So "Jesus wasn't religious"?

[a spin-off from posts "On Religion", here and here]

The popular claim in some Christian circles that "Jesus wasn't religious" isn't just a throw-away line; it's a softer version of the old slur that Jesus wasn't Jewish.

I'm sure those who say he wasn't religious don't mean to be anti-semitic; they probably don't even mean what the phrase "not religious" would convey to the average person. They do know Jesus was actually Jewish, and if pressed they remember that Jesus went to the Temple, observed Passover and in various other ways lived the life of an observant Jew.

Some people are confused about Jesus observing the Jewish Law. Of course there are stories in the Gospels which depict Jesus or his followers engaged in disputes with other Jews, notably the Pharisees. While the place of the Pharisees in these stories seems to have grown with the Gospel tradition itself, reflecting the life-setting of the early Christians, there is no reason to doubt such disputes took place between Jesus and other religious teachers or authorities.

Yet these were disputes about religion, among the religious. The positions that Jesus took may have been unique in some cases, but fit well into other evidence for disputes among Jewish teachers of the first century. Jesus disagreed with some other Jews, but shared the religious matrix within which these disputes were held.

So Jesus was certainly an observant Jew, and hence certainly religious in a specific way.

Why then does this issue even arise? Partly because of misunderstandings about what "religion" is, and partly because religion itself is in such bad odour, particularly in the more secular parts of the West such as Australia and Europe. The "Jesus wasn't religious" crowd don't want to be connected with the historic Churches, which have justly had widespread bad publicity in recent years. Nor do they want to be associated with the musty mediocrity associated with benign but declining "mainstream" Christianity. Some of them don't want to be associated with newer "McChurches" either, to their credit.

This much is understandable. But it's also dangerous and self-deceiving. However much emergent or evangelical or whatever forms of Christianity flee from "religion", they find it staring back at them in the mirror. Faith doesn't exist in a vacuum; all communities produce rituals, customs and cultural accoutrements that make them "religious" as well as believing. Claiming somehow to transcend the inevitable consequences of being human and in community, and to have attained a purity of spirituality or doctrine or practice that others cannot, is an old and familiar heresy. The fact that "religion" is a marketing liability won't matter in the end - if the truth won't set us free, nothing else will.

Besides that general difficulty, denying or ignoring Jesus' particular religion is too big a price to pay for making him irreligiously cool. Christianity's incapacity to deal with the religious Jesus is related to the burden of anti-semitism which the West has not shrugged. The Church proclaims the unique and universal significance of someone who had a specific culture and history; if for Christians he transcends that culture and history too, this is not because in Christ God was choosing a "fresh expression" of truth that rejected Judaism, but by the costly and permanent engagement with history that we call the incarnation. Any Jesus we meet outside that history is possibly not Jewish, or religious - but he's not Jesus either.

[The image above of Marc Chagall's painting is from "The Arty Semite"]


  1. Andrew --

    Thought-provoking and clear, as always. I see the comment -- "Jesus wasn't religious" -- through a different lens, however.

    Today in the news here in the States comes word that the Obamas have finally settled on a church for their family. To the immense disappointment of any number of struggling mainline churches in the D.C. metro area, it seems they have settled on a church in the neighborhood of Camp David. That news report -- in Time Magazine -- has already been disputed by the White House; but what is most significant about it is the polity of the church in question. It is, significantly, a non-denominational church.

    Studies of religious affiliation here in the States pose a troubling reality that our institutional traditions are expending immense energy avoiding: the "mainline" Protestant traditions are in dramatic decline. To take only the numbers of last year's Pew Forum study, for every seven people who enter the Episcopal church (through birth or transfer), ten are leaving (through death or disaffection).

    There is much to be considered about why this might be the case. (Who on earth wants to join a floridly dysfunctional family?) But what is interesting -- and telling -- is that within the category of "mainline" traditions, only one subdivision shows signs of growth, and strong growth at that. And it is -- sitting down? -- "nondenominational."

