By Leo Brown
There is an intriguing You Tube video that over the past few weeks has gone viral with over 15 million viewings. It has also spawned countless reaction videos. So what could possibly be so interesting that it has garnered this kind of response? It’s a young man from Tacoma, Wash., named Jefferson Bethke who apparently, while having a heart for Christ, has a real problem with religion.
The first line of his cleverly rhymed spoken word asks, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” This seems to be a popular opinion. Often I hear people say, just as I once did, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” One concern with this notion is a syntax error of misunderstanding that the word religion actually means relationship.
Regardless of definition, we humans have an interesting ability to compartmentalize. It’s almost like the more mutually exclusive our positions, the better we can organize our thought. Nothing is this cleanly contrastive and this is why as Catholics we embrace, as a friend of mine dubs it, the Great Both/And.
As I mentioned, I believe Bethke to be sincere in his heart for Christ, but we do need to examine an obvious fallacy with our young friend’s retort of religion. Christ says himself that he ‘didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it,’ see Matthew 5:17. The law of which he speaks is obviously that of the religious tradition of the Jews, the religion of Abraham. So now the question has to be what does that fulfillment look like? As Catholics we answer this with a both/and approach. The fulfillment cannot nullify that which has been established or else that would fulfill nothing.
So the way we Catholics see it is that we have elements of the traditional Jewish temple worship, or what we refer to as the Liturgy of the Word, and a fulfilled understanding of that worship which adds what Jesus literally brought to the table at the last supper, which we know as the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Here we find a prime example of the Great Both/And.
It is easy from the standpoint of our American rugged individualism to seek self- evident truth. Our founding fathers guaranteed us that right. Unfortunately, while some things may appear self-evident, the real power of truth must be harnessed in an understanding that is informed by much more than our mere experience. One may say religion is bad because the last time they were at church the pastor gave them a dirty look. He may have simply had indigestion and meant nothing by his sour visage, yet you are now convinced that religion is bad.
“Christ would never look at me that way,” you may think. Thus concluding, “this religion stuff is not for me.” Of course I’m being hyperbolic in my illustration, but I think we need to see perception for what it is. There is a popular understanding that perception is reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. I may perceive that the frozen pond is solid enough to walk across. The reality may very well be that once I’m in the middle the ice will give way. Self-evident truth has the same detrimental effect. We end up on thin ice.
Many years ago as a young man, probably close in age to Mr. Bethke, I felt the truth I had discovered was the truth that would guide my existence. After all, I had been on this earth for some 20-odd years and had experienced enough of life to determine what I really believed in. I, quite like Bethke, had a disdain for organized religion, “believed” in Christ, but also felt that the jury was simply out on many of the claims that were conventional wisdom for most faiths. Without going into exhaustive detail of my downward spiral, let me just say that this philosophy led me way out onto the thin ice and I went crashing through.
What most of us proscribe to, whether we realize it or not, is a form of Moral Relativism. This is the “I’m OK, you’re OK” philosophy. We believe that as long as we can live our life and nobody gets hurt then we’re set. All is good in the hood. The challenge with this mindset is that there is absolutely no stability to be found here. We simply do not have it within ourselves to create truth. Either truth is or it isn’t. There is no creating it. Even the argument that there is no absolute truth is an absolute, and therefore, self-refuting.
It all boils down to this. Christ did come to abolish something but it wasn’t religion, it was hypocrisy. Bethke suggests that the church does nothing to feed the poor and he obviously sees this as hypocrisy. I would ask Mr. Bethke if he’d ever heard of Catholic Charities? This is the largest aid organization in the world offering relief to millions of people regardless of their faith profession, or lack thereof. We can’t look at this with the simple concrete attitude of the mutually exclusive moral relativist. We must see the integration of faith. We require a both/and approach in order to thrive. Never was it intended to be Christ or religion, but a much more comprehensive, albeit less black-and-white and therefore harder for our human minds to grasp, Christ and Religion.
I mentioned at the beginning of the column the many responses this has seen on Facebook. While many of them are thought filled and on target, this is my favorite so far.
Leo Brown is a certified Catechist of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington and general manager of the Catholic radio station Real Life Radio 1380 AM and 94.9 FM. Leo is a central Kentucky native, a communications graduate from EKU, was formerly known as Freakdaddy at both Double Q and Z103 and has spent close to 15 years in active ministry. Hear Leo daily on Real Life Radio as the host of Diocese Live from 3:10 to 5 p.m.