The Jan. 22 issue of Anabaptist World included an article on Generation Z opposing organized religion. It noted that more than half of teens affiliated with an organized religion have little or no trust in it.
Bruxy Cavey’s The End of Religion resonates with this mistrust and seeks to draw such people to Jesus, whose mission, he writes, “was to tear down religion as the foundation for people’s connection with God and to replace it with himself — the divine coming to us in our own context and our own form.”
Cavey is senior pastor of The Meeting House, a multisite congregation in Ontario of the Canadian Anabaptist denomination Be in Christ (formerly Brethren in Christ). The End of Religion is an update of a previous book with the same title, published in 2007.
For Cavey, religion is bad. He defines it as “any reliance on systems or institutions, rules or rituals, special places or special spaces as our conduit to God.” He does acknowledge that the word itself is neutral, derived from the Latin religare, meaning to bind again, and can mean something positive or negative. For him, it’s the latter, and Jesus came to end it.
Cavey explores this theme at length (over 400 pages), drawing on Scripture, history and experience. He’s a good communicator, using analogies to explain concepts and mixing in humor, some of it lame. He’s clever at using catchy titles for sections (my favorite is “Shift Happens,” referring to the Constantinian shift). He writes in an irenic, self-deprecating tone and invites readers to question what he says. And he includes many footnotes, which I especially enjoyed.
Cavey wants readers to understand the person, teaching and story of Jesus and that “the God of the Bible wants a real, intimate, ongoing relationship with us more than he desires the petitioning and pleading rituals of religion.”
The book thus serves as a primer for seekers interested in Jesus but not religion. But Cavey does not affirm a vague, spiritual-but-not-religious response. He notes that “many people who have rejected religion have turned to a kind of smorgasbord spirituality that allows them to pick and choose their belief system as they go along.”
Neither does he affirm the brand of Christianity that emphasizes “being forgiven, saved and born again so we can go to heaven but . . . misses out on the radical nature of the Jesus-led life here and now.”
Cavey looks at the long history of horrors perpetrated by the church, and there is plenty to look at. He goes on to consider the destructive effects of fundamentalism — Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and others. He does not include what could be called atheistic fundamentalism, such as Nazism or Stalinism.
The middle part of the book looks at Jesus’ confrontation with the religious leaders as he challenged Torah, tradition, tribalism, territory and temple. Cavey doesn’t directly address supersessionism, the doctrine that asserts the New Covenant through Jesus Christ supersedes the Old Covenant, which was made exclusively with the Jewish people. One good follow-up book to this one might be The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine.
Like many Anabaptists, Cavey interprets the Bible through the lens of the revelation of Jesus. Following Jesus, he writes, “will move us toward his countercultural way of limitless forgiveness, radical acceptance, nonviolent peacemaking and sacrificial love.”
For Cavey, religion has no redeeming qualities: “All religion is the idolatry of ourselves.” At the heart of all religious striving, he writes, is “performance-based acceptance.” In a chapter called “The ‘Religion’ God Likes,” Cavey calls it irreligion. Anything that prods one to earn salvation is bad.
Jesus addressed what some have called the domination system, which applied not only to the Jewish religious hierarchy but to Rome and its minions. Domination can be a mark of religion as well as of secularism or humanism.
Religion turns bad when it falls prey to this spirit of domination, the desire to gain or hold on to power over others. The genius of Jesus is kenosis (Philippians 2:7), giving up power. This is echoed in the Anabaptist emphasis on gelassenheit, or yieldedness.
Cavey echoes this when he warns: “Whenever the church gets into bed with political powers, the church becomes the state’s whore.” But mostly he addresses a more individualistic concern about following rules rather than Jesus’ ethic of love.
Cavey presents a fairly thorough introduction to Jesus’ teaching and witness and offers an invitation to follow him. His message of unconditional love is one all need to hear.
Gordon Houser is author of Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality.