Can we really love Jesus AND hate religion?
The word religion has been getting a pretty bad rap these days, often taking blame for most of society’s major problems. As a result, there are many well-meaning Christians trying to rebrand the faith by disassociating from that term altogether. You'll hear them say things like, “I love Jesus, but I hate religion.” Or “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.”
Take, for instance, this book I’m more than halfway through called, So You Thought You Knew: Letting Go of Religion by Joshua Tongol. It’s not (at all) the type of book I tend to pick up these days, but as I was browsing through summer reading options on Amazon, I felt compelled for whatever reason. Maybe it was nostalgia, because the author and I have such similar backgrounds. We were both charismatic evangelicals once. And now, we're not. It’s a big thing to have in common! And while we can both be found challenging our old paradigm at this point, we definitely go about it in very different ways.
I don’t mind arguing with many of his points, of course, and I don’t think Tongol would mind, either. He doesn’t require his audience to agree with him, he just wants to make them think. And I love thinking! So my biggest issue with the book, and the only reason I'm bringing it up, is that this book isn’t actually about "letting go of religion." At all. It is very, very specifically about letting go of modern fundamentalist evangelicalism. And while that is something I can identify with, if your background has been in any other form of religion, you likely would not be able to identify with this book in any way whatsoever.
It's an important distinction to make! Too often I've noticed our conversations include broad terms like Christian or religion used strictly to describe evangelicalism. But you guys... That specific Christian religion is not the extent of what those words mean. Evangelicalism is but a fraction of Christianity, and even smaller of religion itself.
Do we even know what it is we claim to be moving away from?
Religion simply describes our beliefs about what exists beyond this natural world, what life is about, what happens to us when we die, and how these beliefs affect the way we live. Which is why we can never really say, “I love Jesus, but hate religion,” while making sense at the same time. Jesus has to do with all of these things.
What we really mean to say is, "We love Jesus, and we hate false religion."
False religion, or empty religion, is something else altogether—literally, the opposite of true religion. It imitates religious thought and action, but does not authentically engage the entire mind, body and soul of a person. In fact, it creates a major disconnect between these three aspects of our existence.
It memorizes all the right prayers and scriptures, but isn’t actually transformed by them.
It designates specific time and space for religiosity only to check “holiness” off the to-do list, and not have to think about it the rest of the time.
It’s too afraid to be genuinely loving, and too proud to be authentically vulnerable.
It serves the ego rather than the other.
It causes us to name our own thoughts “God”, so we say without reverence or discernment, “God told me... [insert something God did not say here].”
It rejects difficult questions, because it’s very comfortable where it’s at, and honestly, may not be convinced that God can handle difficult questions.
It claims to know everything about God, but doesn’t actually know Him at all.
And we hate all that crap! We hate it!!
But we love Jesus, though.
Which brings me back to Joshua Tongol. Here’s a guy who loves Jesus. But He is not a modern fundamentalist evangelical anymore. It’s not that everything about that understanding was false, it's just that—as he continued to study—he could no longer reconcile some of its claims to his own developing conscience and understanding. So to remain there would be a lie. It would be false. Hence, he is now among the many post-modernists who have moved forward into a more nebulous form of spirituality that attempts to function without religion (which, and you may know, I've experienced as well, and it really felt about as functional as a mobile device trying to operate without wifi or network connection).
I do get it, though. I've been there. Who wants all that negative PR, right? But this is where I offer a different suggestion on how to move on, because for several years now, my own approach has been to move forward by turning around and going completely backwards at the same time.
It was C.S. Lewis’ idea. He told us in Mere Christianity that, “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
So there you have it. Where are we going, guys? Where do we want to be?
For genuine Christians, the answer is that we want to be with Jesus. Yes?
And this Jesus actually walked the earth and fleshed out the Gospel about 2,000 years ago. Am I right?
He also established His Church 2,000 years ago, and that same Church still exists even now. So even though Christianity itself has become fractured and fragmented, and some of us are born on the fringes, there is still an unbroken core, a unified chain of Christian faith that reaches from this present time all the way back to Jesus Himself.
Did you know that? It’s true. Look it up.
I’m convinced that being a part of this unbroken chain is what truly leads earnest seekers from wherever we find ourselves questioning to that place we really want to be—the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.
And in reading Tongol’s book, I’m reminded that most of the holes and inconsistencies I found in modern fundamentalist evangelicalism (a fringe movement of Christianity, btw) were completely dissolved and nullified when I started digging deeper into the original version of Christianity—what we now call Catholic Christianity. Most of Tongol’s arguments against "religion" are against specific issues that have long since become obsolete for me, even though we might say that I am way more religious as a Catholic than I was as an evangelical.
We cannot keep trying to reinvent Christianity, because it's already here. It is timeless. And we cannot fully understand ourselves without understanding our deepest roots. That’s why the next book in my summer cue is a Catholic book called, The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre. The Protestant Christianity I came from is deeply rooted in Catholicism, and Catholicism is deeply rooted in ancient Judaism. The entire progression of human relationship with God—a.k.a. religion—is one continuous story, and each part of the story makes SO MUCH MORE SENSE when understood all together—in light of each other.
But! Just like Tongol (and LaVar Burton, too, I suppose), I’ll encourage you not to just take my word for it. Ask your questions. Do your research well. Look into it. I would add, however, that as you do, maybe don’t propel yourself forward into an uprooted entropy of non-religious religion—whatever that means. Instead, like a tree that reaches higher into the atmosphere and deeper into the soil, may you find your roots and the light at the same time, knowing that you can’t really do one without the other. Both are necessary in order to grow.
And as we grow, should we find along the way that there is anything false about our own religions, I pray we lose that—all of that—until all we have left is the deepest, truest religion possible.