Jesus and Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
You’ve seen it by now, surely you have: By the time I finish writing this post, I’ll bet Jeff Bethke‘s viral YouTube phenomenon “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” has likely garnered
8 12 million views. In like 5 days. If you haven’t seen it yet, go ahead and watch it here. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay, so – this video has stirred up all kinds of mixed feelings, among the faithful and nontheists alike – at least, among those of whom I’m connected to on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Because I’m supposedly more wired in these social media kinda ways than many, I’ve been asked for my take on this meme – not only my opinions, but a ‘meta’ perspective of what’s going on as a freelance religious (there’s that word again!) journalist and aspiring futurist.
So here goes: There are things about this conversation that aren’t surprising me, things about it that are surprising, and I think that the ‘truth’ of the Jesus versus religion (or faith/spirituality versus religion, or internals versus externals) debate is stranger and more intriguing than most of us realize in this unique cultural moment. This is going to be a loooong post, kids, so buckle up and stay with me – we’re in for a wild ride of bizarre juxtapositions and strange ideological bedfellows!
What’s not surprising to me is how many of my friends from house church and ‘relational Christianity‘ backgrounds love this video. After all, voices ranging from Gene Edwards to Wayne Jacobsen regularly lambast religion as a man(sic)-made attempt to reach God under our own steam, the kind of thing that Jesus (especially as interpreted by Paul in Galatians and Romans) came to abolish. (See The Highest Life, Christ versus Religion, He Loves Me! for these ideas writ large) Real faith, in the understanding of my “outside the Institutional Church” friends, begins and ends in grace – with God in Christ taking the initiative and carrying things through to completion. In their understanding, this isn’t religious at all, but its opposite.
No, what surprises me is how many of us (and I include myself in this) had strong negative reactions to this video from my emerging/missional church tribe. In principle, we should like this message. It’s reminiscent of Jay Bakker‘s boldly preaching (as a matter of autobiographical fact from his televangelical childhood) that religion kills in his books and church; it’s Rob Bell‘s message in The gods Aren’t Angry when he looks at how sacrificial religion was invented by humanity as a way of explaining reality and appeasing vengeful projections of ourselves, gods whom the living God reveals in in the light of Christ’s resurrection to mere phantasms of our worst fears – abolishing this kind of religion altogether.
Then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his potent, much-speculated end-of-life religion-less Christianity, which finds contemporary expression in (among other voices) Peter Rollins via Insurrection. IVP’s Likewise Books published Jesus Without Religion a couple years back, and popular Canadian alt.Anabaptist pastor Bruxy Cavey wrote The End of Religion around the same time to much acclaim. Dan Kimball notes of contemporary secular people that They Like Jesus but Not the Church; even good ‘ol Don Miller‘s 2003 best-seller (and upcoming movie) Blue Like Jazz is subtitled Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Diana Butler-Bass, previously a champion of religion’s possibility in books like Christianity For the Rest of Us, just might be doing an about-face in her upcoming Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.
Instead of giving Bethke high-fives and amens, though, many of us are responding like this young woman – if we’re being this charitable:
Why the disconnect? Are we just a bunch of hypocrites, or what? Here’s the rub, as I see it: All of those people just cited above are using the term ‘religion’ in at least two different ways. (I’ll get to that in a sec.) I think that the source of irritation for those who are irritated is this: Many of us hear Jethke saying that he “literally resents” religion, but then when he says things like
Because when [Jesus] was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you/And he absorbed all of your sin, and buried it in the tomb
…well, we hear an inherently religious claim. Just ask any atheist. Heck, ask any educated, non or post-evangelical Christian: That is some very specific theology – penal substitutionary atonement.
Still, I think a lot of the pajama pundits out there are being unfair in their criticism of Jethke, importing all of their (admittedly more sociologically accurate) definitions of ‘religion’ onto this spoken word piece, rather than letting the 20-something nonprofit worker use the word in his own self-defined way: Religion as a human attempt to reach God, one that often becomes mired in self-righteousness and hypocrisy. And when you ask most people today why they’ve left church or organized religion, they’ll give you much the same response: Organized religion is exhausting, it’s confusing, it me and/or others’ feel self-righteousness; it’s a hotbed of hypocrisy. Now: It remains to be seen whether or not Jethke’s prescription fits the disease, or whether it only makes things worse. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that 12 million people are watching this video because it hits them where they’re at. Capiche?
