Christianity is Not a Religion

Regarding my Salvations? entry, a friend commented on the similarity of the post to a couple of chapters in the writings of Robert Farrar Capon. Father Capon is an Episcopal priest, chef, author and my favorite contemporary theologian, and that entry was indeed inspired by his writings. Some of his works include:

The Mystery of Christ … and Why We Don’t Get It

Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace

– Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-And-Found of Church History

The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair With Theology (An Offering of Uncles/the Third Peacock/Hunting the Divine Fox)

– The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World

Health, Money, and Love and why we don’t enjoy them

The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect Through a History of Images

Genesis: The Movie

Father Capon’s books have probably touched me and influenced my theology more than any other Christian books I’ve ever read, and while I don’t agree 100% with everything he says, I still just can’t recommend them enough. In order to give you a taste of what he has to offer I’m going to leave you with some quotes from his various books and from interviews that he has given:

“The gospel of grace is the end of religion, the final posting of the CLOSED sign on the sweatshop of the human race’s perpetual struggle to think well of itself. For that, at bottom, is what religion is: man’s well-meant but dim-witted attempt to approve of his unapprovable condition by doing odd jobs he thinks some important Something will thank him for.

Religion, therefore, is a loser, a strictly fallen activity. It has a failed past and a bankrupt future. There was no religion in Eden and there won’t be any in heaven; and in the meantime Jesus has died and risen to persuade us to knock it all off right now.” – Between Noon and Three, p. 166

“Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is the proclamation of the end of religion, not of a new religion, or even of the best of all religions. …If the cross is the sign of anything, it’s the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all of the world’s problems without requiring a single human being to do a single religious thing. What the cross is actually a sign of is the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems – that it never did work and it never will…” – The Mystery of Christ … and Why We Don’t Get It, p. 62

“Almost all people, inside as well as outside the church, find that the notion of grace stands in contradiction to everything they understand by religion.” – Between Noon and Three, p. 136

“For all our protestations to the contrary, we will sooner accept a God we are fed TO than a God we are fed BY.”

“However much we hate the law, we are more afraid of grace” – Between Noon and Three

“Christianity is not a religion, it is the announcement of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things (believing, behaving, worshipping, sacrificing) the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God. About those things, Christianity has only two comments to make. The first is that none of them ever had the least chance of doing the trick: the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins (see the Epistle of Hebrews) and no effort of ours to keep the law of God can ever succeed (see the Epistle of Romans). The second is that everything religion tried (and failed) to do has been perfectly done, once and for all, by Jesus in his death and resurrection. For Christians, then, the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade. The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical, and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.’ It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.” – Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

“I want you to set aside the notion of the Christian religion, because it’s a contradiction in terms. You won’t learn anything positive about religion from Christianity, and if you look for Christianity in religion, you’ll never find it. To be sure, Christianity uses the forms of religion, and, to be dismally honest, too many of its adherents act as if it were a religion; but it isn’t one, and that’s that. The church is not in the religion business; it is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. And the gospel is the good news that all man’s fuss and feathers over his relationship with God is unnecessary because God, in the mystery of the Word who is Jesus, has gone and fixed it up Himself. So let that pass.” – Between Noon and Three, p. 167

“Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be wise. You don’t have to be wonderful. You just have to be dead. That’s it.”

“The world is a fun place. It’s also a grim place. Partly because we made it that way and partly because God made it that way. The reason there are earthquakes is not because of sin. It’s because God put a ball of hot slop in the middle of frigid space. It cools down, and when it cools enough, the crust begins to crack. If you happen to live on one of the cracks, you’ve got problems. There’s a lot of tough stuff in the world and it’s simply there by God’s design. As for example, death is there by God’s design. It’s not just a punishment for sin. It’s the way the creation works. The world is an ecology of life and death, of good and evil, and God made it that way. What we decided at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, though, was that we wanted to run the ecology a different way. We wanted to run it so we could make the good better and get rid of the evil altogether. But look what we’ve done with that as a result. We’ve made death a problem to be solved. Death is not a problem to be solved. It’s a mystery to be entered and embraced. For everyone. Not just for Christians. For ducks and geese and mice and men.”

