The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus
Bruxy Cavey. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2007. 265 pages.
Bruxy Cavey is a teaching pastor at The Meeting Place, a thriving Brethren in Christ church with eight locations across southern Ontario, Canada. It bills itself as “a church for people who aren’t into church.” The End of Religion, Cavey’s first book (he promises more), is a religious book for people who aren’t into religion. Endorsements from Jim Wallis, Clark Pinnock, and Brian McLaren say something about the type of book this is, though its intended readers (those hostile to religion) differ from those of the other writers.
Cavey argues that Jesus liked religion as little as Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens do. (Though these are not mentioned by name, they hover in the background.) Jesus did not offer a new religion, says Cavey, but an intimate and liberating relationship with God that dispenses with religion. The book is therefore a type of apologetic that seeks to make Jesus appealing to the religiously hostile. Yet it also aims to provoke Christians to re-examine their faith and practice in the light of the “subversive spirituality of Jesus.”
Cavey’s rhetorical strategy is reminiscent of Schleiermacher’s in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), where he conceded that what the cultured despisers of religion despised was indeed despicable. Religion, he told them, was something very different, something much closer to their own inadequately articulated spiritual sensibilities. Likewise, Cavey in essence tells his readers that their suspicion of religion is fully justified, for all religion is essentially the misguided human attempt to control and manipulate God by securing his/her/its favor. Likewise their love of freedom is to be applauded, and for this reason they cannot ignore Jesus, who was equally disdainful of religion and also proclaimed a more profound human liberty.
Cavey’s argument is divided into three sections. Part One looks at the characteristics and multiple manifestations of the “religion” that afflicts all faiths of the world. The many skeletons in the Christian closet receive especially detailed and lurid attention and are blamed on the religious impulse. In Part Two Cavey examines the life of Jesus and his radical challenge to the Torahism, traditionalism, tribalism, territorialism, and Temple-centrism of his day. He then argues that in their place Jesus offered a hermeneutics of charity, freedom from stultifying tradition, a deeply personal relationship with the divine, a nation-transcending love, and God’s abiding presence in communities of Christ-followers. The third and final part draws out the implications of what Jesus did and taught for his divine identity and what this means for the questing reader. The book concludes with an Epilogue (‘The “Religion” God Likes’), followed by three appendices and a five-page bibliography that includes works by Barth but, oddly, none by that great proponent of religionless Christianity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In a popular work of theology, it may be virtually impossible not to oversimplify and even distort in order to avoid drowning one’s arguments in a sea of qualifications. Even so, qualifications for statements like the following are surely in order: “There is . . . an important difference between relating to God through systems of doctrines, codes of conduct, inherited traditions, or institutions of power, and relating to God directly, soul-to-soul, mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart” (44). If he is gesturing toward the difference between an internalized faith and perfunctory religious observance, then the point can be granted. But it is more than a quibble to disagree that a relationship with God can reach maturity and depth outside a faith community with a tradition of worship, teaching, and ethics that are biblically informed. Comments like the one quoted reinforce an individualism that will already come naturally, instinctively to Cavey’s readers.
Moreover, it is unfortunate that Cavey does not acknowledge more forcefully that not all ritual is an attempt to appease or win favor from God; that for many Muslims the Qur’an means liberation, not oppression; and that for many Jews, the Torah is grace, not bondage. Further to the latter, Cavey makes some efforts to soften his supersessionism, but to advance his anti-religious argument he cannot do so wholeheartedly. The light of the anti-religious Jesus shines brighter against the dark backdrop of Old Testament “law.” Perpetuating such stereotypes is a heavy price to pay for establishing rapport with religious skeptics.
If there is a potentially debilitating flaw in the argument of The End of Religion, it is that, notwithstanding Cavey’s claims that Jesus despised religion, when most people hear words like “Jesus,” “God,” “faith,” or “Bible,” they in fact think “religion.” Cavey’s definition of the term as everything people do to win God’s favor will, for most irreligious readers, miss the point: it’s the belief that there is a God at all that’s at issue. But perhaps Cavey’s hope is that his portrait of Jesus will be compelling enough that readers will be drawn to believe in the God whose kingdom of love he announced and inaugurated.
It just might work. His depiction of Jesus is sexy enough (in that romanticized Anabaptist way): anti-status quo, anti-institutional, anti-religious, subversive, relentlessly relational, a champion of love and freedom. Moreover, as “spirituality” still has few of the negative connotations that bedevil “religion,” many North Americans who consider themselves spiritual-but-not-religious could be persuaded by Cavey’s smart and often witty book that Jesus’ spirituality is worth exploring and that his God might exist.
It’s anyone’s guess where that could lead. But if they take their cue from The End of Religion, readers will soon find their way into faith communities somewhere. And churches will then have the joy and burden of living up to the great expectations of Cavey’s converts for a non-institutional, non-religious religion. Perhaps his next book will show them how to do that.