#15  Faith and Religion are Not the Same, and Faith Is Far More Important

FOR MANY LEGITIMATE REASONS, religion is often seen in bad light by contemporary people. Partly for that reason, in this chapter I contend that faith and religion are not the same and that faith is far more important than religion. Faith (in God, by whatever name God is known) is always good, but religion has been and continues to be infiltrated by much that is not good and sometimes by that which is just plain bad. This is another “true thing” that everyone needs to know now.

There doesn’t have to be a split between faith and religion. Ideally, religion is an expression of faith and nourishes the faith of the believer and encourages faith in non-believers. We live, however, in a world where much is far from ideal. And, unfortunately, there is a lot of religion that is quite different from, and quite inferior to, faith.

Also, religion tends to be divisive, as various religions “compete” for adherents, not only in this country but in countries around the world. In an effort to overcome the tension among the religions, interreligious dialogue has for decades been encouraged by some people. And while there is still a place for such dialogue among people of various religious traditions, a more helpful movement is that of interfaith activities, which is becoming more widespread.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary indicates that the term interfaith dates back to 1932. But the common use of that term is considerably more recent. Still, it has become a widely used term and there is even a website, administered in England, with the URL address http://www.interfaith.org.

Part of the reason for the shift in terminology from interreligious to interfaith is due to this phenomenon: religion tends to divide, but faith can, and often does, unite people. So let’s take a look at the major differences between religion and faith.

Religion as “Unfaith”

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth was probably the most significant theologian of the twentieth century.[1] Barth’s negative view of religion is one of the many ideas for which he is known. He wrote about religion as unfaith in the second volume of his massive Church Dogmatics (CD).[2] The title of the seventeenth section of the entire CD is “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion.” In that pregnant section, Barth deals with three main topics: “The Problem of Religion in Theology,” “Religion as Unbelief,” and “True Religion.”

The English title of that second topic, which is twenty-eight pages long, is a problem, for even though it is a rather unusual English word, the German word Barth used should probably be translated unfaith rather than unbelief. Religion is “unfaith” because, in Barth’s analysis, it is the result of the efforts humans expend in seeking their own salvation. To Barth, and many others who share his ideas, God is not found by humans searching for God. God can be experienced by humans primarily through God’s self-manifestation, which is the main theological meaning of the term “revelation.” Faith, then, is not striving, but responding. Faith is not searching, but receiving. Faith is not effort, but simply the grateful acceptance of God’s abundant grace. Thus, religion is unfaith because of its refusal to accept and to live by grace.

Barth makes it clear that in calling religion “unfaith,” he is not referring just to the religion of those who are not Christians. Rather, even the religion of Christians can be, and sometimes is, an expression of unfaith” (see p. 300). Having admitted this, Barth emphasizes the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and Christian faith as response to that revelation. Thus, Barth contends that “it is only by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ that we can characterize religion as idolatry and self-righteousness and in this way show it to be unbelief” (p. 314).

Rather than religion, Barth, and many others in the theological movement that he initiated and that is usually referred to as neo-orthodox theology in this country, emphasizes God’s revelation and faith as human response to that revelation. These are ideas which we need to look at further on in this chapter, but let’s first consider more about what is not good about religion.

Religion Can Be Evil

When I first went to Japan as an educational missionary and began teaching Christian Studies at Seinan Gakuin University, I found that the bulk of the students I encountered, in the classroom and outside, were quite negative not only toward Christianity but to religion in general. Thinking about their widespread negative perception of religion, the title of one of the first pieces I wrote for a campus publication, was, in English translation, “Is Religion Good?” My answer was, “Not necessarily.” In spite of the fact that the publication was issued by the Department of Religious Activities, I had to admit that just as many have charged, religion has through the centuries produced much that is definitely not good.

Decades later, Charles Kimball, who is also an ordained Baptist minister, wrote a book which was published under the title When Religion Becomes Evil.[3] Kimball doesn’t think that religion as such is bad, but he does analyze how religion in all religious traditions is susceptible to at least five basic corruptions leading to a variety of evils. He goes on to stress that “only authentic faith can prevent such evil.”[4]

Kimball’s book was published the year following the infamy of what is universally known now as simply 9/11. There was (is) a widespread perception that those attacks were perpetrated by religious beliefs, spawned by adherents of the religion known as Islam. In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, many unkind things were said about Islam and about Muslims. Although there were clearly political and socio-economic factors that were much more at the root of 9/11, it perhaps cannot be denied that to some extent it was linked to the (warped) thinking of some fundamentalist Muslims.

Through the years I taught in Japan, I regularly heard negative comments by students who were critical of Christianity because of the Crusades. It is fitting that the cover of When Religion Becomes Evil depicts a Crusade scene, with a warrior sporting a large white cross on his chest in the middle of the carnage. The fifth of the “warning signs of corruption in religion” in Kimball’s book is “declaring holy war,” and such a declaration has, unfortunately, often been done, to varying degrees, in the history of Christianity.

In addition to wars, past and present, Christianity has, also in the past and to varying degrees in the present, been directly linked to such evils as slavery and racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. It is hard to deny that all of those evils have been, at times, not only aligned with but even fostered by religious beliefs and religious institutions. But there is no such alignment or relationship of those evils with faith, at least with faith properly understood. Faith and religion are not the same, and faith is far more important.