In our current cultural moment, unprecedented millions – if not billions – are sick to death of religion-as-we-know-it. I’m going to generalize a bit, but after a lifetime of unusually intense brushing-shoulders with Christians, new agers, conspiracy buffs, Integralists, neopagans and comic book fans (among others), I’m going to break down how people respond to religion-fatigue into two basic categories:
I. Conservatives rejecting religion: “It’s not about religion, but a relationship”
I first heard this phrase at a PCA drama camp in my teens, from the pastor’s wife who was coordinating the camp. Even though I was raised in church, I’d not really thought of ‘religion’ before that one way or another. “Hate religion? We do too!” was on the church‘s billboard at that time, in 1995. This quote sums up this perspective succinctly:
As you can probably tell from many of my blog entries, I am a bible believing Christian. I believe in God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe that the bible is reliable and is the basis for truth. I believe that God wants to have a relationship with everyone on earth and to see them come to salvation. Religion is a different matter. I don’t believe in religion. I am not religious…God created us for relationship. He wants to walk with us, talk with us, help us to learn and grow. We are spiritual beings, created to know God. One of the problems I see with Christianity as a religion is that it takes its focus off of the relationship and puts it onto the “lifestyle” of Christians. There is a Christian lifestyle – common dos and don’ts, ways of talking and behaving, an expected political outlook – and unfortunately, a common critical eye towards those who believe differently and act differently. In this I find the biggest fault with Christianity – the focus on sin, both personal sin and the sin of others. Jesus Christ did not come and die on the cross to get us to stop sinning. He came to set us free from sin. He came, not to put our focus on sin, but to take our focus off of it…God wants our focus to be on Him, not on the rules. I don’t lay down a law against my wife. We have a relationship, we love each other, and learn and grow together. Rules don’t make that relationship work, love does. God wants the same thing to be true with the relationship He has with us.
Got it? This is a powerful meme, one that has attracted scores of people, inside and outside of church alike. In my decade of communitarian-flavored house churching, one of the worst things that you could be accused of when sharing in a meeting was being “religious.” If I or someone else shared something that sounded remotely ‘theological’ rather than ‘me and Jesus’ in tone, someone would, like clockwork, strike it down with “That sounds pretty religious,” “That’s not why we’re here, brother,” or “Wrong Tree,” referring to a distinction between the ‘Tree of Knowledge‘ and the ‘Tree of Life‘ in Scripture’s Edenic past. Of course the irony was, we had our own pretty sacrosanct norms for how we gathered, shared, and worshiped; we had an extensive taxonomy of belief (as a statement like “Wrong Tree” would imply!)…it’s not that we were irreligious; we were simply differently religious.
There are many advocates for the “It’s not a religion, but a relationship” perspective within Christianity. Pollster George Barna advocated for it in Revolution. Charismatic troubadour John Crowder advocates for it in his books, ‘Gospel Bliss Tours,’ and Santa Cruz Church. Pastor and author Greg Boyd is Repenting of Religion and invites us to see The Myth of a Christian Religion. Scientist and pastor Andrew Farley presents this perspective persuasively in his books The Naked Gospel: Jesus Plus Nothing. 100% Natural. No Additives and God without Religion: Can It Really Be This Simple?. The URL for his Texas congregation, Ecclesia, is telling: ChurchWithoutReligion.com.
I believe that when conservative Christians (and likely, followers of any faith) say “For me it’s not about religion, but a relationship with God,” they’re being sincere. In many ways, this is the core of the contemplative or mystical experience that is arguably the heart of any faith: We want faith to be a first-hand divine experience, not merely a rote hand-me-down. But: It would be a mistake to take this outlook to mean that these relaters-not-religious are devoid of specific and passionately-held belief. In general, I think that “It’s not about religion, but relationship” folks de-emphasize norms of religious practice, but they’re actually more intense than the general population in what everyone but them would call religious belief. This to me is most powerfully illustrated in the best-selling “It’s not about religion, but relationship”-themed book of all time, The Shack. This 10 million+-seller says virtually nothing about religious practice (and what it does say is none too flattering!); what it does do is paint a vividly attractive portrait of what healthy beliefs might look like concerning a relational, Triune God.
