17 April 2023

My religion is Jesus.

From time to time I deal with people who love to bash “religion.”

They come in many stripes. When they’re pagan, “religion” typically means organized religion—by which they mean church, temple, or mosque. More specifically, the religion’s leaders—and even more specifically, religious leaders who tell them, “Do this, not that—and if you keep doing that, you’ll go to hell.” Except these religious leaders themselves do that; they’re hypocrites. Ah, but they have a loophole for themselves; they’re forgiven, or have a special dispensation from God which lets ’em sin; some kind of religious double standard which permits shepherds to rape their sheep. Pagans presume every religion works this way, so they want none of it. I don’t blame them for not wanting that kind of religion, obviously. But they’re describing cults. That’s bad religion, not good. My church isn’t that way. Many aren’t. Jesus himself surely isn’t.

When they’re Evangelical, “religion” typically means dead religion. That’s how “religion” has been defined in conservative Evangelical churches for the past 50 years: There’s no living relationship with Christ Jesus; there’s just busywork. There’s bible-reading, but no Holy Spirit guiding you. There’s bible studies, but those are just book clubs in which you talk about it without trying to follow what it says. There’s church functions, like fundraisers and potlucks and feeding the needy, but is Jesus really there in your midst? There’s worship, but between the rote prayers and Christian pop songs, is the Holy Spirit even in the building?

Hence these Evangelicals claim it’s significantly different for them: Unlike other churchgoers, they have a relationship. With Jesus. He’s their guy! He’s gonna save them, let them into his kingdom, and in the meanwhile help them achieve little victories over their domestic life, their finances, and help their favorite politicians get elected. Their lives are gonna change for the better!

Cool; so what steps do they have to take to help Jesus out? Well there we uncover the fact their “relationships” are entirely one-sided. Jesus is gonna do for them… and they aren’t gonna do jack squat for him. They figure because Jesus does the entire work of saving them, he’s also gonna do the entire work of everything, and they needn’t lift a finger, nor reform their behavior, nor repent in any meaningful way. They’ll just magically, automatically become more Christian. They’ll just naturally think like Jesus. They’re thinking like Jesus right now, they reckon. Conveniently, he likes all the same things they do!

Yeah, they don’t contribute anything to this relationship. Certainly no self-discipline. They’re not religious about it! Consequently it sucks. They’re irreligious Christians. In so doing, they unwittingly fulfill all the pagans’ expectations about ill-behaved religious hypocrites. All while they insist they’re not religious—they have a relationship!

Lastly the nontheists. They don’t care what “religion” means. They think it’s all stupid, God’s imaginary, we’re wasting our time and money, and getting exploited by leaders who’ve found they can make an awful lot of money in the religion racket. Sometimes—but it’s extremely rare—I’ve met a sympathetic atheist (“Look, these preachers are totally lying to you; I’m just trying to help”). But nearly always it’s someone who likes to tear apart any religious people they find, just for the evil fun of it all.

All these groups have their own definitions of “religion.” And sometimes the definition varies from individual to individual. Hey, lots of people use words incorrectly; lookit all the people who use “literally” to mean anything but literally. So when they say “religion” they might mean any generic non-scientific belief system; they might mean a strict code of personal conduct; they might not even mean a belief system at all, but the simple pursuit of good vibes. They could mean anything. You gotta ask!

Regardless of what they mean by “religion,” they think it’s wrong or foolish, and wanna mock it. And when I call myself religious, it hits ’em right in the middle of this hangup. They wanna mock it. Whatever it is.

If I tell ’em it’s Christianity, they’ll have plenty to mock. Heck, I have plenty to mock. There’s a lot of junk in Christianity which looks nothing like Christ Jesus, even though he’s the guy it’s supposed to be centered on! Way too much Christianism masquerading as Christianity. So I can’t fault people for finding fault with it; I find fault with it a lot of times.

But y’know who I don’t find fault with? Duh; it’s Jesus.

And y’know, pagans and nontheists seldom find fault with him either. Oh, there’ll be exceptions—although a lot of times I find they’re actually finding fault with one of the many not-all-that-historical ideas of Historical Jesus which they picked up from some weird book, outlandish YouTube video, or “religion expert” who was really just talking out of his arse. Actual Jesus, as found in the gospels—no, him they like. He’s all right with them. Cue the Doobie Brothers song.

So that’s what I tell ’em. My religion is Jesus.

Which they’re gonna try to mock anyway.

“Yeah but your religion isn’t just Jesus. You go to a church, right? You’re plugged into some organized religion. You believe that. It’s not just Jesus.”

If somebody really has their heart set on picking apart my religion, and I tell ’em my religion is Jesus, they really wanna find some evidence it’s not really Jesus. They want to leapfrog my statement and start taking apart whatever church I’m affiliated with. They already know how to bash churches and organized religion, and how dare I deny them their fun by pointing to an awesome guy like Jesus? Meh; that’s just a smokescreen. What’s my real affiliation?

Now, fair enough: I am plugged into a church. As all Jesus-followers should be. And yeah, my church believes various things. Though as I’ll easily point out, I don’t believe everything my church does. The official doctrines of the church and denomination?—I have no problem with them; if I did, I’d find another church. But of course that’s not everything a church believes. A church, after all, is its people—and people believe all sorts of stuff. Some of the people in my church have very different politics than mine. I can’t claim any affiliation to those views whatsoever. But I can still go to church with them: They, and I, are all trying to follow Jesus as best we can, and that’s all we have to have in common.

And yeah, some Christians are purists about that sort of thing, and insist we have to have every view in common. That’s when things get a little too cultlike for me. That’s why I don’t go to those churches.

’Cause ultimately those churches aren’t about Jesus. They’re about conforming to some ideal which the leaders, or the members, are promoting. They might claim Jesus is that ideal, but he’s really not. As proven by the fact they don’t accept everyone… but Jesus does. They don’t do grace, but Jesus does. Their religion isn’t actually Jesus. Mine is.

“My religion is Jesus” means I try to follow what Jesus teaches, and try to duplicate his character in my own life. Means when I read the bible, I read it through his lens, and don’t presume his lens and God’s lens are two different things; they’re the same God. Means when popular culture, including popular Christian culture, is going any particular way, I hold back and ask whether Jesus is going that way too. And if not, I stay back with him.

As I’ve said, there are nontheists who think God’s imaginary… and of course they also think Jesus is dead. When I talk about him with present-tense verbs, and talk about following him as if he’s alive and well (’cause he is), it doesn’t matter if they think he’s a decent fellow; they’re still gonna treat me like I’m nuts. Like I talk to ghosts or something. I can’t help their bad behavior, but I can emphasize the fact I’m trying to stick to Jesus’s teachings and ethics, which they should appreciate, ’cause what really do they have to say against it? Loving one’s neighbor as oneself? Doing for others as you’d have them do for you? Radical forgiveness? Going the extra mile? They wish their own values were as selfless and pure. (Unless they’re Ayn Rand fans. Then they’re just jerks.)

But “My religion is Jesus” should be the standard for everyone who imagines themselves a Christ-follower. He doesn’t just set the standard; he is the standard. He’s the author and perfector of our faith. He tells potential disciples, “Follow me,” and that’s exactly what we all should be doing: Following him.

And if our churches help us follow him, great! And if they don’t, switch churches. Still, follow Jesus.