We 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.