I don’t know Jefferson Bethke. He seems like a bright guy. There’s no denying he’s thoughtful and talented and passionate. His video Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus has been viewed more than 3 million times on youtube in just a couple of days. The number will probably spike much higher as more and more people spread it virally. I’m sure if I met him in person and we could chat over coffee, we’d agree on more things than not. I’m glad his video is blowing up and compelling people to think. But I’d like to humbly respond.
Let me start with this: I AM RELIGIOUS. There’s a whole lot of baggage that comes with the word but I have to be honest. I’m a religious person. I have been most of my life. I’m not ashamed of it or embarrassed by it. I relate to and manifest faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity. And thusly, according to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, I am religious. I don’t hate it or deny it. I embrace it. I readily admit that religion has its limits and is clearly, in and of itself, a manmade phenomenon. By no means do I think that God himself is confined by the boundaries of my religious tendencies or dogmas. God is much too big for that. If I were capable of shoving God into the neatly packaged box of my personal orthodoxy, he would cease to be a God I’d want to worship or love or devote myself to. He would cease to be God at all. The other night I was chatting with a good friend on a drive back from late night tacos and he was explaining to me the way in which he held his own orthodoxy. He didn’t use words. He simply held out an open palm. This is the way I want to hold my own orthodoxy. This is the way in which I envision the Church as her most beautiful self. Humble and generous and open, acknowledging simultaneously that God’s holiness and justice cannot be denied and neither can his grace and mercy. He is holy and just and gracious and merciful. He is never more one than the other. God is at all times, in all places, among all people, in all circumstances, completely holy, absolutely just, eternally gracious, and boundlessly merciful. This is the unfathomable and scandalous reality of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom in which the King lays down his own life for the peasants and paupers and thieves. This is the beautiful mess we’ve been invited into. I do not believe that all are saved but I absolutely believe, without exception, that all are invited.
So when Jefferson Bethke says he hates religion but loves Jesus, he is painting a certain type of picture for his audience. And while I agree with some snippets of what he’s saying here, we must be careful to express our ideas with humility and thoughtfulness. It is far too easy to irresponsibly spew rhetoric like, “religion is the infection” or “Republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian” or “Jesus and religion are on opposite ends of the spectrum” as if these were universal realities without need for more unpacking and deeper dialogue. But the truth is, God loves the religious just the same as everyone else. He loves the obnoxiously devout just as much as the most casual of atheists. His heart breaks for both the tragic failures of televangelists and the injustices suffered by the impoverished. He is as gracious and merciful to the irrelevant turn-or-burn Bible thumpers with their megaphones as he is to the relevant and hip religion-hating-Jesus-loving youtube sensations. In some ways, we are all religious. We are all faithfully devoted to our own versions of what it means to be truly human in the way God designed us to be.
Religion gives me a landing spot. It serves as a series of benches on my journey. It gives me a place to rest and ponder and regain strength in my legs to continue trekking toward God. Religion is never the end, only the means to an end. So I do not hate religion. I appreciate it and hold it with an open palm. Bethke asks, “If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?” Religion never started any war. People did. And people still do. Wars, both literally and figuratively, both between countries and churches, happen because people like you and me encamp ourselves so firmly in the trenches of our own dogmas and orthodoxies that we become unwilling to engage honest and open dialogue with humility and vulnerability. Wars happen because we are unwilling to admit when we’re wrong and too stubborn to acknowledge when someone else is right. Wars happen because we pick our tribes based on beliefs and not on intrinsic human value.
So love Jesus. Love him first and foremost. But don’t hate religion. And don’t hate those who are religious. Let us be humble in our orthodoxies and generous with our love.