“The purpose of orthodoxy is not to tell you the whole truth, but to deliver intact to every succeeding generation the official boy scout set of images with which to pursue the truth. Theology, therefore, is a hunt for the Mystery – and the theologian is primarily a sportsman: Even though he knows that as long as he lives he will never get even one clean shot at the Beast, he is happy enough keeping his guns oiled, and tramping through the woods. Why shouldn’t he be? At the end, the Beast has promised to fall right at his feet.” – Hunting the Divine Fox

“I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing by the word of the cross – and then be brave enough to stick around while it goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms. But preachers can’t be naughty or brave unless they’re free of their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they won’t be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as doornails, in Jesus.” – The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel Against the Wisdom of the World

“…saying that God would predestine some people to hell — after Jesus went out of his way to say he came to save them all — isn’t Gospel. It’s just moralism in theological drag.” – The Mystery of Christ…& Why We Don’t Get It

“…there are two very different ways you can come at the Incarnation. One is to turn it into a transaction that was poked into the history of the world at a specific time and place (namely, in the Person and work of Jesus); the other is to model it as a feature of the constitution of the universe — a Mystery present in creation from beginning to end, but which was finally and fully manifest to us in Jesus.” – The Mystery of Christ…& Why We Don’t Get It

“The church is not in the world to teach sinners to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; and on the whole it does a fairly competent – even a gleefully aggressive – job of it. The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business. Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it.” – The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel Against the Wisdom of the World

“Therefore we are safe. Not safe if… Not safe provided… Add anything – even a single qualifier, even a single hedge – and you lose the gospel of salvation, which is just Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

“The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands. The world is drowning in religion. But it is scared out of its wits by any mention of the grace that takes the world home gratis.”
“God in Jesus didn’t prevent sinners from sinning, he went around forgiving them right and left. If we want to represent him, we shouldn’t misrepresent his methods. We should instead busy ourselves with the twin jobs of forgiveness and healing — with, in short, the Gospel work of raising the dead by laying down our lives for our friends. The world is not a collection of good listeners waiting for the right advice to come down the track; it’s a bunch of corpses totally immune to talk. Its resurrection is not in the least facilitated by a surgeon-general’s warning that sin should have been avoided in the first place.” – Light Theology & Heavy Cream

“The church is not an enclave of refugees from the world; it is the sacrament of God’s presence in the world by the Mystery of the incarnation. It’s not supposed to look as little like the world as possible but as much like the world as it can manage. Otherwise, the world will never be able to recognize, in such a parochial culling of supposedly sinless humanity, anything even vaguely resembling its true face. It will just go on seeing in us the same old unforgiving face that already greets it in the mirror every morning. For the fellowship of the baptized is simply the world in all its sinfulness, dampened by the waters of forgiveness.” – The Astonished Heart

“There is one effect that cannot be the result of a direct application of force, and that is the maintenance of a relationship between free persons. If my child chooses not to cooperate with me, if my wife chooses not to live with me, there is no right-handed power on earth that can make them toe the line of relationship I have chosen to draw in the sand. I can dock my son’s allowance, for example, or chain him to a radiator; or in anger at my wife, I can punch holes in the Sheetrock or beat her senseless with a shovel. In short, I can use any force that comes to hand or mind, and yet I cannot cause either of them, at the core of their being, to stop their wrongs and conform to my right. The only power I have by which to do that is left-handed power – which for all practical purposes will be indistinguishable from weakness on my part. It is the power of my patience with them, of my letting their wrong be – even if that costs me my rightness or my life – so that they, for whose reconciliation I long, may live for a better day of their own choosing.

