God is not religious

Differentiating between faith and religious practice

19. May 2020In ReflectionsBy Karsten Risseeuw8 Minutes

It may surprise you, but God is not religious. People are religious. God is God. That is enough. It is man who tries to shape his attitude towards his creator. This results in various ideas and “religious attitudes”, which then receive a certain influence. Religiousness or religiosity is the expression, the visible shaping of the assumptions about God and the world. Religiousness is human, not divine.

Where do these assumptions come from? Religious traditions are condensed experiences. People can follow traditions without ever having had the experience that led to that tradition. Martin Buber describes that every culture (as probably every religious culture) had a true relationship moment as its starting point. Religious traditions would therefore be memories of these original moments of relationship.


Man cannot live constantly in true relationship. Martin Buber describes (in “I and Thou“) how man knows two types of relationships. Both types of relationship are described by word pairs. One word pair is “I-You”, while the other word pair is “I-It”. The I-It relationship is related to things. This relationship is demarcative and descriptive. We describe the world and use the world. Values and traditions also belong to this external demarcation.

If, for example, in an assumption about the world something is good and something else is not good, this is descriptive and delimiting. When I call my friends by name and introduce them to someone else, it is also descriptive and shows these friends as “own persons” facing someone else. It is this demarcation that belongs to our world and that we need to move in the world. There is a relation, but it is derived from otherness, from differences and demarcations. When I say “man” or “woman”, they are not things, but the quality is derived from differences, from description and from demarcation. This is the I-It relationship with the world around us.


This is contrasted by another type of relationship, which Martin Buber describes with the word pair “I-You” (in old language: “I and Thou”, as the title of Martin Buber’s booklet). It is a different quality. Here there is no demarcation, but rather a soul-to-soul experience. In this type of encounter, all descriptive and delimiting qualities are eliminated. It is a direct encounter. It is a moment of true relationship, from me to you, without demarcation lines. Our very being is touched and nothing separates or stands in between.

This direct encounter cannot last. We alternate between the two types of relationship, experiencing the I-You relationship perhaps only occasionally. Then we slide back into the I-it relationship, in which we describe, use and in which we (and others) separate ourselves. But the real encounter for us humans is this I-you encounter. It is perhaps also this quality that is meant when the apostle Paul writes that God will one day be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Religiosity and tradition

It may be obvious that religiousness and tradition always only represent the I-it relationship. They are descriptive and delimiting actions and opinions. They are never to be confused with the essence. Even if the origin of a certain religiousness or tradition is based on a true relationship moment, it has fallen out of this relationship moment (as it inevitably happens). Only then can it become a religious behavior or a certain tradition.

Now what is the value of religiousness or tradition? They are an expression of essence and should not be confused with the true relationship itself. They can, however, be pointing to “the real thing”. If you get stuck in religiousness or tradition, then the goal is lost. But occasionally, despite religiousness or tradition, one can gain a glimpse of the original relationship moments and find one’s own relationship moments. This is perhaps the nearest description of what is described as living faith.

Religiousness and tradition can (not: must) carry people through times of personal spiritual drought. They can (not: must) form a key to understanding. In this sense, religiosity and tradition are quite human bridges or perhaps just “crutches” so that a true core and understanding can be carried through this world.

Image and reference

When we read the Bible, it is not the relationship itself, but Scripture can point to the relationship. The Bible does not speak of itself, but of God. It is about Him. Christ does not speak of Himself, but He speaks of His God and Father and leads to Him. That is His task and that is why He came into the world. We should recognize Him. Paul prays again and again that the believers may know God. We should learn to check what is essential.

If I have the goal of a true encounter, a true relationship with God in mind, then it probably doesn’t matter what tradition I belong to, what church I am at home in, or what environment I once grew up in. Of course, I can distance myself from certain ideas, I can distance myself from opinions that I do not affirm. All this may be necessary. But it is not the core. It is not the kind of relationship we are designed for.

At All Souls, we can be welcoming to anyone wiling to participate in our services and celebrations because we do not depend on certain traditions – even if we gladly use them and learn from them. It is not about religiosity, but about God and about this high-quality relationship between “I and You”. God is not religious, but He is lovingly reaching out to each of us through Jesus Christ, as we are invited to enter and explore true relationships.


Original German text can be found > here.