Obscenity may be hard to define, said a United States Supreme Court judge decades ago, “but I know it when I see it.” Religion, too, is notoriously hard to pin down – just ask Lionel Murphy, one of five High Court of Australia judges who in 1983 found Scientology to be a religion, at least for tax purposes.
The judges were right. To a Christian, Scientology may be distorted and dangerous, but it is certainly a religion. Even so, counterfeit religion abounds, and mostly we know it when we see it.
I have come across two examples in recent weeks. One was minor, the case of the anti-vaccination group reported in The Age on January 28 who wanted to set up a fake church to get around childcare laws that require children to be immunised.
This was manipulation, clear and simple. It grew from an ideology, certainly, but nobody could mistake it for a religion.
The second was more dangerous, a now notorious YouTube clip in which high-profile televangelist Victoria Osteen tells a rapturous audience (they are always rapturous in these US megachurches) that our obligation is to ourselves, and pleasing ourselves is what pleases God.
“When we obey God, we're not doing it for God, we're doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy. That's the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning!” she said.
This matters because Joel and Victoria Osteen are among the best-known preachers in the world. Their California church is reputed to be America's biggest, and their website claims they reach more than 100 million American homes, and tens of millions more in 100 countries.
There are plenty of philosophies, ancient and modern, about pleasing yourself and putting yourself first (“go on, you deserve it,” say hundreds of ads), but Christianity is not one of them.
The explicit teaching of Jesus is: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). There are many references in the New Testament about the need to “die to ourselves” so that Christ may be seen in us. The Apostle Paul instructs believers to do all to the glory of God – that, rather than indulging ourselves, is the Christian's purpose.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor murdered by the Nazis in 1945, described the attitude Victoria Osteen advocates as “cheap grace” – wanting faith's benefits without the costs.
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.