My point here is twofold. The power of God that saves the world was revealed in Jesus as left-handed power; and therefore any power that the church may use in its God-given role as the sacrament of Jesus must also be left-handed. Despite the fact that God’s Old Testament forays into the thicket of fallen human nature were decided right-handed (plagues, might acts, stretched-out-arm exercises, and thunderous threats) – and despite Jesus’ occasional use of similar tactics in the Gospels – the final act by which God reconciles the world to himself consists of his simply dropping dead on the cross and shutting up on the subject of sin. He declares the whole power game won by losing, and he invites the world just to believe that absurd proposition.” – The Astonished Heart, pp. 62-63

“When the Resurrection and the Life says “Lazarus, come forth,” the rest of the story does not depend on Lazarus. He can drag his feet all the way – admittedly, a hell of a thing to do – but he rises, no matter what. He just plain does.”
“Left-handed power, in other words, is precisely paradoxical power; power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention. More than that, it is guaranteed to stop no determined evildoers whatsoever. It might, of course, touch and soften their hearts. But then again, it might not. It certainly didn’t for Jesus; and if you decide to use it, you should be quite clear that it probably won’t for you either. The only thing it does insure is that you will not–even after your chin has been bashed in–have made the mistake of closing any interpersonal doors from your side.

Which may not, at first glance, seem like much of a thing to insure, let alone like an exercise worthy of the name of power. But when you come to think of it, it is power– so much power, in fact, that it is the only thing in the world that evil can’t touch. God in Christ died forgiving. With the dead body of Jesus, he wedged open the door between himself and the world and said, “There! Just try and get me to take that back!” – Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

“Not all churches practice infant baptism, but infant baptism is a wonderful testament to absolute grace. It says, “It’s done.” It doesn’t say, after this if you do something, then you’ll be OK. It says, “You’re OK now,” not because you did something or thought something or figured something out, but you’re OK now because Jesus says so. It isn’t religion that makes you OK with God, it’s God who does it. The sacraments are not religion. They do not cause something to happen. You don’t change the wine in the Eucharist into the blood of Christ, the presence of Christ. You just put up a sign in which you say, he is present in this sign as he is present in all things, including me. For example, a priest in my jurisdiction holds up the bread and wine before communion and says, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.” That means that the whole world is changed, changed by Christ.”

“Too often the church preaches resurrection but effectively denies the death out of which alone the grace of resurrection proceeds. Its cure of choice, for its own hills or for the world’s, is not death but simply more doomed living. The church, for example will keep sinners (the morally dead) in its midst only as long as they do not presume to look dead—only as long as they can manage to make themselves seem morally alive. Moreover, ecclesiastical institutions are no more capable of accepting death for themselves than they are of tolerating it in their members. Like all other institutions , they cannot even conceive of going out of business for the sake of grace: given a choice of laying down their corporate lives for a friend or cutting off the friend at the knees, they almost invariably spare themselves the axe. Worst of all, when the church speaks to the world, it perpetuates the same false system of salvation. It is clearly heard as saying that the world can be saved only by getting its act together. But besides being false, that is an utterly unrealistic apologetic. For everyone knows perfectly well that the world has never gotten its act together and never will—that distaste has been the hallmark of its history—and if there is no one who can save it in its disasters, there is on one who can save it.” – Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p. 474

“The parables tell you not what you think you want to hear, but what you don’t want to hear. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, nobody listening to Jesus wanted to hear that a Samaritan was their neighbor. So what the parables basically give us is stuff we can’t stand to hear. Take the Lost Sheep. What we want to hear is that the lost have to find themselves first and then come back to God. Wrong. All you’ve got to be is lost. Not fancily lost. Not ethically lost. Just plain lost. Likewise, all you’ve got to do to be raised from the dead is to be dead. Not uprightly dead or piously dead. Just dead.”