II. Progressives rejecting religion: “I’m spiritual, not religious.”
Progressives have their equivalent to “It’s not a religion, but a relationship” too, and it’s been gaining a ton of traction in the past five years: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Henceforth SBNR) UCC minister Lillian Daniel crankily sums up this liberally in-vogue perspective thusly in her now-famous diatribe Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
She goes on to indict the spiritual-but-not-religious plane-mate:
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
But is that entirely fair? I know what wouldn’t be fair – letting a group be defined solely by its detractors. So here’s what Ian Lawton and the web emcees for the website SBNR.org
say said (this is an archived version of their site):
“Spiritual But Not Religious” describes a new worldview that is inclusive and open as opposed to separatist and closed. SBNR people desire a deep experience of life, including the mysteries of life, without the limitations and baggage of doctrine and religion.
The more I pay attention to the ordinary wonders of life, the less need I have for extraordinary miracles. Life, lived fully in the here and now, is sufficient to keep me wonderstruck for eternity. Spirituality draws me deeper into the moment. It is the experience, inspiration and awareness that evoke meaning, connections and the rapture of life. Spirituality is humanity that is experienced deeply. It is real. It is fun. It is practical. It is joy. It is pain. It is extraordinarily ordinary.
Generally speaking, religion is concerned with beliefs and tradition. The aspect of religion that many SBNR folk prefer to live without is the limitation of beliefs that are out of step with life as we experience it. There are three specific aspects of religion that many SBNR folk avoid.
Blind adherence– Beliefs that are unbelievable and irrelevant
Empty ritual- Rituals that are otherworldly or archaic
Guilt- A set of rules to follow, and the fear of punishment.
Many SBNR folk desire a deep experience of life, and the Source of life, without the limitations and baggage of doctrine and religion.
(Much more here.)
It’s important to note that Lawton and the SBNR.org folks are headquartered out of a bricks-and-mortar congregation, C3 Exchange: Spiritually-Inclusive Community. Similarly, Integral and interspiritual teacher Marc Gafni curates Integral Church: First Fridays, which monthly seeks to “engage the direct evolutionary mystical consciousness of our emergent World Spirituality framework and lineage. We want to literally be able to taste God, the Divine beyond us and the infinitely gorgeous ecstatic Divine that lives as us.” To do so, they enact various rituals to create ‘liminal space’ where this tasting and seeing God can take place:
Around the table together, we will engage in the tantric practice of Sabbath table mysticism. The core of the practice is to eat and drink a joyous meal together which is filled with intimacy, spiritual exercises, mediation, chant, partner work. The core experience of the Sabbath table is wildly beautiful which holds, honors and evolves all of our pained and broken places; even as the Sabbath table reminds us that we are kings and queens, wildly beautiful and pleasing to God as we realize that in our innermost being, we are actually part of God.
Check ’em out:
The aforementioned Peter Rollins, who speaks and writes often of moving Toward a Church Beyond Belief, founded the belief-defying iKon in Northern Ireland and inspires dozens of similar alt.worship communities worldwide. An archetypal example is Waco, Texas’s VOID Collective: “an experimental faith collective that utilizes a live mix of music, art, spoken word, personal reflections, and ritual to creatively engage questions of faith and doubt. A provocative and experiential event, VOID is marked by the religious question but remains radically open and non-confessional.” And The Red Door in Lakewood, Colorado contends “If there are 6 billion people on the planet, then there are at least 6 billion possible ways to communicate with your Creator. And six billion ways to move your body,” and builds an eclectic SBNR worship experience based on this premise of infinite diversity of practice.
Not all SBNR people participate in gatherings like C3, Integral Church, iKon, VOID, and Red Door. Indeed, the critique of people like Lillian Daniels and Jesuit priest James Martin is that SBNR people are un-moored to concrete community. I’d like to suggest, though, that SBNR folks – who are sometimes in organized gatherings, sometimes-not – have one thing in common: They’re far more committed to open-ended spiritual practices (be they communal ritual, or private meditation, yoga, journaling, centering prayer) than they are to detailed or comprehensive sets of belief.
My conclusion: Lots of people are dissing religion these days, but for very different reasons. When progressives diss religion, they want practices without beliefs. When conservatives diss religion, they want beliefs without practices. I’m sympathetic to both perspectives, but at the end of the day I have to recognize that we humans all believe things, and we all have practices. Which is why I’d say I’m spiritual and religious. Or, that I have a divine relationship and religion. They’re both here.
