Five Criteria of a Positive Religious Faith

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, February 21, 2016

Micah 6:6-8 ESV

Reading from John Burroughs’s Field and Study, “Miscellaneous Notes”

Life sometimes plays tricks on us, as illustrated by the following example of irony.  While we were in Albany for six years, we were within a two-hour’s drive of Roxbury, New York, the home of naturalist John Burroughs.  But at the time, I had never even heard of John Burroughs.  I had to return to Tennessee and begin naturalist history studies here in order to discover him.  If you follow my Nature photo blog, then you know that I quote Burroughs often, as he has become one of my favorite naturalist writers. Burroughs lived from 1837-1921.  His home was in the New York Catskills.  In his lifetime, Burroughs was one of the most widely-published and widely-read writers of his day, publishing some 27 volumes.  He was close friends with the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, President Theodore Roosevelt, and poet Walt Whitman.

But the pertinent point for today’s purposes is that Burroughs also wrote on the topics of literature, philosophy, and religion.  Burroughs felt that religion was in a period of transition, and that older forms of Christianity (such as extreme Calvinism, which he did not like) were dying away and were being replaced with religion or spirituality that was Nature and scientific-based.  Indeed, it was in the world of Nature that Burroughs’s own spirituality came to life.

So it was that I discovered in Burroughs’s book titled Field and Study a succinct description of what he perceived to be five criteria of a positive religious faith.  And it was that “religion-in-a-nutshell” critique that prompted this sermon.  Now, since Burroughs didn’t really go on to elaborate upon this succinct paragraph in Field and Study, and since I can’t read Burroughs’s mind so as to know precisely what he was thinking on each point, I am left to do my own interpretation based upon some of his other works and our 21st century life and experience.  But in another one of his books titled The Light of Day (which is devoted entirely to religious discussions) Burroughs did elaborate further upon his religious beliefs.  If I happen to misrepresent Burroughs and what he intended to say in any way, I offer my sincerest apologies.  Although, at this point, since he has been dead some 95 years, I really don’t think he will protest.

But in questioning the value of one’s religious expression, Burroughs first asked, “Does your religion help toward a larger and freer life?”   Or as he puts it in The Light of Day, Does religion cheer and sustain men in their journey through this world?  Religion—if it is worth a grain of salt—will lead to a freer, happier, more fulfilled life.  And I think that most of us who attend this United Church understand that.

But as you and I both know, not all religious expressions lead toward a larger and freer life.  Often it is just the opposite.  Perhaps you have heard the old expression that “some people have just enough religion to make them miserable.”  For many, religious practice is motivated and fueled by guilt and dread.  Many churches and pastors use guilt as a means of power and control to increase both attendance and giving.  Some church members are made to feel guilty if they don’t attend church every time the doors are open—Sunday morning Sunday school and worship, Sunday evening services, Wednesday evening prayer meeting or Bible Study, and Thursday evening community visitation.  I know what I am talking about.  I have known such churches.  And so, religious practice becomes an exercise in obeying all the rules in order to keep guilt at bay.  And then in addition to all the “shoulds” one has to do in order to ward off guilt, there are all the “should nots” one has to be careful about as well.  And so, in such religious expressions one may actually dread the thought of going to church, and may, in fact, feel even worse upon leaving.

But worthwhile religion should result in just the opposite, leading to joy, a positive outlook, contentment, and happiness.  For such—as with many of us here at the United Church—the prospect of coming to church is anticipated with much joy, because we know that when we leave church we will be feeling better than when we arrived here.  As Burroughs asks, Does religion cheer and sustain us in our journey through this world?

Secondly, does religion foster “more good-will and tolerance”?  True religion should open our eyes so as to make us more tolerant and understanding toward others in the community and wider world, rather than leading us to construct walls around our own little religious group and lead us into the “us versus them” mentality.  You know what they call a religious group that seeks to separate itself from and demonize and persecute the rest of the world, don’t you?  They call it a cult.

True religion seeks to bring people together; to foster more loving, more serving, and more harmonious relationships.  As Burroughs puts it, true religion holds us “to a higher standard of life and duty than [we are] otherwise capable of.”

Third, does our religion accommodate “a keener appreciation of the world in which we are placed?”  Now, since Burroughs was a naturalist, I have to interpret him here as meaning a keener appreciation of the natural world around us; the world of Nature.  True religion leads us to take to heart those words early in the book of Genesis: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”  For too long, too many theologies and religious practices looked upon the natural world as something to be used, dominated and often abused by humans.  But enlightened religions see that the natural world is to be cherished, respected, preserved, and enjoyed as the manifestation of the Sacred.

A fourth test of religious faith is if it includes “a wider outlook.”  Too many religious expressions foster a narrow way of viewing life, faith, and the world.  Many religious groups have felt the need to set down in a “Confession” or “Catechism” what one must believe in order to be included among the faithful.  You must believe these theological tenets, it is said.  You must interpret the Bible in this way.  You must view God as being such and such.

I will share a personal confession with you this morning.  When I graduated from college with a major in Philosophy and Religion and set off to seminary, I pretty much knew everything there was to know about true Christian beliefs and practice.  At least, I thought I did J  I had already read the entire Bible through at least once.  So attending seminary was just a formality in order be ordained as a minister.  Or at least I thought it was.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t know everything there was to know about faith, the Bible, theology and such.  And attending a seminary with students from 30 different denominations was an eye-opening experience.  I realized that there were a lot of other churches and denominations that had a legitimate claim to understanding and truth as much or more than I did.  Seminary was an experience that gave me a wider outlook.

Burroughs observes that “truth is not a fixed quantity that may be seized upon and monopolized by any sect or church.” In other words, true religion should widen, rather than narrow, our outlook.

And fifth, does our religious expression promote “deeper and saner human relations?”  How does our religious faith instruct us to deal with our fellowmen and women?  Does religious faith lead us to be kinder, gentler, more understanding, and of greater service to others?  Or does it instruct us to look upon others who are not like us and don’t believe like us as objects to be used for our own gain?  Does our religion lead us to look upon others as equals deserving of respect and love, or does it lead us to look down upon others as being less than because they don’t look, act, or believe as we do?  Does our religion bring more hurt or suffering upon the world, or does our religion result in healing and comfort for the hurting of our community and wider world?  You and I know that much of what tries to pass itself off as religion in today’s world seeks to bring hurt, violence and suffering to others.  True religion promotes saner and sympathetic human relations.

As I thought about Burroughs’s five criteria for positive religion, it occurred to me that what he had to say wasn’t too far off from what the Hebrew prophet Micah had said regarding the criteria of true religion as he saw it.  Micah’s words have been recognized for about 2800 years as universal criteria for true religious faith and practice: to do justice, to love kindness (or mercy), and to walk humbly with God, in whatever form one envisions God to be.  In fact, in The Light of Day Burroughs shares this comment on that Micah passage: Micah, he says, “gives utterances to sentiments that appeal to the best there is in every man, and that agree with the highest wisdom of all ages and races.”

We here at the United Church are so fortunate, I believe, in that we meet the criteria for what true religious faith is to be about.  So let us embrace it, follow it, celebrate it, and promote it in any way that we possibly can.  May it be so.  Amen.


John Burroughs, “Miscellaneous Notes,” Field and Study.

John Burroughs, The Light of Day.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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