Friday, November 27, 2009

Everyone Is Religious

When I talk about religion it is usually with mild disdain, but I hope people know that when I say the world "religion" I never mean "faith" or "spirituality." I mean religion as a system of rules or specific details to which someone ascribes extreme importance. I generally don't like "religion" because I believe it is human nature to abuse power, which is most easily done in cultures where religious legalism is embraced. Humans desire to make things black and white, we want absolutes. We want to be God-like; deciding and judging and using the rules as a sort of measuring stick for self-worth and the worth of others. I think its human nature to be religious.

In a previous blog ("Worship") I talked about how I think we all worship things. We derive our self worth from empty things, we choose to be affirmed by flawed humans instead of by a perfect God. I guess this blog is an extension of that blog, but its more about how we humans long to practice some form of religion, even the "non-religious."

Atheism is a religion. It's an incredibly ironic one, but its still a religion. Talk to a full-fledged atheist, and they will attempt to indoctrinate you. They've even resorted to advertisements on the sides of buses, claiming there is no God, spreading their non-faith as if its the one true religion. They know what they believe, they have their metaphors and their logic, their rules and their guidelines. If gives them a smug sense of accomplishment, a sort of lofty attitude which provides a temporary sense of faux-peace. They're better than you. "You don't really believe in all that fantasy crap do you? Talking snakes?"

You ever see those commercials with the sad looking cats and dogs in slow-motion? Sarah Mclachlin is singing "Angel" and words flash across the screen "Will I ever find a home?" and "Why did they hurt me?" They add human words and emotions to tug at your heart strings. The animals look like they're saying these things, and it makes you want to save them. Now I'm not saying you shouldn't save animals, I myself am an animal lover, but some people have made animal-activism a religion. They have replaced animal instincts with human emotions, fears, and metaphysical beliefs. They give the invisible thoughts of an animal human attributes to bring the animals suffering onto same plane as human suffering. Animal activists are always trying to coerce and convert, usually through guilt and personification, new additions to their cause. Once again, theres nothing wrong with their cause, but when it becomes the sole source of purpose for ones life, then life can become unbalanced. In WA State, people found with malnutrition dogs in their care received a penalty of five years in prison. Parents convicted of starving and abusing their thirteen-year-old daughter have been given exact same sentence! I think we can all agree that a child is more important than a dog, but if your "calling" in life is dogs, then I think sometimes you can miss the point. When you enslave and indoctrinate yourself with a religion or a cause, whatever one it might be, you will most likely end up neglecting or negating other very important causes. Some of which, God forbid, are more important than yours.

There are so many religions in America. Consumerism, all sorts of activism (animal, environment, political), exercise, food, politics, sports, gaming. Think about it, if your team loses in sports, is your day ruined? Is your main source of affirmation through your sports team? Favorite band? Yes, I said it, music can be a religion. In America we encourage people to be religious, "Find out what you're good at and go after it," we tell them. Essentially, we're saying, "Find your god, and worship it."

I dare to say that most people who call themselves Christians in America don't actually follow Christ at all. What about the "Health and Wealth" religion? It's pretty popular. The prosperity gospel is a religion completely different than the one Jesus taught in His Gospel. The prosperity gospel says God wants to bless you now, in this life, with cash dollars in your pocket to pay bills, get a new car, a new house. Jesus says, 

"Do not save riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, save riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal. For your heart will always be where your riches are."  (Matt 6:19-21)

"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Luke 16:13)

A rich man once asked Jesus what he had to do to be saved, and Jesus, knowing that the mans obsession was money, told him "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Matt 19:21)

Jesus does not want us to possess more, he wants us to give more.

