On religion (II)

From the Melbourne College of Divinity Centenary Colloquium, "Religion at the Crossroads"

Odd as it may seem, some Christian Churches are now quite enthusiastic followers of the anti-religious bandwagon – themselves excluded from such rejection of course.

“Jesus wasn’t religious” is a catch-cry in these circles – a devastating mistake, and if unintended then still a real slur against his religion, which was of course Judaism. To say that Jesus wasn’t religious is not just grossly inaccurate but is a new and more liberal version of the old anti-semitic slur, that Jesus wasn’t Jewish [note: I'll post separately on this point soon].

In Christian circles the rejection of religion is of course somewhat different from the "Ditchkins" version. It doesn’t mean atheism or revisionism, and will usually be theologically "conservative" (if fundamentalism can be called that); “religion” in this context seems to mean “anything we don’t like about other people’s religion”.

You do not have to travel far from here to come across congregations with a relatively large number of younger members, whose leaders have told them that their adherence is not a form of religion – but even if their bands and casual gear don’t look like traditional Protestantism, no one much outside that circle is being fooled. Of course they are religious, both in the obvious sense that they are members of a group with religious purposes by any reasonable definition, and also in the sense that despite their rejection of traditional forms of liturgy, such groups quickly form their own traditions. They generate forms of music, language and behaviour that, however hard they try, will eventually - even immediately, to tell the truth - look quite distinctive and, yes, religious too.

Even in plodding mainline Christianity, still more beholden to the outward forms that Gen-X fundamentalism has labelled "religious", this view has its defenders. There is a sort of pathos about seeing a greying congregation of Anglicans, gamely singing along with John Bell that Jesus “upsets religion, fearless both of fate and cost”. The problem isn’t just that it’s wrong – he did upset people, but not specifically the religious – it’s that the irony of singing this as a hymn in rather uninspiring but very religious contexts seems entirely lost.

Although it will rarely be obvious at a Megachurch, the anti-religious view of Christianity has some impressive intellectual allies, in names like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Forgive me under these circumstances for saying fairly bluntly that Barth, whose views we know, was in the end wrong, and that Bonhoeffer, whose views were only hinted at, tends to be misquoted.

Bonhoeffer clearly envisaged a sacramental and ritual life in a Church after Christendom and not just "meetings" centred on studying the Bible, whatever else he meant. Barth actually argued in a way not completely alien to my comments earlier, that religion belongs thoroughly to the realm of human and historic theory and practice, but wanted to claim that Christianity or its Gospel were completely other than religion. The truth in this is the recognition that there must be an utter distinction between the completely other whom the faithful dare name God, and the sum total of human thoughts and actions called religion.

Yet those human thoughts and actions are all that is available to us, at least for public discourse and for communal celebration in religious traditions, in the thoughts and actions of Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, and just as much of Jesus too. The scriptures of the great religious traditions are likewise embedded in the cultural realities of their origins and transmissions. And some of us will still claim not only that these thoughts and actions - or rather some of them in particular - are worthy not only of continued critical intellectual engagement, but of personal commitment.

To make a slightly more modest claim, these thoughts and actions are precisely what the academic studies of religion and theology can concern themselves with; even while these may examine or posit claims about the transcendent, they do so in the languages and forms that are wholly human and historical, else they would be unavailable for critical study. This is not to say that Christians (or others) make no other claims about the reality of God; but we have only words and objects and actions through which to make them. These words and objects and actions are the subject of theological study, and of religious studies too, despite other differences between those two.

In the case of Christianity, the need to teach this "religion" is obvious but also urgent. Teaching the Christian tradition, teaching theology, is no longer a matter of deconstructing bad traditional religion, as it may have seemed to be in the mid-twentieth-century and still seems to a few post-Christian commentators. Such religion is almost dead, and theological students today have rarely been strongly formed in any religious tradition, good, bad or indifferent. We no longer have the luxury of treating the Church as a given, since the 'mainstream' – and a bitterly euphemistic term that has become – is being squeezed between fundamentalism and secularism. The space between might well be termed the “crossroads” – and the path we now take is crucial.


  1. I am enjoying your column and looking forward to further posts.

    Dan Graves+


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