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The James Luther Adams Papers
The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993
Part 2: “Religion’s Word Against Religion”
When we speak of true religion and false religion, we may, of course, use nice words, polite words, academic words, respectable words; but when the Bible speaks of false religion, it speaks of blasphemy, of hypocrisy, of idolatry. These are rough words, harsh words:
Depart from me; I never knew you, you who work iniquity.
Woe unto you, hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense, make long prayers.
If the light that is in you be darkness, how great is that darkness.
Evidently one of the greatest mistakes we can make is to suppose that all religion is good, or that religion is something sacrosanct, something that should be exempt from criticism, something that can escape from the wrath of God. The prophets of Israel and the prophet of Nazareth knew better. They knew that the Devil is a gentleman, that evil in order to make headway in the world needs the cloak of religion. They even give us to understand that “religion” is the subtlest and most dangerous enemy of God, that “religion” is our human trick for rejecting justice; it is our way of “using” God as an instrument of an ungodly policy.
I once had some conversations with the Nazi Archbishop of Germany, who said that Hitler had been sent by God to fulfill German destiny. I ventured to remind him that the God of the ancient Hebrew prophets had a controversy with the people of Israel, for they thought God had a special destiny for them because of their blood and soil and regardless of their disobedience to the command of justice. The archbishop jumped from his chair and shouted, “How could God be against us? God is in us.”
The Germans met destiny with blood and tears partly because they could not hear the word against religion, the word against their church religion before Hitler came to power, and the word against Nazi German Christian religion after he came to power. It is also worth recalling that the old Russian Orthodox Church brought destruction upon itself just because it did not proclaim or could not hear the word against religion.
Religions such as these became what John Milton might have called a darkness visible. Perhaps it was for this reason that the Archbishop of Canterbury said, “It is a grave mistake to suppose that God is exclusively, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” The first word of prophetic religion is the word against religion. The Old Testament prophets went so far as to declare that the false prophets of their time went awhoring after false gods. Yes, they said that false believers are prostitutes!
The prophet Hosea had an experience which made clear to him what false religion is. He married a woman who became unfaithful to him. She pretended that she was faithful to her husband, but she was essentially a paramour. Brooding over this sad experience, Hosea came to the conclusion that just as his wife was a kept woman, so the false religion of his people was a “kept” religion. It had all the outer signs of respectability; it received the praise that belongs to piety and virtue; it gave an outward appearance of charity, but it was actually a prostitute.
What an astonishing thought! Very seldom are atheists attacked in the Bible. Hosea hurls his charges at the religious people. Evidently irreligion is not the dangerous thing. The dangerous thing is the false imitation. It claims to serve God, but it is really already possessed. Or, to put it another way, it has taken God into its possession and domesticated deity; it has a “kept” God that does their bidding rather than commanding their lives. A “kept” religion, then, has a “kept” God who rules only for the sake of those who do the “keeping” and not for all the children of God. For it the cross is only a double-cross. That is why the people of this age and every age must never be deaf to the painful, prophetic word of religion’s word against religion.