Designer Religion: A Critique of a Recent Description of Faith in a National Publication

030315We live in times of what I would call “designer religion.” Many people seem to think they have a right to assemble religious teachings they like and discard what they do not. The idea that faith is revealed by God and that we are to discover what He has revealed (in both creation and Scripture) and conform ourselves to it is at odds with our consumer culture. But faith is not a consumer product. We can’t just select the commandments we like or the doctrines we prefer, and still remain faithful to God, who reveals on His terms, not ours.

An article was written recently by Ana Marie Cox at The Daily Beast that shows forth some of these trends. I’d like to comment on some of what she has written.

I want to be careful as well. I do not take lightly critiquing someone else’s description of his or her faith. However, when one writes publicly and in a way that reflects or reinforces problematic trends, some response seems necessary.

Perhaps I would do well to emphasize that I am responding to Ms. Cox’s article because I think she articulates what a LOT of people think today of faith and how they express it. Hence, please see my critique of her description of faith more as concern for erroneous trends than as a personal assessment of her. She is getting my reply because she wrote the article. However, she is not alone in these views and so my criticism should not be seen as a personal rebuke of her, but more as a rebuke of the mindset of our culture related to what I would call “designer religion.

The full article is available here: Why I’m Coming out as a Christian. In the excerpts that follow, her words are in bold, black italics, while my comments are in plain, red text.

Ana Marie Cox writes,

I’ve lately observed conservatives questioning Obama’s faith with more than professional interest. Because if Obama’s not Christian, what does that make me?

For the record, I am not interested here in the question of the President’s faith except insofar as it affects his salvation. I want everyone to be saved.

But for context, her article focuses on “conservatives” who question President Obama’s faith. I have certainly heard these critiques and do not wish to comment on that viewpoint except to say that his personal faith rises more to the fore due to his often hostile stance against “believers.”

As Catholics, we have suffered many violations of our religious liberty and have had to spend millions defending our rights in court against HHS mandates, etc.  

The President has also spoken quite glowingly about Islam while at the same time being quick to critique Christian “extremism,” both historically and at present. But as a political question, I am not that interested in the matter.

I am more interested in what Ms. Cox says about faith, because, sadly, I think what she writes here reflects the erroneous views of many about faith. Those are the things I want to reflect on here in my “commentary on her commentary.”

I have not been public about my faith …

This is problem one, and rather reflective of most Christians today, especially Catholics. We seem to more anxious to blend in, to be undercover Christians and secret agent saints than to be doing job one: making disciples of all nations by witnessing to the faith. However, maybe it is just as well that she is not too public about her views in this matter, as we shall see.

In my personal life, my faith is not something I struggle with or something I take particular pride in. It is just part of who I am.

And here are problems two, three, and four. As she describes it, it would seem that the faith she has is a minor part of her landscape. She does not “struggle” with it.  But is not a dynamic faith unsettling, something that should challenge us and summon us to struggle against the drives of our flesh? Does not St. Paul speak of the deep conflict between our spirit and the flesh? Is not the purgative summons of the Lord something that calls us to often-times difficult choices and the carrying of the cross? Many today have the idea that faith is something more to console us than challenge us. Faith should challenge us and draw us into the battle of struggling for our soul and the souls of others. 

I could go on, but note problem three, wherein she says she is not proud of her faith. Why not? To be clear, the pride I refer to here is not sinful pride. Rather, it is the joyful exuberance of someone who has found real answers that he is convinced will really help others, or of someone who has laid hold of an amazing vision she wants to share. Is this not the appropriate stance of someone who has life-changing faith?

As for problem four, she also says faith is “just part of who I am.” Is it? I cannot say in Ms. Cox’s case, but too many Christians pay mere lip service to the Lord and to the faith He bestows. Their faith, to the degree it exists at all, is too often tucked under their politics, career, and secular views. And if the faith comes into any conflict with these areas, guess which has to give way? True faith has to be more than “just part of who I am.” In fact it has to be our foundation, and the very template by which we see the world, determine what is to be done, and judge what is right and wrong.

… My hesitancy to flaunt my faith has nothing to do with fear of judgment by non-believers … I am not smart enough to argue with those that cling to disbelief. Centuries of philosophers have made better arguments than I could, and I am comfortable with just pointing in their direction if an acquaintance insists, “If there is a God, then why [insert atrocity]?” For me, belief didn’t come after I had the answer to that question. Belief came when I stopped needing the answer. Nicely put.