Faith as “Something Far More Interior”

Kimball indicates that Wilfred Cantwell Smith is one of three esteemed “mentors and friends.”[5] The Meaning and End of Religion is one of Smith’s most influential books. Basically, in that book he suggests giving up the use of the word religion, contending that “what men have tended to conceive as religion . . . can more rewardingly, more truly, be conceived in terms of two factors, different in kind, both dynamic: a historical ‘cumulative tradition,’ and the personal faith of men and women.” [6]

Smith makes the same point in a later book; there he describes “religion” as “a pattern of observable forms” which comes to be expressed in a tradition. Then he asserts: “Faith is nourished and patterned by the tradition it formed and in some sense sustained by it—yet faith precedes and transcends the tradition, and in turn sustains it.” He defines faith as a direct encounter with God. [7]

It is in that sense, then, that we can insist that religion and faith are different with faith being more important, for as Smith asserts, faith precedes and transcends the traditions which are known as various religions. But faith is more important on even a deeper level.

The difference between faith and religion is clearly seen in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the fifth chapter of Galatians.[8] In The Message, his popular paraphrase of the Bible, Peterson translates verses four through six as follows:

When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile, we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.

The sentiment of the above passage was expressed graphically by an Episcopal priest in San Francisco: “The message of Jesus is the only sure cure for religion.”[9] Perhaps that would also be the position of Frank Schaeffer, the son of the prominent conservative/fundamentalist leader Francis Schaeffer. The younger Schaeffer is the author of the 2010 book Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism).[10]

The “religion” of Jesus and many of his followers today who are critical of much of what is generally called religion is, indeed, something far more interior than the outward forms expressed by the various religious traditions. That “religion” is, truly, faith—and faith which is expressed primarily by loving deeds of service, not by religious rites.

Faith is Always Good

Earlier in this chapter we saw how faith can be, and many times is, evil. By contrast, the claim can be made that true faith in God is always good. Obviously, that claim depends on one’s understanding or definition of what true faith is.

For Catholics, religious matters are mostly determined by consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and what the Catechism says about faith is helpful for Protestants, too. It is made clear there that faith is “man’s response to God,” and it then declares that by faith “man completely submits his intellect and his will to God.”[11] Apart from the non-inclusive language, those are good statements about the meaning of faith.

If faith is really a surrender of one’s intellect and will to God, how could that not be good? Well, it might not be good if one has a misunderstanding of God and one’s surrender is to an idol, some entity that is less than infinite, absolute, and eternal. But if it is really God to whom one is responding, then that has to be something which is always good. (And that is why Christians have often talked about faith in God through Jesus, in whom God was fully revealed.)

This understanding of faith helps clarify the difference between faith and religion. The latter, as we have seen, is usually unavoidably linked to multifarious traditions, rites, and doctrines, varying from religion to religion. But again, we see a clear contrast between faith and religion, for faith is not primarily linked to rites or ceremonies. Faith is living in a loving relationship with God, the result of the direct encounter with God about which W. C. Smith wrote.

I very much like the following very short paragraph in the same book authored by Smith: “Faith is a saying ‘Yes’” to truth.”[12] For that reason, Smith asserts that people in various religious traditions have different “religions” but the same faith. For example, he avers, “Buddha certainly had faith: a religious faith mighty, contagious, creative; one that has powerfully affected the shape of human history and the personal lives of men and women for now twenty-five centuries”[13]

We may not want to go as far as Smith did. But, at least, we can and should affirm that faith and religion are not the same and also that faith is certainly more important than religion.


[1] Barth (1886-1968) was born and died in Basel, Switzerland. However, he taught in three German universities from 1921 until 1935, when he was expelled from Germany because of his refusal to swear allegiance to Hitler.

[2] This is Part 2 of Volume I, The Doctrine of the Word of God. The German edition was published in 1937; the authorized English translation by G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight was published by T. & T. Clark in 1956.

[3] HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. At the time of publication, Kimball (b. 1950) was a professor of religion and chair of the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University.

[4] This statement, as well as a list of “the five warning signs of corruption in religion,” is found on the back cover of Kimball’s book.

[5] Smith (1916-2000) is one of three such people listed on the dedication page of Kimball’s book. Another is Hugo Culpepper, professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from which Kimball graduated.

[6] (Macmillan, 1962), p. 194. At the time of publication, Smith (1916-2000) was Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Canada, the country of his birth. Later he was for several years director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, and Kimball studied there under Smith.

[7] Faith and Belief (Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 4, 5.

[8] Peterson (b. 1932), a Presbyterian pastor for decades, is the translator of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. The New Testament was first published in 1993 and the entire Bible in 2002.

[9] A comment made by Paul Fromberg (b. 1960) to author Sara Miles in her Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (Ballantine Books, 2007), p. 221.

[10] (Da Capo Press). Schaeffer (b. 1952) is also the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (Carol & Graf Publishers, 2007). Francis Schaeffer (1912-84) exerted considerable influence on the Religious Right in the 1970s and early 1980s.

[11] The words man’s response to God appear as the title of Chapter Three in the first section of “Part One: The Profession of Faith,” and the other words quoted above are at the beginning of paragraph 142.

[12] Faith and Belief (Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 163.

[13] Faith and Belief, p. 32. Smith goes on in the same paragraph to declare, “Whether we should go on or not to call it faith in God, depends directly on what we think of the universe, not on what he [Buddha] thought of it.”

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