It might hurt your ears a bit to hear this, but Jesus is anti-religion. The only time he got angry here on earth was at the religious leaders who were so obsessed with their dogma that they had no idea it was the Messiah in their midst. He often times debated with them. They challenged him as he healed a man on the sabbath and as he taught in the synagogue. They thought up new ways to test him but they always fell short. In one story, an "expert in the law" tested Jesus, saying, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Knowing that it was a trick question, and that according to their doctrine all the laws and commandments had to be kept equally. Jesus didn't mention any specifics, he just simplified the law to their dismay. Jesus replied: 

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:36-38)

Jesus was trying to tell them that their religion didn't work. The fact that they tithed so religiously that they gave a tenth of their spices meant nothing, because they didn't "Love their neighbor as themselves." They didn't love God either, they just loved themselves.
Jesus didn't even refer to the religious leaders as religious leaders, he just called them hypocrites,

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." (Matthew 6:5)

These religious folks who were so showy with their flowery prayers had already received their reward. They were praying for peer validation, and Jesus says, "They have received their reward in full." If validation is what they want, they've got it through "babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words."

In Matthew 23, Jesus gets completely fed up with the religious leaders and says, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matthew 23:27-28)

What an incredibly convicting statement! He was saying they were so religious and obsessed with their craft, their "obedience," that they were DEAD ON THE INSIDE. He called them hypocrites outright. Do you know any hypocrites? Do you look at them with disdain? So does Jesus. It's so sad when people attribute the loveless actions of hypocrites to the love-filled Jesus. Jesus was anti-religion, because religion breeds hypocrisy. Just like its hypocritical to value a dogs life over a humans life, or to value your exercise over your husband, or your sports team over your wife, or the stuff you get over the stuff you give, or the rules you keep over the God you "serve," or anything else that takes you away from "Loving God, and loving people." Christianity is simply those two commandments. Jesus says that if you can truly do those two things, all the other laws will follow suit. If you can love God and love people with all your heart, you will naturally be doing exactly what you need to do to have peace in your life and to please God. No need for a list of rules. Jesus simplified it, much to our dismay as we humans naturally love specific guidelines we can use and abuse to our benefit.

Perhaps I've journeyed off topic. When I talk about spirituality I always end up talking about Jesus. I feel like I have to, because the preconceptions in our culture are often times so contradictory to written history about Jesus. I've met people who have truly taken to heart the things Jesus said, and I can tell you there is nothing more beautiful to witness. The love and sacrifice and grace and peace that a person like Mother Theresa had did not come from her religion. She did not recieve those gifts from saying "Hail Mary's" or praying the Rosary. She simply followed the simple commandment of Jesus to "Love her neighbor as herself." Because of her humble life of sacrifice, her legacy lives on to inspire generations to come. If a poor nun from  Macedonia can change the world by following those simple guidelines, than religion is completely pointless.

I know this "essay" is completely disjointed, as I've followed my train of thought down a few different tangents, so I'll end it here and leave you with a few of my favorite Mother Teresa quotes:

I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness. - Mother Teresa

I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world. - Mother Teresa

I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbor. Do you know your next door neighbor? - Mother Teresa

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. - Mother Teresa

If you judge people, you have no time to love them. - Mother Teresa

If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one. - Mother Teresa

In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love. - Mother Teresa


  1. I have always adored Matthew 6, the passage you quoted here, preceding the Lord's Prayer. Perhaps for no other reason than the simple irony that people say verses 9-13 so religiously, in big groups, and make a show out of it, never looking to see that just three verses before the person they're praying to *condemned* praying like that. It almost makes me want to laugh.

    I also find it ironic and amusing that I grew up being told that Mother Teresa was prolly going to hell because she was part of that funky sect called "Catholicism". Ha, evidently the religion is everywhere, not just in the Catholic church...

    It has really bothered me, lately, how the entire America lives absorbed in this uber-materialistic culture while passing by the homeless on the street, despite calling themselves Christian. How much different would America be if Christians knew Christ?

    Disjointed is fine. The thoughts are good. Thanks for writing.


