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“If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain.”
– James 1:26 RSV
I was a nominal Roman Catholic with no real knowledge of my own belief-system. In the summer before grade 12, I spent a week at an Evangelical Christian Bible camp where the course of my life was changed forever. At the time my mind was focused on making new friends, sports, music and flirting with girls. I had no interest in God, or religion for that matter – until one day a guest speaker talked about the importance of forgiveness. Because I’ve had to deal with constant bullying in my junior high years, I was compelled to talk with this man who happened to be a radical advocate of the KJV-only movement. When I told him about my family’s religious upbringing, he asserted,
“A person cannot stay Catholic. It’s a religion, and God hates it! Jesus is not a religion!”
I was quite taken aback by such a bold statement – and yet my raging, hormonal, teenage self embraced the rebellious nature of the phrase. Later that week, I made the step of accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and carried that phrase with me like a badge of honor.
I had kept in touch with the speaker from camp during the school year. He gave me my very own King James Bible and told me to read that version only. I was confused as to why anyone would say this Bible was better than any other. Later that year, he also sent me a series of anti-Catholic evangelical tracts by Chick Publications in the mail. With their use of biblical passages and historical references taken completely out of context, they made everything to do with Catholicism seem outrageously evil. Being young, stupid and impressionable, I ate up everything that was fed to me. As a result, I had developed an irrational fear of the Catholic Church which lasted up until my mid 20’s.
I attended Bible school part-time for a year, and also involved myself in the church denomination that was associated with that same youth camp for nearly a decade after high school. But over the years, I grew more and more irritable towards the amount of hostility some of my Protestant friends displayed towards Catholics. Some even told me that all Catholics are going to Hell and that I should burn the Bible my parents had given me for my 16th birthday (which I still have, and will always carry close to my heart). It was through these observations that I developed a longing for Christian unity.
It seemed like the constant accusation is, “The Catholic Church is not a Christian church!” The usual arguments I’ve heard were about how their so-called ‘traditions of men’ and obsession with rules were supposedly more important than the Scriptures – even though the Bible itself is a tradition that was written by men who were inspired by God. It was usually compared to those moments when Jesus would tell off the Pharisees for putting themselves and their ideology before people in need – which, to be fair, is a valid point. On the flip side, it took me several years to wrap my mind around Catholic theological topics like purgatory, transubstantiation, papal infallibility, confession and honor of the Virgin Mary. The more I dug into these teachings, the more I realized they are a lot more rooted in Scripture than most other Christians realize.
Religion in itself is supposed to be the art of believing, following and worshiping a deity. There is truth in the fact that Jesus himself is not a religion, but the same could be said about Mohammad or Buddha. When a person says, “I follow the one true God and not a man-made religion,” then how does he follow his said deity? To me, it’s a self-defeating statement that contradicts the historical fact that the Christian Church was founded by Christ Himself.
Did the Jesus of the Bible condemn the religious hypocrites of his time, or did he condemn Judaism itself? According to Matthew 5:17, Jesus says that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Considering the sweeping biblical evidence that Judaism is the precursor to Christianity, this leaves very little room for a sincere argument that God could possibly hate the Jewish art of believing and following that He Himself ordained. Such a mindset can lead a person to believe that the Christian Church acts as a substitute for Judaism rather than a continuation of it, which is an ideology known as Replacement Theology. As Jesus once said,
“You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews.” – John 4:22 NAB
Regarding the seemingly endless debate between Scripture and tradition, if church liturgy, ritual and history reflect what is revealed in the Bible, how can it be wrong?
If religion is abused in a similar manner to what the Pharisees did, then the problem lies within the person who deceives himself just as a driver (not the car) is at fault for driving recklessly. The actions of individuals do not always line up with what a religion actually teaches.
If Christ is truly the head of the church, then separating religion from God would be similar to severing the Body from the Head. What kind of impression does this leave for people of different religions when it comes to interfaith dialogue?
Is hating religion truly about following Christ? Or is it really about a refusal to acknowledge God’s commandments because it is an inconvenience for our own self-interests? As John 14:15 says,
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
One could say hating the commandments given by God is showing a complete resentment to the One who established it.
But in the case of Christianity, religion is the art of a divine relationship.
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”
– 2 Thessalonians 2:15 RSV