No, I’m nervous to come out as a Christian because I worry I’m not good enough of one. I’m not scared that non-believers will make me feel an outcast. I’m scared that Christians will.

After this she goes back to citing those who question President Obama’s faith, etc. As stated, I am not interested in that particular question.

However, her objection to Christians questioning her faith or her degree of commitment is rather too sweeping in my view. I will grant that Christians can be a little too hard on one another, but I will not grant that there is no legitimacy to insisting on some baseline of both creedal beliefs and moral views rooted in what the Lord clearly teaches.

“Branding” is important, especially in the corporate world and in areas such as sports. Those who like baseball, for example, are right to insist on certain standards, boundaries, equipment, and rules for baseball to be baseball. At some point if even a few of these things are cast aside, the sport ceases to be baseball and becomes something else.

In the world of marketing, if a woman buys a Gucci bag and then discovers later it is not the real thing, but is Gucci “in name only,” she has a right to be angry and to demand reparation. 

It is the same with faith. Christians are right to insist on certain basics, even if agreement on every small detail cannot reasonably be demanded. No one should be outraged by this.

Jesus said things like, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Lk 11:23), and, For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory (Lk 9:25-26).

So the content and authenticity of our faith as well as the stance we make to the world ARE important. And pardon me for saying so. 

Ms. Cox, after setting aside other metrics for being a believer (like going to Church), next takes up knowledge of Scripture. She writes,

What about Bible literacy? Mine is mostly limited to dimly remembered excerpts from the Old Testament we read in my college humanities class and a daily verse email. I read spiritual meditations, but the Word is still a second language I speak less than fluently …

OK, so let’s set aside the extreme notion that everyone must be a Bible scholar and be able to conjugate Greek verbs.

But honestly, is it wrong to ask that Christians have a little more than “dimly remembered excerpts” of Scripture?  

Maybe one reason that she and others she describes don’t know Scripture very well is that they think Church attendance isn’t important.

But whatever the case, knowing Scripture and at least squaring your beliefs with the revealed word of God is important!

Too many people today think they can make up anything they want to believe in or reject whatever they please and yet still go on calling themselves “Christians” or even “devout Catholics.” It doesn’t work that way.

“Designer religion” is a serious problem today. A fundamental baseline for Christian belief has to be a faith that is squared with the revealed Word of God. And as a Catholic, I would add that the true faith must be squared with God’s Word as understood by and in Sacred Tradition.

Making up your own faith used to be called heresy. Making up your own version of God used to be called idolatry.

Ms. Cox goes on to say that she personally knows Jesus Christ. I cannot read her heart, but I do agree with St. Jerome, who said that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. That she has met Christ is good news. But has she met the real Christ? And how would she know, since her Bible literacy is limited to “dimly remembered excerpts from the Old Testament”?

Many claim to have met Christ. But remember, Satan masquerades as an angel of light! Discernment rooted in the revelation of God is necessary to be sure you have met the real Jesus.

Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.

So here is her “money quote.” Except for the last sentence, what she has said is OK, but it is also incomplete for the reasons already stated.

I will ask further, what “example” set by Christ does she mean, since she says her knowledge of Scripture is “dim”?  Here too, I do not refer simply to her, but to the legions of people today who refer to the “example” set by Christ but do not mean it in a scriptural way. Usually the “example” to which they refer is kindness detached from truth, detached from the deeper love that insists on commitment and obedience. One of the great errors of our day is the proclamation of mercy without repentance.

If I have a relationship with Jesus, I want to make sure it is the real Jesus, not some “fake Jesus” I invented who just so happens to agree with me on nearly everything and almost never challenges me. To know the real Jesus, I must come to know Him not just “personally,” but also in relation to the revealed Scripture and His Body, the Church, which has known him for over 2000 years.

Everyone should have a personal relationship with Jesus, but not a relationship isolated from Scripture and Sacred Tradition or the Liturgy.

Again, I do not mean to single out Ms. Cox here. She represents multitudes today who share her view. Her final sentence, referring to her faith and faithfulness as only being “between her and Jesus,” is emblematic of an isolated faith, a silo mentality.

But Faith comes by hearing, so it is not merely personal. St. Paul says that for faith to be heard, authentic and approved  preachers have to go forth. The same Paul corrects error and insists on Church discipline (e.g 1 Cor 11- 14; 1 Cor 5; 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, inter al). He also tells Christians to instruct and admonish one another (Col 3). Jesus sets forth an order of fraternal correction (Matt 18:15ff) that starts with the individual but ends with “telling it to the Church” and indicates that His apostles have the capacity to forgive or retain sin (Jn 20). I could go on and on. Ms. Cox is not alone in her erroneous and unbiblical notions about purely “personal” faith and relationship with Jesus. Legions think this way, including many Catholics.

