Responding to a Nearly Right Take on Jesus, Part 2

Continuing from yesterday, the critic of Christianity writes:

People often envision Jesus as someone tiptoeing around in a flowing robe, speaking softly, patting children on the head and carrying a baby lamb in his arms. But the real Jesus of history was a lightning rod. He got angry. He was the greatest debunker of religious hierarchies and traditions this world has ever seen. The religious establishment hurriedly condemned him to death for blasphemy, while the secular powers executed him for sedition.

This is mostly right, but with a couple of sour notes. It is a fond belief of a certain sort of liberal narrative that Jesus was the first religious anarchist: somebody with nothing but contempt for… well, all the sorts of things contemporary religious anarchists hold in contempt. But the reality is more complex. Jesus certainly pushes back against false human traditions when they hurt people. So he criticizes certain Pharisaic fetishes and shibboleths, for instance. But he also respects the Mosaic rites and hierarchies of Israel. He keeps the feasts and fasts of Israel. He tells his disciples to obey the elders of Israel, but not to imitate them. He blasts the Pharisees, not for keeping the Law of Moses, but for lawyering their way out of keeping it. He places the human person at the center and insists that the Law is made for man, not man for the law. He says very clearly that his purpose is to fulfil, not abolish, the law. And he is, by the way, both gentle toward sinners and children and ferocious with the powerful and corrupt. It’s not either/or.

It’s unfortunate that Christianity was pinned on Jesus.

Not “pinned on”. Invented by. Like it or not, Jesus willed from the very start to identify himself with the big pack of dummies known as the Church. It was Jesus who told St. Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” not “Why are you persecuting my followers?” Trying to pretend that Jesus has nothing to do with the Church is an utter fool’s errand. Yes, every member of the Church is a sinful chucklehead. But still and all, the Tradition of the Church is not a manmade thing because the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church and we can’t just breezily huck aside anything the Church says if it happens to displease us. We have to weigh against the teaching of the Tradition and the Magisterium.

This wasn’t his fault. Jesus did not die to save people from God, rescue us from ourselves, or snatch sinners from the flames of hell. Jesus is not a ticket-puncher to heaven, he’s a jail-breaker for people locked up in religion.

Again. So close, but… yikes! Yes, Jesus did not come to save us from his Father. But he himself makes clear that, yes, he did indeed come to save us from sin, hell, and death. And since sin is precisely our rebellion against God and leads, unchecked, to death and hell, he did come to save us from those things. One of the expressions of sin is false religious systems. So he did not come to break us out of that prison, among many others. But there are lots of others. And not all things we call religion are evil prisons. If they were, then James could never have written,

If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (Jas 1:26–27).

The issue, in short, is not religion, but bad religion. Jesus tells us not to reject prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but to how to do them rightly.

More tomorrow.


3 Responses

  1. Jesus insisted his disciples “be perfect,” that is, intend perfection. Being born of God is prerequisite to intending perfection. Being born of his Spirit receives him as a person first. “Pure religion” lives in his presence first.

  2. Mark, so close, but…yikes! Your replies start with mostly sour notes before they turn entirely beautiful and gentle. If you are writing to evangelize the author of the words, you are patronizing. They will get stuck on your lead of shame and unfair, detached criticism and never hear the gospel that comes too late.

    Dear Critic, I very much want you to know that your statements quoted by Mark express many truths about human nature and Jesus, and show that you have learned and thought a lot about it. I would guess that there was quite a bit of loneliness in this, because I am guessing that the organized religion that was close to you was not helpful or satisfying, and at times it likely was frustrating, confusing, and harmful.

    Please don’t give up thinking and writing! You express yourself clearly and with confidence. I wish so much that there was a way to erase the first two or three sentences from Mark’s paragraphs replying to you here. If you can get past the sour notes in those statements, I think it will be evident how much agreement there is between you and Mark about what is good and bad in Christianity, and what direction we are supposed to follow to be better and live life more fully.

    We are creatures, and that means we will always have an incomplete understanding of God. With God’s grace, may you keep increasing in grace and truth as you have been. You are not far from the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus! I pray that someday there is some mysterious way that you can see a Church founded by Jesus as the source of freedom and wellspring of Love that we are supposed to see it as. The relationship between God and man is a love story, not a criminal investigation of wrongdoing to find who to punish.

    Mark agrees with this, too. Everyone has a chance to learn and grow, and Mark Shea is a treasure for many reasons, not least of which is that he is not ashamed to admit that he knows he started with an incomplete understanding of God and the Church, and by grace and humility has grown to be a powerhouse Catholic apologist author filled with knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and he uses that to evangelize. He is very fruitful.

    May God protect everyone from the sinful chuckleheads in the Church, and forgive us when we come across that way.


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