In our local newspaper there was a recent article about the health-insurance debate — who must cover certain things and who can opt out. One remark stuck out to me. Someone complained that by not paying for certain services, employers would be “imposing their religious beliefs” on their employees. Now that may be true, and it may be problematic, but what bothers me about the statement is its complete lack of self-awareness. Religion, for this person, is something that only other people do. Those people. It doesn’t occur to her that her beliefs might be considered religious, or that she might be imposing her beliefs on someone else. Calling something religious is a way to separate oneself from other people, a way to excuse oneself form the responsibility of conversation.

We get that sometimes even at the Church school where I am a chaplain. Last year I had a rather tense conversation with a student who resented having to attend chapel every morning. He thought it was a waste of time because he was not religious. To me that makes about as much sense as telling your football coach that practice is a waste of time because you’re not very physical.

“What do you mean?” he might ask.

“Well,” you might say, “I don’t really believe in athletics, so I’d rather use my time sitting in my room and thinking deep thoughts.”


And you can imagine what the coach’s response would be. If my students derive anything out of daily chapel for four to five years, I hope that at least they will graduate without holding on to that illusion that you can somehow be “not religious.” As I told my student last year: You seem to be very religious. You order your whole life around yourself. You follow the religion of you.

Religion, in modern America, is a completely meaningless concept. In effect it suggests whatever it is that we don’t want to talk about. It is whatever area of life we think cannot be discussed or regulated by the state, whatever part of life we think is off-limits for a teacher or a parent or a policeman. If we don’t want to talk about sexual morality, that must be a religious question. If we don’t want to talk about the nature of what it means to be human, that must be religion. If we don’t want to talk about the meaning of life, and why we should choose to live one way over another, that must be religious.

That’s exactly what the Pharisees do in Matthew 22:15-22 (our Gospel reading from Oct. 22). They come to him with a trick question. If God is as you say, is it right to pay taxes to Caesar? They’re saying to Jesus, in a way that we might imagine somebody doing today: Are you saying something religious? Are you trying to impose your religion on someone else? The emperor might have a problem with that. You should keep your opinions to yourself. Don’t impose them on the rest of us.

But Jesus refuses to accept this way of thinking. He doesn’t accept the nature of the question. The Pharisees aren’t interested in a conversation or a debate. They just want to get Jesus into trouble.

Then we hear Jesus’ now-familiar response: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Or in the older version, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

It’s likely that most of us, hearing that, fit it neatly into that whole idea of religion that I’ve been criticizing. We can read this passage as a justification of separating our lives into neat little categories: here we have politics, over here we have cooking, and over here we have religion. If we do that there’s no conflict between God and politics, or God and science, or God and money, because God keeps to himself over there in the corner with things about God.

That’s nice if you worship Zeus. But I don’t worship Zeus. The God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, does not make a habit of keeping to himself. He is not some local river god, or the spirit of South Mountain, or the father of dryads who only shows up when we start cutting down his sacred trees.

“I form light and create darkness / I make weal and create woe.” That passage from Isaiah 45, when God gives permission to the King of Persia to conquer Israel, shows that God has no equals. He is the source of light and darkness, of all that is and all that may be.

Here’s where we find what it is that Jesus is getting at with the Pharisees. They want him to say something like God is more important than the emperor; religion is more important than the empire. They want him to put these two spheres of authority in competition and declare a winner so that the other side can be mad. But for Jesus, God and the emperor are so far apart that this competition is meaningless. It would be like an ant wondering whether the sun cares that he collects food for his colony. Obviously, the sun is more significant, more powerful, more everything than the ant colony. We can render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, not because God has nothing to do with them, but because God’s authority has no need of emperors to work.

We can carry this logic through to our other supposed areas of separation. The reason that Christians, historically, have valued and respected the work of science, the work of history, the work of economics, is not that each area has autonomy and God keeps to himself. That’s Deism, not Christianity. It is because all of those things operate under the gracious will and power of God’s provision. There’s no competition. When we try to figure out the force required to move a rock up a hill, or what happens when you subtract two from three, our ability to talk about these things without reference to God does not mean that they have nothing to do with God, or are outside his sphere of influence, but that God is not threatened by sharing his authority.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because human beings are very good at dividing things. This is not an inherently bad thing. The world would be a much less interesting place if we were all the same. But we are also very good at using these divisions to pursue what we want, to trip each other up, to put others down. We’re good at using these divisions when we want to avoid criticism or having to look seriously at our beliefs. We love making excuses to avoid the hard work of being human.

Don’t make excuses. The world is full of people who fit everyone into categories: he’s a Muslim, she’s gay, he’s Chinese, she’s Nigerian, he’s religious, she’s not religious, he’s an athlete, she’s a scientist. And we can’t avoid these categories, but we can try to avoid acting as if they somehow say everything there is to say about us. We can try to avoid wearing these identities as a shield against difficult conversations, or the kind of relationships that might challenge us and teach us something new.

And this applies even within ourselves, which is maybe the harder part for some of us. We draw these neat little lines in our heads between the different parts of our life: family, work, relationships, Instagram, physics, being an acolyte, college admissions, poetry, music, basketball. Those lines are necessary, because when you’re out there playing field hockey you’re not going to play very well if you’re trying to have a romantic conversation on Snapchat at the same time. But that doesn’t mean that the parts of your life don’t fit together into a whole, or that sometimes maybe physics has something to do with the way you pray, or the way you throw a football; or that maybe how you do the dishes in the sacristy might teach you something about your family. It’s when we let ourselves be complete persons, within ourselves and in our relationships, that we can start to see how God is forming us and growing us into the saints he wants us to be.

About The Author

Sam Keyes serves as Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California, and a priest in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

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