In 1971, the late singer and songwriter, John Lennon, released the song Imagine. In the song he indicted religion, among a few other things, as standing in the way of peace. He sang…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace…
It’s easy to blame religion because throughout history there are so many examples of religious people and religious groups engaging in wicked and evil behavior. Consequently, part of zeitgeist is to claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious” or something like “Jesus yes, religion no.” You might recall this YouTube video by Jeff Bethke titled Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus (I actually happen to agree with him on a lot of points, just not his wholesale indictment of religion).
My problem with all of this is that I don’t believe religion is the problem. I know that as a believer in and follower of Jesus, I am biased. My profession of faith in Jesus Christ means that I am categorically committed to a religion called Christianity. Further more, I write unapologetically as one who believes that the Bible reveals an unfolding narrative of creation and redemption for which all of history is progressing towards. Nevertheless, I still don’t believe religion is the problem. Even though there is such a thing as bad religion perpetrating evil rather than good in the name of it’s religion and even though at times throughout history Christianity has practiced some bad religion, I still don’t believe religion is the problem.
From Romans 1:18-32, the fundamental problem is not religion but idolatry. I discussed the nature of idolatry in my last blog post (read it here), giving particular attention to the way patriotism often becomes idolatry. If idolatry is the fundamental problem, then bad religion is just a symptom of the problem. The problem is when good religion becomes idolatrous.
At the core, idolatry exalts ourselves. Good religion does the opposite. While Jesus was often very critical of his religious contemporaries, the New Testament actually speaks of “religion” as a practice in a positive sense at least three times (1 Tim 5:4 & Js 1:26-27). The common thread here is the instruction to place God and others above ourselves, which is the practice of religion in the good sense and is the opposite of idolatry.
On the other hand, idolatry exalts the values peace and freedom and justifies killing and warring against almost anyone who threatens such values. Idolatry champions individual and gender-based rights to the point in which it becomes acceptable to kill unborn children, even in the partial-birth stage. Idolatry turns sexuality into a self-centered desire whereby other people, in person or online, are objectified in an attempt to fulfill that relentless appetite. Idolatry employs reason as a means of ignoring the needs of a neighbor, because that neighbor could have found a job had they just gone to college like everyone else, learned to speak English before coming to America, and so on. Idolatry is even capable of praying for the blessings of God without ever considering how God may want to use us to bless others around us and around the globe.
That is the reason why idolatry produces such evil and abhorrent thoughts and actions and it all stems from a rejection of the Creator for created things. However, the Creator has revealed himself as the Son of God, Jesus Christ who teaches his followers that all of God’s will revealed in the Law and Prophets hinges on obediently loving God and loving neighbor (cf. Matt 22:36-40).
Though many Christians, including myself, have fallen into idolatry at times, if we will follow Jesus, living by the same beliefs and values he lived his life by, then neither would we be idolaters nor would the problem be our religion. So let’s quit blaming religion and name the root cause of all the evil taking place for what it is, idolatry. But then, let’s look at who’s really to blame and ask the more difficult question, “have we surrendered our idols at the feet of the Lord, Jesus Christ?”