A timely sermon

I received this only this morning, and find it so appropriate for the grave things we have had to consider. I acknowledge the authorship and ownership of this text.

It certainly rings true to someone who has been more badly hurt by religious people than by atheists or “spiritual but not religious” people. There are conditions under which Christianity could once again be made credible. With someone more solid than I am, perhaps this could be an impetus for the continuation of this blog – As the Sun in its Orb, these words being given a new meaning and not merely describing a liturgical tradition.

A hundred years ago, the Roman Catholic Church faced what it considered a threat, from Modernism personified in men like George Tyrrell. It was all about apologetics and what is credible for modern man. Man of the late nineteenth century was taken up by the maelstrom of progress and science, and Tyrrell accepted that fact. His attempt at making faith credible for modern man got called Modernism, and it was condemned as a heresy by the Pope – unjustly in my opinion based on reading a number of studies on the subject.

A hundred years later, externals have changed to an unimaginable extent, but the underlying crisis remains the same as in 1912 (although Tyrrell himself died in 1909). I think any future of this blog will be to promote a new Modernism in the spirit of the old for the sake of seeking to render the treasure of the Gospel clear, credible and beautiful for those hurt by the leaven of the Pharisees.

* * *

On true and false religion

St George’s Church, Paris
September 2, 2012

© Peter Bannister

Unless you have been living on another planet, you will almost certainly have noticed that institutional Religion has taken something of a pounding over recent months. Many of us are probably familiar with the strident anti-religious writing of the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, author of the delicately-titled God is not Great and Religion poisons everything ; their polemical attacks on Religion may not win any awards for subtlety, but they have clearly grasped the public imagination in many quarters on both sides of the Atlantic. In November 2011, a much-publicized debate for Intelligence Squared was held at New York University to consider the motion that ‘the world would be better off without religion’, pitting two British atheists (A.C. Grayling and Darwin’s greatgreat-grandson Matthew Chapman) against a leading Christian apologist (Dinesh D’Souza) and one of America’s best-known rabbis (David Wolpe), and, yes, the atheists carried the day.

Predictable, some might say, given the level of prejudice against religious faith in the secular mass media. But it not only the New Atheists who seem to have a problem with Religion. Alongside those who would deny the existence of a spiritual dimension altogether, there also seems to be a spectacular increase, in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, in the number of those proclaiming themselves to be ‘spiritual but not religious’. People who are unimpressed by the idea that human beings are merely ‘machines controlled by our genes’, but who are equally repelled by religious institutions in an age when the ills of fundamentalism and the moral failings of the historical Church have undermined the credibility of the very notion of religious authority.

Most intriguing and thought-provoking of all, however, is the critique of Religion from within the Church. On January 10th the 22-year Christian rap poet Jefferson Bethke started a firestorm by uploading a video to the internet entitled ‘Why I hate religion, but love Jesus’ that has since received 20 million views on YouTube. Beginning with the words ‘What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion ?’, and claiming to voice the concerns of a generation sometimes called the ‘Millenials’ (18-29 year-olds), Bethke is nothing if not provocative . ‘One thing’, he proclaims, ‘is vital to mention’:

‘How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrum
See one’s the work of God, but one’s a man-made invention
See one is the cure, but the other’s the infection’

What currently seems to be happening in many sectors of Western society is a rebellion against the all-too-obvious shortcomings of institutional ‘Religion’ in the bad sense. Abuses of power by the clergy, religious violence of many kinds (a problem not restricted to any one faith tradition), and righteous rhetoric as a smokescreen for human political agendas – all this is being ruthlessly unmasked as access to information is being democratized. This is in itself not necessarily a bad thing ; slogans such as ‘I love Jesus but hate the Church’ may be simplistic and polarized, but at their core is a justified cry from the heart against religious hypocrisy.

On the strength of today’s readings it should be acknowledged that this protest is itself rooted in the Scripture’s own critique of false religion (a critique which, if truth be told, actually influences Richard Dawkins more than he realizes). An important proviso is in order here, however – the Biblical passages we have just heard do not stop at deconstructing religious hypocrisy. Instead they offer us important pointers to the nature of true religion which cannot be deconstructed. This true religion is not a system of human regulations, but rather concerns the deepest orientation of the human being as expressed in thought, word and action.

