The Message of Christ is available to the human race because of the four gospels. We have them, and the rest of the Bible, because of the church. The scripture, theology and some of the values that matter most in life have been instilled in us by the organized religion through which all of it has been handed down. Unfortunately, not everything handed Christianity hands down and instills in us is healthy.
Though muddied by religious philosophies, the true Gospel still stands. However, it takes a lot of work, and in my case a lot of years, to sift through the historical and religious junk and to distinguish between the Gospel and religious ideas about the Gospel. Being sifted by hardship is also a key portion of the process. The more I have been sifted, the easier it has been to see the Gospel from religion’s corrupted version; the Real from the artificial. The Gospel of Jesus the Christ is one thing, but the gospel of the church is another.
I have come to see religion, in and of itself, as artificial. It is utterly human, but claims to be more. It pretends to be more. It claims to speak for God, but I don’t buy it. I am not saying the Spirit’s wind doesn’t blow in its midst, but religion has no corner on God.
Religion is like a veneer; a thin veneer that surrounds us and sits between us and this transcendent mystery we call “God.” In Contemplative Christianity, this is referred to as the “cloud of unknowing.” This veneer is there, but is not Real. It brainwashes us to into believing that religious ideas about the Gospel are the Gospel itself.
Religion is in the business of indoctrinating and controlling people. It is this manipulation that I find most repugnant. It consists of layer after layer of various components, built on each other like a philosophy, but it’s not built on anything for which there is empirical evidence. So, the indoctrinated person is asked to accept each component by faith – being hooked and reeled in like a fish as the system is instilled in them. At this point, there are so many things to say about felt-needs, why we believe, religious certitude sold as faith, and how all of this constructs a house of cards. Freud nailed it when he charged religion with being the great opiate of the masses that helps us deal with the trauma of being human. There are a number of ways in which this fleshes out, but it all leads to the same house of cards. It is not lasting. It is not Real. It’s also not based on the cross, though it claims to be and, through indoctrination, convinces us that it is.
The cross is the full embrace of all that we want to avoid and find escape from. It’s not just pain and emptiness; darkness and certain death: It’s God’s silence. Jesus felt the very absence of God when he hung there, crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We sugarcoat it and skirt past it. We alter it with our atonement theories about an angry god who needs a means to justify “his” desire to forgive us. The only at-ONE-ment we need from the cross is that God came near and experienced the full, unsoftened brunt of our human experience WITH US. Thereby redeeming it (and us) without relieving us of the trauma or removing us from any part of the human condition in which we experience that trauma. We do not need to seek escape in religion or any dulling effect it offers. We are called by God to fully embrace our darkness – our not knowing, our humanity, our condition, out doubt, our skepticism, our unbelief – everything that it means to be human and separate from God. In that, in a way not engineered by human effort, we are united with Christ.
“I once thought the components of my religion were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him…. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (Philippians 3: 7-11).
Nonetheless, escape is what religion is about – in the very name of the one who tore down the constructs we run to for escape when he hung on the cross.