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!

Surprises! And not so much. 

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 movieBlue 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.

Cue music:

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:

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 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 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):

Interspirituality: A Meaningful Alternative to ‘Spiritual Not Religious’ by Carl McColman

Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words by Brian McLaren

Ash Wednesday in the Streets by Sara Miles

To Live Is to Be Spiritual, to Live Well Is to Be Religious by Samir Selmanovic

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.

81 Responses to Jesus and Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

  1. Darin January 16, 2012 at 1:29 am #

    Nice distillation of several key ideas! Your article is certainly an improvement on the dualistic thinking that dominates discourse in this area. Thanks for bringing up Wilber’s synthesis of more seminal aspects of the conversation. I’m with you!

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

      Thanks, Darin!

  2. ron cole January 16, 2012 at 1:33 am #

    Hey Mike, a lot of good thoughts there…but in your closing paragraph we touched the nerve. “Sometimes, of course, I’m firing on all cylinders – belief and practice working together in perfect harmony. ” I think the tragedy is when we create the religious box…the parameter of belief. This bottom line that as a christian we all need to believe exactly the same. I am know longer part of any church, the fact that I believe in the same Jesus you do, practice his life as a disciple…but because I believe differently but end up in the same place. That’s not good enough, I am pushed into exile. I continue to live my life fully in the mysteriously reality of Jesus…without the church. Am I religious?

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

      So ‘exile’ implies you want to return, Ron. Is that fair to say in your case?

      I know SBNR folks who would like to find a faith community if they could, and others who are fully content/enriched as they are..

      • ron cole January 16, 2012 at 3:29 pm #

        Hey Mike, I would say I’m in a faith community…without religion.

  3. Bill Colburn January 16, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    Mike: thanks for putting this together. It is a useful review of the issue, one that I hope will launch many discussions.

    I have intentionally ‘not’ watched the video. The title seemed rather trite. I am increasingly less inclined to appreciate the labels of religion/spiritual; modern/postmodern, etc. These terms seem to unnecessarily impose structures that diminish community. I tend to lean in your direction that however we may protest, we are religious/spiritual people to one varying degree or another. I appreciated Richard Rohr’s recent book, Falling Upward, that rendered non-judgmental emphasis on a necessarily more structure oriented first phase of life. Pete Rollins cleverly removes the whole conversation outside the usual fight club and into the philosophical realm. Len Sweet’s recent book, “I Am A Follower” also takes a somewhat different, but refreshingly helpful middle road. Sorting out our particular (and peculiar) ‘camp’ may actually be something many still need to wrestle with, but it is rather ‘yesterday’ for many others.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      I hear you, Bill. Most days, I’m Popeye – I Yam what I Yam. 🙂

  4. Roger Wolsey January 16, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    Michael, Well you weren’t kidding, that was a long reflection! … but quite well worth it.

    I guess the only place that I’d quibble with you is that in my experience, Progressive Christians aren’t the ones going around claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” Those tend to be people who don’t identify as Christians at all, often new agers or Uniterian Universalist types who pick and choose from among the world’s religions.

    As I argued in my book “Kissing Fish,” progressive Christianity tends to embrace a “both/and” way of engaging with things religious (and spiritual). Progressive Christians tend to be among those who are quite comfortable claiming to be both spiritual and religious. Indeed, both Diana Butler Bass and I spend a goodly portion of our respective books sharing about how we can do just that. I certainly named how we can be active members of a worshiping community, engage in spiritual practices, and also tap into the heritage of Christian mysticism where we’re invited to experience the Divine directly.

    Young Jefferson surely is being used by God in getting one *hell* of a lot of conversation about these matters taking place. That said, I’m one who has concerns about what he’s created (and why). Here are my reflections: “Poet Slams Religion but Preaches Jesus”

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

      I agree, Roger. In fact, if you look at the examples of SBNR congregations I gave – Red Door, Integral Church, iKon, VOID – they don’t claim to be ‘progressive Christian’ or even Christian at all. They’d be kind of ‘spiritual mutts’ (and I use the term with respect) or post-Christian.

      Progressive Christianity has the potential, I think, to embody spiritual AND religious nicely, as long as y’all can tap into the quests of SBNR and NRBR folks. And I agree that Kissing Fish is a great place for people to start thinking about this. 🙂

      • Roger Wolsey January 16, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

        Fair enough. However, I was referring to your statement that “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.”

        Agreed, progressive Christianity has great potential in reaching the SBNR folk and the NRBR folk as well!

  5. sean daly January 16, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    hmm … hey Mike, you sure have thought of just about every angle. And I actually took the time to read/view it all. I too have ‘travelled’ a similar road to you [although I spent many years in a fundamentalist camp before my second conversion]. My second conversion [from self-righteous evangelic judge]transpired when I discovered I was acting in pride because I did not use the ‘F’ word [like other supposed Christians did]. When the Wild Goose put a finger on my hypocrisy, something deep shifted – and I have since then being experiencing ongoing conversions. Yous analysis is helpful in interpreting some of the narratives at play – and could well point us all towards a fresh appreciation of ‘new conversions’ in our post-modern/post-colonial world. By the way, I’m first generation African [born of Irish parents], and live in South Africa.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

      Thank you, Sean, for taking the time to read this in its entirety. It took me like all weekend to write!

      I’m with you, re: new conversions. Mine is from prereflective childhood faith to reflective, fully-owned, adulthood faith.

      I hope I can see you at the Goose again this year!

  6. Chuck Russell January 16, 2012 at 2:04 am #

    Though no fan of ‘religion’ myself, I find Bethke’s video about as deep and penetrating as a collection of bumper stickers. It’s simply one more way to ‘reach’ those who are tired of ‘the same old church’. Your piece was great, by the way.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

      Thanks, Chuck.

      Well, I have to say – when I was in my young twenties, I don’t know if I had much original or profound to say. But if I didn’t say then what I was thinking, I wouldn’t be saying what I’m currently saying.

      Which is either a good thing or bad thing, depending on who you ask..! 😉

  7. Robin Vincent January 16, 2012 at 6:22 am #

    Great post Mike – you must have been up all night 🙂
    Something that has struck me in all this that there’s a key thing absent from most of the discussion i’ve seen. And that’s in the description of the video as follows (emphasis mine):
    “A poem I wrote to highlight the difference between Jesus and FALSE religion”.
    That little word “false” is actually very powerful and will hopefully shield the guy from much of the criticism – i’m not sure anyone can disagree that “false religion” is something worth rejecting. That’s not to detract from the fabulous depth of discussion that has emerged in its wake.

