Religion, Philosophy and Jesus
(by Rev. Dr. John Yates)
The sphere of Religion and Philosophy, especially as it relates to the sovereign Lordship of Christ, touches all things (Acts 10:3).
As I commenced writing this article, I had received a message about a $100M ad campaign in America which promotes itself with the slogan, “What if, instead of all these consumer ads, Jesus was the biggest brand in your city this holiday?” (christianitytoday.com/news/2022/march/he-gets-us-ad-campaign-branding-jesus-church-marketing.html). Should we see in this “He Gets Us” venture a bold act of faith, albeit carefully crafted, exhaustively researched, and market-tested effort to attract sceptics and cultural Christians, or should we discern it as an act of unbelief in the power of prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4, 8).
Are we witnessing the “productizing” of the Western Church
as Jesus is made into a brand rather than preached as Lord!
Their argument is that approaching American Christianity’s image problem with business savvy is what Jesus would have done; “[Jesus] crafted his language and his storytelling to resonate with people … He told agricultural stories to farmers. He told fish stories to fishermen. … This culture is immersed in media, and we’re using media to reach them for Christ.” Are we witnessing the “productizing” of the Western Church as Jesus is made into a brand rather than preached as Lord!
If, “Religion might [be] defined as an enterprise by which human beings seek to make contact with the spiritual power within them and beyond them.” (Bloesch), religion is humanity trying to ascend to God. Who could doubt this: “In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe where it became a culture, and, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.” (R. Halverston).
Contradictory approaches to religion can best be illustrated by comparing theological Liberalism and Karl Barth.
The story begins in an attempt by F.D. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) to persuade the cultural critics of Christianity that its proper status is found neither through natural reason science nor morality but human experience.
Schleiermacher set the direction for all future liberal theology, religion is a matter of subjective experience, history, and not supernatural.
Schleiermacher asserts that “Piety” is “the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation with God”. This is an experience essential to true humanity and is the nature of all religions. This is our constant, profound awareness of an Other whose presence is the source and basis of all that is – including ourselves.
“Any original and new communication of the Universe to man is a revelation”. God does not speak, but the Bible is special in that it records the religious experiences of the earliest Christian community and especially the perfect God-consciousness of Jesus, and its impact on the earlier Christians. Inspiration is not miraculous but an action which springs from human feeling. Jesus is divine only in the sense that he always had a perfect God-consciousness and has communicated this to others, this communication is redemption. Doctrines, like the resurrection, ascension and second coming are superfluous.
This all means that it is only the colour and tone of Christianity, rather than its content and subject matter, that distinguish it from other religions. Schleiermacher set the direction for all future liberal theology, religion is a matter of subjective experience, history, and not supernatural. Revelation is the reality of actual religious life.
A more recent liberal theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), defines “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned”. Religion is rooted in the mystical ground of being that prompts all people to seek God. The Ultimate Concern is that which demands complete surrender of the person who faithfully accepts the Ultimate. Additionally, faith in and surrender to the Ultimate promises total completion regardless of what must be sacrificed in the name of faith. Tillich argues that faith is a task for the believer’s complete being – the conscious and the unconscious.
Tillich does not believe in God in a classical, or biblical, sense. This is clear when he says: ‘we can only pray to the God who prays to himself through us’
Myths are an integral part of our Ultimate Concern. Any attempt to remove the mythological from our consciousness will be unsuccessful because myths signify a collection of symbols which stand for our Ultimate Concern. Tillich argues that even a “broken myth,” one which has been proven to be understood as a myth, cannot be replaced with a scientific substitute because myths are the symbolic language of faith. He warns that one cannot simply accept myths as literal truths because they then lose their symbolic meaning and rob God of his standing as the Ultimate. Since human existence is one, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of the philosophers is the same God.” Ultimate questions are about what it means to be human.
Because God is absolute, infinite, free and unconditioned nothing can be said about him that is not purely symbolic except that he is “being-itself”. As the ground of everything personal he cannot be a person and the eternal dimension of what happens in the universe is the divine life itself. God could not be God without the world.