I will leave it to you, dear reader, to read the rest of her article if you wish. Please remember that I do not know Ms. Cox and do not believe I have ever even heard of her before. My critique is not of her personally. I leave that to God. But I DO critique her publicly stated and (I would argue) deeply flawed notions about faith. I respond to them to answer not just her but the many who think just like her.

In summary, “designer religion” and a purely “personal” faith without reference to the sources of Revelation and Christian antiquity is a grave danger today. It is dangerous because it takes up the trappings of the true faith but without its saving truth. This amounts to a strong delusion, having the form of godliness but not laying hold of its power (cf 2 Tim 3:5). It lives revealed truth not on its terms, but rather insists on merely “personal” notions. It reports to a “god” of one’s own personal understanding, the “god-within,” not the God who has revealed Himself.

I usually like gospel music, but this song gets it wrong. It says, “Long as I got King Jesus, I don’t need nobody else.” Sorry, that’s wrong. Jesus has many members of His body. We all have different functions, but we need each other. Jesus set it up that way.

20 Replies to “Designer Religion: A Critique of a Recent Description of Faith in a National Publication”

  1. I took the time to read Ms. Cox’s piece. I did not find it very edifying. She seems to be defending herself and not so much her faith. Her faith seems more like “fire insurance” and she is apparently struggling with trying to fit in while still holding on to faith in Jesus. But she has clearly begun the journey, as she knows in her heart that this world and everything in it will end. The thing that saddens me about Ms. Cox’s faith is that she seems embarrassed by it, and that she has been misinformed about what is necessary to enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus. I will pray for her tonight – that by His Grace, she will been drawn into a closer walk with Him.

  2. I see no reason to believe Ms. Cox is Christian at all, or even has much interest in religion given that she can’t be bothered to go to church or read a little scripture. The label must appeal to her on some level but this sounds like her engagement is cursory at best, maybe just a childhood or family memory. I wonder how she’d react to the scriptural imperative of carrying the cross.

    1. It is interesting how “appealing the labels Catholic and Christian still are. Especially in the Catholic circles people who have almost no attachment to the Church, her teachings, liturgy or practice become indignant very fast if you suggest they are not Catholic. I am a Catholic! they insist. I have always wondered why.

      1. I don’t understand it entirely but I think it’s partly nostalgia. When I was an agnostic, before my conversion I would have identified as a Jew if asked though my practice was effectively nil. It was to me at the time and even now to some extent an ethnic rather than religious identity. Just a guess FWIW.

  3. Well, she’s off to a start. A rocky one, but… the rest of her article looks like the once saved, always saved belief. I saw a televangelist preaching this the other day citing Romans and the ‘faith vs. works’ nonsense. If only they understood St. Paul’s preaching to those concerning the 613 Mitzvot of Torah. I think St. James’ correction (ch 2) lines up nicely with St. Paul’s teaching in ch 11-12 of his letter to the Hebrews… and as Christ our Lord makes clear (e.g., in Matthew ch 5; 10; 25), our faith must be lived.
    ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and chastise. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. ‘“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”‘ (Rev 3:19, 20)

  4. Many thanks for this article. All of us who think of ourselves as Catholics should regularly read out loud the Credo and examine if we really believe and understand all that we are professing. It is important to have love and adoration for our Lord and it is equally important to have love and devotion for the Church and all it’s members. God does not want us to be loners. It’s important to search and cherish His Word which is all over the Bible and illuminates the lives of our fellow christians of our days and of days gone by.

  5. Great article, Monsignor!
    I took time to read the article, and it does seem to me that she is genuinely inviting Christ into her life. Its in His hands now to continue guiding her.

    Getting serious about learning what scripture teaches is the real hurdle that the designer believers need to cross

  6. I wonder if the Church, now being more “mystery” and called the “People of God”, rather than just being the Catholic Church, both visible and invisible (Church Suffering, Church Triumphant, & those via implicit desire), has anything to do with this. It seems that Vatican II forgot that faith can be lost, thus a person who was once a member of the Church by baptism can be separated from the Vine by obstinately rejecting just one teaching on faith and morals. Today these people are “partially united” rather than being separated and deserve the name Christian. However, the Church teaches that the Spirit does not flow to a part or branch that has been separated from the Vine. It will wither and die if not grafted back in. I remain confused about how this “partial union” takes place when Catholicism is to be taken as a whole and not in parts. The new Ecclesiology of Vatican II is directly to blame for the abundance of CINOs and our designer “Christian” religions, along with the ideological parishes we have today rather than geographical ones.