    Nice one mate – i completely identify with how you present yourself.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

      Not all one night; I worked on it over the weekend in-between playing with my daughter and celebrating my first wedding anniversary. 🙂

      Funny thing about that description of ‘False’ Religion – it’s new. I think Bethke added it after this dialogue with a pastor he looks up to, Kevin DeYoung.

  8. Johan January 16, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    Hi Mike,

    thanks for your thoughtful response, although I skipped some of it due to the length of the post.

    have you seen the amazing atheist’s response to the video?

    This might get a good discussion going on your FB page?

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      I have seen that video, Johan – thanks! Like many things offered by ‘new atheist’ folk, I found myself at times laughing with recognition of his salient points, amen-ing, and rolling my eyes for what seems like willful misunderstanding of where believers (of any stripe) are coming from.

  9. ed cyzewski January 16, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    Brilliant response Mike. I appreciate the time you put into it. I think it all comes down to how we define religion, and for that, I’m grateful that we have theologians and arm chair theologians who can sort this out with a calm, gentle perspective (hopefully at least!). My sense is that this brings up how inaccessible a lot of theology texts really are. This guy finally found a way to connect with a popular readership because he made his ideas accessible, even if he didn’t do his homework in defining his terms well. For me, this is both an affirmation that we need theology and a cal to communicate it better.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

      You know what I think, Ed? I think that more people need a truly accessible theology text…a…a coffeehouse theology, as it were! 🙂

      • ed cyzewski January 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

        Ha! You’d think! I blogged today about this today, and I was reminded of two different reviews of Coffeehouse Theology. One reviewer said it was too simplistic to be useful and another reviewer suggested that I didn’t know how to communicate with my fellow human beings! The first one struck me as a bit unrealistic (I mean, you can’t include a chapter on Nietzsche in a general audience theology book!), but the other guy struck me as unwilling to think a bit. All the same, I hope I can continue to develop compelling ways to talk about theology with a broad audience. This video proves that we need a little bit of it sometimes!

  10. Beth Pyles January 16, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    Having spent some time in the Middle East and in community with someone from Taiwan, what struck me so forcefully in all of the above ruminations, whether advocating ‘for’ or ‘against’ what the various define as ‘religion’ is how very individually-centered it all is, a very Western world view, if I understand these things correctly. What I learned in the Middle East is that everything is done together, with emphasis on the family, the group, the tribe. They would be puzzled by a discussion about ‘relational’ worship or religion, as puzzled as they were when I tried to discuss the weather: why would you discuss something as fundamental as breathing? Some things simply are. In such a view, of course religion is relational, as religion is a relational/collective expression of faith. Like it or not, whenever two or more are gathered, there religion, as well as God, is/are. What I’m trying (probably not very successfully) to get at is this: the entire conversation seems to me to be arising from the peculiarly Western post-Enlightenment emphasis on the individual (least favorite hymn: ‘In the Garden’ as in ‘I come to the garden alone . . .’, or as I like to translate it: ‘Me and Jesus, my only boyfriend’, as if none of the rest of us will be there and it’s only heaven if it’s only me there). That is not to belittle the importance of each and all of us in the eyes of God and of each other. It is to say that as practiced and lived from its very onset, as you point out above, Christianity, however that term is defined, was ‘done’ generally not one by one, but in groups: households converting, people listening to teaching/preaching (generally identified as crowds), living together, worshiping together, sharing meals together, dying for their faith together. The very revelations we refer collectively to as the New Testament are mostly letters, intended in their writing to be read to groups of people living and worshiping in community together. Even individual issues of behavior were addressed not to the one, but to the community.

    A linguistic observation: words have meaning. It is the very nature of words to have a common meaning, as their purpose is to communicate from one human being to another. In our own time, however, we tend to individualize even the meaning of words, so that we can scarcely understand each other. I thus appreciate very much your tackling of the meaning of ‘religion’ and pointing out its various meanings. Many seem to actually mean ‘church’ or more precisely, ‘the worshiping/church community that injured me in some way’ when they refer to ‘religion’. When I was young, the phrase ‘mentally retarded’ was used to define people who are what we now refer to as ‘developmentally disabled’, with a word-evolutionary process intended to try to remove the sting of the misappropriation of the previous word picture into something insulting or denigrating. A laudable effort, what I think it overlooks is that the word is not the problem. The problem is the hurtful actions of others. The Methodists and Quakers, taking a different tack, were able to take pejorative terms and convert them into something positive. Churches have, of late, been quick to abandon the language of ‘religion’ or ‘religious’. Perhaps we would do better to follow the Methodists and Quakers and redeem and claim the language. Whether Bonhoeffer saw himself as post-religious or not, he lived his faith life in community, a community for which he established rules of conduct, some of which were, from his perspective, non-negotiable.

    As for me, while I am scarcely spiritual (in the sense of having an aware, conscious connection on an on-going basis with the divine, as the mystics would have it), but I am definitely religious (as in living my life based upon my best understandings, continually refined and sometimes redefined in lived community – church — of God and faith, Jesus and love).

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      Beth, you make so many excellent points it will be impossible to respond in-kind.

      Overall…you’re absolutely right about me and this conversation being a product of our Western context. Mea culpa. I think we have a lot to learn from you and your context – I’m glad you’re blogging!

  11. Andrew William Smith January 16, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Indeed. And Amen.
    Doesn’t Jesus participate in his own version of religious practice & religious movement? So much that Christ attaches to the vocational tag of a vagabond “rabbi”—or even more extraordinarily messiah, God-with-us, Word-as-flesh, Law-fulfilled.
    I love the viral video on many levels—the poetic & prophetic vein of hip-hop-meets-stand-up-routine— but am admittedly averse to the brand of anti-religion that loathes liturgy & rejects ritual: you know, the give me rock n roll & give me Jesus & give me arm-waving & heart-warming worship-lite; but don’t expect me to pray this way & read that book or eat this bread & drink that juice or (Romney-forbid) love my enemies & free the prisoners & feed the poor. In his blog, Mike Morrell correctly calls this out as belief with practice, theory without practice. At least part of the church practice in many of the communities in which I have traversed includes peace & social justice work, includes shelters & soup kitchens & healing sanctuaries for addicts in recovery.
    There are ways that I am anti-religion, insofar as I am anti-war & post-guilt, against institutionalized hypermoralistic hegemony, against a morality of regulation that initiates legislation without the loving aspect of liberation. Part of this progressive-oriented Spiritual-But-Not-Relationship tendency gets enhanced by the evangelical antithesis to Christ embodied (this week) by Rick Santorum getting endorsed by religious leaders—the epitome of the pro-war meets anti-sexuality perversion of the Gospel.
    Mike nails so much for us with his in-depth response, by clearly articulating a negotiated & nuanced spiritual-&-religious path. I also found his article helpful because it provided a link to the poet-preacher’s website, where we find—included among many other things like the email address by which to book Jeff Bethke for a speaking engagement or his bio that shows he’s involved in a church called Mars Hill (in Washington) & works for a religious organization—the author’s “top 10” books, titles by the likes of Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, and Tim Keller. I’m just saying we can learn a lot by looking at a person’s libraries & name-checking their influences. (Now, as much pause as some of the names in his Top 10 give me, I don’t doubt Bethke’s sincerity or work or dismiss his poem or even dispute the claims in the poem to the extent that some others have.)
    Dig a little deeper—& the relationship-not-religion rap might just be the next religious racket, the next best hippest Brand Religion. We’re amazed at the various permutations & manifestations of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but if I’m serious about following the revolutionary nonviolence of the carpenter-rabbi from Galilee, this makes me terribly suspicious of the Holy Warrior rhetoric some want us to align with.

