There’s a video floating around on the social networking sites, especially twitter and facebook. Its made by a young poet entitled “Jesus > Religion.” There is a long list of complaints against religion. Among them, that religion is focused on the externals, never getting to the core, that it is responsible for wars and judgmentalism, that it’s “perfume on a casket” and “behavior modification.” He says Jesus hated religion and that religion is manmade, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Jesus. His emphasis on grace and the love of God is laudable, and he is clearly a very gifted poet. But, theologian he is not. Scripture scholar he is not.
Here’s my most basic response, on which I would like to elaborate:
My take on the hate religion, but love Jesus bit: “Folks, Jesus Christ established the Church, with rituals (Baptism the Eucharist), prayers (the Lord’s Prayer), Holy writings, authority structures, and clear teaching. Thats religion. You can’t just make religion a bad word because you don’t like those things. And – you can’t say that Christianity is just about loving Jesus – it isn’t. This sort of talk is just hyper-individualistic pietism taken to the nth degree. It has never done anything but make people into total snobs, not saints.”
First, Jesus Christ established His Kingdom on Earth. In the ancient era in which he inserted himself, every kingdom had a religio or a cultus. The prime example is that of Caesar. Caesar had a religion which surrounded him, requiring Roman citizens to worship him, and in a proscribed way. Jesus does not separate himself from this, for He, unlike Caesar, is actually worthy to be worshipped. (John 9:38, Rom 14:11, Philippians 2:10) Jesus established clear instructions to his disciples, including instructions regarding the making of disciples and baptism (Matthew 28:19), the celebration of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-24), the forgiveness of sin (John 20:23), and many others. He is very clear that love for Him does not consist in the mind or the heart, but in action – in obeying His commandments. (John 14:15) That’s religion. If it’s not, what could we possibly call it?
The second problem comes from this, and it is an intrinsically postmodern contempt for the meaning of words as well as for institutions. This young man has made religion a category for all the things he turns his nose at. But, religion is actually a word coming from the re-reading of texts, as was done by medieval monastics. Hence re and legere, rereading. The other possible source for the word is the Latin religare, to bind fast. This meaning speaks to obligations of vows. From the earliest days, the Church has had the vows of Baptism and a great deal of clarity regarding the obligations of Christians, including the obligation and duty to know the faith, to keep the sabbath, to give to the Church, etc. This is not legalism, nor is it onerous duty. It is the wonderful privilege of each and every Christian as well as being the means of growing in Faith and the love of God. Practices cultivate virtue, religious practices specifically. This young man has, unfortunately, let contemporary postmodern distaste for such things infect him.
Further, postmodernism elevates relationship above truth. For instance is the insistence that relationship matters more than morality. If two men have a sexual relationship, this is more important than moral truth. In fact, what Aristotle says is the truth: “For though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires us to honor the truth first.” I fear that contemporary Evangelicalism has elevated a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to the status of an idol, saying my relationship is the most important thing, when it is clear from the Scriptures that faith without works is dead and that love for neighbor is part and parcel with love for God.
But, the worst of all of it is that this young man displays what the Church has always called Gnosticism. Gnosticism, in its heyday, sought to be free of religion too. It taught that man must free himself from the shackles of this earthly and bodily existence and open himself to the knowledge of the infinite. Gnosticisms insistence on knowledge is the source of its name, gnosis being the Greek word for knowledge. Gnostics were suspicious of the Incarnation, preferring to say that Jesus actually intended to free us from our bodies, that he was not divine, and that he was primarily concerned with the spiritual and not the practical. Gnosticisms emphasis upon the evil of the flesh (most of them said that physical things were created by a malevolent demi-God) led them to fall into two camps. Some said that the physical outworkings of life were without benefit, leading them into licentiousness of the worst sort. Some, like the Manichees, believed that extreme asceticism was the cure for an overly-physical life.
The reason I say this is that many modern Christians, in their neglect of the Incarnation, have unwittingly slipped into this mode. Heaven becomes an entirely body-less existence filled with disembodied souls. Faith is about one’s own spiritual life, not so much about action. Sacraments are the object of suspicion and religious people are the bad guys. Christianity becomes about knowledge and relationship and neglects duty, ritual, practice, and charity.
Lastly, the Gnostics were snobs. They immediately created hierarchies of progress for their movements. Certain blessed people had more knowledge than others. And, of course, their knowledge was more the result of their enlightenment than their formation and instruction, which was basically non-existent. The Church did the opposite. No knowledge was hidden, any question could be asked, and the Church was passionate about catechesis and formation of Christians, the introduction of religious practices, rituals, and articles of belief.
At the end of the day, I am not against having a relationship with Jesus. In fact, I am quite in favor of it. But, it is a relationship of marriage, not puppy-love. Married people know that you show your love for your spouse by emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, remembering anniversaries, spending time together, paying the bills, getting up and going to work. This is maturity in marriage. I fear that a new generation, in their lust for eternal youthfulness, in their rejection of institutions, in their distrust of received practices, has been sentenced to immaturity. You see, religion and relationship have a symbiotic need for each other. I have witnessed, through the years, that the people with the most maturity in the faith were the ones who dragged themselves to Church Sunday after Sunday, who made regular retreats, who lived by a Rule of Life, who made their confessions regularly. They’re not snobby about their faith. They’re lights to the world. They’re mature. They’re saints.
In the meantime, I pray that this young man will come under the influence of mature Christians who can direct his passion and guide him to the fulness of the truth.