    Spare the rod, spoil the child.

  7. Msgr. Pope I agree with everything you have said. Could it be that the fallacy made today is that would be Christians seek to follow Him who is the Life and forget that He is also the Way and the Truth?

    But in considering Ms. Cox personally (and I do not know her) I wonder if by publishing this piece she is not in her own tentative way beginning to stake out and claim some Christian territory. By that I mean that she has put herself forward as a Christian and I am willing to bet that in her circles that may be a very brave and difficult thing. I remember when I was beginning to walk the walk as they say, I confessed that I wanted to be holy (I felt God calling me) but I feared to be called holier than thou. I was still worrying what other people would say about me. I think perhaps this is Ms. Cox’s way of telling her peers that yes, she is Christian, but not “holier than thou.”

    I’m also willing to bet she is inspired by the Christian martyrs of the Middle East who are not afraid to claim their Christianity and die for it.

    Let’s rally around Ms. Cox and pray that she will continue the walk and begin to encounter the Word in His Word so as to conform herself to Him more surely and confidently.

  8. Could someone be a good and faithful Catholic by reading the Catechism alone? Of course, the Catechism is chock full of the bible and he would hear the bible read aloud when attending Mass. My point is that we do well to remember that the Church, not the bible, is the source of our faith and truth and the thought experiment of someone who only read the Catechism is meant as evidence of that. It is easy when engaging with Protestants to unwittingly find oneself speaking within the premise that the bible is the source of faith and truth.

    The most difficult thing for me, something for which I salute Monsignor Pope for making every effort to do, is to engage people who have a designer religion in dialogue while still remaining respectful.

    1. Magisterium, Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture (order given, one in completion), this is also Holy Church. What you’ve said about reading only the Catechism may be true, but it’s important for us Catholics to remember that we’ve nothing but what we’ve received by God’s grace. To engage Protestants ‘where they are’ and many non believers, Scripture seems the necessary starting point. In prudence, charity and patience the best this lowly sinner (I) can do is sew and pray, knowing God provides all growth.

  9. I have seen so many Christians (and Catholics I suppose) who define Jesus. As if their limited mind could comprehend Someone so vast, so eternal and unlimited.

    I heard one woman say she refused to forgive another for some wrong done, that she would just let God do that. I reminded her of the words of the Our Father, the words of Jesus “…as we forgive those…” She thought I was speaking a foreign language. I was offended that she thought God was her forgiveness monkey.

    I know others who won’t go to church until they find one they “like”. Usually that means they want a crowd of cheerleaders, not good hearty Christianity.

    Peter Kreeft wrote a great book called Jesus Shock. When I began reading it, I found myself ashamed of my own cowardice in proclaiming my faith. I have made a steadfast effort to not hesitate to say the name of Jesus with joy and respect in any situation. I still have those moments where fear ties my tongue, but with Gods grace, I will speak His Name and do His will without reservation.

    And I won’t need to “come out” about it. It will just be me.

    As for her fear of other Christians? Hogwash. If any judge her, it is they who will be judged. If she would pick up a bible she might know that. One does not need to be a bible scholar to benefit from a nightly reading, one only needs a bible, a reading light, and 20 minutes to start on an incredible journey. One that hopefully leads you to Heaven.

    1. How I agree with you about our need to proclaim our faith without shame. Thank you!

  10. Thank you Msgr. for an interesting view. It was about the 5th time today I saw a reference to Ana Marie Cox, someone I too never heard of. I agree with your larger point about designer religion. After reading her whole article, I kept coming back to this one quote: “My hesitancy to flaunt my faith has nothing to do with fear of judgment by non-believers. My mother was an angry, agnostic ex-Baptist; my father is a casual atheist. (I asked him once why he didn’t believe in God, and he replied easily, “Because He doesn’t exist.”)”

    Wow. I suspect she had to overcome a lot in life. Is she all the way there? No, but who among us is? The tone of her writing suggests some pop culture political type of audience. So I cut her some slack and commend her and hope she continues some journey of faith as best she can.

  11. Perhaps she is (and many of us too) example of what Dan Burke in Spiritual Navigation wrote “… the human person has an infinite capacity for self-deception..”

