I must confess, the word, "religion" has a negative connotation for me. Those of you who have listened to me preach over the years know that I rarely speak of "religion." It takes a deeply human way of being and sets it aside as an abstract, impersonal, system of beliefs that some have and others do not. Religion becomes the shorthand, reductionistic way of naming what in reality is a kind of knowing, a way of living, a personal encounter, a sense of reality, a thirst for meaning, and an intuition of transcendence. That's why I resist much talk about religion...it says too little about too much.
To talk of "religions" is to reduce all that I named above to a system of beliefs and rituals that can easily be defined, objectified, and categorized.
Sister Joan has a much more generous take on religion. To be sure, she has her critique of its reductive tendencies, but she retains a more dynamic view of its meaning and possibilities. She writes, "Religion says that there is a Divine Center from which we all come and to which we will all someday return." In terms of how aging can redeem "religion" she writes, "In later years, religion ceases to be simply a series of rites and rituals, of rules and answers for which I get some kind of eternal points. Religion becomes what it was always meant to be: a search and a relationship with the Spirit Who draws us on. Always on. Even to the point where 'on' is unclear."
Christianity is not a religion in the same way that Islam is not or Judaism is not or any of the other "religions" we talk about these days. Each of these traditions rightly understood, are particular ways of life, of knowing, of believing, and of being. They are always so much more than expressions of some generic tendency of our own making that can be lumped together under the category of religion.
As the theologian Michael J. Buckley writes, "One will not long affirm a personal God, who is fundamentally inferred as a conclusion rather than disclosed as a presence." God is not a conclusion to be inferred but a Presence to be experienced.
I may get turned off by talk about "religion," but I am utterly convinced that our lives are profoundly impoverished by a failure to live in relation to God. That we are made for such relationship and that, as Augustine prayed, "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee." If talk of "religion" keeps us attending to the restlessness of our hearts (as Sister Joan does) then I concede it place and importance.
Let us, with the passing of our days, be drawn on...always on...to know the Presence who holds us even when we are not sure what we hold to. Church, in one very real sense, is simply a gathering of those who are holding it together.