In his Church Dogmatics I.2, Karl Barth makes the statement “religion is unbelief.”1 For Barth, religion stands in an antithetical relationship to God’s revelation, such that revelation is where God makes himself known,2 whereas religion contradicts revelation because religion entails an attempt to “grasp at God.”3 In other words, revelation
We need to be ready and resolved simply to let the truth be told us and therefore to be apprehended by it. But that is the very thing for which we are not resolved and ready. The man to whom the truth has really come will concede that he was not at all ready and resolved to let it speak to him. The genuine believer will not say that he came to faith from faith, but—from unbelief, even though the attitude and activity with which he met revelation, and still meets it, is religion. For in faith, man’s religion as such is shown by revelation to be resistance to it. From the standpoint of[
revelationreligion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in His revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture. The divine reality offered and manifested to us in revelation is replaced by a concept of God arbitrarily and wilfully evolved by man.4
What undergirds Barth’s thinking about religion is the work of philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who argued that Christianity’s view of God was simply a projection of people’s own natures. Far from religion saying anything ontologically true about God, thoughts about God were simply a subjectivity that was hypostatized. Therefore, for Barth, his distinction between revelation and religion was understood principally along the lines of subjectivity vs. objectivity. 5
However, Feuerbach is far from the only theorist of religion. Other theories of religion have been proposed, such as Sigmund Freud’s religion as wish-fulfillment, Emile Durkheim’s view of religion as a source of solidarity, etc. Feuerbach’s theory was more cognitivist, being derived from Hegel’s philosophy, whereas Freud’s is more emotional and motivation, whereas Durkheim’s is more social. If we assume that these different theories have observed some of the ways that religion can function, but that they have not propounded laws without exception about religion, we can suggest the following that is more consistent with modern views
So, I would suggest Barth’s antithesis between revelation and religion is too narrow, focused principally on the cognitivist aspect of understanding. However, I think do think the antithesis between revelation and religion is quite fruitful if we think about the relation
When God acts, including in revelation, that means God has in some manner caused something to be the case, whether it be
(1) If God acts, then X is true.
However, as humans we have a predilection to try to reverse this line of reasoning to the following:
(2) Since X is true, therefore God is acting.
This is known as the fallacy of affirming the consequent. IT is a wrong argument to make, as proposition (1) does not suggest other things could not lead to X happening. Take for instance recovery from illness. If God miraculously heals someone, they would be healthy. But there is a tendency to reverse this reason to if someone becomes healthy, it is because God miraculously healed them. Notwithstanding certain views of divine providence, we would not attribute someone who took medicine and got over the flu as being healed by God’s miraculous action. Affirming the consequent leads us to fallaciously reverse the logic of God’s actions. From my own observation, much of religious hermeneutics about God’s work in the world tends to stem from the fallacy of affirming the consequent.
But I would suggest the pattern goes further than merely affirming the consequent. The way of reasoning pushes further, somethings assuming that there is a mutual causation between God’s actions and what happens. For instance, if God speaks His word, then if I speak God’s word, through the Scriptures, then God is speaking. The is part of the logic that often underlies much of the theology of preaching. Here, it doesn’t merely exist in affirming the consequent, but assumes a certain statement about causality: if I imitate what happens God acts, God will be acting. I would call this “reverse-engineering” God’s revelation and activity.
At the heart of much religion, at least within Christian circles, then the fallacy of affirming the consequent and the causal assumption that our reverse engineering is joined in with God’s actions.
How does this apply to the various aspects of religion I mentioned earlier? It applies in the sense that we can be inclined to think “If we reproduce what happen when God did this great thing, God will do this great thing again.” For instance, if we can just pray like the disciples were praying before Pentecost, we will experience a Pentecost-like revival. Or if we meet together in groups after Pentecost, we will be truly faithful to what God is doing. Or, put it more at the level of persons, if (some) people when the Spirit moves are radically energized, if we can just reproduce that energy the Spirit must be moving among us.
So, to critique Barth, the issue isn’t per se that religion seeks to understand when people should receive revelation. It is a broader issue of trying to reverse revelation in it various, multitudinous effects; rather than letting God’s disclosure form us so that we can act within the world, we seek to try to recapture what God has said or done in formulaic or law like manners where we narrow some valued aspect of revelation and religion. Rather than letting the Word of God be a testimony that impacts how we make sense of God, Jesus, ourselves, the world, etc., we seek to reverse engineer to pursue the power of the original revelatory experience or reverse engineer to create a hard set of rules that govern and justify our actions. When God makes Himself known, as He did to Moses in the wilderness or most fully in the resurrected Jesus to His disciples, it calls people to move outward with a new understanding in mind rather than to cling on to the past.
True religion trusts in the loving and powerful activity of God, and upon seeing this, seeks to find ways to live in attunement with that work. It isn’t our attempt to reproduce God’s love, power, and movement, but it is a seeking to move forward with this in tow. True religion does not reverse-engineer God’s activity and revelation, but it trods forward in faith that this God who has made Himself known is at work; we may remember God’s disclosure and power, such as in Holy Communion, and trust that God meets us there in those places, but this remembrance and presence has the (eschatological) future on the horizon rather than trying to reverse-engineer the past. Because God is at work, we are invited to pray and to meet together; because God is at work, we are to long for the powerful movement of God’s Spirit amongst us. But this isn’t to reverse-engineer God’s revelation and action but it is to go in light of what God has made known and done in His action and revelation.