This is plain in the reading from Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus contrasts ‘external’ and ‘internal’ religion. A potential misunderstanding needs clearing up here : Jesus is definitely NOT setting ‘faith’ against ‘works’, if what is meant is the idea that salvation (or wholeness) is primarily about intellectual BELIEF in God at the expense of deeds. As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus rather contrasts adherence to a set of human rules with a concern for the inner life of the heart (which manifests itself in our behaviour). ‘Bad Religion’ comes about when ritual observance is no longer the expression of deeper underlying principles, but becomes an end in itself, a fixed religious system. History has shown us and continues to show us just how such systems go hand in hand with manipulation by human power structures which impose rigid rules as a method of control . These effectively exclude the working of the Holy Spirit which, as Jesus tells Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel, ‘blows where it wills’. This is the inner dynamic of hypocritical religion throughout the ages ; it is not at all surprising that Christ, standing in the Jewish prophetic tradition, should quote from Isaiah 29 : ‘They worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’ The codification of religion, its transformation into a dead and oppressive structure in contradiction with God’s original intention, was Jesus’s essential bone of contention with the Pharisees (it should be said in passing that they were actually his natural peer group within Second Temple Judaism. As its most enlightened and Scripturally-literate representatives it is logical that Christ should have called them to accountability – to put it succintly, they were the ones who should have known better).

But where does acknowledging Jesus’s critique of false religion leave those of us, myself included, who are representatives of the Church that we still believe is Christ’s Body, however disfigured? Does it follow that for anyone who claims to be spiritual, the deconstruction of corporate religion is the only option? By gathering here, have we become the new Pharisees? If, as many say, we have reached the end of Christendom (on a societal level), does that mean the end of the historical Church ? Are we simply wasting our time meeting for communal worship, reciting the historic Creeds and celebrating the Eucharist? And is the Christian heritage of the last 2000 years merely dead human tradition? Are those of us who find ourselves deeply and strangely moved on entering Chartres Cathedral, seeing Michelangelo’s Pietà or hearing a Mozart Mass simply dinosaurs, hopeless traditionalists who are taking up precious space ?

Here let us turn to the Epistle of James, where we perhaps can find a clue to how we can indeed be both ‘spiritual and religious’, as the American Episcopal writer Diana Butler Bass puts it in her recent and extremely constructive book ‘Christianity After Religion’, which I highly recommend to you. James provides us with a definition of ‘true religion’ pleasing to God which may at first seem surprising, given that it has so little to do with how contemporary sociology might define the word.

James’s definition has two components, which might broadly be said to correspond to the two tablets of the Decalogue or the two commandments that Jesus offers as a summary of the Law : the love of God and the love of neighbour (specifically the outcast, the least). In James’s version, true religion is to be found in the care of widows and orphans, and in keeping oneself from being ‘polluted by the world’.

The first component should be crystal clear : our problem with it is not so much the understanding of the passage as its application. The widow and the orphan are very much still with us, and whenever we close our hearts to them, we inevitably close ourselves to the working of the Spirit. Caring for those at the margins of society is essential if we are to see the world as God sees it – if we read further, James’s epistle continues with a vigorous diatribe against an obsession with worldly wealth (reminiscent of Jesus’s ‘woe to you the rich’ in the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel). In no uncertain terms, James denounces the mentality which would use religious ‘faith’ as an excuse for disengagement from the needs of those around us. Probably addressing Christians who had distorted Paul’s emphasis on ‘justification by faith’ by setting it in a false opposition to action, James insists that for faith to have any meaning, it must have a practical outworking. All else is indeed hypocrisy. The second component is perhaps more difficult to comprehend, but just as essential for a balanced approach to ‘true religion’. What exactly does James mean by ‘keeping oneself from being polluted by the world’ ? Well, it is clear from what he has just said about care for the widow and the orphan that he is not advocating other-worldly escapism. But neither is he suggesting that religion should be reduced to social action. James’s message may be somewhat unfashionable, but his Epistle is insistent that there has to be a real difference between the values of the Church and the values of the ‘world’ in a negative sense. That sense becomes obvious if we read the remainder of the letter: there can be no compromise between serving the living God and the false gods of status, money and the pleasure principle (chapter 4). But we can safely say that making the choice to be ‘in the world but not of it’ is something that can only be done in community, where our common experience of Divine transcendence in worship, word and sacrament empowers us for service. This is why ultimately to say that ‘I love Jesus but hate Religion’ is a false dichotomy (and Jefferson Bethke, who has remained a regular churchgoer since publishing his famous YouTube video, knows this). Yes, we should be careful how we define ‘Church’ – we are not talking here about an institution with its power structures and temptation to social prestige. What we are talking about is discipleship in community. That community is not simply man-made because in shared worship and service we together discover a God who is the source of all genuine communion, who miraculously invites us into the Triune Divine life itself, the wonder of the inexhaustible and unfathomable mutual love of Father, Son and Spirit.

Risen Christ,
You who know us better than we can ever know ourselves,
Purify our hearts for humble service
By the fire of the eternal life-giving Spirit
Teach us to see and love You
In the last, the lost, the least of those around us,
That the world would know that we are your disciples
To the glory of God the Father

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