    I don’t have it all figured out, & I’m grateful for the dialogue & fellowship along these lines that I find in the larger Emergent community, in my local mainline PC-USA church, in my smaller C2G worship collective, & in my seminary seminars at Vanderbilt Divinity. And I’ve even written (& will continue to write) a few spoken word raps about it.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

      You said “Dig a little deeper—& the relationship-not-religion rap might just be the next religious racket, the next best hippest Brand Religion. We’re amazed at the various permutations & manifestations of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but if I’m serious about following the revolutionary nonviolence of the carpenter-rabbi from Galilee, this makes me terribly suspicious of the Holy Warrior rhetoric some want us to align with.”

      Christianity is, without a doubt, the most elastic and entrepreneurial faith the planet has ever seen. There’s a lot about this that is fun, exciting, and has propelled advances in human rights and governance – and there is a shadow side.

      With that said, I doubt Bethke sees himself as advancing Christianity’s shadow. At best, I think his video has sparked a ton of thoughtful conversation.

  12. Micah Redding January 16, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Hey Mike, I read this last night, and was trying to process all of the thoughts that resulted. I could go through Wilber’s dimensions step-by-step, and I’ve already tackled Ninian Smart’s list over at Bram Cool’s blog, but I think it might be more helpful just to say that in many respects, I am quite positive about these conceptions of religion.

    I agree with the sentiment that this has been over-simplified, and I am particularly concerned to avoid demonizing those on the opposite side of the spectrum. My intent has been to make very clear a core distinction that I see in the New Testament, and to let people make honest decisions around that distinction. As with any issue, I like to know what my options are, and to be free to evaluate those options without fear.

    So when I named my site “Christianity Against Religion”, my intent was to refer to organized religion, and my definition of that was anything that tries to implement a spiritual hierarchy, and anything that attempts to invest arbitrary actions with metaphysical significance.

    I am not against the people who believe ritual and hierarchy to be necessary. I simply see something different, and want to express that in a clear way, so that people (including the religiously disenfranchised and the atheists I know) will understand that there is an alternative.

    That alternative is this:

    That Jesus’ mission was to break the mediation of God. God was escaping the temple, escaping the religious hierarchy, escaping the limitation of times and places and objects and actions. That as a result, humanity’s connection to God is immediate and unfiltered, investing all of us with priesthood, making us all temples. And so every one of our common actions becomes holy, as indicated most clearly in the way in which Jesus states that every bite and every sip becomes a new covenant feast, and every meal becomes a supper with God.

    When viewed this way, hierarchy and ritual seem to be ways of draining the world of God. Or at least, ways of practicing until we become able to deal with God everywhere.

    But I wouldn’t claim to be “spiritual but not religious”. I am religious in a very special way, which makes me un-religious in another way. And I hope that I can express that distinction without demonizing or parodying those who come down on the other side.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

      Micah, I always enjoy talking with you about stuff like this. And I can’t speak for any of your other dialogue partners, but as for me I do not find “hierarchy to be necessary.” I do find some level of leadership and organization to be necessary – depending on what it is that you want to do. But to me, Jesus & Paul were pretty clear non-hierarchs.

      “Ritual” is a little trickier. I don’t think that I “attempt…to invest arbitrary actions with metaphysical significance.” And yet, I do love me some singing and Eucharist’in. And I think we’ve had this conversation before; as a committed panentheist and nondualist, I affirm God’s inseparability with all times and all places, everywhere and everywhen. That said, I think that we are inherently meaning-making creatures, and we can choose to practice awareness of the ‘everyday sacred’ by infusing certain gestures and practices – not arbitrarily, but chosen-ly – with the significance that we’re paying attention.

      Or not, of course. I totally respect you and your iconoclastic path. And wholeheartedly agree that “Jesus’ mission was to break the mediation of God. God was escaping the temple, escaping the religious hierarchy, escaping the limitation of times and places and objects and actions. That as a result, humanity’s connection to God is immediate and unfiltered, investing all of us with priesthood, making us all temples. And so every one of our common actions becomes holy, as indicated most clearly in the way in which Jesus states that every bite and every sip becomes a new covenant feast, and every meal becomes a supper with God.” I just might indeed practice it in a ‘training wheels’ kind’ve way, “practicing until we become able to deal with God everywhere.” Well-put.

  13. Brittian Bullock January 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Several things here: first–I get it. The spiritual but not religious position is one I have identified with much of my life and for various reasons. During my rabid house church days I was using it to mean i didn’t like the practices or rituals of institutional or denominated Christianity. I was, in my own mind, less religious than the guy going to church. But truth was–in terms of religious belief I was at least AS religious if not more so. It was just a clever way of differentiating from the other guy.
    During a more recent phase I think I could have rightly said “Oh bother with it all! Spirituality and religion!” but maybe meant the same thing–forms seemed relatively useless to me and tired crutches that do more harm than good. In either case this has been a solidly entrenched vantage point in my life. And still is in many ways. So–while what I quoted on my blog was poking fun and being completely irreverent of such a perspective–I must admit I find it funny because it has so routinely been mine.

    Now for the viral video. Pretty basic message. We hear it all the time. And to be honest I see nothing shockingly delicious about his style or delivery. The video is done well though. It’s totally slick. And it’s nice to see something sexy saying what you’ve been espousing for years now. So that’s cool. I think that’s why so many people are drawn to this. Not because he’s saying something really very revolutionary. But the opposite. He’s saying something rather common (strikes a nerve with quite a few of us) and does so in a good way that most of us would feel comfortable sharing on our Facebook page. Of all these things I have no complaint. Let his tribe increase.

