When it comes to Jesus, we are all unbelievers
Why I love Jesus but Hate Religion, is the title of a short spoken word video that has recently gone viral. Let me just say at the top, I like the sentiment in it, but what I find interesting is the variety of perspectives on it. We have both the non-religious giving it a shout-out, and the Evangelical crowd trying to draw a distinction between "religion" and the one true way. Others are accurately pointing out how "religious" Jesus was, pointing to chapter and verse where he regularly went to the synagogue.
As is often the case, we commonly see what we want to see, myself included. What Evangelicals see in this film is a line of reasoning that says, "I'm not merely religious, I take this stuff seriously. A relationship with Jesus is so much more than mere religion." While in contrast, the non-church attender sees in this video a version of Jesus they like, one which allows them to understandably reject what they see as the inconsistencies of religion.
But are Jesus and religion actually odds? The answer is a mixed bag.
We already noted that Jesus was a religious person. He was a practicing Jew who attended synagogue on a regular basis. However he also had harsh words for the religious leaders of his day. He took exception to the fact that the faith leaders would load people down with immense religious, social, and psychological burdens yet did little to help them.
The Apostle Paul took up a similar problem in his letter to the church in Rome, hypocrisy. If you're brought up Jewish, (Evangelical, Catholic, or whatever one's tradition is) don't assume that you can lean back in the arms of your religion and take it easy, feeling smug because you're an insider to God's revelation, a connoisseur of the best things of God, informed on the latest doctrines! While preaching "Don't steal!" are you going to rob people blind? Who would suspect you? The same with adultery. You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law... "It's because of you Jews that the outsiders are down on God." Romans 2:17-24 MSG
Clearly religious hypocrisy has been a problem for a long time. But if I loosely lump all religious people together, I'm not really adding anything to the conversation, that is just a caricature.
What made Jesus unique is that while being religious, he was most comfortable with those that the religious leaders of his day despised. And what made him truly exceptional was that he lived a life consistent with what he taught. He spoke with an authority that demanded a response. Jesus spoke with the kind of authority that I sometimes see in say a beloved grandfather who can lovingly and thoughtfully call me out. "That's bull shit, and you know it" he might say with a twinkle in his eye, in response to my protest that there is nothing wrong with whatever I might want to justify that day. The truth is that if I know what I am doing is wrong, and I just try to fool people, I condemn myself.
So do I hate religion but love Jesus? I appreciate the sentiment, but if I go to church on a regular basis, I am religious by any standard dictionary definition. I do, therefore I am religious.
That said, I identify with both the religious and the irreligious. I find a film like Religulous with Bill Maher to be both hilarious and telling. Yet I still attend worship services on a regular basis. (Why is a separate conversation.) While I appreciate the sentiment in Bad Religion's, American Jesus, to say I am not religious but love Jesus would be disingenuous for me. Maybe those that don't go to church on a regular basis can accurately say this, but not those of us who are a part of the church.
I understand that the word "religious" has negative connotations, and people are trying to distance themselves from those connotations, but I think it is better to simply own who I am. The whole, "religion is us reaching up, but in Christ, God reached down" is a good one-liner Evangelicals and others like to use, but if you go to church on a regular basis, then you are religious.
At the end of the day I am a Christian: a religious, orthodox, follower of Jesus... except when I do not, which is often. Most of us who call ourselves Christians in America today "lean back in the arms of our religion, and take it easy."
Here are a few thoughts that I feel do express an appropriate attitude toward religion.
"Don't pray that God's on our side, pray that we're on his side" - President Lincoln.
"Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair." - G.K. Chesterson
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress." - The Apostle James
In many respects, the themes of that spoken word piece are in step with these thoughts. I don't directly disagree with him. The problem is, I don't do any of these things well either. Have I tried to integrate my career and my spirituality with what James called true religion? Yes. I have gone out of my way to live amongst the poor and the down trodden on the wrong side of the free-way, and I have been a part of some unique churches that place a premium on service, but that is... (how shall we put it) of little consequence. Rather, I identify with a father who came to Jesus desperate for the salvation of his child. He came asking for a literal salvation from the demons that besieged his son, and in the midst of his desperation he cried out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” That man found salvation. And I think he expresses the struggle many of us share.
When it comes to following the example of Jesus Christ, we are all unbelievers. We have domesticated the raw power of the man-god that strips away the pretensions of religious and irreligious alike; the fiction that I can go it alone, or that because I'm in, I'm good. In actuality, we are all fatally flawed.
The author of this spoken word piece tries to draw a distinction between religion and Christ, saying that Jesus is the object of true religion. It is an understandable stance. But the real divide is between human and divine, not Jesus and religion. In this life, the religious and the irreligious stand together, flawed, human, and in need of someone to help us with our manifest unbelief.