Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why I Love Jesus AND The Religion He Established

If you are a Christian and use the Internet you may have seen this video titled "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus":

It has recently gone viral on the Christian-social-media scene, if my facebook is any indication (4 Christians posted or re-posted it today, which is a big number for one day). Since I'm going to expend a rather large amount of time critiquing aspects of it, I felt I should -- in the name of fairness -- list some of the things I did like about it first:

- The affirmation of love for Jesus. This is always a good thing to see and hear, and he mentions multiple  reasons Christ is worthy of praise and Glory. Amen to all of that.
- His honesty about his own struggles being a "Sunday-only" Christian and such.
- His rightful disdain of certain hypocrisies of certain typically religious types of people, such as the erection of a religious facade to mask their brokenness and sin.

The main downfall of the video is its critique of "religion" and the false antagonism it introduces between Jesus and "religion", and this will take some significant unpacking.

Critique of religion is not the exclusive domain of the un-religious. Or at least not of unbelievers. The amount of people who use the phrase "spiritual-but-not-religious" (alternatively, "Christ-follower-but-not-religious") to describe their belief system is staggering. If "spiritual-but-not-religious" was itself an option for checking on religious affiliation surveys, I imagine it would be in strong competition for being one of the top 2 or 3 religions in America, at least.

Whence such disdain for (Christian) "religion"? In largely Protestant America, it can partially be traced back to the Reformation. After all, the Reformation was a rebellion against the established, legalistic, Christian order of the time that resulted in a more individualized, more "free", more enigmatic form of religion. Ultimately this was a movement away from those things we tend to most closely associate with "religion": authority, tradition, ritual, legalism etc. And, in America and within Protestantism, the majority regard this movement to be a desirable result.

Another reason for the hostility toward religion is the historical failings of "religion", or really -- more precisely -- the failings of religious people and institutions. Of which there are plenty. Some of these are common human failings that seem to be magnified in religious people; self-righteousness, pride, "intolerance". Whether this perception of religious people -- or of the Church -- is in fact accurate is debatable, but it's easy enough to admit that many religious people (Christians included) do many wicked things, and certain tendencies are more closely associated with religiosity than others.

But the two biggest reasons for the hostility toward Christian religion specifically are A) sin -- the sinful rejection of Christ and His bride -- and B) the fact that "religion" is so nebulous, multifarious, and imprecise as to make it a perfect scapegoat. It literally has no one to defend it. A Christian has no interest in defending "religion", he will defend Christ or Christianity. A Muslim has no stake in defending "religion", he only wants to defend Islam. And so on.

As for "A)", that problem doesn't appear to be the best explanation for this video. He verifies that he loves "the Church and the Bible." However, in most instances of the "spiritual-not-religious" or "Christ-follower-not-religious" voicing their opposition to religion, it is often motivated by a desire to affirm certain sinful (or at least inaccurate) critiques of (Christian) religion, while attempting to avoid throwing Christ out with the religion. The problem is that you can't separate Christ from his Church as the Church is Christ's Body, indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit. His representative on Earth. The move for the "spiritual-not-religious" person at this juncture is to claim that Christ's church is not about "religion", which he (the "spiritual-not-religious" person) implicitly narrowly defines as a certain form of self-righteous, legalistic, Pharisee-ism. The problem is that "religion" is a much more broad, protean phenomenon than that and you can't disassociate yourself from it by redefining it, simply because the word has some nefarious associations for you.

With regard to "B)", this fellow in the video isn't alone in this scapegoating effort. The most visible perpetrators of this scapegoating currently are the New Atheists, a group of scientists and authors who have made penning haughty diatribes against 'religion' their main source of income. One overarching difficulty for their arguments -- and for this video -- is that they fail to distinguish religion as such from religion as practiced by most, or the particular case from the general case. Either that, or they have trouble distinguishing between correlation and causation. While the subject is too large to tackle in this post, David Bentley Hart does a marvelous job of that here and here. Or, as Hart says elsewhere, most of the criticisms lodged against religion are "simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true."