    I would point out, his theology, which he uses over and over is very religious. It is highly evangelical. Highly fundamentalist. Penal substitutionary atonement at its best. Its a truly entrenched Perspective. And probably sees out young would be poet attending church routinely. That’s why I say it’s slick. He’s not really saying exactly what we think. So, if–if, I have a complaint concerning the video it’s that it’s too religious…simply subtle.

    Ok…now Then….I did post a quote on my blog which was roughly titles “Spiritual But Not Religious…no thank you…” it’s humor is really what got me. And I think she’s spot on jn some of her observations. I have always felt, and continue to feel, ala cart spirituality is bad for the soul. Truth is not a Pathless land. It has a multitude. And they aren’t individualistic either. They are ones you walk together. This is not a plea for church. It’s just a reality. We do our best work in a flow With others wrestling through the same stuff. A space where we can disagree and be disagreed With safely. And a place where we know it may not be about our solitary perspective at the end of the day.

    The danger of ala cart religion (ie spiritual but not religious) is a cherry picking method that does little to challenge ones own convenient preconceptions. For me, I continue to be drawn back to the understanding that from a developmental perspective (physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual) we grow when frustrated, challenged or are stymied. We seldom grow when when self satisfied (again here I’m talking about every level of development). If the infant is fine blobbing around it probably won’t roll, crawl or eventually walk. Instead it gets frustrated and moves ahead. This happens at a similar level in community with others, spiritually. It also happens in connection to drawing on ancient texts, such as the bible. Because its roots are very old and it’s source wholly different than ours, it routinely can function to challenge our modernistic, stuck in the here and now, dominant paradigms that we download every time we turn on the television or the Internet. And, for reasons I’ve already mentioned, I think that challenge is important.

    Lastly–it has been important for me…and I suspect will be for others. I reason that the above is a guiding metaphor for life in general. Choose a path, wrestle With it, allow it to shape you and for you to shape it, stick With it long enough to not ony see the cracks but also to push past them or even address them. But…I’m comfortable saying this may actually not be the road your on. My audience continues to be me. The things I say are said often for my own benefit. For instance that woman’s quote was funny because I have been that guy–I may still be that guy. And yes I do think I’m novel as I spout my latest revelation. It was humorous because it was applicable–to me. Perhaps less to you. And if to you–maybe less funny than to I. That’s alright. Be where you are and go where you’re going. Just don’t stagnate. Pour into a channel and flow somewhere–otherwise you get a swamp… Do your thing…but do it.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

      Salient points, Mr. Bullock. The dance between form and emptiness, divestment and play.

    • JoAnn Bastien January 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

      I am a missional pastor in a Wesleyan-Holiness denomination and I am Gen-X. I am also an adult convert; a former atheist. Needless to say, my friends were pretty shocked that I had such a negative response to the “love Jesus, hate Religion” video. NOrmally, I would be all over this type of thing, high-fives everywhere and chanting, etc. Lately, I have had some disturbing encounters with pre-Christians that have disturbed me. Things that this video seemed to advocate. First, I have a problem with people turning Jesus into something He is not. I have friends of different faiths and we have great conversation, and I understand and respect people’s free will to reject Jesus Christ. But, please, don’t turn Him into something He never said He was. He is God in the flesh come down from heaven to make atonement for our sins. He died on a cross, was raised on the 3rd day, ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end. He has given His followers His Spirit and a mark that He will return and to empower us to do His Will here on earth. I have friends who want to turn Jesus into a combo new age, Gnostic, menial guru. Second, I understand that the video was using religion in some new millennial definition. But when people hear “religion”, they still think “church”. And Jesus was all about us being the church. We need a community of faith. The New TEstament tells us that it is within the community of faith that we are transformed from glory to glory and brought into maturity in Christ Jesus. We need each other if we are going to reach maturity. And what the church really needs today is to grow up, mature, in Christ. So this video suggests to me that I can love Jesus and even have a relationship with Jesus, but I don’t have to have a relationship with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe the 20-somethings need to re-read the Gospels and the Book of Acts. We need the church!

  14. Sheila H January 16, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    I appreciate this – this is a Wow article for me – a thought provoking commentary for the religious, for church leaders, the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) and atheists alike, it helps us see things from so many perspectives. Lots of food for thought.

    Did Jesus comes to save us from our sins? Did Jesus come to stop us from sinning? Is that why he came? It doesn’t appear that this is accurate. We are still sinning, perhaps even more so. God cares about sin, yes, because it causes deep wounds, hellish like wounds. Maybe Jesus came to remind us that God still loves us, that God is in our hearts, God experiences everything with you and is your biggest fan, your greatest friend, your supreme parent. Love incarnate.

    It’s interesting that so many people throughout our history have tried to move Christians into the real world… but still, they don’t listen. Fear of losing power is greater than joy of saving souls.

    This article is worth printing out and studying for religious and non-religious alike, it helps us see things from so many perspectives – thank you for putting it together. I think I shall do this and discuss it with my SBNR group this weekend.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

      THANKS Sheila! It means a lot to me that a self-identified SBNR person would find my post helpful, and not condescending…

      • Sheila H January 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

        Michael, I believe in Jesus, in God, even in the Christian idea – but the message has been so distorted that we can no longer trust it. I feel like Ron Cole who commented on your blog “…that I believe in the same Jesus you do, practice his life as a disciple…but because I believe differently but end up in the same place. That’s not good enough, I am pushed into exile. I continue to live my life fully in the mysteriously reality of Jesus…without the church. Am I religious?” It feels like the church no longer serves the believer…believer in Jesus that is. As a ‘self-described SBNR’ I am rejecting the idea that God plays favorites, that God has an exclusive club. I believe that we are all part of the walking wounded club that God saves – with or without the church. The job of the church, in my humblest opinion, is to show people the way to the heart, where God dwells. Our interpretation of this idea is God’s entrusted gift to the church. It has been carefully wrapped, and we must unwrap it very carefully.

        The first video was great except for the unwarranted attack on Republicans – all those fancy cathedrals, they weren’t all built by Republicans. Republicans are more generous with their time and treasure than progressives. It’s a matter of priorities. Progressive and conservative churches ‘get it wrong’ in many respects, but they both do good in the world. Seems like progressives are more concerned about social issues while conservatives are more concerned about spiritual issues. It’s OK, good and right to feed and help the poor, but if you’re not bringing them into a relationship with God, then you have failed them. If you’re bringing them into the relationship, but you don’t feed them, then you give God a bad reputation and you may have caused a delay in ‘salvation’ for those souls. There’s a fine line there and it divides along political lines. We need both sides.

