Imagine a medical experiment that goes like this: Doctors, searching for the most basic essence of the human being, decide to determine just how much of the human body can be removed and the subject remain alive and human. They take a willing or unwilling subject and slowly begin removing parts of his body. They remove feet, then legs, hands, then arms, some organs – appendix, a kidney, part of the intestines, genitalia, etc. – they remove eyes, tongue, lips, ears, then they start to remove some bones – part of the pelvis, some ribs, etc. The subject is still alive. He does need help and care to live, but so do babies, and don’t we all at some level. Is the subject still a human being? Yes. But have the doctors answered their question? Perhaps. At one level at least they have made a possible determination of the minimum physical requirements to sustain a kind of minimum human life. And yet, can we not say there is something more than gruesome and immoral about this experiment? Is it not also grotesquely wrongheaded?
How is it wrongheaded? It is wrong in two ways. The most obvious is that a human person is a combination of body and soul. To focus only on the body is to miss at least half of the equation, but more importantly it is to miss the combination of the soul with the body, and the vast mystery that combination produces. The other reason is that reductionism is not the way to understand the essence of the human person. There is no minimum, basic essence. Rather there is an immensity. One does not understand the human person by owning, controlling, dominating, dividing, dissecting, compartmentalizing, possessing, or compressing the human person. Statistics are interesting, but they cannot tell us about you, not really. Experiments might divulge some fascinating aspects of the creature called me, but we are ignoring more outliers than any good scientist would allow if we are to think the experiments got to something more than mere hunches about only rudimentary things. Human beings are profound, crazy wonderful creatures carrying within themselves the imago Dei. We cannot be reduced.
There is a similar tendency among some Christians to do with Christianity what those doctors did with their human subject above. Their goal is to get to the absolute essential, non-negotiable core that defines a true Christian from all other persons. The idea is to find the absolute minimum that must be present in order for a person to be a Christian. Favorite questions include such gems as “how can a man be saved if he lives on a desert island and has never heard of Jesus?” or similarly “what about those tribes in the deepest jungles?” Some Christians have taken traditional, historical Christianity and sought to strip away all that is unnecessary. Like cutting apart the human body, out go the sacraments, the Eucharist, going to church once a week or even at all, doing good works, fellowship and community, and everything else. Catch phrases like “I love Jesus and hate religion” are popular symptoms of this mindset.
But can we reduce Christianity to an essence? Some have a natural urge to make things simple, so they might say “faith” or “Jesus” is all it’s about. But both of those words are vast galaxies to explore. They are really pointers to riches and nuances and complexities that a lifetime is too short to come to their end. There is something more. Christianity is not a belief or a practice, it is not merely a religion, nor is it a culture. It is something of all those things, but more fundamental is the nature of it. Perhaps it is best to think in this way: Divine law is the mind of God, natural law is the expression of Divine law as the creation. Human nature is fallen, in other words it is the natural law corrupted. But even in our fallen state, we are still primarily the Divine law expressed in our createdness. And the rest of creation is also, in its fallen state, primarily the Divine law expressed as creation. In other words, there is a fittingness between us and the Divine law, and a fittingness between all that is properly natural law.
From Divine law comes the natural expression at the center of creation, the human being. Placed in the garden, made priests of creation, taught to worship and offer sacrifices, later fallen and struggling with corruption, human beings have within their souls and their bodies the design of religion, the hunger for cult, the patterns of worship, the need for meaningful action and sacred practice. That is why in all cultures everywhere there has always been religion. It is the way God fashioned human beings. To fight against this is to deny our Creator’s design, to deny the human composition. Humans are made for religion, for cultic worship, for liturgy and praise, for sacraments and sacrifice, and for embodying a priestly function in terms of the creation – we are to re-present the creation back to God as our offering to Him, as thanks for His goodness and love towards us. And it is important to see the interconnections of all this. Religion is not an add-on to the person. Religion is one of the most fundamental, essential, interwoven elements that constitute any human being. It is inseparable from our humanness.
To reduce Christianity down to the most basic, most simple of formulas or one-word creeds, is to go too far. To say “I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” is to make an inhuman statement. It is to go against the Divine law by going against the natural law. Many who say we are saved by faith alone misunderstand what faith means in light of human nature, in light of the creation. To say we are save by grace alone can also be misunderstood and abused, but properly understood it puts the action on God and thus opens the door for the riches of that grace, to all of the Divine law expressed in the natural law and making us fully and properly human. “Grace alone” points to the Creator and His design of creation, the deep imago Dei in all of creation, and most fully in human beings, coming into fullness through worship as the proper response. To dissect Christianity, removing anything that seems to be unnecessary may be a way to rid oneself of false doctrines and perverse practices, but all too often it becomes an ideologically driven means of drawing lines between those historical, liturgical, sacramental, and traditional kinds of Christians and the so-called pure Christians who are unencumbered by religion. In short, they have unencumbered themselves from the rich gifts that God has offered them, from the truth, goodness, and beauty of the natural law, and from their own createdness. This so-called unencumbered church is all too often the inhuman church.