And of course, being a good
Christ-follower Way-farer Integral adventurer Christian, I think that my perspective is what Jesus and his earliest followers adhered to. Even if you disagree with me, please humor me and hear my case. I’m sure we can all learn something from each other in the comments section.
Jesus (& Paul & John): No friend of power-brokering religion
As a nod to Jeff Bethke and the millions of Relationship-But-Not-Religion and SBNR folks out there, I’d like to briefly outline the No duh texts of Christian Holy Writ that demonstrate Jesus and his earliest followers’ often antagonistic stance toward the religious institutions and elites of their day. Jesus, in a passage rendered famously by Lutheran pastor Eugene Peterson‘s The Message translation, has Jesus evocatively inviting us to something that transcends petty religion:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Jesus backed up this invitation with his life. He overturned Temple tables, healed on the Sabbath (and taught others to do the same), called religious leaders “broods of vipers” and “whitewashed tombs,” cursed fig trees symbolizing fruit-less religionists. This kind of confrontation was not uncommon:
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:5-9)
Jesus’ overall appraisal of the religionists of his day is ““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” Jesus seemed to be about creating a new kind of community, one where the values of repressive religion and empire would be absent:
Jesus called them to himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…’ (Matthew 20:25-27a)
Jesus’ earliest followers seem to have picked up on this tension with prevailing religion and followed in his footsteps. In words of a letter to Colossae commonly attributed to Paul, the author admonishes his hearers:
Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)
Paul arguably saw spiritual life as a break away from conventional religion into one of communion with God in Christ:
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:19-21)
It is Paul who famously said “[God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6. For more on how Paul & others saw this working itself out in non-hierarchical, communal church structures, see this post.)
Paul was not alone in advocating for a Spirit-led rather than rules-led community, as this passage from 1 John attests: “As for you, the anointing that you received from [Christ] abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things…abide in him.” (1 John 2:27)
Finally, the author of Hebrews invokes an ancient prophetic promise in Jeremiah that people wouldn’t be led by laws written in stone, but instead on living laws written in our hearts. (See this post for more exploration of this ancient Christian idea)
My conclusion: Those disgruntled with religion-as-usual have ample precedent in Scripture to be disgruntled. The subversion of conventional religion is actually a biblically-rooted idea.
Jesus (& Paul): Practitioners of prophetic religion
But not so fast: Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrew prophets who report God saying things like “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21) are not saying and writing these things as standing-on-the-outside, disavowed enemies of religion. No, they’re writing as passionate critics from within. As John Caputo says, “We deconstruct that which we love.” When we forget that what we’re passionately denouncing has something at its core that we actually cherish, deconstruction becomes mere destruction, with no regard for life or feelings.
To state the obvious: Jesus was Jewish, growing up in a devout Jewish home. He went to Synagogue; he went to Temple. He celebrated Passover; he even took part in a religious rite innovative in his day, the Baptism of John. He perfectly (if paradoxically, in the minds of many) fit Jewish religious categories like rabbi and Messiah. Even phrases we apply to Jesus like anointed one and Son of Man are Jewish religious terms. Paul for his part, while clearly delineating (arguably, more clearly than Jesus) between debilitating forms of Jewish religion and newfound freedom in Christ, still saw Gentile Christians as indebted to the Jewish message and ultimately, the Jewish God. And while the reasons he did so are debatable, he apparently still went to the Temple in Jerusalem, post-Pharisee career, and even took a vow and shaved his head there once. And of course, Paul passed down new, distinctly Christian religious practices like Baptism and the Agape Feast/Lord’s Table to the communities he worked with.
My conclusion: While Bonhoeffer and Rollins and Farley and Cavey might very well have legitimate ideas about living life beyond religion in the 21st century, these ideas would have been inconceivable in the first century. Jesus and Paul, standing in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, were calling people to be differently religious, not irreligious.
Seven-to-Nine Different Ways of Looking At Religion
In the light of this phenomenological and biblical survey of the pros and cons of religion, now these sociological definitions of ‘religion’ might come in handy. Matt Stone of Glocal Christianity has identified seven definitions of religion from Ninian Smart:
1.) Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (often regarded as revealed).
2.) Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human’s place in it.
3.) Experiential and emotional: dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss.
