A religion can be defined on the basis of how it responds to four primary concerns, four “B’s.” They are “belief, behavior, belonging and being-with.” First, religion establishes a set of “beliefs.” To be an adherent to a particular historic faith, means to believe in or accept certain doctrines. Religionists tend to spend much time here, with the notion of “orthodoxy” or “right belief.” This is also where we devote the most time in disputation and disagreement. Beliefs are an occasion more for divisiveness than inclusiveness. Once we find ourselves apart doctrinally, it becomes all the more difficult to reconnect spiritually.
Second, religion sets forth “behavior.” To be a believer includes doing and not doing what God or whomever has mandated in sacred texts and traditions. Historically, for instance, to be a Jew means to be a doer of the “Mitzvoth,” the commandments of God as set forth in the Torah. For another example, in addition to prayer three to five times a day, every Muslim is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at some point in their faith journey. In another context, many Christians recently wore rubber bands around their wrists with the initials: WWJD. It meant: “What would Jesus do?” It is a temptation to reduce one’s religion to merely doing certain things, as if that were all God required, such as prayer, study or worship attendance.
Third, religion affords a sense of “belonging.” Your very identity can become wrapped up in your religious convictions and doings. You may define yourself as, “I am a ___________” (fill in the blank.) You don’t just say, I have a religion, but it is essential to my very sense of self. Your sense of belonging and identity is interconnected to your family’s values and religion, your community and even your people. So your loyalty and faithfulness to the religion in which you were raised can be as vital as your loyalty and faithfulness to your family of origin.
Last but certainly not least, a religion offers a vital way of “being-with” God or whatever Absolute is understood to function as God in their system of belief, whether personal or impersonal. This fourth aspect of religion is rather like the fourth dimension of time added to the three dimensions of space, namely “height, depth and breadth.” And it just may be the most important of them all, and at the same time the least understood and most neglected. Note the hyphen in “being-with”; it denotes the vis-à-vis between relational partners. What you believe about God, what you do about your belief and how your sense of identity is bound up with the other two are of course very important. But what good is it to believe in, act for and belong to a God whom you have never actually encountered? Wouldn’t that be akin to being betrothed or even technically married to someone you are yet to meet? Does he or she then really exist, or is the “love of your life” only a sheer fantasy?
Religion must include in some vital way a “being-with” the God or Absolute who purportedly gave rise to the religion itself. This is the most important of the “B’s” because it expressly concerns mutual life. Religions grant specific ways of being with God and of God being with us, typically through authorized prayer and scripture. Being-with centers on the heart, on where our hearts and desires are, relative to God. We can believe the right things, and do the right things, while our hearts are far from God. According to Scripture, we gain nothing from all the beliefs and deeds in the world if we do not have a passionate love for God, if we do not seek daily and above all, intimate connection.
To use the analogy of human marriage: it is very important for both partners to have and share the right convictions, values and beliefs, but these will not bring marital satisfaction by being in place. Likewise, it is essential that both persons do good and loving things for each other. Here the “quid pro quo” has to be in operation: I do for you and you do for me. Yet doing will not of itself secure marital satisfaction. Regardless of what the partners think and do, if one or the other’s heart is distant, that marriage is not a happy one. What is most essential to marital satisfaction is mutual life, wherein the persons desire to be together and spend sufficient time with each other. Marital contentment arises from intimacy, not only of body, but especially of soul and spirit.
Religion is a form of divine-human unity, like that of marriage. Just so, the Bible consists of two “covenants” similar to marriage covenants, first with Israel, second with the Church. The historical religious covenants indicate that God is in the business of marriage, not affairs, so to speak. That is, God does not show up to a particular prophet at a particular time for the sake of establishing a particular people for the sake of a brief liaison, only to disappear and go on to the next relationship. God is not into “serial monogamy,” as it were. Rather, God hates divorce; and once established, God will purportedly continue to honor God’s covenant in perpetuity.
To speak personally: I am both Jewish and Christian, a participant of two covenants. Both “marriages” remain in force. It is a perversion for one religion to say to another historic tradition: “God did not covenant with you; yours is not a legitimate way to salvation; you must convert to our religion in order to receive the benefits of a living connection with God.” That would be akin to one married couple saying to another married couple, from a different culture: “Your marriage is illegitimate; you don’t really know or love each other; you have to be remarried in accordance with our customs.” How easy to judge what we do not understand; how ready we are, and seemingly desirous of, saying that our way is the best, if not the only way of God, the only way to God. (Jesus said the way to the Father is through Him not the only way to God.)
The truth is, all religious traditions are on the way to what is still to come. There is more yet to happen, more yet to be revealed. This is in accordance with the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jesus Himself said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:12-13).
The ultimate vision of what is to come, which doubtless will not be fully understood until it actually arrives, is a divine-human union like that of marriage. This is clearly revealed at the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation. In addition to being Creator, Sovereign, Parent, which God will always remain, God will be our “eternal Spouse.” God will still be God, and we will still be human. Yet somehow, in a way known only to God, we will enter into an endless union, a constant communion, an “eternal We.” In the end, there will be pure mutuality, pure love, and pure togetherness. We will finally know as we have been known. In the end, historic religions will give way to a living Relationship between an omnipresent God and a humanity made whole in and by the divine-human “Us.”