On Being Both Christian and Religious

by Carroll E. Simcox

Dr. Simcox was the former editor of the Living Church Magazine in 1987 He was residing in Hendersonville, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  April 18, 1984, p. 398.) Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The author examines the distinctions between Christianity and religion.

 “ Christianity begins where religion ends -- with the Resurrection.” In Mead’s Encyclopedia of Religious Quotations this epigram is attributed to Anonymous. If the author is alive and reads these words, I express my thanks. If the author is in paradise, I still extend my blessings and thanks, trusting that my message will be received.

In 1926 Alfred North Whitehead delivered in King’s Chapel, Boston, four lectures which later appeared as a small book titled Religion in the Making. In it is this now-famous definition: “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. It runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion.”

That is one of my two favorite definitions of religion. The other is this, by George Santayana: “Religion is the love of life in the consciousness of impotence.”

Whitehead’s definition is certainly not everybody’s favorite, especially among the Christian clergy. Over the years I have seen it roundly thumped and blasted by people who, I am sure, have not carefully read, marked, learned and inwardly digested it. All too typical is this denunciation of it by the minister of a large congregation, as quoted in a newspaper interview: “A famous philosopher of our age has told us that religion is what we do in our solitude (sic). Believe me, that isn’t my idea of religion. It isn’t what Jesus teaches. You won’t find any such ‘me-and-God’ religion in the New Testament. John Wesley was right when he said that there is no real Christianity that is not social.’’

The dear man, like so many others, simply did not notice that Whitehead was trying to define not Christianity, but religion. They are not the same. If Anonymous was right, as I think he or she was, in saying that Christianity begins where religion ends, then Whitehead cannot justly be faulted for having defined religion as distinct from Christianity. I am saying that religion is -- or can be -- a “preparation for the gospel” rather than the gospel itself.

One could reasonably criticize Whitehead for defining religion in exclusively theistic terms. It can be, and often is, defined more broadly to include nontheistic creeds, codes and cults. If somebody wants to say that Karl Marx was just as religious “in his own way” as John Henry Newman, or that Madalyn Murray O’Hair is as religious as Billy Graham, that person will get no argument from me.

Whitehead’s and Santayana’s definitions both fit my own case perfectly. I love life in the consciousness of impotence, and Whitehead’s three stages of encounter with God are well known to me.

Santayana implicitly agrees with Whitehead about solitariness, for the love of life in the consciousness of impotence is an utterly solitary experience -- as solitary as death, to which it has some other dismal similarities. Solitariness is not solitude, nor privacy, nor loneliness, nor spiritual solipsism, nor aloneness. People experience solitariness when the chilling, scary, desolating truth bursts upon them that they are not like anybody else. It is an acute, and for most of us unpleasant, sense of our uniqueness, our differentness from all other human beings.

To be sure, those in whose soul there is a strong streak of the Nietzschean or the Whitmanesque element (“I celebrate myself, and sing myself”) may find this sense exhilarating and delightful. I find it quite the opposite. To whom can I bare my soul, showing myself as I really am? Who can possibly understand me if he or she has never walked in my moccasins? Only a god -- or a devil -- can know me as I am. And all those fellow human beings all around me are, must be, as different from me as I from them. Solitariness is the doom of each.

The soul in this plight is a homeless orphan:

An infant crying in the night:

An infant crying for the light:

And with no language but a cry

[Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, 54, II. 18-20].


We must not schematize that cry too precisely as we analyze it, but we may safely say that the sequence suggested by Whitehead is very common, if not common enough to be called normal. The soul first cries, “O God. if there be a God ...!“ And 10, the void. The silence of those infinite spaces is deafening. But thirst cries for water even when it has been assured by all the evidence that there is no water. So the soul cries again, now to say, “0 God, since You have made me and I didn’t ask to come here I surely have some claim upon You, and I insist that . .

This time there comes an answer; however, it is anything but friendly and reassuring. It falls upon the soul with the harshness of Yahweh answering Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this insignificant worm lee-

turing Me on My duty to him? Gird up thy loins and answer Me!” Hearing that in the depths of our being, we may feel with Gloucester in King Lear that “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods -- they kill us for their sport.’’


Whether religion will “evolve to its final satisfaction” and we shall know God as companion depends on whether the soul, in its impotence, perseveres as did the soul of the Syrophoenician woman begging Jesus for help (Mark 7:25-30). We can come to the knowledge of God the companion only through such perseverance. Only by patient and indefatigable seeking do we find.

Whitehead’s choice of the word companion, rather than friend, is most apt. The difference is between one who wishes us well and does well to us whenever he can, and one who walks with us so intimately that he is our alter ego. If God is the divine companion, we cannot complain that no one knows what it is to walk in our moccasins, for God does walk in them -- in us. Only God can be a companion in that absolute sense. In all our afflictions, God is afflicted. Every mean pinch, every petty sting, every intolerable agony God feels and shares with us. ‘‘There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother’’ (Prov. 18:24). That friend can be none other than God, because only God can be thus “closer to you than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.”

The full realization of God as companion ends our impotence and solitariness, and thus ends religion -- and begins that life which is eternal in both quality and scope because it is the life of God animating our human being.