This is evident in the video when when the poet asks "If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?", making multiple mistakes at once. The actual number of wars started by "religion" or in the name of "religion" is zero. And this is not (solely) a flippancy; if you're going to make an argument you have to make these critical distinctions between "religion" and "things religious people have done in the name of their religion", for instance. They are not equivalent.

If we're to be charitable and assume he meant something like "many wars have been started by adherents of particular religions for religious reasons", then it becomes a bit of a historical caricature that is true only in a limited sense. Many of the wars traditionally attributed to religious causation were not "religious" wars. The European wars of the 1800s that are commonly referred to as the "wars of religion", for instance, were not religious wars at all but wars waged by the modern secular state. Many other wars throughout history had various political, cultural, and religious tensions which resulted in the eruption of violence, but which were not fundamentally "religious" wars, but sometimes get mislabeled as such (usually because there were religious men fighting in them).

Further, if we narrow it to Christian religion specifically -- since that's the crux of the disagreement as the video claims all religion as such is bad, while I claim all religion is false except Christianity -- then the caricature is even more historically inaccurate. Still, I would happily grant that there have been wars started by religious people for religious reasons throughout history. But this only gets us to the aforementioned "irrelevantly true". What does this tell us about "religion"? It tells us that humans are often wicked, sure, but if the world were purged of religion, would we have more or less war? Does the existence of political wars condemn politics as an illegitimate enterprise? The point of these rhetorical questions is to point out that the existence of religious wars tells us absolutely nothing about the validity or goodness of particular religions, or even religion as such.

The video also claims that "Jesus came to abolish religion." If we consult any dictionary on the matter, we can plainly see that this is factually incorrect. We must assume that by "religion" he means the narrow form of legalistic religion -- along with the sinful, sanctimonious attitudes it engendered -- of the Pharisees. Jesus was indeed opposed to this aspect of religion, and in the light of what He did and who He was, religion was transformed forever. But this is not the same as abolishing religion. Jesus was not a-religious, or anti-religious, He was perfectly religious. In every deed and every thought He never broke the Law of God's covenant with Israel, living the life of a sinless Jew. If Jesus was perfectly religious, and He is to be the example that we follow, how do we conclude that we should be a-religious or anti-religious? How is it even possible to be followers of Christ without being a "body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices"?

The man in the video goes on to point out the fact that religion is man-made, as if this were some strike against it. Art is man-made. Architecture is man-made. Science is man-made. Philosophy is man-made. Christ's work redeems all things -- except sin and death, which He defeats at the cross -- and religion is no exception. It's a logical fallacy to say that since Jesus opposed the religious order of his time, opposed hypocrisy and self-righteousness, or that since he atoned for sin, that therefore he was opposed religion as such. As with everything else, Christ redeems fallen religion and brings it under His righteous rule. He did not come to abolish it, contrary to what the video claims. And He told you as much: "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." - Matt. 5:18.  He came to fulfill the Law and make the one true religion, the Kingdom of God, accessible to all people (rather than the one true religion being exclusive to God's chosen people, the Jews).

In addition to all this, when you look at the religion of Christ's followers on Earth, and the record of Christian religion -- all of it, pros and cons -- there is absolutely no cause for shame whatsoever, or any indication that Jesus will reject adherents of this religion in the way that he rebuked the Pharisees. Nay, He actually assured the followers of this religion that He would be with them visa vis the Holy Spirit, until his return (John 14). That doesn't mean Jesus co-signs every action of the Church, which is still made up of fallen men, but it does mean that this is the religion He established and that He has no intention of rejecting it.

This -- his hating religion while loving Jesus, his claiming Jesus and religion are on the opposite ends of some spectrum -- is my primary beef with the video. I have others -- Churches do feed the poor, for instance -- but it kind of feels like excessive piling on at this point, so I'll leave it at that.


UPDATE: It looks as if a friend of mine, Ron, did some of my expounding on other issues for me. He even touched on things I hadn't considered. 

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