“I love Jesus but hate religion."
Whenever I hear someone say this, it reminds me of a class I took a few years ago. Like most English courses, it was thinly-veiled leftist propaganda, but we did read a few interesting books. One of those was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In it, Douglass wrote an epilogue that’s basically a manifesto on “I love Jesus but hate religion.” He writes:
“…I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
To me, what Douglass is saying is clear enough. Basically, “I love Christ, but I am appalled by the actions of some Christians. I believe Christianity to be true and good, but some 'Christians' are not acting in accordance to their faith.”
It seems to be a pretty straightforward statement, especially after you read the book and learn about Douglass’ own Christian faith in the midst of horrifying circumstances. Nonetheless, one of my classmates raised her hand to offer this comment.
“It’s interesting that he obviously hated Christianity so much but still talks about Jesus and the Bible in the rest of his book.”
Oddly, our professor nodded in agreement and offered no further clarification or insight. I responded by rereading Douglass’ exact words to them: “What I have said respecting and against religion... and with no possible reference to Christianity proper... to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”
I added this: “He’s saying he loves Christ and that Christianity properly understood is good, pure, and holy. He’s also saying that Christians not acting in accordance to their faith is bad, corrupt, and wicked. Jesus says the same thing in the Bible.”
They both stared at me like I was a slug.
Even outside the godless academy, there's still confusion over the Jesus-versus-religion sentiment. Many feelings-obsessed Christians are quick to claim that Jesus is "so much bigger" than religion, or that they just have a "relationship," not a religion. Even if you gently point out that Jesus affirmed the importance of the Mosaic Law (and in many ways made it even more demanding), they are adamant that their relationship is fueled only by God's grace -- not any reverence for God's commandments, or love-inspired obedience to those commandments. Unsurprisingly, these are usually people with liberal leanings with an aversion to God's authority.
On the flip-side, there are performance-obsessed Christians (though these are much harder to find) who focus on an outward display of "goodness" rather than cultivating obedient hearts towards God in themselves and others. They are able to accurately articulate what God commands but often do so in a way that is lacking in graciousness, or their credibility is diminished by their ego. Often times, they are more conservative in their theology and in their approach to social issues.
Modern people, whether they're Christians or not, are most critical of these "conservative" Christians and often labels them hypocrites or Pharisees or legalistic. They're quick to shout, "Religious leaders are the ones who murdered Jesus!"; however, in their haste to criticize others, they are far less likely to notice their own deep-seated sin. Because of our culture's lopsided focus on "uber-religious conservative Christians," it's too easy to ignore the religious spirit on the left, but I was fortunate enough to observe both sides of the coin.
Years ago, I went on a mission trip. The natives were welcoming, but the mission leader and his cronies were insufferable. The leader, who I'll call Mr. Pharisee, decided early on that he didn’t think I was a very good Christian. He came to that conclusion because we clashed on various issues.
For example, he believed that people who make themselves suffer are morally superior to people who don’t. He also believed that it was morally wrong to prefer one kind of transportation over another, or to use the word “hate.” He was fond of turning his personal preferences into punishable dogma. He also thought it was a good use of his time to monitor when and how much I ate (a measure of holiness, I guess) and how often I appeared to be in a “bad” mood. Lastly, he decided that certain sins – such as gossip and slander – were justified among him and his followers because they had "authority."
From what I observed, he seemed fueled by an intense desire to be a suffering servant, but his actions were often nonsensical and mean-spirited. It’s been years now, so hopefully he’s learned from that experience, but it turned me off to Christian community for a while. It’s possible that it could’ve even driven me away from my faith, but I was fortunate to encounter another set of flawed leaders soon after. I'll call them the "Licentious Liberals."
In the months following my mission trip, I worked and studied in close proximity with many people who abhorred religion, or who believed in God but basically treated him like their therapist -- not a God that they actually listened to or worshiped over their own feelings. You might think this would be a refreshing change after spending so many weeks with a controlling religious person, but, surprisingly, there’s little difference between the two environments.
