It finally dawned on me what the critical difference is between religion and faith.

In religion, people tell you what to believe. In faith, you figure it out for yourself.

Each has its place. Religion provides language and images for talking about God, as well as experiences such as corporate worship for hearing other voices. Religion is a starting point.

Faith is a more personal journey, starting often in a wilderness or time of loss, and it tends to involve a felt need to move beyond religion. The group-language of religion stops meaning enough; the tendency of religion to be prescriptive and, in time, judgmental stops serving any useful purpose.

The desire is to know God, not just to talk about God. It is to know oneself in relation to God, not just to belong to a religious body.

Religion deals in certainty and form; faith proceeds in “fear and trembling,” as Paul said, and leads to loss of certainty and a formless void that only God can fill.

Moving beyond religion is a scary journey. Other people rarely understand what you are going through, because it is so inherently personal. Their best gift to you is listening, so that you can tell and re-tell your own narrative. Listening is hard work for them. It’s easier to show you the way, rather than leave you free to find it yourself.

Churches think themselves in the religion business. But they don’t serve fully until they see themselves as faith communities. That is the critical transition that lies ahead for modern churches. It won’t be easy.


Q: Why should an individual accept religious doctrine developed by others?

A: No reason. We need to think for ourselves. Stories, ideas, Bible passages, theories, insights, systematic theologies – they all have a certain capacity to inform our thinking. But there is no “should” about it, despite centuries of pressure by this or that religious establishment for us all to believe a certain way.

When I observe someone whose life seems good, decent, self-sacrificial, marked by what I might call holiness, I listen to what that person says about God. Over time, I hear similarities in how decent people talk about God. That can a starting point for my own explorations. But the explorations are always mine to do.

Same with reading Scripture and participating in worship. I hear themes that resonate, have experiences that draw me deeper, find my voice changing. I pay attention to those experiences.

In other words, knowing God is a complex process that we don’t need to simplify by demanding fealty to doctrines. We have a whole lifetime to figure it out, and even then, God will be glad to see us.