09/26/2014 05:20 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

Misreading the Gospel: The Religious Spirit

...having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.
--2 Timothy 3:5

TO THE POLITICALLY INDELICATE MARTIN LUTHER, Rome was a brothel. To him, Leo X was at once pope, pimp, and antichrist (three words you don't often see together in one sentence). I offer my apologies now for citing these abuses some five hundred years later. My point is not to slander the Church of Rome, but to disclose the spirit that drove it at that time, a spirit it willingly denounces today.

I have read the late Christopher Hitchens' book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and to be honest, as a believer myself, there is much in this brilliant work I must agree with. When I hear the word 'religion' as used by Mr. Hitchens or anyone else, including myself, I cannot help but think of its darker sense, as an inflexible kind of spirit that infects/possesses a body of people.

A religious spirit has one nature, and whatever name we give it, it is recognized by blind devotion and a zealotry that is most often militant, if not lethal, driven by a kind of collective narcissism that sees, adores, and accepts no image but its own. Concerning medieval Catholicism, my book, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God An English Voice, says it this way:

At the heart of medieval Christianity, if indeed it had a heart, was a reliance on fear and manipulation. The capacity to inspire terror in its faithful was the first rule of order and dominion. The only modern analogue might be radical Islam, with its commitment to jihad.

This particular spirit is a very old one. It changes names often and it is not limited to any one ethnic or religious persuasion. While it may vary in its method--and certainly belief--among the most common identifying marks are blind devotion and ritual murder.
--David Teems, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God An English Voice

Having read medieval and early modern histories, I am well aware of the abuses, the horrors imposed, the gross inhumanities, and in the name of the Christian God. But those abuses represent a distortion, a gross misreading of the Gospel and certainly a misrepresentation of Christ. True Christianity is nothing like that.

According to the Gospel as I understand it, Christ gave only two commands: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. That is the very sum of it. It is no more complicated than that. He demonstrated this love with the expenditure of his own life, and encouraged his followers to do the same, that is, to love as he loved, which called for a severity that eluded most of them (and still does today). Against this simple but not-so-simple command there is no argument, whether from the brilliant Mr. Hitchens, from me, you, or anyone else.

While resentment or even hatred of Christianity is understandable and perhaps justified because of the abuses named above, a hatred of Christ himself is another matter altogether. I don't mean for this to sound like a Sunday School lesson, but again, true Christianity puts others before itself. It loves and commands its followers to love to the point of their own ruin if asked. It is anything but religious. Indeed, it is impossible for love to be religious. It lives by surrender, not by conquest. That there is small evidence of it in this world doesn't negate its truth.

As unpleasant as this may sound to some, the atheist himself, though unknowingly, becomes religious when swept up in his rage. Indifference is a much more insidious enemy of faith than blind zealotry.

The religious spirit preaches but refuses to listen. It injures recklessly and has no healing in its heart. It destroys lives, divides homes, puts wedges between husbands and wives, all for a supposed cause or belief. And whether it be Medieval Christianity, Nazi Germany, or radical (bully) Islam, it is the selfsame spirit--thuggish, lethal, retarding progress and the evolution of culture.

Because of the abuses, both historically and presently, Christianity has done the world as much disservice as it has service. Does that make it inherently wrong because it has been so distorted or misread by so many of its followers? I think not. In two thousand years it has yet to discover itself, in spite of what the elitists may tell you today.

But I am hopeful.

When the simplicity of the gospel cannot be understood, obeyed, or exercised, where love is marginalized, religion is our first response. We take comfort in rules, creeds, and unlivable codes. Anyone can go to church, do all that is required, sing the songs, say the prayers, take communion, or perform a thousand acts of piety and feel good about themselves in the act. But love asks so much more of us than that. Indeed, those things mean little in the bigger picture. Piety and spirituality are not the same thing. The only thing that counts is a surrendered life, a life that gives freely of itself and for nothing in return. Paul said it this way, "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Galatians 5:6)

Religion is a counterfeit. And though it has the validation of large (and very old) institutions, we have all witnessed how confused, inflexible, angry, small minded, and lethal it can be. Christianity, for all the good it has done, often becomes its own worst enemy. Any hostility is understood. That is not to say that church is unnecessary. But its relevance depends on its imitation of Christ, that is, how effectively it demonstrates the heart of the gospel and not just to sustain its own sterling image.

Christianity will gain possession of itself in time. With the world pressing with such severity and heat against it, religion (at least in a Christian context) and the religious spirit will fall away with all its counterfeits, all its artifice, all its excuses and distractions, all its distortions and injustices. Only love will remain, remembering again that religion is an argument, God is love.