  2. Matt, I enjoy reading your thoughts. I have at least one comment on the issue of the law/commandments and Christian faith. It's obvious that the gospels portray many of the religious leaders as hypocritical, etc. But does this mean that the law, which consists of the commandments, is to blame? Paul says "the law is good, holy and just" in Rom 7 and Jesus says he didn't "come to abolish the law but to fulfill it" in Matt 5. The question becomes, "what is the relationship between the law and Christianity" as well as "what is the relationship between the law and hypocrisy?"

    I think Paul's point in Rom 7 is to both exonerate the law from the accusation of being or causing evil because it multiplied sin (Rom 7.7-13), and to show that the law is unable to accomplish the type of victory against sin that the Jews (and we) longed for. Paul, in 1 Tim 1.8-11, says that the law is good if it is used lawfully and it is for lawbreakers and not for the just. This seems to imply that we all as sinners need the law in our own lives to help curb our inclinations and magnify the sin problem we have, but it should give way to the Spirit, who both enables us to obey the commandments and moves us beyond it. Thus comes Rom 8: "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ, etc." Romans 7, which I think represents the frustrated life of the Jew who wants to obey the law as God commanded but cannot, moves to Rom 8, which is the life in the Spirit where obedience is now possible in Christ and through the Spirit.

    I assume that we have all encountered people who over emphasize the law, which often leads to hypocrisy. We've all been in churches where the "letter" and not the "Spirit" dominates. This is certainly a travesty of Christianity. And yet, there are others that move entirely away from any notion of law, leaving themselves open to disorder. God works in history in gradual ways. The very notion of salvation-history opens us up to the divine drama, the divine plot. I'm not at all accusing you of this latter extreme. I am, in general, afraid of extremes. It's seldom an either/or issue.

    So while I agree with the gist of your entry and I understand what you are saying, I don't believe dogma and doctrine, in themselves, are wrong. I guess I am wary of saying law/commandments = hypocrisy, if that is what you are saying. You are right in that Christianity is summarized by loving God and neighbor, but these are two commandments found in the Old Testament: Love the LORD your God (Deut 6.5) and love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19.18). I once read in the writings of a 7th century theologian named Maximus the Confessor that nothing that God gives existence to is evil. Augustine and others have argued that evil is always the privation of the good. It is the abuse of commandments that is wrong. So, while I absolutely affirm that the law is an insufficient means for attaining to a Spirit filled life, it is a helpful, pedagogical (Gal 3.24) tool that leads us to Christ. It awakens us to our need for comprehensive redemption in Christ; it plays a vital, albeit subordinate, role. If loving God and neighbor takes place apart from historic Christianity (which I admit is diverse), then are we actually loving THE true God: Father, Son and Spirit? Is it still Christianity?

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I certainly am in the process of learning how to live like Jesus, and I am grateful for fellow travelers like you. Hopefully we can both spur one another on in loving God and neighbor like Jesus!

    love ya man,

    Adam Stevenson

  3. Hey Adam, Wow man you can write! It is obvious you have the benefit of a college education on this topic. I can't say I have that for myself, but I've experienced enough and asked enough questions to find a rugged, less intelligent explanation for my thoughts. :)

    I 100% agree with you. My intent was to never call the law "bad" or the rules themselves "irrelevant." The truth is that the commandments are God inspired, so they cannot be wrong in any sense of the word. Of course there are laws that the Holy Spirit told Peter to break, because they were "irrelevant" in light of Jesus (like eating "unclean food"), but that is another debate.

    My intent was to say that it is human nature to abuse the law. Religion as a system of beliefs that someone ascribes supreme importance does not inspire the father/son relationship Jesus talked about, and often times encourages pride and condemnatory attitudes (because of our human nature). A relationship with the Father is the extremely important item, which good works cannot attain as the Pharisees showed. Jesus didn't want people to focus on the rules, so He simplified them to "Love God, Love your neighbor" and said, "all the law of the prophets hangs on these two commandments." He summed it up to a relationship with God, and faith in action by loving your neighbor.

