Saturday, August 12, 2017

Who's Right in the Peaceful Fight over 'Religion'?

Even the best of friends sometimes disagree. This is inevitable even when we share a common goal (Jesus) because we do not share identical starting points, contexts, perspectives, use-of-language, etc. Disagreement isn't even necessarily a bad thing. Iron can sharpen iron. What's more, in a culture of constant conflict, the WAY Christians disagree (and work through disagreement) can itself be a sign of the Gospel. We will disagree from time to time, but we need to show the world that it is possible to disagree well.

A good example of this friendly, iron-sharpening-iron, kind of disagreement may be found in the different uses of the word 'religion' by people like Bruxy Cavey and Brian Zahnd. Two of my favorite preachers, these men have a lot in common. They are both Jesus-centered and peace-loving. They probably don't disagree about very much of substance. But they do disagree about the word religion.

Cavey suggests that the shutting down of religion was a core element of God's plan in sending Jesus. He has stated that the problem with 'organized religion' is the 'religion' part. The church where he pastors has a slogan... 'A church for people who aren't in to church.' He echoes the popular mantra that 'Jesus is more about relationship than religion'. Bruxy believes we needed (and still need) to be 'saved from our religion'. Jesus replaces religions sacrifices, priests, temples, rituals, and rules.

Zahnd, in contrast, recently preached a sermon titled 'saved by religion'. He agrees that Jesus didn't come to start a religion, but that's only because Jesus already had a religion (Judaism). For Zahnd, religion was not only inevitable considering the massive nature of the New Covenant, but it is also necessary if we desire to pass on the Jesus-movement to subsequent generations. He admits, of course, that there is 'bad' religion, but says jettisoning religion because of its distortions is like starving yourself to death because you once got food poisoning.

Those are clearly opposing views of religion.

One could argue that their disagreement is mostly semantics. Bruxy is defining 'religion' as man's attempt to earn a relationship with God (what Zahnd might call empty or bad religion). Zahnd is defining religion as the form one's spiritual life takes in response to God's grace (what Cavey prefers to call 'faith').

But it's not JUST semantics. I think there's some deeper disagreement here. The two men have different backgrounds, pastor in different contexts, have different approaches to liturgy, etc. Ultimately, they both largely reject the same thing (empty religion) and approve of the same thing (a structured and disciplined life of faith), but they probably genuinely disagree on some of the details.

And that's OK. Cavey and Zahnd, who are friends and dialogue partners, know how to disagree well. They've acknowledged their disagreement, but simply prefer to focus on the fact that they share much more in common (without 'ignoring' the subject... they stay friends in the midst of this disagreement).

I believe it's healthy for the body of Christ to hear both men speak boldly on this subject. Bruxy is passionately anti-religious (after all, he considers 'shutting down religion' to be one of the four main elements of the Gospel). Zahnd is passionately religious (He even goes so far as to claims that the anti-religion viewpoint has more to do with Voltaire and Nietzsche than Jesus). I actually appreciate when people speak their opinions boldly (so we actually know what their opinions are).

Personally, I don't think it's important to determine who is RIGHT in this disagreement. I've been edified by both men. I'd encourage readers to check out Bruxy Cavey's books AND listen to Brian Zahnd's sermon. But even if you conclude that one man is right and the other wrong about 'religion'... we can all learn from both men how to disagree well.* Who's 'right' is less important than the fact that they've demonstrating the right way to disagree.

*Evidence of their friendly and affirming dialogue is observable, at the very least, on twitter.


Jon Goodwin said...

I have not checked either of these men out online as you have suggested. Do either of them address James 1.26-27 as they discuss religion?

matthew said...

Hey Jon!

Yes, Bruxy likes to point out that it is the only verse in the Bible that uses the word religion in a positive sense. So he basically sees it as the exception that proves the rule. And he also points out that it says nothing about the temples, priests, rituals, rules part of religion. It's just about loving people.