  15. Charlie Goring January 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I saw Jeff Bethke’s vid today and was pleased to read your comprehensive well-written response to it and think I completely agree with you! cheers,


    London, UK.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

      Thanks Charlie!

  16. Annette January 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    What I like about you is that you seek the Truth and that you are always authentic. We may not always agree, but you are very appreciated.

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

      Aww. Thanks Annette! I appreciate your graciousness toward me when you think I’m off my rocker. ; )

      • Annette January 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

        ( I definately do not EVER think that about you, Michael, but you made me laugh.)

  17. George W. January 16, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    talking about religion…amongst other things Screwtape wrote in his letters:

    “let him despise church, let him get annoyed with his neighbour’s fashion style. let him abhor the false and loud singing…
    and get him into the deep love of Jesus without all this church stuff”…

  18. Mike Redmer January 16, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Really nice thorough analysis. A perspective tour de force. 😉 Though, these days I find it hard to make any sense out of the signifiers “Christianity”, “God” or “Jesus” anymore. As you have clearly pointed out, each word is packed with a unique narrative held by the user. The same could be said for the circles I run in and the use of the words “meditation”, “awareness”, “enlightenment”, etc. I often ponder how we could create new signifiers to communicate our felt experiences that don’t rely on beliefs, but ever evolving states. Conveying human experience in the clearest way possible is what, I think, we are all striving for and I think you’ve done a great job with this article in trying to do just that. Cheers!

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

      Good point, Mike! And I wouldn’t have thought that the Ingegral/Buddhist community might be experiencing the same ‘signifier problem’ when it comes to “meditation”, “awareness”, and “enlightenment.” I suppose it’s the blessing and bane of a more wired & interconnected age.

      Of course, what we really need is a phone app that will clarify, and connect… 🙂

  19. Scott B January 16, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    Fine work here. ‘Spiritual & Religious’ delivers a more honest assessment of many of our lives. What was your point about ‘The Shack’ tho.. ?

    • zoecarnate January 16, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

      Oh, only that The Shack is the finest example of literature written by and for folks who find themselves in a ‘Not religion, but relationship’ space. It spoke to millions who want a stronger relationship with a more loving God, as exemplified by Papa, Sarayu, and Jesus.

      And yet – while this spoke volumes to NRBR folks, my SBNR friends met it with indifference or crankiness, by and large. Why? Because they’re intentionally ‘agnostic’ about God – whether s/he exists, whether s/he’s relational, etc…And are more interested in spiritual practice.

      This reminds me of a parable that Peter Rollins recounts more in The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales:

      There is an ancient Jewish parable which illustrates this, in which two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, “What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them.

      In this parable the rabbis do not want a God’s-eye view because, even if that were possible, that is not the point of faith. Faith seeks to transform reality rather than merely describe it. The parable works from the tradition which states that one must wrestle with the text in every context, rethinking it and learning afresh from it like a piece of art rather than treating it like a textbook to be mastered.

      This story is unthinkably sad for a “Not-religion-but-relationship” person, because for them, having God come down to talk & relate would be the entire point. But for the rabbis – and SBNR folks – the practice of conversing and ‘horizontal’ relationship is the point.

      Me? I feel like I’m an amphibian, breathing the air and water of both worlds.

  20. Kevin P. January 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Thanks Michael. Well done, insightful and comprehensive. I would only add one thing. Perspectives on religion change with age. It’s not that any age sees more clearly or more deeply than another. I think it’s more a matter of trajectory. When I was in my 20s and 30s perspectives were influenced by my desire for a career and to make something of myself. Now that I’m in my late 50s perspectives are influenced by actual loss and failure and the prospect of it. These things just accumulate over time. For me, these changing perspectives have affected my decision to become SBNR. Superficial religion is not an option. And avoiding the traps and temptations that come with maintaining the status quo is exhausting. So I’ve resigned myself to view life as religion. I find enough challenges with superficiality and traps and temptations in life. I don’t need to look for it in religion.

    Have you read my response to the arguments for and against religion ? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  21. Kevin Corcoran January 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    Thorough. Balanced. Measured. Sober. Honest. I think what I like most about your assessment is that it recognizes the pluraformity and complexity of our own psyches. There are hours, days, perhaps years and certainly seasons when practices sustain us on our journey and others when beliefs sustain or relationships sustain. “It’s Complicated” because we’re complicated and the lives of most of us don’t move in a straight line. A spoken-word piece like the one that went viral is spoken at a particular moment in time, where the guy is “now,” at THIS moment. There’s a good chance that if you talk to him in twenty years, he’s say “well; it’s a bit more complicated.” Anyway. Good work!

  22. Drew Tatusko January 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    I understand the emotions of the video, but think that he is very misguided and misunderstanding of Jesus’ relationship to religion. Jesus was intimately religious. I think the problem is a very simple one really. There is a disconnect between most US forms of Protestantism with the taproot in the first 700 years of the church. That taproot goes deep into the interior life where true religion is formed. My thoughts here:

  23. Jason Barr January 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    It isn’t perfect, but I can live with that. I think there needs to be more pushback against the notion that his ideas are true in that “religion not relationship” sense, i.e. that they are religious and particularly of a very specific religious tradition — that of 20th century evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity. Of course you’re aware of that, and you did at least mention it, but I don’t mean simply pointing out that fact as if to say “hurr durr this guy’s religious too and doesn’t even know it” like some criticisms I’ve seen seem all too happy to do, but in the sense of paying attention to how the traditioned nature of the ideas we see as “simply” or “universally” true blinds us to the processes of power and the social/historical narratives that shaped and to an extent continue to live in these “truths.”

    One of these notions I find particularly insidious in the original video itself is the basically anti-Jewish perspective of the video itself. The latent anti-Semitism in many expressions of the “religion not relationship” paradigm is not unlike the latent anti-Semitism in “international banker” conspiracy theories. Most people who hold to them, I’m sure, aren’t overt anti-Semites; they’re simply caught up in a web that implicates them with views that are historically associated with anti-Semitism that extend the tangled web of power from the past into the present. Of course, that’s generally beyond your purview in that post, I just include it as an example. And I DO think it’s striking that none of the critiques I’ve seen of the original video mention the latent anti-Semitism. Thanks to my friend Justin König for pointing that out.

    But for the most part I think you’ve been both thoughtful and careful, and sought to recognize the impulses of this video that are potentially good and helpful, coherent with the concerns of the early Jesus movements, as well as not giving it a free pass on its own internal contradictions.