“Christianity begins where religion ends -- with the Resurrection.” The reference here is specifically to the resurrection of Christ rather than to that transition to experiencing God as a companion which is the final stage of religion. There is a connection between the two, but they are not identical. The believer knows that God’s companionship is not a delusion because he or she knows Christ as real and present, in the power of his resurrection.

The risen Christ is the Hound of Heaven in whom God relentlessly pursues us to reclaim and restore us. Paradoxically, the pursuit is necessary because even as we, like helpless sheep, long for God’s companionship, we run from God in dread of his lordship. No sheep can be sillier and more pathetic than we as we cry for Somebody Up There to save us from our sins within and our foes without, while at the same time frantically fleeing from the loving but demanding yoke of Christ. Surely a part of God’s purpose in raising Jesus from the dead is to continue that pursuit until the time when we shall have quit running away from the glorious life Christ comes to give us.

When in trust and obedience we are yoked with him, the Lord heals us of those infirmities which drive us to religion. God delivers us from the need for religion --  hence from religion itself. (But you’d better be careful how you say that, and to whom, if you don’t want to be called antireligious.) In his I.etters to Malcolm (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973). C. S. Lewis wrote:

“Newman makes my blood run cold when in one of the Parochial and Plain Sermons he says that Heaven is like a church because, in both, ‘one single sovereign object --  religion -- is brought before us.’ He forgets that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem. He has substituted religion for God -- as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end.’’

Exactly. Religion is the means for the end, and the end is -- God. But if this is so, why cani we simply say that Christianity is a religion among the religions --  perhaps the best one, at least to our taste, but nonetheless a religion? To answer that question, we must consider a familiar ambivalence in our common use of the term ‘‘Christian.” As an Anglican I have believed, and taught hundreds of others to believe, that we are made Christians in holy baptism. Christening is “Christianing.” But although I may say that in one context, there is another in which I may not. Karl Barth has said, “Strictly speaking, there are no Christians. There is only the eternal possibility of becoming Christian.’’ I believe that with him, just as I am sure he believed that we are “made” Christians by adoption and grace in baptism. Although there is no real conflict between these two meanings of ‘‘Christian,’’ they must be used in different contexts.

I recall another formulation of Barth’s concept. It was made, I think, by the Anglican Dom Gregory Dix: “The whole of the Christian life is a matter of becoming what we already are.” Formally, we are made Christians, members of Christ, in holy baptism; but we must indeed devote all our days to praying, striving, hoping by grace to “become what we already are.” That eternal possibility of becoming Christian is also a daily task and necessity. If we do not aspire and try to be Christian in every corner of our being, at every inch of our way, we make a mockery of the title we bear. And it is Christianity as our potential for Christlikeness that Barth clearly had in mind.

Let us say, then, that for Christians religion is this effort to become what we already are. Although religion is the effort and Christianity is the result, and although they are mutually distinct, yet because of our frail human nature there can be no such thing, this side of heaven, as “religionless Christianity.” That would be possible only if we could emerge from the waters of baptism mature and complete in Christ -- ’ ‘already there.”

Jesus Christ, both our guide and our goal, is the same yesterday, today and forever. But the Christian religion is not. There is not one Christian religion, but many --  one might almost say that there are as many as there are Christians. And Christianity is constantly outgrowing its own religions. Some 60 years ago the “gloomy dean” of St. Paul’s, London, William R. Inge, declared that Catholicism and Protestantism are both obsolescent phases of Christianity. Of course they are -- if they are truly alive. Any growing organism or institution experience~ obsolescence even as it lives and grows. The old model must die to make way for the new one; and the form of the Christian religion, as we find it at any time or place in any person or community, is the “model” of Christianity for that time, place, person or community. One of the evidences of divine and indestructible life in the movement that Christ’s resurrection launched in human history (call that movement Christianity, church, age of grace or whatever) is that it is constantly outliving its religions of yesterday and today.

Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be;

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, 0 Lord, art more than they

               [Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, Prologue, II. 17-20].

My today’s religion is already obsolescent, and will not survive me. Then why do I need it -- or tomorrow’s successor to it -- since it is so ephemeral and I myself am not? Why can’t I be a religionless Christian? Santayana’s definition suggests the best answer I can give to that question: in practice, in fact, in life, I find myself still loving life in the consciousness of impotence. And sometimes through some fault or folly of my own I alienate myself from God the companion and encounter God as void or enemy. This is not because God changes, but because I do.

In a word -- a good, old-fashioned, evangelical word -- I backslide. And I can choose whether I shall backslide into that state of “having no hope, and [being] without God in the world” or into my religion of the moment, and start over again. The Cure d’Ars used to give his penitents an apt and sound definition of repentance: repentance is starting all over again. It serves equally well to define religion for any Christian who is striving to become what he or she already is in Christ. Every fresh becoming is a resurrection in him who died for our sins and rose for our justification that we might have life:  God’s life.

In the 19th century, Henry Ward Beecher and, in the 20th, William Temple both left us pithy comments on the distinction between religion and Christianity. Said Beecher: “Religion would frame a just man; Christ would make a whole man. Religion would save a mhn; Christ would make him worth saving.”

Said Temple: “For the religious man to do wrong is to defy his King; for the Christian, it is to wound his Friend.”

With that I rest my case.