    I believe a major reason for this is a deep and fundamental societal shift away from hierarchical organizations and toward leaner, flatter, and more egalitarian decision-making structures. Whether in industry, government, or the social sector, large self-justifying organizations no longer can expect to be accorded an unquestioned degree of imputed significance.

    I write these words to you as Episcopalians in this country prepare to gather for our triennial General Convention in Florida, while the United Church of Christ prepares for its own biennial meeting in Michigan. Both of these gatherings represent a kind of incarnation of the hierarchies that have shaped our traditions, and now will determine our future. And the sad fact is that in practically no other aspect of our common life have such organizations survived for as long in essentially unchallenged, and unchallengeable, forms.

    From week to week, people come into our churches looking for a place to set down spiritual roots. They spend every other moment of their week in corporations, academic institutions, law firms, hospitals, or government agencies that are being ruthlessly flattened and rationalized. And we are expected to offer some sort of holy justification for the perpetuation of an institutional structure in which the organizational diagram looks a lot more like Gothic architecture. It simply won't fly anymore. We just haven't realized it yet.

    I used to dismiss the "I'm spiritual but not religious" trope as merely expressive of a kind of spiritual immaturity. Of necessity, I've become more humble when I hear this. It may be that the critique inherent in that line, for those of us willing to listen, is that the nature of what we mean by "religion" is in for epochal change. It may well be that our comfortable associations with this language -- parish, diocese, synod, communion -- are themselves getting in the way of effective ministry. "Religion" may instead be for our future something more like it was for Jesus -- a set of ideas, norms, and practices that more successfully make meaning for those seeking it, while connecting them in a far more egalitarian fashion -- through the kinds of communications now available to us, but unimaginable when order and communication depended on hierarchy -- than our inherited institutions are able to imagine.

    Cheers -- Mark

    1. Anonymous4:32 pm

      This is a very insightful comment. There is a great deal of merit to your analysis of "non-denominational" churches. There is also merit in your observation of there being a "societal shift away from hierarchical organizations and towards leaner, flatter and more egalitarian decision-making organizations". I sense that you are somewhat of a prophet with this observation, because this 2009 comment seems to be even more relevant with regard to its common concerns with financial protest activities in 2011, with the financial protest movements. Christianity offers a "third way" of economics called "Distributism", which has much in common with the principles of smaller and more responsive units, which you have articulated in your writing. Thank you for posting such a thought provoking and amazingly prescient comment.

  2. I think i am with you here. Interestingly, Calvin starts by asserting humankinds essential and unerasable religiosity. It is not a question of religion or no - it is a question of how this impulse is ordered.

    There's a Bonhoefferian theme at work here too, though, isn't there?

  3. The Bonhoefferian theme is real, I agree Michael. I suppose I see it as applying its critique across what is usually recognized as "religious" and what is currently being presented somewhat disingenuously as post-religious cool.

    My own take on that important question with reference to Bonhoeffer himself appears - inadequately I am sure - on a talk in the ABC's Encounter radio show entitled 'Body and Soul', which has some elements I have re-used in posts that appear in this blog:

    See, if interested this transcript.

  4. Rev. Allen Lincoln1:29 pm

    This was an interesting tack, identifying "Jesus is not religious" as related to "Jesus is not Jewish". I'm definately a pro-religion guy (in fact, the more liturgically religious, the more freedom to not be talking religion all the time! Maybe that's not so good... hmm, anyways, I like Church).

    The thing is, one of the groups of people I have heard use the "Jesus is not religious" are, in fact, Jewish Christians!!! Very avidly, as a matter of fact. The reason,I suspect, is that "religion" = the Church, and the historical Church has massacred Jews with the cross on the handle of the swords. So, the argument for a Jewish Jesus that is not religious is very powerful to some... and a way around the seemingly anti-semitic traditions of the church.


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