The Hijacking of Christianity
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. Matthew 23:23
My biggest heartache with the spread of Churchianity has to do with its hijacking of foundational aspects of Christianity, rendering them discounted by and thus unhelpful to sincere spiritual seekers. By this I refer to the church’s propensity to use the Bible, the life of Jesus, prayer, and our relationship with the Divine in ways that wound and exclude people. This has turned many away from any sort of interest in the Bible, the life of Jesus, prayer, or a relationship with God. Churches have so indelibly wedded themselves to these spiritual cornerstones that non-churched folks cannot bring themselves to explore their relevance outside of the churches they reject. That is the sense by which I say the church has hijacked these elements, even though they are fundamental to living a fulfilled life, with or without the church.
I do not believe churches hijack vital elements of Christianity intentionally or with malice. Rather, I believe they do so out of a well-intentioned but ultimately self-centered need for validation of their own insecure and limited understanding of the Bible, the life of Jesus, prayer, and relationship with the Divine. Our need for certainty and our need to be seen as right handicaps any effort to describe or explain these elements of the Holy because the essential nature of these elements defies all efforts to capture them in words. Our words describe limited aspects of things but they are never the thing itself. In the words of a song I wrote several years ago: God is not a question to be answered.
I believe our dilemma traces back several hundred years to the so-called Enlightenment, which was a century or so where humanity began its ever-growing obsession with intellect. French philosopher Rene Descartes set the tone for the period with his famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” The common understanding became, “My life has meaning because I think.” In other words, the purpose of our existence centered around our ability to reason and explain. While I do not discount the value of thinking, it does seem we have moved it into a precarious position of exclusive prominence it may not deserve. It is interesting that the birth of Protestantism in the West occurred during this same period in protest against some of the non-intellectual doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The invention of the printing press, which made sacred texts like the Bible widely available, combined with access to education that taught large swaths of people to read, all converged during this period to contribute to the growing infatuation with all things intellectual.
One by-product of the rise of Protestantism was the birth of intellectual Christianity, which I believe is a significant precursor to today’s Churchianity. While the Roman Catholic church certainly had and has plenty of intellectual elements, Protestants attempted to reimagine many of these intellectual aspects while disavowing many of the experiential elements of Catholicism and other spiritual traditions. To oversimplify, what resulted was a movement toward the thought of Christianity and away from the experience of Christianity. Many protestants see the Bible as the literal, spoken word of God – meaning God dictated it and human authors simply wrote it down. Catholics believed God spoke through the Pope. When Protestants declared the Bible as inerrant, Catholics pronounced the Pope as inerrant, and a lot of intellectual and Churchianity-like nonsense followed. Many Protestants believe the preaching and hearing of the biblical message, as interpreted and presented by their preachers, is the most important element of worship. Unfortunately, what is preached is usually an individually-interpreted intellectualization of the Bible message (not unlike these Life Notes). While that can certainly be helpful, it can also distract listeners from what should be the primary focus of Christianity – patterning our lives after Jesus, or living the Gospel experientially.
I previously shared my belief that Christianity is as much about what we cannot know – what must remain unknown – as what we can know. The intellect is always focused on what we can know. We can know that God is love and God is present, although the specifics of that love and presence elude us. We can also know that God is mysterious and rebuffs our attempts to define, limit, or become overly familiar with or intellectual about the Divine nature. This is exactly why Jesus’ life is so important to us as an embodied, non-intellectualized example of how God acts in the flesh.
I will continuing this discussion of intellectual and experiential Christianity next week.
This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.