July 10, 2017

Joseph Coppens (1896-1981), eminent Belgian scripture scholar, was one of my favorite professors in the 1960s at the University of Louvain (Leuven). One of his warnings to us young students, as we began our biblical studies, was “Sacred Scripture has a wax nose: you can twist and shape it to fit your own agenda and your own prejudices.” 

What Professor Coppens said about Sacred Scripture can be said as well about RELIGION. It has a wax nose and can be adjusted to be either wonderfully healthy and humane or inhumanely cruel and denigrating. 

We see clear examples of inhumane religion in daily news updates: fanatic Muslims who butcher people to honor God. We see it as well in American fanatic white supremacist Christians, who proclaim and practice cruel racism, denigrating misogyny, and violent xenophobic behavior as Christian virtues.  

Last week, a friend of mine, a respected local lawyer, said that all the world’s problems are due to religion. I said “OK but then….we all know that all lawyers are crooks.” He got a bit agitated and said “we’ll wait minute……”  

Indeed. Let’s pause to reflect. We need more interpretation and more distinctions………

Until my last breath I will be forever grateful for what my Christian religion has done for me and millions of other people: helping me discover the Divine in Reality; educating me from childhood to post-doctoral research and teaching. Giving me employment for my professional life. I was never wealthy but enjoyed my work and found it life-giving.  Religion for me has been a blessing.

Unhealthy religion? Of course it exists. In my own Christian tradition, I have encountered crafty monsters in fancy robes, who used their religious authority (and still use it) to abuse children and adults and desecrate the Gospel they claim to promote.  Their focus is not ministry TO people but manipulative power OVER people to advance their own careers. Pardon the expression, but they are ecclesiastical bastards.

A major misconception about religion is that Religion is Faith. 

Our FAITH experience is the encounter with the DIVINE: Our encounter with God, the Sacred, the Other, the Great Spirit, Allah, etc.  We experience this but then struggle go put it into words….

These days I resonate more and more with the words of the RCC theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984): “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, and inklings. We make faltering attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.”  

What has always excited me is THEOLOGY, which is a deeply reflective interpretation of the FAITH experience – always in development because we grow in our understanding; and words and thought categories change over time. (One of my own theological frustrations today is how we can still continue to use an archaic Nicene Creed, written in the language and philosophy of the fourth century.) 

Back to religion……. 

RELIGION (any religion) is an institutionalized theology: Theology is Faith seeking understanding.  

Religion is an attempt to systematize an interpretation of the experience of the Divine: religion is a system of beliefs and practices that helps people understand and live with the Divine. Religion therefore gives people: rituals, ritual places, ritual leaders, sacred books, sacred places, sacred days and seasons, codes of morality, and creedal statements. Religion provides helpful aids – MEANS – that point people to the Divine. That’s good and proper. It is not Faith. It points us to the faith experience…if it is healthy religion. 

All religions, however, go through a life cycle. In every age people need to understand this….. All religions go through a four-stage cycle:  

1) They begin with the charismatic foundational stage, e.g. the primitive Christian community. Here people have such a vivid lived awareness of the Faith experience that they have little need for institutional structure and rely on do-it-self and charismatic ways of praying, speaking, and celebrating.  

(2) Then when people begin to ask “how do we safeguard what we have and how do we pass this on to the next generation?” we enter stage two. This is the stage of institutionalization: important things are written down (e.g. writing the Gospels), set ways of praying are established (official sacramental rituals and gestures are established), properly authorized leaders are established (e.g. ordination is created to be a kind of quality control mechanism to make certain that the Christian leaders are competent and reliable).  

(3) But….Eventually the institution becomes so much the focus of people’s attention that it ceases to be a means and path to the Divine and instead it becomes the OBJECT of religious devotion. This is the stage of idolatry. The church institution, or certain institutional leaders or certain religious objects, teachings or regulations become IDOLS. People get so involved in just religious veneration, or the use of religious power and influence fur their own goals,  that they miss or distort the Divine.  Unhealthy religion.

Religion, for example, becomes a form of exaggerated nationalism. We see this in Russia, with the Russian Orthodox Church’s affection for President Putin; but we also see in the USA. I saw it this summer in Croatia. Roman Catholicism is very important for supporting Croation nationalism; but hardly anyone goes to church. This kind of distorted religion is a very contemporary problem, all around the world.

(4) The only solution in stage four is REFORMATION : an attempt to regain the vision, the focus on the Divine, and the vigor and creative enthusiasm of stage two.  
Reformation can and will happen……So let the reform begin….. 


8 thoughts on “Religion’s Wax Nose

  1. I love the wholeness of this essay, and would contribute only a small shard to the whole case of kitchen goods–that faith is a mustard seed; if it does not grow, it dies. You point out well the death that a faith-less religion can suffer.

  2. Isn’t it interesting, Jack, that following religion’s rules is supposed to be risk free. Just do what you are told and you don’t have to think or take responsibility (like Pray, Pay, and Obey.) Faith, on the other hand, is so messy and so confusing because sometimes common sense tells you that the “Rules” don’t always fit—like when you meet someone who is gay and he/she doesn’t seem like the “sinner” that you know they must be because you are told to “hate their sin” but not him/her. Guys like you are dangerous because you are saying that (horrors!) it is necessary to think for yourself and let the Spirit lead you to places you may not understand or be able to define in a tidy way. I keep going back to the title of a little book I read, “Your God is Too Small.” Spirituality is a messy business!
    Frank Skeltis

  3. Really appreciate this Jack, thank you. Your noting the four stages of religion is not only interesting but tiimely. The “Russian Orthodox Church’s affection for President Putin” was featured this evening in PBS’s newshour!

  4. The problem and solution are well stated, Jack. YES! “So let the reform begin” and thanks for doing so!

  5. “Let the reform begin”, indeed! The Church began the process with Vatican II, but JPII saw to it that the process came to a swift halt, and even Francis hasn’t brought it back. When I converted, 36+ years ago, it was such a joyous Church, speaking mostly about the love of God, and that God IS Love. Currently, politics seems to be rule of the day. It makes me so sad.

  6. Sorry, Jack, for adding another comment but I read this in Richard Rohr’s daily online meditation. He quotes a young man named Shane Claiborne. This is a small portion of the longer piece but struck me with its similarity to your thoughts:

    “There’s a movement in the church to marry action and contemplation, to connect orthodoxy and orthopraxis. We’re not throwing out the things we believe, but we’re also focusing on practices that work out those beliefs. In the past few decades Christianity has primarily been about what we believe. But in Jesus we see an invitation to join our actions with a movement rather than ideas and doctrine.”

Leave a Reply