As you probably already know, Jefferson Bethke’s video below has sparked a lot of discussion of late:
‘Religion’, Jeff would have us believe, is hypocritical, bigoted superstition, whereas ‘faith’, a personal relationship with God, not bogged down by authority or ritual, is the essence of true communion with God. Truth be told, Jeff isn’t really saying anything new. ‘Organised religion’ has been a dirty word for years now – ‘personal religion’ is fine and dandy, but when religion becomes an institution, with priests and creeds and rituals, then it becomes a cult-like abomination. To be fair, Jeff (a Christian) obviously doesn’t object to the Church itself, but from his video, one gets the impression that he would prefer a Church completely devoid of rites and rituals and other overtly ‘religious’ things.
But besides that, the brute fact of the matter is that as simple and occasionally powerful as Jeff’s words are, they simply cannot survive an encounter with real evil. The problem isn’t that Jeff goes too far, it’s that he doesn’t go far enough. It goes without saying that religious hypocrisy is a bad thing, and others have already dealt with Jeff’s arguments in this respect (see Fr. Antonios Kaldas and Fr. Andrew Damick). That’s not my concern in this post. My problem is with Jeff’s climax, his ultimate solution, what he calls ‘grace’:
“I no longer have to hide my failures, I don’t have to hide my sin
Because my salvation doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him.
Salvation is freely mine, forgiveness is my own,
Not based on my efforts, but Christ’s obedience alone.
Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
He paid for all your sin, and then buried it in the tomb …”
Everything’s going to be okay, Jeff tells us, because Christ has already paid the penalty for our sins. He did all the hard work on the cross; He’s already paid the price so that we can be forgiven, now all that remains is for us to accept His forgiveness and stroll gaily into Heaven. You don’t need priests or magic rituals; the Church is a cool place to hang out with other Christians, but there’s not much reason beyond that for you to be there. Once you’ve accepted Christ’s sacrifice and been forgiven, that’s all you really need, right? ‘Organised religion’, with it’s magical spells and rigid rules is superfluous.
I’ll explain why I disagree in a moment, but first I need to admit something: I used to agree heartily with Jeff. Surely, I thought, pure Christianity, the Christianity of Spirit and Truth (John 4:24) was all about sincerity, love and forgiveness. The only things that Orthodoxy seemed to add to this ‘pure’ Christianity were blindly observed rituals like the Eucharist and suspiciously paganish ‘unctions’ for the healing of illnesses and blessing of houses. I often used to think quietly to myself, “I’d be much happier in a less ‘superstitious’ church”.
Obviously, I’ve since changed my mind. Orthodoxy has a very different, (and what I believe is a far more scriptually accurate) concept of ‘grace’, and it refers to far more than forgiveness. Yes, of course Christ has forgiven us. And yes, there is a sense (although not necessarily an accurate one) in which Christ has ‘paid the penalty’ for our sins. But that is not the whole story. You see, while I am genuinely grateful that Christ has forgiven me, I would be a fool if I was content with forgiveness alone, and Christ would be cruel if He stopped there. Of course I want to be forgiven, but what I want beyond that, and what Christ really wants for me, is for me to be HEALED. For that to happen, Christ needs to do more than simply tell me, “I forgive you.” The only thing that can heal me (and you and Jeff) is God’s actual presence; intimate, real communion with Him. And for that, we need a Church; a living connection to the physical, historical Christ.
But it goes far, far deeper than mere ‘personal’ redemption. In Orthodoxy, it is not only human beings that need redemption, it is all Creation. When Adam and Eve sinned, they plunged the entire physical world screaming downwards into the dark ‘nothing’ from which Christ had called it – and in that terrible place we sat for thousands of years, ‘in darkness and the shadow of death’, where death instead of Christ became our king. That’s why the world we now inhabit is infused at once with both breathtaking beauty and unfathomable horror. We can admire, for example, the beauty of the world’s oceans when they are glassy and serene; but when their terrible jaws are opened, they swallow cities whole and leave beaches littered with children’s corpses. The whole world is comprised of beauty tinged with terror. When confronted with the wreckage of entire cities laid to waste by a hungry ocean, or bodies torn to pieces by carpet bombs, or the lonely teen who spends lonely, tear-filled nights cutting herself in a locked bathroom, Jeff’s cry that “Christ has paid for your crimes!” rings out surprisingly hollow, not because it’s false, but because it’s incomplete. Our selfishness and stupidity cry out for forgiveness, but our brokenness, our loneliness, our terror and our pain scream out even louder for health and life and redemption. Our personal sin is only part of a far larger problem, and even personal sin cannot be healed by forgiveness alone. We need not only for God to forgive us, we need Him to draw us up into Himself. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” God did not make us so that we might sin and be forgiven; that was an unfortunate extra chapter which we added to what should have been a much shorter book. The reason that you and I and Jeff exist, is to be drawn into God, to live in communion with Him. Only then, when the whole world, including and beginning with our own hearts, is shot through with the brilliant light of God’s presence, will all tears be wiped and every wound be healed. That is what we understand as ‘grace’ – God’s actual, living, healing presence in and among us. The Greek word ‘kharis’ which we translate as ‘grace’ literally means a ‘gift’; God has given us the gift of Himself.