  24. Christian Piatt January 16, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Salient points. I tried to reflect on my personal reactions before writing my own blog response, in which I tried to parse out what I did appreciate and like about it, as well as what I didn’t But I think it’s incumbent upon some of us to whom folks look for cultural and theological interpretation to use a critical eye when looking at things like this specifically *because* so many people are drawn to it. Ultimately he’s saying little that Barth or Bonhoeffer didn’t say decades ago; what is most intriguing to me is how these kinds of sentiments are working their way into evangelical Christianity.

  25. Ted January 16, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Good post. There’s something that bugs me about things like this and the attention they get. I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. But your analysis is timely and I like the both right/both wrong approach you take. Both versions — and I’ll probably post this elsewhere — smack of special pleading: What I have is a relationship with Jesus; all you other poor schmucks have something ugly called religion.

  26. Jim Henderson January 16, 2012 at 1:37 pm #


    Thank you for doing all this work. You are more thorough and harder working than I could ever be. Your intellectual equanimity is truly unique. I have been thinking about most of these things for the past 15 years. My earliest mission statement included “Rescue Jesus From Religion”. I am one of those who no longer believes that it’s plausible that God has ever, could ever or will ever pay attention to any religion of any stripe including our religion of choice – Christianity. In that way I am radicalized and have no intention of going back. BUT because 92% of humanity disagrees with me i no longer pick that fight.

    I find it amusing that many SBNR people actually participate in some kind of “religious ritual” and many overtly “proud to be religious” people who are deeply spiritual. I myself stopped attending church about 10 years ago. I can’t find a reason to return. It may help that Im very very involved with church and church leaders in my public life (at least I was until they read this comment:-) and I pastored and church planted for 25 years.

    Given this interesting mix of motives I am now currently working with a new phrase that is (for me at least) more inclusive and honest. I think all of us are actually practicing “Religious Spirituality”.
    That phrase allows me to provide respect for the religious and honor for the spiritual. In fact I hope to help foster a new kind of “religion” called Religious Spirituality. Its already happening. We just need a name

    Along these lines i’ll be doing an interview tomorrow with Eric Weiner who recently wrote an interesting article in the NYT expressing a desire for a new religion for the “Nones” . Great work Mike, hey be sure and review my new book The Resignation of Eve and call me sometime

  27. Joel C. January 16, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    How about spiritual but sick of religiosity…?

    Oh, that’s exactly what he means. So it was once cool to be spirtual without religion and now the tables have turned thanks to a well spoken minister. Well played. Back full circle I guess. I guess there’s something to be said about why we’re here and what got us there. A quippy little anecdote doesn’t change the human, or religious, experience. There’s a reason people are drawn away from religion but to spirituality, maybe we’ve got it wrong.

  28. Wade T. January 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    Augustine said, “The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” The viral video guy, in my estimation, was saying, “The church/religion is a whore”, but he stopped there…before grace (but she’s my mother). Grace embraces whores like you and me and calls them family. For people of faith, our closest relative is religion. Maybe.

  29. Josh C. January 16, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    Yeah…I’m having such a hard time with both sides of this. I agree the whole “I love Jesus, but hate religion” is over played, but do not necessarily disagree with spiritual folks’ frustration with it. I haven’t had a church family in quite some time..and have tried. Perhaps it was me not being open enough…but there’s something spiritual about my journey. I can’t quite say I’m done with religion because it has always been meaningful to me and believe it or not, has always there. But…I have so many issues with house religion is played…and the church’s part.

    There will be reconciliation, I believe. For that guy/girl who sees God in sunsets — good for them. Who are we to judge what a person sees God in. I see God in a bowl of soup whom I give to sick co-worker. But there is no religion there, you’re right. People give soup to people all the time because they care. But, I see God in those things and for that…I still feel connected. It’s what I have to give right now.

    ‎(and super sorry for all the spelling/grammar errors. I’m super tired, heh.)

  30. Todd Fadel January 16, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    It is conceivable to “cherry pick” or ala carte community care and whatnot and have a “accidental” encounter with something outside of ourselves, isn’t it? For me, that’s exactly what going to punk rock shows were. I was “saved” into that culture, but it was the ala carte consumption over time that eventually help me see the importance. I’m just noting that fear of not being in community is not always selfish, it’s a stop-gap measure to not getting victimized again.

  31. Debra Masters January 16, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    This was helpful and insightful. Thank you.

  32. Jeff Straka January 16, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    Religion: [via Old French from Latin religiō fear of the supernatural, piety, probably from religāre to tie up, from re- + ligāre to bind]

    This word seems to have transitioned from its original meaning of binding together(similar root as ligament) to its use today: another word for doctrine/dogma.

    We humans are “pre-programmed” to connect (bind) to one another (as are other creatures). In integral theory (Ken Wilber, Bruce Sanquin, Paul R. Smith), we all go through and (hopefully) transcend stages of wider and wider spiritual/conscious/cultural growth: survival, tribal, warrior, traditional, modernist, post-modernist, integral and mystical (see ) So the question becomes not IF we “bind” to others (we DO by default), but who we SEE as other and as ourselves. The trouble with most church structures is that they are geared towards stagnating this integral spiritual journey at the lower levels.

    Jesus seemed to be “religious” in that he bonded together with an intimated group of men and women on a path of conscious transcendence, but he was not “institutional”, as the “church” of his day suffocated that spiritual journey, much as ours does today. Jesus seemed to have a rhythm of isolated/private prayer (contemplation) and interaction with those OUTSIDE (beyond) the acceptable “tribal” bands of his day. Binding with God and binding with Others…THAT’S a “religāre” I can connect with!

  33. Eric Stetson January 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Great article Michael! One little point: Are progressives who want “practices without beliefs” really within the realm of Christianity? I mean, I know a lot of UUs who think like that (some of them even call themselves “religious but not spiritual”) but I’ve found that most people of faith snicker at that attitude and consider it to be emblematic of what’s wrong with the UU church. Heaven forbid that Christianity should go down that spiritually sterile road.

  34. Kathy January 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I truly value your opinion and feel the same way. I am a Pastor of a small church and I too long to embrace both. I am always saying (to our little gathering) that we are meeting together because of a relationship, never because of a religious need to be good (do our duty) and attend church. I hold dearly to the tradition of communion as it brings our focus back, often after a stressful week, to Jesus!! He is, afterall, the head of the Church. I truly believe that we can have both. Jesus centered churches that are living examples of His unconditional love and acceptance without feeling condemned about not “being good”. With all the talk of home churches and how they are the better way, I have often questioned myself about whether I am trying to keep religion going by keeping to the traditional church services (ie: singing, communion, sermons etc.). Your blog has given me a fresh perspective. I am grateful and I will keep to what I am doing and make certain that we keep “religious law” out and the love, grace and relationship with Jesus in. Thanks again, Kathy.

