US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Can you hate religion and still love Jesus?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

According to the currently most-watched video on YouTube, the answer is definitely yes.

I ran across Jefferson Bethke's "Why I hate religion, but love Jesus" spoken-word poem over the weekend, and my initial reaction was irritation. Like so many broadsides against religion, especially from millennials, it's full of grand but unsubstantiated indictments: "What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion? . . . If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars? Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?" (Yes, I know it's a poem, not a manifesto.) Um, can't you do both? And it seems unlikely to me that a thoroughly Jewish Jesus came to abolish religion. Honestly, what's the evidence for that kind of claim. (Lisa Fullam's take at dotCommonweal here; Christian Post here.)

It's true that religion has been a motivating factor in human conflict, but I'd argue it's also been a motivating factor in many more acts of compassion, projects that individuals could not have accomplished on their own. We gen-Xers are no less suspicious of institutions, but I still think a flawed institution has a better chance of perpetuating the gospel than a single charismatic individual.

Then again, as a gen-Xer now entering oldster-dom at age 38, maybe I'm just annoyed by kids these days. I've just never been convinced--and perhaps this is the Catholic in me--that Christian faith can really be pursued on one's own. Jesus didn't call one student but a community, and it takes a community to model what we call the reign of God. When that becomes an institution--religion--it can and does get messed up, as even the New Testament points out.

But would we be better without religion at all? I'm not so sure. Jesus may be greater than religion, but that doesn't mean that we don't need it.