Like Mr. Pharisee, my licentious liberal colleagues devoted themselves to a very specific set of causes and believed that they were better than those who did not. If you did not wholeheartedly share their convictions, you were deemed a sinner (also known as a racist, sexist, bigot, ableist, homophobe, TERF, transphobe, xenophobe… there are probably more sins now, but I’ve been out of the inner circle for a while.) Similarly, my liberal colleagues, like Mr. Pharisee, believed that some preferences – such as using a philosophical lens to examine an issue instead of the tired feminist lens, or preferring a book written by Samuel Richardson to a book by Toni Morrison – were offensive and punishable.
Also like Mr. Pharisee, the liberals were quite fond of measuring the “goodness” of those around them. How sensitive are you? How woke are you? Have you checked your privilege? Are you using feminist sources? Did you educate that ignorant fool about heteronormativity? Are you actively working on dismantling the patriarchy? They harbored an obsession with what everyone else was doing, or not doing, to make the world a “better” place -- coupled with very little self-reflection. Finally, my liberal coworkers were quite celebratory of certain sins, such as racism, sexism, or slander, as long as they were directed at the right people. Conservatives, Christians, and non-leftist minorities were all fair game, among others.
There was no real difference between my mission trip and my time working in academia. Even among the highly-educated and "godless" among us, nonsense, mean-spiritedness, and rigid religious attitudes still abound.
Which brings me back to the idea of Jesus versus religion. In both of the cases I described (my mission trip and academia), the symptoms of religiosity were the same:
1. Unnecessary Rigidity – Both groups demanded conformity when conformity was not needed.
2. Lack of Self-Reflection – Both groups were obsessed with the perceived flaws of others and far less concerned by their own shortcomings.
3. Virtueless Virtue-Signaling – Both groups wanted to maintain the appearance of being “better” than others while engaging in the same behaviors they condemned.
I believe the cause of this shared religiosity is also the same: It’s the driving need to be justified.
Mr. Pharisee desperately wanted to prove that he was more willing to suffer than other people, and therefore he thought God should acknowledge his goodness and reward him. My academic cohort was driven by a similar goal. They desperately wanted to prove that they cared deeply about various issues which made them "good" (or at least better than others), and therefore they thought their existence should be acknowledged and applauded.
I believe the dark side of religion comes out to play when instead of worshiping God, you worship your own sense of justification. Because, if you must justify yourself, you will either try to put yourself in a position where God owes you something, or you will try to put yourself in a position where others owe you something. Either way, you’ll live in the absence of God's costly grace. The gospel properly understood – that Jesus is God and He absolved the sins of mankind so that people can live in peace with God and have hope for eternal life – lets one channel their religious impulses through grace, which removes the need for self-justification because Jesus didn’t die for anyone because they're better than someone else. He died for all of us because He loved all of us -- not because we earned it. If you truly believe that, you don’t need to justify yourself to God or to anyone else. He’s already done it for you.
Worshiping Jesus also takes care of the troublesome symptoms I mentioned earlier because unnecessary rigidity can be replaced with grace. Your allegiance to your own preferences (such as what words people can use or what books they should read) can be relaxed because you’re no longer driven to prove how “good” or “right” you are about everything. A lack of self-reflection can be replaced with honest self-awareness. Everyone has human dignity (even the people you loathe), and everyone sins (even the people you love.) Rather than spend your time fixated on the sins of others, you can focus on the much more effective work of correcting your own heart and behavior. Finally, virtueless virtue-signaling can be replaced with real virtue in the form of humility. If you believe that you are the great arbiter of virtue (despite all your glaring imperfections and inconsistencies), either cynicism or hypocrisy will eventually win out. But, if you believe that God’s love is freely extended to you (despite all your glaring imperfections and inconsistencies), it will compel you to act in gracious and loving ways.
Ultimately, both experiences taught me that there’s religion on the right and religion on the left, and the need for justification urges the human heart to pick one or the other. Jesus can save us from both.