you correct them.”
I could go on and on. And the tricky part is, there’s some truth in either viewpoint. But I think the general culture of Christian religion trains us in the half-empty attitude. We are more likely to see ourselves as worthless sinners than as God’s children. We are more likely to focus on what is not right than on what is good and moving forward. We are more likely to assume that God is irritated with us most of the time because we are screwing up most of the time—than we are to see God as the one who’s on our side, greatly pleased with our every little effort. Usually we walk through life dreading the moment when that divine disapproval will descend upon us. It’s really tiring to be in trouble all the time.
There is danger in de-emphasizing our need for help and our tendency to be selfish, foolish, and all the rest. Any person who is reflective at all recognizes how easily our God-given drives and desires swerve out of balance. There is good reason the saints and other spiritual heroes have practiced regular prayer, meditation, charitable works, and involvement in community; we need habits of soul to counteract our tendency to live out of fear and grasping, both of which lead to what we call sin, an old-fashioned word that we must not discard simply because it’s old-fashioned.
But I am so weary of watching people trudge through their lives feeling like sinners rather than like God’s beloved. It changes the way we do everything. It burdens us unnecessarily. It moves us to expect God to act like anything but a loving parent, teacher, friend. And we will never be at our best when, at gut level, we approach the Divine in the same way we would approach a vindictive authority figure.
My goal is to be not so much religious as faith-filled. I believe that faith-filled is what leads to faith-ful. Whenever the fear and dread and blanket guilt drift in, my faith looks for the closest exit.
*By “religion” I mean religious culture. Obviously, I’m using these terms loosely and I’m generalizing in order to make a point. Please, no angry responses unpacking the theological definitions of faith and religion.