    So while the law is good, the entirety of it hangs on those two simple commandments. As humans we want to feel vindicated by the religion we follow, but Jesus did away with that smug sense of accomplishment. It will never be about following the rules, its about following Him, which is a completely different animal as you'll find through his interaction with the most perfect law abiders of His time.

    You obviously agree that the law plays a subordinate role. "Faith without works is dead" says James, which is true as well. But "works" I don't interpret to mean Jewish law... I interpret that to mean the action of loving your neighbor. Paul in Corinthians talks about doing great things but if you "have not love" it all means nothing. Love is the true inspiration of the law, and if the action of following the law is not inspired by love, then it will not bear good fruit.

    I do disagree on one point. If following the law led people to Christ, as you stated, then wouldn't the Pharisees and Sadducees have accepted him with open arms? Most Mormons follow the commandments better than anyone. I agree that out of context "Loving God and loving your neighbor" can mean next to nothing as well. We need the history. Its not the law thats failed, its that we fail it (just like Israel throughout the OT), we abuse it, and because of our failure it never does what it was intended to do. We needed Jesus, the law was a step to get to Him, and while it is a good learning point, we cannot worship it and expect to get results.

    I loved reading all your points, and I think we actually agree with each other. I just needed to clarify that I wasn't saying the Law was bad, I was saying that humans are :)


  4. Adam- I think the problem with dogma/doctrine is that it very easily wanders from true Christianity. The idea that there is a standard outside of simple, original Christianity definined by a life following Christ tends to grate on me a bit.

    Although it's important to know the Law and know that we fall short of it, following it religiously is not necessarily what Jesus wants from us. As has been said, the rest of the Law should fall into place if the first two steps are met.

    Although the Law can be a tool in *keeping* us moving towards Christ, in guiding us toward Christ, it cannot lead us to him on its own. Matt, I believe this is why Adam calls them "tools"- the Pharisees weren't grounded in faith, they were grounded in works; therefore, it was no longer a tool, it was their foundation. One that crumbles and falls. So, I believe Adam's point was that the Law's usefulness is dependant on faith. It can only "lead people to Christ" if it's a tool.

    In James, the "faith without works" does refer to loving one's neighbor in context, but it can be applied to everything else as well. If one has a dirty, sin-ridden personal life, I think it has considerable merit to say that much of that person's faith is dead as well.

    Great thoughts, both Adam and Matt- once again, I greatly enjoyed reading them :)


  5. Matt and Marie (sorry I don't know how to include the accent!),

    I really enjoy discussing things like this because it not only enables me to think about issues and try to organize my own thoughts, but it also allows others to help me clarify what I have said. So, I'm grateful for our discussion. I begin this post with a smile because I really do enjoy peaceful dialogue.

    What I was trying to do was maneuver between two extremes: those who say that the Law is useless and those who say Christianity depends upon one's ability to keep the commandments. I am not accusing either of you holding to either extreme, but I was trying to perhaps clarify what Matt originally said about the Law. We both agreed that the issue is that humans prone to abusing good things,like the Law, and thus something greater is needed. Matt's second to last paragraph in his previous post is entirely correct to note that the Law was unable to bring the Pharisees, & Co. to a fuller understanding of Christ, who the highest form of revelation God has given. The Law, that is the commandments given in the OT, particularly the Pentateuch, is good, but subordinate and weak in that it is not sufficient to bring us (sinners that we are) to the highest form of relationship, engagement, intimacy with God. The fact that the Law is weak doesn't make it bad. I think we all agree on this.

    I was also trying to point out that obeying commandments is a form, or maybe better phrased, a means by which we can love God and love neighbor. So it is on this point that I need to make a distinction between the Law, that is the OT requirements, etc., and the law of Christ. Christ himself reinterprets, or perhaps correctly interprets, the Law. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) is a classic example of this. "You have heard it said", is possibly a reference to the teachings the people had heard by various teachers of the time, and Jesus seems to not only expose the vapidness of their teachings but infuse new life into the commandments in a way that goes beyond the OT Law itself. Jesus is the highest form of God's revelation. Reliance on the Law without Christ is worse than putting the cart before the horse: it is to have the cart without the horse!

