A video of a young man reciting a poem has ‘gone viral’ on the Internet. In the video, he explains why he “hates religion” but “loves Jesus”. His rant against institutional religion is understandable. He’s against hypocrisy, formalism, legalism, complacency, and phony suburban American Christianity. He wants to love Jesus instead. He’s a zealot, and would have lent a hand when our Lord went into the temple to turn over the moneychangers’ tables. That’s all well and good, and I’m on his side. The gospel should be subversive.

The problem with his position, however, is that it sets up a false dichotomy. It’s “either-or” instead of “both-and”. This is a pure and simple form of argument, but it doesn’t really go the distance, for as Oscar Wilde observed, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” You might want to have Jesus without religion, but it’s impossible for three reasons.

First, let’s assume that, despite your misgivings you’re going to at least meet together with other Christians in some sort of fellowship. What will happen? Here’s an example:

I was brought up in a devout Evangelical Protestant home. The church we attended was founded in 1962. The little independent fellowship was started by a group of folks who were disenchanted with the mainline Protestant denominations. They blamed the institutional church leadership for being autocratic and morally bankrupt. They believed the mainline churches, along with Catholicism, to be dead, man-made institutions”full of hypocrites and power-hungry prelates. Like all the primitivists before them, my church’s founding fathers were going to have a pure fellowship of disciples following Jesus in simplicity and truth.

Before long they bought property, hired a pastor, built a church, and began to quarrel. Some shady deals with money took place. The pastor turned out to be an autocrat, while some of the leaders became Puritanical, legalistic, and judgmental. Eventually the pastor decided it was okay to re-marry people after divorce, and finally, his long-running affair with a woman in the parish came to light, precipitating his resignation. I don’t blame them for their failures. The point is that that anybody who sets out to get rid of a religion because it is hypocritical, legalistic, self-righteous, autocratic, and complacent, will end up (if he belongs to a Christian fellowship of any kind) with a group that is hypocritical, legalistic, self-righteous, autocratic, and complacent.

So maybe we want to get rid of the Christian fellowship completely and be freelance followers of Christ? This is impossible because to follow Jesus, you have to know Jesus, and the best way to know Jesus is through the Church. “I have my Bible!” the eager independent will cry. We only have the Bible because of the Church. Furthermore, what is the Bible but the story of the people of God”first in the Old Testament and then in the New? The Bible reports the history of the people of God and recounts their relationship with God. Jesus himself went to the synagogue, and indeed practiced religion. The New Testament was composed with and for the Church”a group that practices a religion. To say that you are going to follow Jesus but reject religion is like saying you love baseball, but don’t need a team to play on, a league, or a team to root for.

Moreover, knowledge of Jesus is not only communicated through the Scriptures”which come to us from the Church, but the sacraments of salvation can only be received from the Church which is the Body of Christ. What’s more, we believe that these same sacraments of the Church represent the physical extension of Jesus’ real presence on earth for believers today.

Nevertheless, let the idealist reject religion and be a freelance follower of Jesus Christ. How will he know that he is following Christ and not just his own reflection? He might favor “spirituality” over “religion,” but spirituality is slippery. The young man in the video was clearly attracted to a Jesus Christ who was a young, table-turning radical. His Jesus was impatient with the religious establishment and on the side of the sinners and revolutionaries. His Jesus was the quintessential outsider”the rebel with a cause”a punk who all those rich hypocrites excluded and persecuted. In other words, he was just like the young man in the video.

We all fall into the trap of making Christ in our own image, so it is understandable, and if understandable, forgivable. This, however, is the main justification not only for religion, but also for a dogmatic religion. A dogmatic religion corrects our tendency to make Jesus in our own image. The Catholic faith gives us an objective magisterium. It gives us dogma and clear moral teachings to use, either as a stumbling block or a stepping-stone. It gives us sacraments that are objective and real. It gives us the lives of the saints who open our hearts and minds and show us radical, pure, and simple Christianity.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He is author of twelve books, including More Christianity (Our Sunday Visitor, 2002). Follow his blog and twitter by connecting to dwightlongenecker.com .

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?Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus?

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Articles by Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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