  35. Helen January 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    I like how Kevin DeYoung had an email conversation with Jeff Bethke:

    All too often people comment about each other online without ever trying to talk with each other.

  36. Larry (priestly goth) January 16, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    Very thorough and a great post.
    Some further thoughts that I think are relevant:
    I would place the Jeff Bethke’s video and your first categorie of ” Conservatives rejecting religion: “It’s not about religion, but a relationship”” as having its genealogy in anti-Papist and Catholic rhetoric among Protestants. There was a time not too long ago a few hundred years that the predominant understanding of the term ‘religious’ or “religion” meant “monastic” in the west. Still in Roman Catholicism the term general term for members of an Order or a monk or nun is “religious” and before that it was used to make the distinction between two types of clergy those who were ordained as monks and thus cloistered, were the religious clergy and those who were placed in parishes etc. were secular clergy. I think these distinctions are also still internally made in Roman Catholicism. But I have digressed.
    In good old fashioned Protestant Rhetoric Catholicsm or latter on the established Protestant churches were the ones who had rituals, rules, and hypocrisy. Protestants and then Pietists and other revival movements were calling people either out of this dead form this religiosity into the life of faith. But it is also linked to the acceptance of the term religion as this generic label for a broad swath of human phenomena belief and practice, form ancient polytheism to Buddhism. From a certain perspective the similarity between all these and Roman Catholicism was Human beings attempting to reach God, this is what Religion was and it is clear that what we experience as followers of Jesus Christ is God in Jesus reaching out to us.
    My sense is that SBNR folk are unwittingly actually still in this genealogy of “Religion”, as you kind of point out. my point is that this use of the term is from the inside of a set of phenomena and practices that someone studying the appearance of a certian sort of phenomena have come to be termed religious or religion. From a perspective of the accademic and sociological study of phenomena we call religious the SBNR group could be placed with in the category of ‘religion’ depending on how the scholar defines religion.
    I admit I like your conclusion, and yet I think the term “Spiritual” has many of the problems “Religion” has as a useful term. For me to say that I’m spiritual and Religious is kind of like saying a ball is round. Granted a deflated ball can be flatened but it isn’t supposed to be flat. Religion with out the breath of life is like a basket ball without air.
    My thought in all this arguing and discussion is that this whole thing is a little bit like someone picking up a flatened deflated basketball and trying to play with it and then arguing with everyone that balls are stupid and you can’t bounce them and how could you ever be expected to play basketball with a ball anyway. Imperfect analogy for like all analogy’s it has its end and it should end there.
    If I must use the term religion, I will agree that it must have spirit breath life or it is useless and empty like a basketball with now air. But no one would attempt to play a game of basket ball with a deflated ball, the problem seems to be that (and the prophets and Jesus and many others are witness to this) we regularly attempt to have religion without life without spirit without its air. But the point of religion isn’t for lifeless ritual beliefs and practices but that they bring life. Now it is also true that there is a great deal of variety and dispute about what forms of Religion should or will do this, or how much or how little form, but as a student of Religious phenomena, I really don’t believe it has ever been anyones intent to have religion with out breath or life. But I also agree that religion is often quite flat and some mistake religion without Spirit as all religion is about, but I’d say that is simply to be mistaken about religion.

  37. Jeff Kursonis January 16, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    Mike, – Awesome, you continue to be one of the most warm, humble, insightful and generous leaders of this movement. I love your ability to absorb it all and put forth something meaningful to our lives.

    I think this post is sort of what the supposed “emergence of Christianity” is all about, this taking in of a lot of beliefs, a lot of valid criticisms, a lot of other side perspectives and finding a way to synthesize it all in order to find a way forward.

    I was an Evangelical who strongly preached the relationship not religion view for years – a very similar version to the fine young poet who started this discussion. But as I evolved in life and found myself living and working in Manhattan amongst some of the finest secular minds around, I began to realize that my understanding of the word religion was very tribal – that my tribe ascribed a meaning to that word, that these educated (mostly) secular folks did not. To them it was simply a word like “archers” to describe those who use the bow and arrow, or “sailors” to describe those who went to sea – simply a word to describe those humans who live with faith in an unseen God. So I began to take up use of the word that I had despised for so long, realizing that in this new community, I was indeed religious, and it was humble and human for me to admit that truth in the language of my community. In fact, knowing me, many of them would have laughed out loud had I said I wasn’t religious. So I began to refer to myself as religious.

  38. MsSeana January 16, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    Thanks for this. It’s shared by me on my FB page. Visit blog if you want, it’s a new one. I buried the old one in the sand dune I was camped out in.

  39. Jesus Benyosef January 17, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    Nicely thought-out and argued, Michael! The back-and-forth reminds me of the Hebrew system that included both priests and prophets, agents of stability AND agents of radical change, each annoying the $#!t out of each other. It’s natural for us to want to escape that tension, but the way I see it, the tension is where life happens. Attempts to abandon the tension and get settled in one view–that’s how idolatry starts.

  40. George Fuller Jr. January 17, 2012 at 12:03 am #

    This is good stuff worthy of attention. My thought is that I seem to see the difference in my own life between the adventurous, loving impulses that flow from my following of Jesus and the defensive, tribal impulses that protect the religion I practice. I seem to find things in my tribe that are good and it was in my tribe that I learned to follow Jesus. Please let me have my ways of thinking and living in community with others while we keep learning, loving and dancing with other tribes. I know they see things I miss and will help me become more of what I am intended to be, even if they kill me. Religions certainly become evil when they become the objects of our lives. I’ve outgrown several pots and still want to grow to the sun rather than the pot. Something like that.

  41. Mike D. January 17, 2012 at 12:10 am #

    Ditto for a lot of us. Stick to it, this piece is comprehensively very good, immense in some respects; thanks for putting these pieces together – enlightening.

  42. Brian Q. Newcomb January 17, 2012 at 12:14 am #

    I take a bit of umbrage with your statement that progressive Christians “want practices without beliefs.” I don’t think that’s in any way accurate to my thoughts and feelings a person who grew up under the influence of fundamentalism and my life and faith journey to being an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ as a progressive faith leader. I do have profound and rich beliefs, I’m not a literalist, nor do I forego my capacity for critical thinking, and I don’t believe that everyone has to think or believe exactly as I do, but what I like about a more progressive expression of faith is that it allows me to be honest about my thoughts, doubts, etc., it allows me to delve deeply in a critical reading of scripture, to accept the truth of science (evolution/global warming) and hold on to what I value most in the scripture the God of love & justice present in the O.T., but revealed most profoundly in the person of Jesus… I have many strong beliefs, as well as highly developed practices, thank you very much.

