§17: Christianity Against Religion

Jason Micheli —  February 14, 2014 — 2 Comments

barth_tagungOn the fashionably skeptical (ie, intellectually lazy) side these days are the ‘Nones,’ represented by that most tedious of cliches “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

I second Lillian Daniel who writes — in response to the dumb flight companion who condescends “I’m spiritual but not religious” — “Please stop boring me.”

Not to mention that it’s hardly self-evident what ‘spirituality’ has to do with nitty-gritty particularity like Jesus. Regardless, it’s assumed that ‘religion’ is a lesser, less enlightened endeavor than spirituality. In ‘religion’ you have tradition and hierarchy and commands and God telling you how to live your life. Whereas with ‘spirituality’ you have…no one telling you how to live your life.

Even on the religious side ‘religion’ is treated in pejorative tones. Peter Rollins’ ‘God is dead’ theology is the rage among Emergent and Progressive Christians. Diana Butler Bass’ recent book, Christianity After Religion, documents the rise of the ‘Nones’ and charts a religionless way forward for communities of faith; meanwhile Evangelicals persist in hijacking Bonhoeffer for themselves with choice quotes like his pondering the ideal of a ‘religionless Christianity.’

Religionless Christianity = Christianity without church, worship services, prayer, doctrine, sacraments, and sermons.

It’s about relationship not religion!

Which of course is the perfect recipe to yield a Christianity without Jesus.

A ‘Jesus-inspired’ spirituality let’s say.

Neo-Calvinists like Tim Keller, who otherwise have nothing in common with the likes of Peter Rollins or Diana Butler Bass, nevertheless distinguish between ‘religion’ and the ‘Gospel.’

Religion, Keller likes to say, tells you what YOU have to do to earn God’s favor. The Gospel is the declaration is that there’s nothing YOU have to do to earn God’s favor. Christ has died for your sin, in your place, so that the prodigal Father can welcome you home.

Nevermind that this Calvinist definition of the Gospel in no way matches how Peter and the Apostles defined it: Christ whom you crucified has been raised from the dead and has given dominion over the Earth.

I don’t really know what the big deal is about ‘religion.’ You’d think it would be fairly obvious that when people gather together to worship God by means of ancient, communally-constructed practices meant to bind them both to God and one another they’re engaged in what Emile Durkheim labeled ‘religion.’

This looking down the nose at ‘religion’ is nothing new. The title for the next section in Barth’s Church Dogmatics is “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion.”

Barth begins this section in the affirmative.

What we do as Christians is comparable with other religions. Yes, Christianity begins with God’s initiative, God’s revelation, God’s speech. But we are the indirect objects of God’s speech and, as such, we as receivers of God’s revelation participate in a human phenomenon known as ‘religion.’

Barth’s up to more here than just treating religion as the polluted byproduct of humanity’s messing with the ‘spiritual.’

For Barth, ‘religion’ isn’t the opposite of spirituality; it’s the other side of ‘revelation.’

Revelation reminds us of how Christianity remains distinct from everything else that falls under the label ‘religion,’ for revelation insures that Christianity will never end up being what every other religion was after all along.

‘Religion’ is not a more general term for traditions that all mean, intend and pursue the same things once you brush aside their cultural particularity. Christianity is not one spoke among many leading to a common central hub.

We’re not all alike, Barth insists, which is the foundation for Barth’s resistance to apologetics- rationally explaining Christian belief by means of other, generally-accepted terms and premises.

Revelation is God’s pursuit of humanity.

Religion is humanity’s pursuit of God.

As Barth says:

Revelation singles out the Church as the locus of true religion. But this does not mean that the Christian religion as such is the fulfilled nature of human religion. It does not mean that the Christian religion is the true religion, fundamentally superior to all other religions. We can never stress too much the connection between the truth of the Christian religion and the grace of revelation. We have to give particular emphasis to the fact that the Church lives by grace, and to that extent it is the locus of true religion. 

Living by grace will mean living by the grace of God in Christ. There is a particular identity to the church as the grace people–an identity tied to the name Jesus Christ and the story of his life, death, and resurrection.

For Barth, ‘religion’ isn’t a category we need condescend; it’s not the opposite of enlightened spirituality shorn of all manmade traditions.

For Barth, the term ‘religion’ simply reminds us that all attempts to know God rely upon the grace manifest in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Religion has to be a man-made phenomena because the only way to God is God’s revealing of himself in Christ.

So it’s not that you can be spiritual without being religious; it’s that you can’t really be either apart from God’s grace.

Jason Micheli

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2 responses to §17: Christianity Against Religion

  1. This is FANTASTIC. Jason, thank you for your blog writing. You have an amazing gift of translating the complex into words that simplify and land with a “Y-E-S, that is it!”

  2. God is not Christian,not Muslim,not Jewish,not Hindu,not a follower of Bhudda,not Zoroastrian. In fact,I do not believe that God is religious at all. If He was,there would only be one religion…….HIS! and He would allow no other!!

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