Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why Jesus Didn't Come To Abolish Religion:
The Semantics Of "Why I Hate Religion"
by Kyle L. Trimper

   There’s a fellow out there right now on the vast internet named Jeffuhson Bethke  who has a new video entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”.  Not one to shy away from controversy, with this contentious thesis statement, this video has apparently caused quite a splash, and has been met with both acclaim and criticism.  I avoided watching the thing for a long time: firstly, I don’t care a whole lot for rap or poetry and this video contained a mix of both; secondly, the guy frankly looked like a bit of an idiot.

   Eventually I caved and watched the video, after having read an article on the subject, as well as a video by Fr. Robert Barron on the subject.  In this video, Bethke raps/talks about how religion is a man-made invention, as well as how Jesus was against religion because he opposed Jewish religious authority.

   While his atonement theology is basically correct his views on religion and Jesus’ look on it is flawed.  This fellow claims that Jesus came “to abolish religion”.  In fact, this is not so.  Fr. Barron correctly draws attention to Jesus’ statement that He has “come not to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them” [Matt. 5:17 NIV].  Jesus was not against religion: rather, He was against religious corruption and hypocrisy, as Barron also correctly states, and was, as Barron points out, “a loyal, law-abiding Jew”.

   Barron, however, takes more offense at Bethke’s identification with justification by faith alone and a perceived attack at the Catholic Church.  Barron goes back to Luther and condemns justification by faith alone.  I must disagree with him here: there is a logical problem with this, and one does not have to be an accomplished theologian to work this one out.  Man trying to earn his way into God’s Kingdom through works alone is not only impossible, as Jesus lays out several times in the Gospels, but also vain and prideful.  Furthermore, works mean nothing without belief and repentance of sins.  Anyone can do good works; however, one sin outweighs the whole balance: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments … will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven” [Matt. 5:19 NIV].  Paul makes his stance perfectly clear:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; … there is no one who does good, not even one.” [Romans 3:10, 12] … “No one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” [Romans 3:20 NIV] … “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.  God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood.  He did this … to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” [Romans 3:21-26].”
   Barron acknowledges this passage, but argues that we are evaluated by our love for the poor, etc., quoting Paul’s famous love passage in 1 Corinthians: “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” [1 Cor. 13:2 NIV].  In this passage, Paul is making a particularly beautiful, poetic, and eloquent entreaty for love: however, it appears that Barron is reading a bit too much into the passage.  Read the entire thing:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. [1 Cor. 13:1-13 NIV].
   Barron argues that good works and love can be demonized, and he does have a point.  Good works and love are important and should be the goals of Christians: of that there is no doubt.  But, one must remember that these are not the things that gain entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Take the example of the criminal crucified alongside Jesus: a criminal at death’s door, he gains entrance to Paradise with a simple request, a repentance, an acknowledgement of sin, and a placing of faith in Christ. “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve … Jesus, remember when you come into your kingdom” [Luke 23:41-42 NIV].  Jesus himself said, “Ask and it will be given to you … knock and the door will be opened to you” [Matt. 7:7 NIV].

   Barron’s offense at a perceived attack on the Catholic Church betrays an arrogance that tends to rear its ugly head much too often: the view that the Roman Catholic Church is the one and only true church and true religion.  As a result, when someone says ‘church’ or ‘religion’, the Catholic Church may assume that one is talking about them and only them (Protestants are likely guilty of the same sort of arrogance at times).  The truth is Bethke seems to be directing this video at all religions, all denominations, all churches.  Bethke may be directing criticism at the Catholic Church, but he is also directing his attack at all churches.  But I have digressed.

   Bethke’s error may actually be less of a theological one than a semantic one.  A fellow by the name of Awretchsaved, in his erroneously-titled “Nothing Wrong With Religion” (From one extreme to another), states that “semantics [are] important”.  Indeed, Bethke tosses the word ‘religion’ around a lot, but does he actually know what it means?  Merriam-Webster online contains several definitions for the word ‘religion’:  

re·li·gion (noun):
1.       A. the state of a religious
B.            1. the service and worship of God or the supernatural
2. commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2.       a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3.       scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4.       a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

   None of those definitions seem to match the point he’s trying to make, and if he is referring to 1B2, 2, or 4, he is shooting himself in the proverbial foot.  He’s not trying to argue that Jesus is against the service and worship of God or the supernatural: that would be ludicrous.  Furthermore, by these definitions, Bethke is in fact practicing religion in his video.  Firstly, he is demonstrating the service and worship of God; secondly he obviously has a cause, principle, and a system of beliefs that he holds on to with a lot of ardor and faith.  Therefore, one can determine that Bethke is an extremely religious man.

   Bethke is not the first person I’ve encountered bashing religion while using the word incorrectly.  Popular apologist Tim Keller, in his book  The Reason For God, (which, while being a very well-written book, tends to make some concessions to appeal to the masses, concessions which do not make a lot of theological or logical sense) uses ‘religion’ to refer to ‘salvation through moral effort’, and ‘gospel’ to refer to ‘salvation through grace’.  Keller claims that religion is sin and ends up reaching the same conclusion that Bethke does: that religion is a rejection of the gospel of Jesus.

   Keller’s conclusion makes perfect sense given the definition of the term that he has attributed to it: however, the definition is his definition, one made to both simplify Christian theology for and appeal to a secular audience who have an intense dislike for religion of any kind.  Keller does admit that he uses his definitions for the purpose of his discussion, but that does not make it any less fallacious.

   The lesson here is that while denouncing religion may make Christianity look ‘cool’ to a secular audience, and may make you look like a ‘cool’ Christian, it is fundamentally incorrect.  Apologetics can be a great and powerful force for good, but it has to stay true to its purpose.  The purpose of apologetics is to provide a reasonable defence for one’s faith, based in fact, but explained clearly.  Apologetics should clear up misconceptions about Christianity and perpetuate basic truths about the faith.  Unfortunately, Bethke’s failed attempt at apologetics has single-handedly dealt a great blow to the field of apologetics and the rest of us in that field.  Simply put, words have meaning.  People are confused enough right now about religion: don’t confuse them further.