  12. I find it alarming to read the legalistic judge mental Mathew Seven attitude by not only the writer but those on this forum.You contradict the very scriptures you claim to know so well and are the epitome as to why new Christians hesitate to express their faith because of the legalistic sharks like you who come out under the guise of wise teaching. How very sad that the “pharasaical” atmosphere you create stifles the very good news of the Gospel of Grace!

    1. I hear you, but there are legitimate questions raised by her writings that Christians have a right to answer. I state the reasons for this in the article I wrote. While I will not affirm the tone of every comment here, Ms Cox has publicly engaged a discussion that deserves a response. As for you, Stan, do you not in fact break the rule you establish for us? I mean this, you call it “pharisaical” to engage a fellow Christian in debate and question if their faith is authentic, but then you, in effect, say that of us. You break the rule you establish for us by your harsh, judgmental rebuke of us. Perhaps a better approach is to say, this is a conversation worth having, let us all maintain charity, but lets have the conversation and ask the questions: what is faith? How is it to be lived? If I say I know Jesus, how do I square my understanding of him with Scripture and tradition? Are these fonts necessary at all, or is the modern concept of “god within” enough? Is faith a purely private affair or is there a communal dimension? etc. These are legitimate questions that your desire to offend no one ever shuts down. Jesus engaged people and caused offense to such a degree that he was crucified for it. I not sure that the faith can be merely an affirming, offense-free zone that you desire, even as you give offense in announcing your rule.

    2. Stan,

      I do not want to be judgmental towards Ms. Cox, and it is true that we Christians can be harsh towards one another. Most of us have experienced this, right? However, Ms. Cox wrote an article about her faith and mine for thousands to read. I say, she is looking for a response!

      Although I can’t know her true motives, I do feel I have a right to question them. I do not judge where she stands with the Lord. She says she is a believer, and I believe her. But, if she is going to write an article about the Faith and criticize an entire group of people before unbelievers – the same group that she says she belongs to – then shouldn’t those being criticized be able to respond?

      My response is based on I Corinthians 6 which says, if you have complaints about your brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t air these complaints out before the world. What good can that possibly do except confirm unbelievers’ doubts and negativity toward the Faith which would save them?

      Also, as I stated, her article is not very edifying (see I Thes. 5:7, Rom. 14:19, I Cor. 15:5,12, Ephesians 4:12, etc.) Does her article really do anything to build anyone up? What is Ms. Cox’s purpose, really? It seems to me that she wants to go public with her faith in a way that says, “Don’t worry – I’m a Christian, but not a super-Christian… those super-Christians bother me, too.” Am I supposed to believe that I don’t really perceive this?Has she really helped ANYONE?

      Finally, I’m with Monsignor in that her opinions are misleading others. She, by her own admission, adheres to a gospel of cheap grace. “There’s nothing I have to do but believe.” This false gospel cannot remain unchallenged, especially when thousands of people are reading it. In a sense, she is correct, since it is Jesus who died for us, and Jesus who delivers us from our sinful tendencies. However, it is absolutely a matter of salvation for believers to participate in the sacraments of the Church.

      We are all going to face the Lord on Judgment Day. The last words I want to hear are “Get thee away from me, I never knew you.” Many have been deceived. You do not love someone if you sit idly by and watch them continue in error.


  13. By the way her fear of Christians is illustrated in this very article and exchange of opinions. Did Paul not say in Phillipians 1…as long as the “gospel is preached”…I watched her on MSNBC this morning and was delighted that the gospel was at least proclaimed.How absolutely sad to denigrate a new christian for expressing their faith.As to the write who says her fear of Christians is “hogwash”….read your own posting and it answers her statement.

    1. It is a very difficult challenge we face. How do we evangilize to people where they are so as not to chase them away will too much up front but also not let them wander off into other sin or even some heresy but being too nice. I agree we can all go too far in being “right”. But isn’t the point of the post and hopefully the comments to work through this tension? Criticizing a discussion or debate doesn’t seem to get us anywhere. In the extreme, is it okay for her to decide that Jesus and Mary are really co-equal saviors because of what she has so far learned from some spiritual reading. Wouldn’t it really be essential for someone to jump in and help her avoid this heresy? There are lots of folks who believe this error and have written books to prove their belief. It is very difficult. How do you teach someone right from wrong without offending them that what they believe to be true is wrong? Truth is not relative in the end for Christians. One of the greatest gifts of Christ is the Magisterium to help the Church keep the truth from sliding around with the culture or our imaginations. But I would definitely avoid the Magisterium in the first few discussions with someone looking at the Faith. Experience talking there. Didn’t see my wife shaking her head that night at RCIA either.

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