You’ve probably seen this already, the viral video about one young man’s effort to dissect his faith and remove the evil that has grown up inside it. Jefferson Bethke titles his spoken word missive, “I Hate Religion.” See it here.
His goal is to remove “religion” from his relationship with Jesus.
I don’t think he can do it.
The problem here is the notion that “having no religion at all” is better than the religious behavior we so often see. How do you completely eliminate religion in your life? Apathy and atheism make a go of it, the former more successful than the latter. But I don’t see how you could.
I do see why he might think you should though. In fact, I think he makes a good point.
“Why has religion started so many wars?” Because of people.
“Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?” Because of people.
Religion is a simple proposition. It’s not a list of rules, though it can be. It’s not a strict way of life, though it can be. It isn’t a bunch of old white guys telling everyone what to do. But it can be. In a stroke of irony, Jeff is declaring his religion, even as he hopes to kill off the idea in his life.
But what he is doing is dangerous for those who aren’t mature in Christ. Here’s what I mean.
A Practical Definition for Religion
Religion, simply put, is those beliefs to which I bind myself. That’s it.
So before we’re even below the fold, Jeff’s idea is on the ropes. Now, I’m not here to refute what he’s done. He’s a well meaning kid with good ideas, but he’s suggesting an alternative that is worse than the one he’s railing against. More on that in a minute.
That means that the question is this, “How do I decide what is worthy of binding or loosing?” Great question. Let’s ask someone smarter than me. No, wait, that would be ‘religious.’ Well, yes. And that’s okay.
Without someone wiser than I am, I’m forced to follow my own authority. I’m the only one holding myself accountable. But you might say, “No one is Lord over me except Jesus. I don’t need worldly wisdom.”
Okay. So who decides what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor?” Do we all get to make up our own interpretation?
My faith is based on so much more than just my ability to reason. It has more to it than just the sum of my own experiences. I’m bound up in traditions that I have chosen, examined, embraced, re-examined and chosen again. But all this took place within community. All of this took place within the Church.
Let me put it another way.
Every Man for Himself
There’s been a lot of talk about the Automotive Industry. It has gotten away from its roots. Once, it was all about building the best car they could. In a massive oversimplification, I’m going to put forth the idea, “And then they got wrapped up in the bottom line.”
So what shall we do? Make our own cars? Theoretically, we are all capable in some sense. And some people do. But even those folks got their skill and expertise from somewhere, most likely Detroit or one of her ilk. Personally, I need the community to make me whole, to help me hear God, and to hold me in loving accountability.
“But Faith is different,” you say. “God can speak directly to me.” Yes, God can. But does God do that? Don’t we have enough folks claiming God’s voice every Sunday in Church, every Friday at synagogue, and every few hours at the Mosque?
So What Is the Answer?
The guy in the video makes a great case — if you are a perfect Christian. In short, there is a baby in all that bath water. All I’m suggesting is that he pare down the stuff that he wants to get rid of.
Unnecessary wars over differing beliefs? I’m with him. Down with war.
Huge churches in debt while the poor starve? I’m in. Let’s knock all that stuff off.
Blasting single moms for being divorced? Please. Most of my denomination quit that years ago.
Don’t let the religious establishment tell you how to vote. Vote for the candidate who will do the job of running the country. Let religion preach morality (or would they rather preach to themselves exactly what they want to hear…) and let laws prevent injustice.
What Religion/The Church Means to Me
Personally, I need the church for way more than my job.
I personally need the church for its gathered resources. I need the traditions, the doctrines, and the scriptures that came out of them. Yes, the bible was written by men who were codifying their faith, and thank God they did.
Wesley taught his followers that the way to the Mind of Christ was through Scripture, but it has to be interpreted through the aggregate lens of tradition, experience and reason.
And now we are down to the crux of the problem. Jefferson Bethke is saying that he doesn’t need all four. The folks in the right wing are saying you only need the traditions (and their ubiquitous opinions) to live right.
Both assertions are wrong.
Balance Relationship and Tradition
I say you need all four: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. You cannot interpret Scripture without the lens of Tradition which has carried forth the meaning of the words. And you cannot abandon those two facets for your own experience and ability to reason.
Quite frankly, most of us are not up to that particular challenge.
Scripture is the foundation of our understanding. Tradition is the walls holding up the roof of Reason. And our Experiences come from time spent in this house of existence. This is important, because some folks like to let the Quadrilateral take a vote. But one should never let experience and reason trump Scripture. Priorities do matter, after all.
Let’s take them one at a time.
Scripture is the revealed Word of God. (If we disagree on that point, I’m actually quite honored that you showed up to read this to begin with. And quite frankly, I’m amazed you read this far.) But it is a facet of our religion. You can’t throw it out and hope to learn about Jesus without someone telling you the story.
Tradition is the faithfully transmitted history of the response of the Church to God’s revealed self. Otherwise known as, “The Way We’ve Always Done That.” But that’s a misnomer, because the Church has changed and grown over the years. I can resonate with Jeff’s impatient stance. “If you can’t follow God into the Changes, then you aren’t following God.” But it does take time…and patience. The best thing about serving the Church is the people. The most frustrating thing about serving the Church is … also the people.
Our experiences color our thinking. Even Moses’ first encounter with God was obvious because it ran counter to his experiences with bushes and the way they are supposed to burn.
And finally, we have to admit that there’s a point to what Jefferson Bethke is saying. We have an obligation to thoughtfully consider our faith. We have an opportunity to prayerfully approach the questions of the day. Too many Christians are letting the Jerry Falwells and Rush Limbaughs of the world tell us what we should believe and how we should vote, er, act.
That’s just what they want.
One last thing. Remember our definition of religion? Religion is the combined beliefs to which I bind myself. If you believe in free will, and I’ll bet you do, then you know that the best part of religion is deciding when to tell the war-starters, divorcee-bashers, money-grubbers, and hate-mongerers that their beliefs are not your beliefs.
There’s a catch, and it sends me running back to my Bible, my traditions, and my experiences every time: My reason must be informed. I can’t just leave because I want to. I have to know that I’m as close to right as I can be.
And then comes the leap of faith.
Someone tell Jefferson how much I think of his work. It was truly inspired. But I do so wish he would hold on to the baby the next time he’s tossing out the bathwater.
Author: Joey Reed
Joey is married to his best friend and they live in Kentucky. Joey serves Mayfield First United Methodist Church, the Purchase District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.