So, I’ve got a question for you: What is religion? I know that, for most of you, it probably doesn’t seem to be a hard question at all, you have a pretty good idea of what you think it means. As someone who just completed a degree in Religious Studies at Wake Forest, I can tell you that the only thing I personally know for certain about “religion” is that I have no idea what the word actually means (hence the quotes you’re going to see around the word through most of this discussion).
You see, here’s the thing that most people don’t really think about: the concept of “religion” as we know and love it is a construct. Some Christians balk at this, saying, “But wait, ‘religion’ is right there in the Bible! Look at James!” And they’re right, James 1.27 says it pretty clearly, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Says it right there, religion. Or, well, the NRSV, and most other English translations, say it right there. What’s interesting, well, to me at least, is to look at the Greek text behind this.
The word used in v. 27, which we tend to render as “religion” in English, is θρησκεια (thréskeia). We get to “religion” by way of Latin translations, such as the Vulgate, which render thréskeia as religio, a word which also carries a meaning of reverence or observance to the prevailing cult or deity. The problem is that thréskeia doesn’t mean “religion” in quite the way we think it does. A better definition would be devotion or worship. Such a definition is supported by a scan of some of the other instances of usage of thréskeia in a range of texts from the Septuagint to other uses in the NT to Josephus’ writings. That is not to say that there is no connection between “religion” and thréskeia, but simply that the word is more closely connected with ritual or worship than with “religion” in the way that we think of it today. In light of that, I particularly like the translation used in the Common English Bible: “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.”
So, why does this matter? Yes, Christians of today can look at the definition of thréskeia and think that religion and ritual worship mean the same thing, because that’s how we define religion. Because of that, whenever we think of “religion,” we implicitly apply our own definition. It’s very easy to feel that you have a monopoly on what constitutes a religion when you can open your tradition’s scripture and point to the word itself. This feeling of superiority over other traditions which didn’t quite match up with the (often Protestant) Christian rubric led to the labeling of some groups as so-called “primitive religions.” Some groups would not know what you were talking about if you spoke of them as a “religion,” the term is not adequate or all-encompassing. I’m by no means saying that religion and worship are completely distinct entities. I just think that, sometimes, it’s important to think where the texts, language, and tradition of our faith come from. Luke Timothy Johnson, renowned NT scholar at Candler once said, “The Bible didn’t fall from heaven in a Glad bag.” It didn’t just appear as a finished product. We have a translation shaped by centuries of history, and sometimes it’s good to struggle with that.