Designer Religion

Anyone who listens to what I speak about or reads what I write about with any degree of attention will notice that one of my most common themes is the unprecedented change going on in our society in the midst of what’s being called the “Digital Revolution”. The effects it has on us as a race, as communities, and as persons is unprecedented and reminds me of the parable of the frog in a pot of water. While I have never tested this myself, I’m told that if you place a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will not jump out because it does not sense the gradual change in temperature. Before you know it, he’s cooked. I’m afraid we will be too unless we pay better attention to what’s happening around us and within us in these times of rapid change.

So here’s the latest example of how society is being changed. There is a word that I’ve noticed popping up more and more these days: “designer.” Its frequency of use in our day has to do with the ability to have more and more things specialized to our tastes. We’ve evolved from the “designer clothing” era of the last several decades to an age of designer food, designer drinks, designer drugs, and wouldn’t you know it–designer religion.

As Orthodox Christians, it would be easy for us to criticize those who pick and choose their religious beliefs and practices like somebody going through a buffet line (I don’t like lima beans so none of those, thank you. Extra roast beef? Absolutely! And I can’t wait to get to the dessert bar!). As Orthodox Christians, we know instinctively that there is something wrong with other religious groups who “pick and choose” the aspects of their religious beliefs and practices and leave others behind. And yet if we’re honest, I think we may discover a little more “designer religion” going on among our own ranks, and I think practiced to some degree by all of us.

Orthodox Christianity certainly offers the breadth and depth of variety necessary for authentic Christian life, along with all of the freedom God can give us to accept or reject it to the degree we choose. But with so much emphasis on “the designer life” happening all around us, it’s hard for us to resist the impulse to apply this customization to our faith. We pick and choose the services we go to (or more often than not, choose not to go to), the sacraments we participate in, and the “daily discipline” of prayer and fasting. We would be silly and in complete denial if we think we can live customizable lives from morning till night and then presume we would avoid this temptation when it comes to our religious practice. We would do well to recognize this tendency and work hard to avoid it.

How do we do this? In a word, discipline. We accept the discipline of the Church. We commit to the daily discipline of a rule of prayer that we work out with our Father Confessor. We commit to coming to the services of the church whenever possible (not whenever convenient), and we come prepared, dressed appropriately, and yes, on time. This commitment to the church’s discipline allows us to be fed fully by the “feast of faith.” It provides us with all the spiritual nutrition our good and loving God knows that we need. It literally fuels our journey to the Kingdom of God.

What’s the alternative? It’s the equivalent of letting a five-year-old freely roam about the buffet to pick his own dinner. We shouldn’t be surprised when he comes back with a plate full of French fries and five different desserts as his “meal.” But this is exactly what we do when we bring our normal level of customization to bear on our spiritual lives. We end up bloated and full, and woefully undernourished.

The current Fast of the Apostles which began this week and ends two weeks from tomorrow invites us to leave our “designer religion” behind. Fasts are times of repentance when we return to God and follow His ways. May this Fast be our time to repent of whatever “designer religion” we have fallen into, and to return to the Designer who “fearfully and wonderfully made” us, and who seeks to feed us with the fullness of Divine Life.