    So I guess I needed to make clearer the distinction between the OT Law and the law of Christ. So when we speak of commandments, which is generally a pejorative term, I think we need to make clear that Christ gives us commandments to follow that are rooted in the OT Law but also transcend it. Parts of it are simply obselete and superfluous in light of Christ and Pentecost. Other parts, like the sermon on the mount, are incredibly helpful to my own purification in that they breathe new life into old commands: adultery and murder, two of the 10 commandments, are brought back to the heart. I think we all agree that the religious leaders had in some ways removed "intentionality" from their understanding of "obeying the law." They stuck to the letter and ignored the "spirit" of the Law. Jesus' interpretation of the Law makes me realize even more that I need something beyond a command, which simply magnifies the fact that I fail on numerous accounts.

    So, I'm not suggesting a return to following a set of commands or basing Christianity upon one's ability to keep them. But I do think that our understanding of the role of commands should come from looking at how Jesus dealt with commands. I have suggested that he both used and transcended the Law. What we now follow is the law of Christ. And now we're full circle for Christ summarized for us the entirety of the Law in two commands: love God and love your neighbor. These are rooted in the OT Law but are given new power by Christ, through the Spirit, to the Father's glory.

    Anyway, I'm sure we could discuss this forever, and I do think we're saying quite similar things. Thanks for the edifying dialogue!

    peace of Christ be with you both!

  6. I do believe we all agree as well, haha, although I would like to point out that there is a big difference between the type of law in the Old Testament and the new law under Christ. There's an important distinction to be made between following the "law"/"rules" Christ sets before us and following the "law"/"rules" as the Pharisees/Saducees/Old Testament people did: the "rules" Christians follow are simply the reaction of a life lived for Christ (in which love for God and neighbor are inherent/natural/assumed/even necessary). It's not an *obligation* to fill. We are completely free to do what we want as Christians. The laws show what a ligitimate follower of Christ's life would be shown to uphold, they don't outline the things we must do in order to be considered "Christian" or something of that sort.


  7. Dude, you did it again. (see dry oh-nine comment).
    Personally, being a Catholic, I do love the specific religion and the tools that accompany it. It helps me subjectively in my Faith.

    I always try to tell people: Religion does not matter. Faith does (regardless of what tools or guidelines you personally use in your walk). Faith is objective. Their are objective truths involving God, morality, virtues, ect... In "Faith" its just you and God and if seeking that to the depth that we should, we will all come to these same objective truths (regardless of what particular religion on finds helpful). In this way Religion (in a way) is subjective.

    I remember taking to a non-denominational and being inspired by her faith and views on life and everything. It was perfect. She reads the bible every day as a tool to help her in her faith. I dont. I find the "Eucharist" to be particularly helpful to me in my faith. But she doesnt. This does not change the fact that we both know and understand those same absolute truths just cuz we use diff tools.

    This gets me angry when having to talk about religion or someone asking me if i am religious when what they mean to ask is if i have faith. I get angry cuz i am happily Catholic but the worlds view on religious people (and semi- rightfully so) are by the book, shove down your throat, everyone else is wrong, rules are rules just because they are kind of people and it makes me sad knowing that generally that is true.

    (Its like people go into a museum and criticize the picture frame for being blue instead of green... never realizing it holds that absolute picture just the same)

    Ironically (as i was saying in my comment to "Dry Oh-nine") these realizations and many more (where and when I found my faith) came to me when i went across seas for a couple months to serve with Mother Teresa's sisters in Kolkata, India when I was eighteen.

    Again... thank you for knowing. Its a huge support in this blind world. You are one of the first people i have ever heard of with the right disposition and the constant mutual duty to continue in growth. What a support. God Bless