4.) Social and Institutional: belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group. Often rules for identifying community membership and participation.
5.) Ethical and legal: Rules about human behaviour (often regarded as revealed).
6.) Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.
7.) Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural.
It seems apparent to me that Jesus and his first-century religious foes were each religious in all of the above ways. The (literally) crucial difference is that Jesus saw the prevailing contemporary religious parties’ religiosity as dysfunctional and ultimately counter-productive in leading to the fruit of increased love for neighbor, one another, and God.
Comparative developmentalist and map-maker Ken Wilber, unsurprisingly, has an even more extensive taxonomy of religion that he identifies in his books A Sociable God and The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. Blogger Frater Barrabbas Tiresius summarizes Wilber’s nine dimensions of religion:
1. Religion is a non-rational engagement. By labeling it non-rational, religion is therefore defined as belonging to or originating out of a dimension that is “other” to reason and rationality. This would indicate that the nature of Spirit, of which religion is principally concerned about, is something that can’t be either quantified or even qualified, thus making it wholly transcendental and paradoxical.
2. Religion is an extremely meaningful or integrative engagement. This definition perceives religion as being an entirely social phenomenon that brings people together, teaching them to resolve their differences and live peacefully for the common good of all. Therefore, religion is concerned with making collective meaning and searching for collective truths that further the integrity and stability of the communal organization.
3. Religion is an immortality project, which is created to deal with the insecurities associated with the ephemeral quality of human life. This theory defines religion as a powerful social belief system that bolsters the confidence of the individual member, giving one a sense of being an elite participant in the collective destiny of the group. This has the effect of assisting individuals to cope with catastrophic loss and death (as well as the potential for such) by causing them to focus instead on the guarantee of a spiritual afterlife.
4. Religion is a mechanism for evolutionary growth through conscious transformation and spiritual evolution, so that by applying oneself to its discipline, one can fully apprehend the spiritual dimension of the self. As Wilber so adroitly put it: “[E]volution and history is a process of increasing self-realization, or the overcoming of alienation via the return of spirit to spirit as spirit.” This whole process represents the drive for transcendent self-realization and personal transformation.
5. Religion represents a social phenomenon of collective psychotic fixations and is therefore, inherently regressive, pre-personal and pre-rational. Wilber says that this perspective has a negative opinion about religion: “[R]eligion is childish illusion, magic, myth.” This perspective represents the typical attitude of empirical science and academia towards religion in general, and is a major part of the creeds of social secularism and atheism. Sigmund Freud held this opinion about religion, and so did Karl Marx and many others.
6. Religion is an exoteric social institution, and its mysteries and paradoxes are understood through the periodic and continual practice of liturgy and the study of sacred scriptures, shared by all members of a specific doctrine or creed. Religion is a public organization where everything is determined and explained in great detail, and nothing is left to chance or self-determination. Exoteric religion consists of the basic and fundamental principles of any religious organization. As Wilber has said in his book: It is a “form of belief system used to invoke or support faith,..preparatory to [an] esoteric experience and adaption..”
7. Religion is esoteric and occultic, and its mysteries and paradoxes are obscured and buried deep within the core belief system that everyone else takes for granted. These mysteries are typically not realized by the general adherent, but requires a deeper and inner exposure to that spiritual system, often acquired through the agency of a teacher and an individualized spiritual practice. The goal of esoteric religion is the obtainment of mystical experiences and a direct realization of spirit in all manifestation.
8. Religion is only legitimate when it validates the particular “translation” or perspective established by a given doctrine or creed, usually providing its members positive reinforcements (“good mana”), and helping them to avoid social taboos (“bad mana”). This confers upon individuals a powerful emotional and social sense of being a member of a spiritual community, thereby providing personal meaningfulness, group destiny, and eschatological symbols of immortality.
9. Religion is authentic when it validates the particular “transformation” or deeper inner experience of a spiritual system. An authentic religion cuts through doctrine and dogma, giving its adherents the tools and methodologies to achieve a direct experience with the core of that religious system, and is less concerned with the outer trappings and the exegesis of liturgy and sacred scriptures.
Wilber’s nine definitions are more nuanced, debatable, and complex. A whole week’s worth of blog posts could be devoted to teasing these out, and which of these senses of ‘religion’ make sense for people of faith today and which are corrosive to good sense and good fruit. Suffice it to say, Jesus’ relationship with religion is complicated – more complicated than the loudest voices of either institutional religious enthusiasts or their progressive and conservative avowedly non-religionists would have us believe.
