Reading the various debates about the recent spoken word about Jesus and religion has been a surreal experience because I am in the midst of teaching a class on Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian who coined a rather famous (or infamous) line regarding religion, “religion is unbelief” he would eventually say in his magnum opus,Church Dogmatics.
But re-reading his Commentary on Romans, I am not sure Barth’s quip is so easily applied to the present resistance to “religion” (re: institutions and doctrine) in favor of Jesus. Barth writes, “Religion is neither a thing to be enjoyed nor a thing to be celebrated…” (258) Barth wrote this in the midst of an extended reflection on religion as a refusal of God and of our creatureliness. Some might take (and have taken) Barth to mean that instead of religion we need Jesus rather than these man-made edifices of institutional power. And yet, Barth’s continuation of this thought is revealing and perhaps instructive for all of us who carry such deep suspicions of religion and its seemingly nefarious institutional baggage. The full quote reads, “Religion is neither a thing to be enjoyed nor a thing to be celebrated: it must be borne as a yoke which cannot be removed.”
Barth does not suggest that the death of religion takes place when we our recognize the frailty and lack of perception contained in institutional power or assertion. Rather, religion constitutes a fundamental part of what it means to be a creature who is trying to figure out a way, any way, to determine our selves. Religion does not need to be an institution. Religion can just as easily be Jesus, soccer, democracy, marxism, capitalism, sex, chauvinism, or “purity.” Religion is always with us, because we are fallen human beings. One cannot simply choose to not follow religion.
Perhaps before we begin to exhort one another to lose religion and look to Jesus, we might begin by asking ourselves why we are so sure we are the ones who can see him. To face this question we might have to face the reality that we do, in fact, need others to discern who that peculiar, wonderful, frightening person was. Some of these are people on the margins, some are people in institutions, some are even people who began on the margins and found themselves at the heart of the church, while others began at the heart of the church and ended up at the margins. None of this is to dismiss the sentiment described by the poet or any of us who want more from our spiritual lives, who want to serve God with greater passion and clarity of purpose. The question is can we do this by simply forgetting “religion,” whatever that might mean to you?
The point is, when we are by ourselves, discerning the identity of a man who is not with physically with us, it is easy to take deluded solace in the possibility that he looks like us, cares for what we care for, and will call us his “bff” when we see him again. But it is only when we begin to take seriously the many voices (whether in scripture, in the church, or outside of the church) of those who have reflected upon his life and reflected upon the lives of those who reflected upon his life, that we get both clearer about who he is, and in so doing become more awe-struck and silenced. May we, each day, confess our compulsion towards religion and even our attempts to draw Jesus into control.