By Bryan Owen

Just imagine: Someone takes five barley loaves and two fish and feeds 5,000 people with them. Who wouldn’t be blown away? Jesus’ miracle made such an impression on those who witnessed it that “they were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15).

It’s hard to blame them. After all, here’s a guy who can guarantee that you never run out of food, someone you can rely on to supply your basic needs. And if he can do that, what else is he capable of? Might he also overthrow Roman oppression? Usher in world peace? Shower us with wealth and prosperity?

We’re told that when Jesus realized what the people were up to “he withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15).

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Jesus will not be forced into doing our bidding. He walks away from propping up our agendas on the warrant of his authority. He rejects being reduced to his utility value for us.

I’m reminded of theologian James Gustafson’s critique of “utilitarian religion”:

The temptation of religion is always to put the Deity and the forces of religious piety in the service of the immediate needs and desires of individuals, small groups, and societies. … Religion is put into the service not of gratitude, reverence, and service to God but of human interests, morally both trivial and serious. Religion its theologies, its cultic practices, its rhetoric, its symbols, its devotions, becomes unwittingly justified for its utility value. God is denied as God; God becomes an instrument in the service of human beings rather than human beings instruments in the service of God. (Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics [University of Chicago Press, 1981], p. 25)

The human interests that put God in our service include the understanding of religion as that which “helps us to be free and happy” (ibid., p. 20). Using religion to pursue our freedom and happiness as ultimate ends can take many forms, including the ways we push causes in an increasingly issue-driven and politicized church and society. Power plays eclipse theological discernment, while the voice and votes of the majority are said to unequivocally express God’s will.

I sometimes wonder how much of this is about the justice of the causes we pursue and how much of it is about pursuing one of the highest values of our culture: self-fulfillment. And I wonder that not only because of how politicized things are in Church and society but also because of how over-personalized things can be as well. To disagree with those who hold a contrary view, and sometimes to even ask questions or express doubts, can be taken as a personal insult, a form of disrespect for who or what they are, and thus an assault on their dignity.

N.T. Wright makes an important observation about utilitarian religion and self-fulfillment:

We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church … where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out which is, as many have discovered, a recipe for chaotic, disjointed, and dysfunctional humanness. The logic of cross and resurrection, of the new creation which gives shape to all truly Christian living, points in a different direction. (Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense [HarperSanFrancisco, 2006], pp. 233-34)

I even find myself wanting Christianity without sacrifice, discipleship without cost, and a faith that not only affirms my deepest yearnings and desires but also reflects my moral and political values without ever asking me to change. I am guilty of trying to force Jesus to be king on my terms.

I don’t think I’m unique in that regard. We’re all guilty as charged. It’s not a liberal or a conservative problem; it’s a human problem. But the solution to that problem cannot be found in utilitarian religion’s false promise of self-fulfillment. Instead, the solution is found in conforming our lives to Christ, and him crucified.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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