    • zoecarnate January 17, 2012 at 12:21 am #

      Thanks for weighing in, Brian. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I said that “Progressive *Christians*” want practices without beliefs – I think I said “progressives” meaning “progressives in general” who are (I believe my exact quote is) “dissing religion” – those who would identify as Spirituat But Not Religious. These folks are the ones whom your fellow UCC minister Lillian Daniel railed against in her now-iconic “Please Stop Boring Me.”

      All the same, I’d say that progressive Christians – who might at their/our healthiest ID as “spiritual AND religious” *still* identify less with specific or exhaustive belief than our fundamentalist or even “It’s not a religion, but a relationship” brethren. The preference for practice and Christianity-as-path more than Christianity-as-belief-system was first brought to my attention as such via the work of mainline/progressive Christian Diana Butler Bass.

  43. Lynda Meyers January 17, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    So much is here… So much to digest. It’s funny how our journeys twist and turn. At times I’ve found myself in all of these different places and thought processes. Now I’m not sure what I think anymore. I only know what I know…

  44. Steven Webb January 17, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Doesn’t the distinction for Christians rest in the subtle difference of the two words faith and religion. Religion for most protestant/evangelical Christians means human attempts to please God, whereas faith represents inviting Jesus into your soul where He then performs the only good religion, Himself! If religion is mans attempt to please God, then Christians are not religious, rather we have FAITH in the one who is good, Jesus! Releasing to Him then becomes more a matter of obedience and loyalty to Him, which leaves the only goal of true religion and that being to share with/in Him, and share Him with others.

  45. Tim Seitz-Brown January 17, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    As a Lutheran, I’d love to claim Eugene Peterson as “one of ours,” but I believe he is PCUSA.

    I am in the “spiritual and religious” camp.

    God in Christ meets me in water and bread and wine and a Body. I’d love to rail against “organized religion” and “institutions,” yet the spiritual or faith must be embodied so both are unavoidable. I realize there is no avoiding loving actual, messy, hypocritical in whatever structure I might find them. And I must be loved in my very real sinfulness.

    Thanks for the review and conversation. Y’all got my head spinning!

  46. Joe Austin January 18, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    I don’t know where I fit on this spectrum.

    What bothers me is that I’m sure I have experienced God, even miracles.
    I’ve met others who say and seem to have experienced God, and miracles,
    but we all profess different religions / belief / practice systems–
    I’ve been in three or four myself.
    But most of those religions teach that the other ones are invalid,
    therefore their adherents can’t have experienced God as we claim.

    I guess that puts me in the practice/path camp.

    But it’s not so much a path that I have chosen
    as one I’m being invited or led or carried or dragged down by —
    who? God? Jesus Himself? But doesn’t that put me back in the belief camp?

    Regardless, it would be nice to share my journey with fellow travelers.

  47. pamela chaddock January 22, 2012 at 2:43 am #

    Great blog, Mike! Clips, variety, reading suggestions… and you so eloquently co-mingle spirituality and religion into your personal philosophy…

    The rapper makes some good points, though confuses his own terms and message! Much of the confusion around this topic is in lack of clarity around the definition of the word “religion”. Without that clarity we tend to simply react emotionally and toss out baby with bathwater…

    Frankly, that minister on the plane lost a sterling opportunity to engage. I’d let them start rambling then draw ’em out and enrich the conversation!

    Thanks for including Ken Wilbur, too. Rather than religion being termed a “non-rational” engagement, I’d say “supra-rational” as it engages our higher mind–our “spiritualized” thinking where we “relate” with the “spirit” of God.

    And isn’t “religere”(?)the root of “religion”, which means to “connect”? (In that case religion is both RELATIONAL and SPIRITUAL:) Perhaps RELIGION is the God-given process arena whereby our minds can work on becoming SPIRITUAL. “Religion” seems to break down when we relate more to the letter of the law than the spirit. That’s where Jesus was misunderstood and demonized, and where most of the church has been lodged for some 2000 years… But things are changing as evidenced by these though-provoking videos and conversations! Thank you, Mike Morrel…

  48. James January 29, 2012 at 11:48 am #


    This stood out, “Organized religion is exhausting, it’s confusing, it me and/or others’ feel self-righteousness; it’s a hotbed of hypocrisy.” I nodded my head and then was quickly reminded that I act that way too. So the problem with churches is that they are filled with people just like us. Anecdotal of course, not to defray from real instances.

    I haven’t seen it, but I would love to see an analysis of what I would call, mortal superhero complex. Simply, we expect our leaders to be perfect people who do everything correctly and more importantly agree with us perfectly, and the churches we go to meet all of our expectations, and are so accepting that they condone all of our behaviors.


  1. Grace Rules Weblog - January 16, 2012

    […] But, I am interested in some of the conversations that are coming out of this. For instance this post from my friend Michael William Morrell has some excellent “stuff” for us to ponder […]

  2. Monday Musings « children in the marketplace - January 16, 2012

    […] Justin McRoberts and Mike Morrell have offered helpful insights on this viral phenomenon. Check them […]

  3. Religion and the Church - January 21, 2012

    […] If you were in saturday night worship with us, this is the video I referenced.  I will come back and make a few comments in a bit (after dinner) but if you want to see it, here it is.  Also, if you want a thorough article on the subject, I suggest this one as a launching off point. […]

  4. Jesus vs Religion [1] – What Do You Think? | DesperateTheologian - January 22, 2012

    […] 9) Mike Morrell in a rather comprehensive post, Jesus and Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated. […]

  5. Irresistibly Fish - January 23, 2012

    […] didn’t watch it til i started skim reading this really good but really too long for me to read in its entirety blog by a guy called mike morrel… which seems to give it and peoples’ response to it a fair […]

  6. “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” – Responses from a Preacher, a Muslim, and…Kermit? | Mike Morrell - February 4, 2012

    […] Jeff Bethke’s viral video ‘Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,’ entitled Jesus & Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated. (And it was picked up by the Huffington Post – yeah!) I wrote a pretty in-depth analysis of […]

  7. On Religion? Over Religion? - February 20, 2012

    […] 1.  For a thorough-going reflection – pro, con, and otherwise – see Mike Morrell’s well researched post here – “Jesus and Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated” […]

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