“It’s a mistake to think you can’t go to heaven with your sins. If God could only take me to heaven without my sins, then of the 4,000 pages of the novel of my life, all that would get to heaven would be a four-page pamphlet. He’d have to edit me down so far that my life wouldn’t be recognizable. It would not be my history. But he saves my history. Me! In my whole history. He becomes sin for us. That’s 2 Corinthians 5:21. “He made him who knew no sin to become sin for our sakes. . . .” The job is done. The church doesn’t preach that, though. It’s always saying the job is done; but then it insists you have to cooperate with that job before it will be done for you. Wrong! It is done for you. It has been done for you. It’s all done for you. Trust it.”

“People object to the idea that the Bible is the Word of God just because it is full of oddities, contradictions, and dunderheadedness. Admittedly, there have been theologians who tried to maintain that God literally wrote it all himself – or dictated it to infallible secretaries – and that all the riddles of Scripture were put in just to keep our faith on its toes. Well, if you like that theory, you’re welcome to it; I happen to think it’s rather unflattering to God. What seems more reasonable to me is to assume that God did indeed decide to come up with a bookful of words that would be his Word, but that when he cast about for some word-producing agents, he found that all he had arranged for in his infinite wisdom were human authors. Accordingly, he did whatever he did to inspire the several writers of Scripture and settled for what he got – or, better said, perhaps, he got what he wanted, plus a lot of other sometimes vivid writing that he took as part of the bargain: inflated census figures, rhapsodic reporting of sleazy royal carryings-on, and a fair amount of just plain wrong geography.

My theory about the divine inspiration of 1 Corinthians, for instance, is that God sized up Saint Paul on a particular evening and felt that this was the night to get him to tear off the definitive statement about the paradox of the divine power. Saint Paul, obedient to the inspiration of the Spirit, promptly responded with chapter one in all its glory: the foolishness of God that was wiser than men, the weakness of God that was stronger than men, and the absolute centrality of the Passion of Christ to the divine management of history. In the process, however, he also produced a rather feebleminded list of people he thought he remembered baptizing – and followed it up with three chapters full of sexual hang-ups and a couple of pages of absolute waffling on the subject of speaking in tongues. First Corinthians has sixteen chapters not, I think, because Saint Paul neatly rounded off his argument at that number but because God, taking pity on subsequent generations of commentators, inspired him at that point to go to bed.” – The Romance of the Word, pp. 214-215

“Jesus and Paul-and the New Testament in general-have the nasty but natural habit of talking out of both sides of their mouths on most important subjects. Jesus himself is sometimes easygoing, sometimes as hard as nails. Paul, when he speaks to responsible heirs of the Jewish tradition, is full of grace, freedom, and forgiveness; but when he writes to Greeks whose sexual mores, for example, make his pharisaic flesh creep, he sounds exactly like an Old Testament Jewish uncle. No one can read any long document (other than a lease or a will) without having to decide which of its insistences or stipulations he or she thinks central and which peripheral. And therefore no careful readers of Scripture-not even those (such as myself) who hold it to be the Word of God-can dispense themselves from the necessity of putting the arm on the peripheral in favor of the central.” – The Romance of the Word

“You’re worried about permissiveness—about the way the preaching of grace seems to say it’s okay to do all kinds of terrible things as long as you just walk in afterward and take the free gift of God’s forgiveness… While you and I may be worried about seeming to give permission, Jesus apparently wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation; and he proved that by bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise pretty much the same objections you do. He’s angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue—that music, dancing, and a fattened calf are, in effect, just so many permissions to break the law. And to that, Jesus has the father say only one thing: “Cut that out! We’re not playing good boys and bad boys anymore. Your brother was dead and he’s alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” – Between Noon and Three

“When Jesus told his parables to the people, his disciples asked, why do you talk to them in riddles? And his answer was: “So they won’t catch on. Because anything they could catch on to would be the wrong thing. As Isaiah said, seeing they don’t see and hearing they don’t hear, neither do they understand [Matthew 13:10-17]. That’s why I talk to them like this: because I don’t want them to have little lights go on in their heads. I want to put out all the lights they’ve got, so that in the darkness they can listen to me.”

Now go order some of his books. 😀