Religionless Christianity Settles Many Urgent Questions, But Poses Some Timeless Ones

"I'm religious but not spiritual. You know, like the Pharisees!"

By John Zmirak Published on June 10, 2024

Eric Metaxas, the author of the book I’ll be reviewing here, is a friend. Like me, he hails from Donald Trump’s home borough, Queens. In fact, Eric and I were both born in Astoria General Hospital some 18 months apart (to different mothers, I must emphasize). We both ended up at Yale and in the same English poetry seminar in 1983. (That’s kind of eerie. Eric might even find it creepy.)

Since we’re both from the Queens of the 1970s, I know Eric will understand why I need to open this review of his profound new book with a few cheap laughs. (Just as he forgives me when I pretend that the legacy of Greece in Western culture is smoky souvlaki carts and diners with dubious restrooms.) Here goes:

When I first saw the title of Religionless Christianity, I thought: Is that like flourless chocolate cake? Or meatless sausage? Is Christianity of the type he is describing like one of those “Impossible” burgers that taste kind of beefy, but in fact hail from a lab? Or is such Christianity the genuine article, the pure faith of Jesus Christ unencumbered by merely human traditions, worldly compromises, and pagan accretions?

Since the Faith about which he writes is irreducibly paradoxical, I’ll argue that on some level both things are true.

Not for Featured ImageWhen I hear Christians deprecatingly refer to “religion,” I’m immediately suspicious. I’m tempted to quote Thomas Aquinas on the “virtue of religion,” or else to delve into etymology and talk about how “religion” means simply binding oneself to a higher law of life … but I resist. Because I know that many sincere believers use “religion” to describe something quite different, to call out merely human, man-made externals and folk traditions that can replace a genuine faith, hope, and love.

And that’s the sense in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer wished for a “religionless Christianity,” in a famous talk he gave in Spain before World War II. Metaxas cites that talk as the starting point for this powerful new book. So let me make the best case I can for “religionless Christianity” of this sort, keeping in mind that I am a Roman Catholic who has actually traveled more than 100 miles to venerate the mummified heart of St. John Mary Vianney on a velvet pillow inside a glass case.

Sing a Little Louder?

Bonhoeffer was an intense, other-worldly, Kierkegaard sort of Christian who was ever aware of the danger of compromise, idolatry, and Pharisaical “works-righteousness.” Even in a church founded by the “faith-alone” pioneer Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer saw plenty of worldly, self-satisfied, bourgeois religiosity among his fellow believers. Indeed, one reason he left Germany for a while was the scandal of seeing most of his fellow Christians make squalid compromises with the rising Nazi movement — accepting silence about the persecution of Jews, for instance, as the price of being left (for the moment) in peace.

Perhaps the most powerful illustration of the dead religion Bonhoeffer warned against can be seen in the wartime anecdote of a little Lutheran church by the side of the railroad tracks, along which Jews were being shipped to extermination camps. One Sunday during the service, the train got stuck, and the wailing of the persecuted cousins of Jesus Christ was drowning out the service. The pastor, who’d long ago missed the chance to resist the promised “war against the Jews,” could only think of one answer: He told the congregation to “sing a little louder,” so that their hymns drawn from Jewish scriptures could cover the screams of the actual suffering Jews a few hundred feet away. See this powerful cinematic short depicting that incident, on which The Stream’s Jason Jones was co-executive producer:

 

Winsomeness: An Idol

It was Bonhoeffer’s passionate biblical faith which drove him to lead resistance to Hitler in German Christian circles, and led him to abandon a safe exile in the U.S. to return to his homeland when it was on the very brink of World War II. More than that, he joined the German Abwehr (secret service), intent on aiding the anti-Nazi resistance which was covertly embedded in that agency. Bonhoeffer worked energetically to advance the plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler, stop the Holocaust, and end the war. He paid for that for with his life.

Metaxas echoes Bonhoeffer in condemning the religion of externals, which fixates on buildings, rituals, creeds, and human traditions — allowing these things to psychologically substitute for a living, self-sacrificial faith.

More pertinently for us, Metaxas points to the idols that too many Christians worship today. These include “relevance,” “social acceptance,” “winsomeness,” and — if we’re brutally honest — upward class mobility. He rightly denounces those who accept one compromise after another of core moral beliefs grounded in Scripture in the name of “welcoming” and “inclusion.”

We see one church after another embrace (openly or quietly) the values imposed by the FBI, Harvard, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and billion-dollar banks while still congratulating themselves that they’re somehow being “countercultural.” Those rainbow flags that hang over Episcopal, United Methodist, and Jesuit churches serve as an infernal counterpart of the lamb’s blood over doorposts in Exodus: They’re meant to buy an exemption from the angel of death.

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Are the real Christians the pastors (including Pope Francis) who lauded the coercive imposition of the abortion-derived COVID vaccine? Those who smuggle immigrants for profit, via lucrative nonprofits that soak in taxpayer billions? Those who “sing a little louder” when pro-lifers get sent to prison and violent felons walk free? Metaxas’s book is well-timed and prophetic on all these subjects.

Judaizers vs. Marcionites

The one concern I’d raise, not with his book per se but with the notion of a “religionless” Christianity, is that it seems to embrace unreservedly just one side of the paradox that is intrinsic to our faith, and proper to our condition as embodied spirits. Yes, as the enemies of “judaizing” throughout the centuries (from St. Paul to Luther to Bonhoeffer) point out, it’s easy for us to abandon the spirit of the law for its letter, to postpone or skip the conversion of our hearts in favor of dutifully performing rituals and checking man-made boxes. (I’ll admit that I’ve referred to fulfilling my duty to attend the Eucharist each Sunday as “getting my card punched.”)

But as I explained throughout my own book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, the opposite of every sin isn’t a virtue — it’s a violent reaction to the contrary extreme. Hence you can overreact against the temptation to Wrath by embracing the vice of Servility, which enables and rewards abusers. The virtue of Patience rests in the Golden Mean between. And so on throughout all the deadly sins, and all the paradoxical conundrums we encounter as rational animals with immortal souls.

The opposite of Pharisaical externalist religion is wispy, ungrounded, formless “spirituality,” which all too easily degrades into short-lived emotive enthusiasm or a Gnostic disdain for earthly life, sacraments, binding creeds, and legitimate church authority. Those who most zealously fought against the “judaizing” spirit in the Church were the Marcionite heretics, who rejected both the Old Testament and its God. More recently, the Quakers followed what they saw as the “spirit” of Christianity out of any historical continuity with the Church. And so on. For every hierarchical church that made a fetish of its own claims, we can find a fervent sect that wandered off into the wilderness.

The enemy offers temptations at every turn of the road. We must pray for the humility to listen instead to the “still small voice” of the Spirit, as Bonhoeffer did and Metaxas does.

 

John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or coauthor of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. With Jason Jones, he also is coauthor of God, Guns, & the Government.

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