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Try not to skim over this answer. We are all a bit of both, but it’s highly nuanced and it’s the subject spiritual seekers face on all their journies. Reality emerges as we die to the fictions we pretend are our self.
The most startling discovery of the Bible is NOT that there is a religion that gets people to heaven, but that NO religion does. The reason for this is that heaven, or the kingdom of God, has come to us. This is unfortunate news for religious systems which are essentially functioning as earth evacuation strategies. World religions have become very rich and have swollen with power by offering a life raft off a sinking ship…it’s a proven economic engine which taps into our pride and FOMO.
The ten commandments, the five pillars, the eight-fold path, the yoga’s in the Gita, all meditations, all moralistic strategies, and any pagan or formal rituals for purification… may serve a purpose for recalibrating our behaviors toward being more self-aware, potentially loving, generous, or compassionate, but each are essentially leveraging a reward (either now or later) or a punishment (either now or later) for those who won’t be like us and join our tribe.
What are we to do with man or woman who won’t play by the rules? Society has a way of dealing with such and so does religion.
The teachings of Christ are subversive to religion and its overreach. Yes, Jesus’ life and message was imbedded in a culture of the Jewish history and religion, but Judaism was archetypal for all institutional religion, and for any ideology a person holds to religiously. He proved ritual didn’t coerce God onto our side. Rising to the top of religion is shown to make us worse, not better people. Jesus showed the world that the power and presence of God is gift given to all comers who yearn to know their true name rather than make a name for themselves.
The sober-minded person with only a modicum of self-awareness will be able to see their own pride and their insistence on life on their myopic terms. It’s the default mode of all of us. The spiritual seeker leans into this awareness to discover that there is far more pride, ego, fear, and weakness than they had originally considered and quickly realizes they need help, or a remedy, or a counterbalance to their own shadows. Such a person who grows up in proximity to any of the world’s religions will easily fall into the assimilation and behavior modification machinery of religion. The perfect metaphor for this is Dr. Seuss’s story of the Sneetches entering the “Star On” machine.
Religion is not all bad. It can provids a framework for a deeper exploration, but if we are not careful, it can also obscure the toxin which is imbedded in its offering for healing, namely, the paralysis it gives to the collective of humanity by labeling innies and outies. Otherness disease is a person’s tribalism, their fake ID, given by institutional powers or ideologies, which halt all progress of spiritual renewal and replace it with religious compliance. Other’s will only be accepted if they join our tribe.
Christ following is not a religion but a faith which gives birth to an unfettered spiritual seeing. It’s message, the Gospel, is a power which liberates the sober-minded seeker as they subvert, just as Jesus did, the concentric circles of institutional power which seek to entrap us through over-identification. Let me explain.
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We follow Christ when we subvert the first institution, that of the family, which names us with our first pseudonym. Family is a potentially wonderful thing, but we can and do make an idol out of it, and if we over-identify with it, our life wanders in and out of relationship hells. Psychotherapy exists to help us create the correct distance to our family within each stage of life. Consider these verses:
“And his (Jesus) mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.”And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)
“For I (Jesus) have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-37)
We follow Christ when we subvert the second institutions of our friends and culture. Teens often escape family only to become entrapped in the over-identification with their peers. It’s similar to those who over-identify with their town, their state, their country, or their culture, claiming it’s “who I am.”
“He (Jesus) went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” (Mark 6:1-6)
We follow Christ when we subvert a host of other institutions which seek to name us. Our educational systems seek to identify us based on how many years we bow and serve them. We forfeit freedom when we accept the fake ID of “college grad” or “post-doc” or “trade school” as we “become” our resumes. All of these indexes are not “who we are” but we clutch them at a soul level. We identify with our Alma Mater, our mascots, and from there, out we go onto the greasy skids, where we transfer identity to our vocations, job titles, and economic engines.
“And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:20-22)
We follow Christ when we subvert the institution of religion. This is really only possible for the person who has developed their faith and liberation through extraction from the more proximate institutions in life. The religious mind cannot fathom liberation from their “whitewashed tombs” of religion. Literally everything that is sacred to them is wrapped up in the system…it’s the true definition of over-identification and idolatry. Such a fake identity is derived from religion, that any attempt to lead a person out of religion and return them to God is usually met with ferocity and violence. The Bible reveals that the most lost soul in all of humanity is not the pagan or the atheist, it is the religious mind.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:14-15)
We follow Christ when we subvert the institutions of Government. This doesn’t mean we are to overthrow our government. Subversion is not a “power over” dynamic. It’s an unearthing of its grip upon us. The Bible teaches us in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Subversion means our government cannot give us our true name. We are free to be patriotic, but we are to see others as ourself. The freedom of the Gospel is that it allows us to be in the world system, but not of the world system. This distinction is the key to our ultimate freedom which is not given by any government. Just like Jesus, the governments of the world can take our livelihoods, and our very lives, but if they are not the source of who we truly are in God,
“You would have no authority over me (Jesus) at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11)
“But he (Jesus) perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:23-25)
As you can see in this brief summary from my upcoming book “Oblivious“, Christ following is the original and only spiritual but not religious path to find ourself hidden in Christ and found in God. This is not a conversion to any religion, it is the completion of our faith in our Maker as James Finley puts it… by not braking faith with our awakened heart. Fidelity to that “something beyond” is the faith of Abraham, Moses, and an endless parade of people in human history (Hebrews 11) who were not by definition subscribers to the Christian religion, but somehow followed Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).
As I close this contemplation today, I leave you with one last consideration.
It is possible to be a Christ follower from within any institution of life and it is possible to do so and not have a complete awareness of it.
“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you (the religious mind).” (Matthew 21:31)
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)
The goal of spirituality is to become authentic, real, healed, or rescued (salvation not conversion) and the only true existence we have is that which exists in God, everything else is a pseudonym. It is a fiction to live life not truly knowing who we are. The great separation depicted in scripture is a moment of judgement or true seeing where the false is cast off, thrown out, or separated from that which is true.
The big discovery of the Bible is not that it’s promoting a particular religion, but rather that it depicts the only footsteps we can follow if we want to truly know ourselves NOT by finding our way to God, but by discovering how God has found his way to us, and without whom, our existence is impossible.
Every world religion says “Do!” Christ following says “Done!“