"Religion kills," says anti-theist Christopher Hitchens. I couldn't agree more. In fact, I'm surprised Hitchens is so behind the times. The Apostle Paul beat him to the punch when he wrote to a new church in 55 A.D. that, "The (religious) laws kill, but the Spirit gives life." But Paul wasn't just waxing poetic. The decisive case against religion came from Jesus himself.
We read in the Gospels dozens of stories where Jesus, an itinerant rabbi, confronts the gatekeepers of his own Jewish faith, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The religious leaders of Jesus' day viewed themselves as the protectors of the ancient agreement made between the Hebrew people and God -- you might say religious UPS deliverymen (sorry ladies) -- delivering the perfectly received truth from generation to generation. There was only one problem though: Imperfect people were involved in this process. Over time, the religious deliverymen started stuffing the package with things that God had nothing to do with, literally adding 6,000 extra rules meant to keep people from breaking the original few rules. And since they thought they already had God in a box anyway, anyone who thought outside of it was a dangerous heretic.
In response to this, Jesus declared that religion -- as defined by a bounded set of doctrines, rules and structures -- was useless to the God and a "burden" to people. God's truth could not be bound up in a neatly packaged religion. Rather, it was found in the nebulous but centered pursuit of living out the "greatest commandment": "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind," and the equally important: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said you could sum up true faith "and all the demands of the prophets on these two commandments."
Seems so simple, right? But life is complicated, and our concoction of motives causes us to miss the mark more often than not. So the voices of religion tempt us with an easy solution, offering to put God back in the box if we would just adhere to the bounded set of doctrines, rules and structures. It's not hard to imagine why so many people choose to live life that way. It's safer, more defined and, in theory, unchanging. But Jesus calls for a spirituality that is more dangerous, fluid and dynamic than most people will ever be comfortable with. Besides, if the past 3,000 years of history -- not to mention the hemorrhaging worldwide membership of the most calcified denominations -- is any sign, it seems self-evident that in the long run, religion leads far more people away from God than ever to God.
So how does the institutional Church, which by its nature is an organized body with doctrines, rules and structures, not offer the kind of religion that Jesus condemns? Churches must move from places of bounded-sets to centered-sets, that is to say, evolving from an organization with doctrines, rules and structures that define who is in and who is out (as the Pharisees did) to a community where the doctrines, rules and structures are adjustable around the spiritual center of following Jesus and living out the greatest commandment (as the early Church did).
Like I said though, this is nothing new, but my generation is manifesting this reform in new ways. We regularly change churches based not on a particular doctrine or denomination but on the spiritual transformation we observe occurring within the church. The Internet allows me, a Presbyterian, to read an Anglican blog before discussing it on Facebook with friends from a nondenominational church. Our individual theologies, made in overlapping groups of equals, look more like something worked out on Wikipedia than beliefs cut-and-pasted from the encyclopedia.
Proponents of religion may call this unorthodox, heretical or even watered down. We would call it the way of Jesus.