It is notoriously difficult to define religion. Most definitions suggest that religion is, at root, an experience or encounter with a sacred and spiritual dimension. In this, few definitions of religion have improved upon the simplicity of William James’ definition in The Varieties of Religious Experience: religion encompasses “the feelings, acts, and experiences” of persons as they “apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” The religious life, then, “consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Broadly speaking, James’ definition fits the Christian religion: Christians believe in an “unseen order,” a spiritual realm they consider to be “divine.” Further, Christians strive to “adjust” themselves to live “harmoniously” with their notions of the divine.
A distinctive aspect of the Christian encounter with the divine is that it is an inherently moral experience. As noted in the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus is “Lord” and will “judge the living and the dead.” Thus, within the Christian experience James’ “adjustment to the divine” has a ethical and moral flavor. The encounter with the sacred has normative implications, it is an experience charged with notions of good and evil, sin and salvation, commandments and imperatives. Christians attempt to live on “earth” in a way that “aligns” with God’s “kingdom of heaven.” As it says in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
More, Christians believe they have moral obligations to both heaven and earth. These obligations are best summarized in the Greatest Commandments, the directives to love God and one’s neighbor (Mark 12:28-34; Matt. 22:34-40). The “love of God” speaks to moral obligations related to the transcendent, vertical dimension, the pursuit of holiness and personal piety before God. In contrast to these vertical obligations, the “love of neighbor” speaks to more “horizontal” imperatives, what we owe other human beings by way of care and justice.
Here is where the Christian moral experience gets interesting, and even glitchy.
Although Christians, as noted above, are broadly trying to bring affairs on earth into alignment with heaven (personally or socially), friction can occur between our “vertical” obligations (what we owe God) and our “horizontal” obligations (what we owe other human beings, and even the earth). That is, in the name of “loving God” Christians can ignore or harm their neighbors. In this, the vertical moral obligations are privileged and trump the horizontal moral obligations. This often occurs when issues of purity and holiness come to dominate the faith experience. That is, preserving personal purity and holiness before God can come at the expense of loving one’s neighbor. Consider the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding Jesus’ association with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. One way to look at the conflict is to note that the Pharisees were privileging the vertical concerns of holiness over the horizontal concerns of love and justice. Jesus was doing the opposite. As Jesus declares in Matthew 9 (echoing the prophet Hosea): God “desires mercy, not sacrifice.” Mercy (the horizontal imperative) was to trump sacrifice (the vertical, purity-based imperative).
These tensions continue to crackle through the Christian communion. Christians deploy the Greatest Commandments idiosyncratically, leading to sharp conflict on contentious issues where the vertical and horizontal obligations come into conflict. Consider, as one example, this assessment from the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann regarding how Christians approach the issue of homosexuality:
It is evident that the current and freighted dispute in the U.S. church concerning homosexual persons, especially their ordination, indicates the continuing felt cruciality of the tradition of holiness, even after we imagine we have moved beyond such “primitiveness.” It is my impression that the question of equal rights and privileges for homosexuals (in civil society as in the church) is a question that may be adjudicated on the grounds of justice. It is equally my impression, however, that the enormous hostility to homosexual persons (as to proposals of justice for them) does not concern issues of justice and injustice, but rather concerns the more elemental issues of purity—cleanness and uncleanness.Note how, in Bruggemann’s summary, issues of “purity” and “holiness” come into conflict with “equal rights” and “justice.”
In short, Christians display great diversity in how they balance “vertical” concerns regarding holiness and piety with the “horizontal” and immanent concerns of justice and care.
The image above is Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew. Jesus, on the right, is pointing to Matthew. Matthew, carousing with this friends, looks a bit stunned to be singled out. His reaction has a "What? You're talking to me?" quality. This scene occurs in Matthew 9, setting up the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew's house where Jesus proclaims: "Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'")