My conclusion: I’m Spiritual and religious, some more days than others
Religion is culture. Religion is the air we breathe. If we’re on this planet converting oxygen into carbon dioxide, then we are in some sense also religious. You’d have a difficult time convincing me otherwise. Religion has produced art and coherence and hospitals and spiritual technology. And like any aspect of culture, religion also rapes and corrodes decency and robs innocence and codifies spontaneity. In his video, Bethke laments a brand of religion that strikes so many of us as worthy of critique. It is the same kind of religion that the Hebrew prophets railed against, that Jesus and Paul saved some of their worst acrimony for, that reformers and iconoclasts through the ages have rightly rejected. But does his proposed cure annihilate religion, or (regardless of whether or not you agree with the particulars of his take on Jesus’ religion-freeing power) simply call us to be differently religious? I think the latter.
Where does this leave us? Well for one, I hope it doesn’t leave us spending too much time heaping criticism or praise on a twenty-something young man who sought to express himself in a spoken word video. I’d like to think that Bethke himself would prefer that we internalize his message and our reactions to it in more constructive ways. What kind of constructive ways? Well, It might not be as catchy or edgy to say so – and indeed, it might seem too obvious to state – but it isn’t religion as such that is the enemy, but myopic, oppressive, fear-driven, legalistic and self-satisfied religion that the Hebrew Bible and New Testament voices alike take dead aim at. And it’s the bad reputation of ‘dead’ and corrosive religion that creates both the Not-A-Religion-But-A-Relationship and the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious memes.
In my own life, I’ve discovered that I’m a hopelessly religious person. After our house church community imploded, I spent about a year and a half doing nothing in particular, primarily spiritually engaging via random conversations with friends and, of course, on the Internet. I appreciated both of these outlets (still do, if this blog post isn’t ample evidence!), but a lack of coherent focus that transcends me started driving me crazy. Perhaps I’m weak, but I came to see that belonging to an identifiable community took faith out of my head and put it in the spaces between, the places where I relate to an identifiable group of flesh-and-blood people. This proved to be so valuable and so missed that my family and I are currently involved with not one but two regularly-gathering (albeit unconventional) faith communities, in addition to our work with the nationwide annual faith-gathering, the Wild Goose Festival. After years of being close friends with many people across the spectrum (including my parents!) who have indefinitely given up collective religious expression for Lent (as it were), I’ve come to know myself to a degree that that’s just not me.
Instead, I feel like I incorporate aspects of Relationship-not-Religion and Spiritual-but-Not-Religious critiques into my practice of religion. Some days, I’m not sure there’s a God and I’m thinking that grace might be a collective hallucination. One these days, beliefs feel like gnats swarming around, desperate to get my attention, to no avail. It’s on days like these that practices like breaking bread and singing songs and sitting in silence get me through my day – or week – or month. On other days, practice falls short and belief sustains. On these days, I could care less about liturgy or the church calendar, and if my inner kenotic release via Centering Prayer is what I have to depend on for inner grounding, then I’m screwed. On these days, I gamble everything I’ve got on the story of a God whose gratuitous mercy chases me down every road, and whose wholeness and Shalom-making are cosmic and contagious. On these days, it’s the Story that gets me, and gets me through.
Sometimes, of course, I’m firing on all cylinders – belief and practice working together in perfect harmony. But even this tandem is like riding a bicycle – when one pedal goes down, the other pedal goes up. Life can be a cold and lonely road, and I empathize with believers and atheists, SBNRs and NRBRs alike. For me, I’ve discovered that life is a matrix of meaning, and that this meaning spills over and across the neat categories of ‘religion,’ and ‘spirituality.’ We have both – whey not make the most of each?
Recommended Reading (besides the bazillion books linked in this post):
Love Jesus, Hate Religion: The Meta-Collection – my compilation of
nearly over 50 reviews of the viral YouTube video
Spiritual But Not Religious: The Meta Collection – the same, for SBNR
About the Author: Mike Morrell is a journalist, publishing consultant, and aspiring futurist. He’s part of the organizing team for the Wild Goose Festival. He’s a husband, father, and spiritual/religious follower of Jesus. More here.