Deity as such is not determined by the story of Israel or Jesus. The Bible functions like an expressionist portrait of Jesus, linking (glimpses of) the Jesus of history with the present. The details of Jesus life are not significant, Tillich said of the resurrection “I do not believe in ghost stories.” Whilst Jesus communicates a reunion with our own divided essence, someone else could have done this. This requires an active response, “Reconciliation, reunion, resurrection … a New state of things has appeared, it still appears… Accept it, enter into it, let it grasp you.”
Tillich does not believe in God in a classical, or biblical, sense. This is clear when he says: ‘we can only pray to the God who prays to himself through us,’ or in his redefinition of justification by faith: ‘the accepting of the acceptance without somebody or something that accepts’. This level of confusion could not go prophetically unchallenged.
The Religion of Jesus Christ
When at the commencement of WW I, a group of famous German theologians signed a manuscript supporting the Kaiser’s declaration of war, Karl Barth (1886-1968) a young Swiss theologian resident in Germany saw this as an example of the capitulation of Christianity to bourgeois culture. He was convinced that: “The ship was threatening to run aground; the moment was at hand to turn the rudder an angle of exactly 180 degrees.” Theology had become ‘religionistic’, ‘anthropocentric’ and ‘humanistic’. Confrontation with the contemporary age had become liberal theology’s primary concern, so that God appears as a moral – religious posit in the meeting of our religious quest with the message of Christ.
The world of human religion is the realm of man’s attempts to justify and to sanctify himself before a capricious and arbitrary picture of God. Idols are the universal product of religion.
The gospel however does not affirm our striving, but critiques it. God has come into the world in Christ blocking our attempts at self-transcendence. Time is to be interpreted through the narrative reality of Jesus Christ. The “otherness” of the encountered object, God, comes in revelation and breaks my project of religious self-securing. The God of religion, including Christianity, is an idol.
A critique of religion could only be conducted because of the intrusion of the gospel into the religious enterprise. The identification of God with religious consciousness leaves human beings without any ultimate reference point outside their cultural experience. The world of human religion is the realm of man’s attempts to justify and to sanctify himself before a capricious and arbitrary picture of God. Idols are the universal product of religion.
Barth’s Word-centred theology was radical in its break from all existing Christian religious practices. Whereas Liberals bring in a philosophy from secular culture to expound theology, fundamentalists represent revelation in logically rigid propositions. Both must be rejected. God’s Word is the event of God speaking to us through Jesus Christ. Revelation is not a static manual (like a railway timetable), but a dynamic event demanding a response (like a proposal of marriage). God’s Word is identical to is object, Jesus Christ.
There can be illumination outside the Gospel, no human knowledge is able to augment the Word of God. No prior culture, no human myth, can make sense of the Gospel. For Barth, strictly speaking, Christian proclamation is not a ‘religion’ (some set of cultural and cultic formations), but the address of the Word of God to human beings, that calls individuals from their religious affiliations.
“Revelation does not hook-up with the already operative religion of man but rather contradicts it just as religion previously contradicted revelation; revelation sublimates religion just as religion previously sublimates revelation.” Barth’s only answer to the civic religion of cultural Christianity is the insistence that true religion ‘is a creature of grace’. False religion is always a result of dissatisfaction with the sole Lordship of Christ.
Religion is the source of idolatry, which is why throughout the Bible the prophets speak vehemently against all religion than is not grounded in the revelation of the Word of God.
The revelation of Jesus Christ is not an appendage to any worldly powers but sits in judgement over the obsessions of the age. No political programme can ever personify or speak for the Word of God. This proposition was confirmed for Barth by the second great catastrophe of his lifetime, the Nazi attempt to incorporate the German Churches into a politics of racial destiny. Barth saw the logical outcome of a theological method that prioritised culture over the radical judgement of revelation.
It is all too easy for Christianity to be flattened into a cause, a system, or a political stance, instead of a portal which unveils God in Jesus Christ. Christianity, to possess substance, must intrude on our sense of the world. Religion is the source of idolatry, which is why throughout the Bible the prophets speak vehemently against all religion than is not grounded in the revelation of the Word of God.
Barth’s service to the church was to identify, fight, and with God’s grace overcome the heresy that human religion and religiosity determine how revelation is to be understood. We must never substitute a revelation of religion for a religion of revelation.
