When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist government in Russia, one of their first actions was to attack the Russian Orthodox Church, and religion in general. One of the ways they went about this was to cease the education of “Church Slavonic,” the liturgical language of Russian Orthodoxy. Their goal was to essentially dumb down the faith to rob the Russians of some religious heritage. Their goal was to eliminate God by making His followers carry an uneducated opinion of who He is.
We are guilty of similar attempts today.
One of the ways we did this was to change our understanding of Jesus Christ, our Lord. The Gospel was simplified to one of simple love, and Jesus was nothing more than a nice man who taught nice things. This saw the reemergence of Pelagianism, in which Jesus is seen, even by many Christians, as simply a good example to follow. This also led to an oversimplifying of the Gospel into nothing but Love without any Law, judgment or consequences. Do not misunderstand me – I am not promoting a Pharisaical mode of leadership. Rather, I am pointing out that, in taking away God’s commands and justice, we have removed our obligation to follow the laws. We have set up basic laws but removed the policeman to enforce them, because we found his presence to be too offensive.
This has led to serious problems within the church. We have, first and foremost, demoted, within our own minds, the role our Lord plays in our lives. If we give to Christ the same persona we give to Ghandi, Martin Luther King, or any other “role model,” then we place in Him fallibility, mortality, and make Him our peer. We have also, by simplifying the message of God into empty love, created a self-contradictory theology that conflicts with the rest of the history of God’s people. This is why it is often so easy for atheists to jump to the Old Testament, point to moments of God’s judgment, and ask, “Aha! See? Where is this loving savior here? Is this the same Jesus that you says love me?” As a result of this, many false churches (in particular among the Emergent and Emerging crowd) have had to attack the authenticity of scripture. Post-modern mindsets have assured us that those “embarrassing” passages from the Old Testament (and perhaps even some from the New) are no longer binding, and merely reflect a different “understanding” of God. Thus in trying to strengthen scripture they only weaken it.
Furthermore, we have demoted our Lord with a simple word: religion. This all encompassing word, at the very core of its definition, simply means “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects” (source).The word itself did not come about until the 12th century or so, yet it has been so abused and mishandled that its history and original definition no longer carries any meaning.
How many times have I heard people respond to Christian doctrine with, “Why do people let their influences come by religion?”, or “People are saying this just because of religion!” Even worse, people will shrug off all religions with, “People have killed in the name of religion,” or “Organized religion has made people do stupid things.” There is no denial that there those who commit evil deeds in the name of theological beliefs or what they perceive to be commands from their holy scriptures, however to broad brush an entire range of theologies and beliefs with infantile statements is simplistic at best.
It is also incredibly unfair. I have heard people respond to Middle Eastern honor killings with, “This is why I don’t like organized religion.” In one fell swoop, they have combined an isolated cultural phenomenon with Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and dozens of other beliefs, many of which can’t possibly believe anything similar. Many of these people, I might add, are political ideologues in one way or another, yet we would never hear them say, “I don’t believe in politics because of the Nazis,” or “I don’t believe in any form of government because of what Stalin did.” Why is this? Why do they broad brush “religion,” or disregard any theological understanding as merely religion? With the question of Christianity, the answer is very simple: because it is easier to hate an idea than a face.
One would never hear a person denouncing religion on the news with, “I denounce Jesus Christ.” One would never hear them say, “These people are doing this because of what Jesus said.” They might, but in a roundabout way, such as denying that Jesus existed or that the Resurrection happened. No, it’s much, much easier to say, “These people are doing this because of religion,” and in the end they present to society a strawman known as “religion” that is looked down upon as dead and cold, and must be avoided at all costs. How familiar this line of thinking is. Was this not one of the first temptations of man? That God was to be ignored, and that His commands were not as important as we thought they were, and we are free to ignore them? That our ignorance of Him would only lead to our greater glory? (Gen 3:4-5)
Bishop Fulton Sheen once touched on this subject, when he compared Christianity to Communism, a very real evil in his day. He said that the difference between the two was, while the basis of Communism was fear and dogma, the basis of Christianity was love and a Man. That Man is our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the embodiment of every being of Christianity. He is our faith, He is our way of life, He is our salvation. Even if every Bible in the world were to suddenly perish, we would still have the Incarnate and Ascended Word to guide His Church. Ignatius, an early Church Father, wrote to the Philadelphians: “For me, Jesus Christ is the written word; His cross and death and resurrection and faith through Him make up untampered documents.”
Christ claimed much more than most other founders of “religion.” He didn’t claim to be a prophet like Mohammad, nor did He claim to find a better way of life like Buddha or Confucius. Instead, He claimed to be God, higher than a prophet and the embodiment of life. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” He told the blessed apostle Thomas (John 14:6), and to the Jews who contested His statement that Abraham looked forward to His day, Christ replied, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). Most of all, He not only told His followers to expect suffering…but He was the first to allow Himself to suffer, giving Himself on the cross. We have, in belief in Him, everlasting life, and through Him we have peace in the Father. It is not an empty belief, but a living belief in which we allow God to transform our lives for the better, so that once the storm of our heart is calmed the captain of the ship is our Lord and Savior, sailing onward with us towards Paradise.
In man’s arrogance and pride, we desire to forget this. We do not want this. Take away this accountability. Take away these declarations of divinity. Take away these acts of love and sacrifice, and the calls for repentance in the face of coming judgment. Forget it all. Let us give it the name “religion” and toss it into the gutter. It will just go away. We have justified ourselves by turning it into a straw man within our own mind, something useless and unable to cause harm. It has no power over us…and we suppress any desire for it to have power over us. If we are spiritually dead, then let us embrace our festering. This “religion” is like all the others that we have rejected. We will treat it just as we treated those other unwanted children. Whatever merit it may have or mettle if may be made of we care not – we only wish to see it destroyed. Then we will, if for a little while, have our personal freedom.
How gleefully ignorant the world is today. We seek to justify ourselves and forget He who alone can justify the ungodly. We seek to glorify creation while ignoring our Creator. We seek to put in place laws but forget He who made all things as they are. We believe that we alone are capable of knowing “good and evil,” and do not turn to He who is nothing but good. We have a heavy accountability on our shoulders, but we readily disregard it because it is seen as simply dogmatic “religion.”
“For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man,” said our Lord, “for as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:37-39). We are witnessing this in our own times, and from this open display of willful ignorance comes a real truth: the greatest pain felt by the damned in Hell will not be the lake of fire, nor the pains caused by demons, or any other tangible pain…no, the greatest pain will be the knowledge that Christ is God.