A Jagged Contention: Religion’s Testimony

“[Religion] does have a redeeming feature: it’s the human race’s historic witness to our awareness that something is seriously out of whack with the way we try to manage life. Even though I’ve said that religion is the largest management error of all time — and despite the fact that it commands us to do all kinds of things we would never have bothered with if we hadn’t invented religion in the first place (there was no religion in Eden when it was under God’s management) — it stands as a testimony to the fact that we owe both God and our neighbors an apology for making the world such as mess. In short, religion reminds us that we’re damaged goods. Having given it that much credit, though, it’s still a loser: after 10,000 years of religion, the world is not noticeably a better place. Indeed, under our religious manipulations, it’s gotten decidedly worse. Here, therefore, ends the kind word.”

-Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the Word. Pg. 36-37


What do you make of Capon’s analysis of religion? Is he too pessimistic? Doe he give religion too much credit or not enough? Can or has religion ever been a force for good apart from preaching?

Share your thoughts in the comments below


3 thoughts on “A Jagged Contention: Religion’s Testimony

  1. Like most unbelievers, he has no notion of what Christianity does. The rest of the religions of the world depend on the humanism of false religion – good humanity, good results (hardly ever); bad humanity, bad results (almost always). God’s work in Christians is as different as it is effective.

    Of course, if you mistake Christianity for sinless or lacking in hypocrisy, there might also be some disappointment. Nothing is more truthful about humanity than God’s Word, on which everything in Christianity’s body of faith depends. That Word provides the truth of sinfulness and the truth and full effect of forgiveness, and of course, believing it’s true. The goals of God in this are not this earth’s perfection, but eternity’s; and ultimately ours in the new heaven and new earth.

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  2. “It is pointless, however, to debate what it would truly mean for Western culture to renounce Christianity unless one first understands what it meant for Western culture to adopt Christianity; and this one cannot do if one is content to remain fixated upon fruitless abstractions concerning “religion” rather than turning to the actual particularities of Christian history and belief. Nor does that turn constitute some sort of safe retreat for the Christian: the realm of the particular is, by its nature, one of ambiguity, where wisdom and mercy are indissolubly wedded to ignorance and brutality, often within the same institution , or indeed in the same person. … Christianity’s greatest historical triumph was also it’s most calamitous defeat: with the conversion of the Roman Empire, the faith was born proclaiming the overthrow of the power of “the age” all at once found itself in alliance with, subordinate, and too often emulous of those powers. … the gospel has at best flickered through the history of the West, working upon hard and intractable natures-the frank brutality of barbarians, the refined cruelty of the civilized- producing prodigies of sanctity and charity in every age, institutional and personal, and suffering countless betrayals in every generation.”
    David Bentley Hart from”Atheist Delusions”

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  3. As with any theologian, you can appreciate a lot of what Father Capon says and dismiss the rest. He’s wonderful on the parables, The Third Peacock is fun stab at theodicy, The Supper of the Lamb is stupendous. Here, he’s showing the side of faith which touches Catholicism, a transforming sanctification toward less sinful human beings as part of what religion must do. The notion of merely dispensing grace against the tide of sin is something the aging priest is struggling with – and Capon does struggle out loud in his writing. But, so did Martin Luther in his later works against the Jews. Not a good idea to overvalue theologians in dotage or their formative years.

    The challenge to us is that the Word, verbal and physical (sacrament), is the only force for good in the world. It defines our relationships, as God works in our lives, we work in other’s lives. Against humanism, the glorification of civil righteousness, the doing of things for others to prove the worth of oneself, the deserving goodness of oneself, we lift up the cross and Christ’s perfection. Those who would see the work of religion as the work of humanity to earn favor and the improvement of mankind without true justice, without blood being spilled, atoning sacrifices made, and, not simply good works, but sinless perfection as God’s demand simply miss the point. These are the things we cannot offer or attain through any religion, through any practice, or through any study.

    Religion can be the placement of barriers between the person and the Word. In that sense, religion is not about what God is doing. When we “do” church, we need to be certain that all we do is let grace flow against the tide, God did not wait for man to be sinless or approach Him in proper form. Rather, proper form is drawn from man, by the Spirit and from the hearing. Is our religion something that trusts God work, accepts that we will not always see changes in others or even in ourselves? Do we make it clear that there is nothing to be earned? Look at it this way, it may not be that the world is worse but that God has made us wiser and more aware of sin. As we are in Christ and Christ is in us, how can we avoid seeing with eyes more easily offended? Shouldn’t that move us to preach more, to feel sorrow for the lost, to desire salvation for everyone, move us tears, move us to mercy? When it moves us to righteous anger, instead, maybe that’s our religion getting in the way.


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