And that is why Christ came – the Incarnation was the epicentre of a sort of ‘creative (or re-creative) explosion’, whereby God began the process of remaking the broken world by becoming ever more present within it. He didn’t just order it to be made right, He personally invaded it. By taking flesh, by binding Himself to physical atoms and cells, He began to inject Himself into the world, almost like a virus or an infection (in fact, CS Lewis often the phrase ‘good infection’.) And here’s the point of the entire post; this is why I think Jeff has only half the truth: the Church IS that infection, and a lot of the things it uses to achieve its purpose (symbols, sacraments, community, a ‘priesthood’) are fairly clearly properties of ‘organised religion’.
St. Paul didn’t pull any punches when he described the Church as Christ’s ‘body’:
“For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”
The marital imagery of Christ and the Church deserves far more attention than can be given to it here, but Orthodox writers often go stunningly far describing how the Church’s members become assumed into Christ’s life. St. Athanasius said “God became man so that men might become gods.” The Church is far more than a place to hold Bible studies, it is Christ’s invasion force. He is literally turning us into little Christ’s; so that He can use us to set the world right, to do His re-creative work by tending the afflicted, (Matt 25:34-36) healing the sick (James 5:14-15) and forgiving the sinful (John 20:22-23, James 5:16). Christ has given the Church Himself, and bestowed upon it His own powers of healing and restoration (even, to an extent, His miraculous powers), so that those powers can be exercised over the physical world. The Church enacts and exercises those powers through its sacramentality (especially its Eucharist), things which Jeff might dismiss as empty and ‘religious’. The ritual, ‘religious’ element of Church life is not blind, paganish superstition – it is what the Orthodox often call ‘sacramental grace‘ – the divine invasion of the Creator into the Creation; God’s gift of Himself.
Historically speaking, it is almost undeniably certain that the historical Jesus uttered something like the words, ‘Take, eat, this is My Body,’ and ‘This is My Blood of the New Covenant’. An honest reading of John 6 would seem to demand that He did not mean this metaphorically. He is saying to the Church: “I promised to heal your broken world, and here’s the proof. Whenever you gather together and call upon Me, I will become atoms and molecules before your eyes; I will become matter. Not just any matter, but Bread and Wine. That’s because I want you to eat Me. Yes, that’s right. Don’t just admire Me. Don’t just pray to Me. Don’t just thank Me for forgiving you. I have forgiven you, but that’s only the beginning. I am not only your Forgiver but your Redeemer, your SAVIOUR. So EAT ME! ABSORB ME! Take My flesh into yours! Let Me HEAL you! Let Me CHANGE you from the INSIDE! Let your flesh become MY Flesh, let your blood become MY Blood. Then, My dear son/daughter, You will see what real flesh, real blood and real LIFE really mean.”
Let me finish by summing up, as shortly and sweetly as possible, the essence of my objection to Jeff’s video. Jeff would have us believe that:
“Religion says ‘do’, [but] Jesus says ‘done’”
But no. Jesus does not say ‘done’. Jesus says, “There is much to be done. While your body still groans with illness, while My children still weep and die, while you are still poisoned by foul desires to dominate and destroy, there is more to be done. Your world is broken, you are broken, and you need ME. You need not only My forgiveness, not only My love, You need My presence. You need ME.” Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion, He came to abolish death. And the ‘organised’ Church, complete with sacraments and what we call a ‘priesthood’ (although the early Christians never used that term), is where death goes to die. I can’t speak for other ‘organised religions’, but the organised Christian Church (as tragically dogmatic, unthinking and corrupt) as it sometimes is, is one body which I don’t think humanity can do without.
(Edit: According to his Facebook page, Jeff apparently acknowledges the importance of the Church as the Bride of Christ (although it’s not clear what he understands that to mean). Perhaps whenever he said ‘religion’ he merely meant ‘hypocrisy’, although if the organised body of Christians is not a ‘religious’ body then I don’t know what is.)