There are those who stand outside the religious community and criticize it---it is too self-absorbed, too much like a club, oblivious to the needs of the world, caught up in its trappings. The critique can happen while you are standing on the sidelines of a soccer match in a suburb, or gathered around a barstool in an urban pub; it might be voiced by your neighbor or the cultural despisers--- Christopher Hitchens, Bart Ehrman or Richard Dawkins--- of our own day or, in modern intellectual history, by Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Feuerbach or Karl Marx.
There is a strong critique to be made of religious life, but the irony is that this critique is actually there in the scriptures. No one is harsher on the church or the synagogue than the prophets (who speak of the noise of our solemn assemblies) or Jesus (think of his contrasting the scribes with the woman who placed two coins in the treasury) or the anonymous New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (the repetition of the priest making an endless offering for sin and guilt, when such an act is both inadequate and unnecessary). The criticism---we have lost sight of the essence of God's calling in our lives, we have abandoned the worship of One God, and we have neglected the poorest among us---is a thread that runs throughout the scriptures and, indeed, is present in the broader Christian tradition.
So, my simple thought of late is this: the criticisms of Christianity from without are actually vacuous compared to the self-examination that is actually at the core of our identity. At times we are hypocritical, judgmental, and sentimental; to know the scriptures and the tradition, to kneel in confession or to receive the grace of communion is to have this awareness. Perhaps our default response is not to throw rocks at our critics, but simply to hear them as an echo chamber of voices that have been there all along.
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