“Barth upends the modern, diluted, and customer-oriented vaguely humanistic agenda of 21st century liberal arts teaching with an explosive and decisive reminder of the event and action of God’s revelation upon a human: God’s decision for humans, but indeed God’s decision. The abolition of religion is a direct challenge to much of the theology of the 21st century…that sees God as a “best friend,” much less the corruptions of the so-called prosperity gospel…” (asatangent.org/2015/02/22/i2-17-the-revelation-of-god-as-the-abolition-of-religion-1-2/)
People are incurably religious, this makes idolatry inevitable, and it is our idolatry that is the problem (1 John 5:21). The truth of Christianity does not lie in its impressive institutions or buildings, in its theology or ethics, or even in any benefit it provides to humanity. The truth of Christianity is Jesus Christ; he makes himself heard within its sphere of service. The presence of Jesus himself, not just Christianity talking about him, but his active work through his Spirit, makes Christianity not just a religion but the Church, his own body, and it makes its members not just Christians, but the children of God.
To satisfy the burning thirst of tormented souls nothing will do but to take them to the well of living waters, to true fellowship with Christ and personal connection with the living God.
True and godly joy is the best defence against religion, because where religion is self-absorbed (Matthew 23), Jesus offers us the perfect joy of communion with God grounded not in obligation but in “perfect freedom” (Augustine). To satisfy the burning thirst of tormented souls nothing will do but to take them to the well of living waters, to true fellowship with Christ and personal connection with the living God. If the gospel could be explained in ordinary “religious” terms it would not be a “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23), a “stumbling block” (Galatians 5:11) or “obstacle” (Romans 14:13, 20).
“What do you think Christianity should be like?” Your answer doesn’t really matter. Sorry. It’s SO not about you. The question for every Christian is rather: “What does our Lord desire?” (Glenn T Stanton).
(all references from the New International Version)
Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
 The Greek for tempted can also mean tested.
 Deuteronomy 8:3
 Psalm 91:11,12
 Deuteronomy 6:16
 Deuteronomy 6:13
(by Bjorn Schmid)
I love in Rev. John’s conclusion above where he says that “The truth of Christianity is Jesus Christ”. You can’t turn a living person, let alone the living God, into a book, or a dogma, or a religion. You can pick up the testimony of what they said and did and make that into those, but when the person is alive and in front of you, reaching out their arms to embrace you forever, you can’t replace them with testimony – it is time for your testimony.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. (Revelation 3:20)
God in Jesus is asking you to trust Him for everything in your life. Not just for Church, for food, for fair laws and income support, but everything.
Our first ancestors Adam and Eve failed to trust God for everything, and they gave in to the temptation to take all carnal knowledge themselves, not waiting on God’s provision and wisdom (Genesis 3). They chose to ignore that God had already provided all they needed, and in their lust for ‘forbidden knowledge’, they ignored the only command He gave them that had consequences should they disobey (Genesis 1 & 2).
This pattern of “my way!” behaviour is encouraged and replicated across all humans past, present, and future, until Christ comes again to rule on earth. He has the right to rule, because He resisted all temptations thrown at Him. He has the right to lead us, as He went before us in God’s way for us to live. He has the right to be trusted; He fulfilled and delivers all God’s promises, the greatest of which is to give us Himself as the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and guide us in all things.
‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’ (Jeremiah 33:3)
Want knowledge? Even better, want understanding? Ask the Holy Spirit! Who better to tell you want you need to know than our loving creator of the universe Himself.
Father of the heavenly lights,
Son of the living God,
Holy Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
forgive us for ignoring you our one Lord and God.
You breathed life into us,
You gave us incredible resources and wisdom,
You gave us human companions with amazing gifts and abilities,
yet still we crave more
and have not waited on Your timing to reveal all things to us.
Forgive us for not being thankful to You for all that we have,
as little as it may seem to us.
Forgive us for not waiting on your grace to reveal to us
what we need to know, and when we are ready to know.
Multiply that which we have to be sufficient for our needs,
add whatever and whenever You determine is required;
we trust in Your total and complete love of us.
Help us retain all we have gained that is from You,
and uproot and cast away all in us that is not from You.
Remind us often to be a living witness of Your love to others,
to encourage them to seek You and meet You face-to-face;
we want to be all together, Your amazing children,
glorifying You and seeing Your wonders forever!
In Christ Jesus name we pray for these things,