Saturday, January 20, 2007

The End of Religion

If Gerhard Forde is one of my favorite entrees, Robert Farrar Capon is my dessert of choice. He puts the fun back into chewing on seriously offensive theology. And he makes grace so real you can taste it.

It is Capon who introduced me to the proposition that Christianity is not a religion.

For some time now, we’ve been treated to a good deal of heavy breathing and earnest thumbsucking about the plight of the Christian religion and the problems of the institutional church. Almost all of it is wildly off the mark. While it is true that our present dishevelment may well be one of the larger crises (or opportunities) the church has bumped into over its long career, our real difficulty is something else: we have an almost continuous track record of hitting the Christian nail squarely on the thumb. All our noisy hammering to the contrary, the problem is not that we need to get back to the truth of our religion or to get on to some better version of the ecclesiastical institution; rather we need nothing so much as to stop acting as if we’re either a religion or an institution at all.

To begin with, Christianity is not a religion; it’s the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however - the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over, period.

All the efforts of the human race to straighten up the mess of history by plausible religious devices - all the chicken sacrifices, all the fasts, all the mysticism, all the moral exhortations, all the threats - have been canceled by God for lack of saving interest. More astonishingly still, their purpose has been fulfilled, once for all and free for nothing, by the totally non-religious death and resurrection of a Galilean nobody.

Admittedly, Christians may use the forms of religion - but only because the church is the sign to the world of God’s accomplishment of what religion tried (and failed) to do, not because any of the church’s devices can actually get the job done. The church, therefore, must always be on its guard against giving the impression that its rites, ceremonies, and requirements have any religious efficacy in and of themselves. All such things are simply sacraments - real presences under particular signs - of the indiscriminate gift of grace that God in Christ has given everybody.”

- Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History. 1996. p. 1-2

Capon is not simply playing with definitions here - redefining the word "religion". He is more radical than that. He redefines Christianity.

It is one thing to say (as I have often said) "Christianity is unique among the world religions in that it...." or "Christianity is the only true religion because..." This kind of talk (as I see it now) could simply be "product differentiation" - a strategy used to increase market share - and the church may not be in that kind of business.

It is a matter of a different sort entirely to proclaim "Christianity is not a religion. Christ put a stop to all such nonsense." This, it seems, might capture some attention - though not necessarily. And attracting attention may not be good enough reason to change our language. I would say it merely because it more closely captures the actual truth of the matter.

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