James once wrote “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).
The role of religion has always been about learning how to live and treat other people. For James, this involved visiting orphans and caring for widows in their suffering. He also says we have to keep from being corrupted by the world. What did he mean by that? The world is where people ignore each other and act out of selfishness rather than altruism. The job of Christianity, and all the world’s religions, is to provide a guide on how to properly treat other people and the environment we live in.
It is easy to be selfish since we are seemingly trapped in our skulls. We do have to look out for ourselves, but when it becomes the all consuming drive, we are out of line. This is where religion seeks to give us an alternative path. It isn’t about doing this or that. It is about the principles behind the commands laid out. Underlying most religious “thou shalts” is compassion.
We are relationship based beings. We have relationships with literally everything around us: other people, animals, trees, the environment, and even our stuff. Religion seeks to keep us mindful of how we view and behave toward it all. We cannot truly love God if we don’t care for the environment, the stranger, or a plight of an animal.
The rituals of religion can be used to any end we want. Religion is, unfortunately and fortunately, very malleable. But the check on a doctrine is pretty easy: does this doctrine or belief have a foundation in compassion? If no, then it is a mistaken doctrine.
Relationships are what life is about. Religion is a guide to living. It isn’t a guide on how to separate oneself from others. After all, Jesus spent most of His time with people considered sinners. If He was around today He would be spending his time with homosexual people, people with HIV, the poor, and drug addicts. Jesus taught us by example how we are to relate to outcasts. If we can follow His example of compassion, it is even easier to relate to people close to us.