Current Events Monday: Natural Religion on 6th Street

James Hassell   -  

Within the last nine months, at least eighteen people have been sent to the hospital due to shootings on 6th Street in Austin. The latest shooting incident occurred during the early hours of Sunday morning. It seems that APD has rightly been hyper-vigilant about the recent proliferation of weapons and drugs in the downtown area.

You can find more information at this link: Austin police seized dozens of guns in days ahead of Sunday shooting (

Discussions about gun violence in our culture can degrade rapidly into politicized arguments. When this happens, little to no progress is made in actually solving the problem at hand. Perhaps this time allows for a good opportunity for Christians to risk jettisoning their given political biases in order to seek a better biblical and theological understanding of the increased amounts of shootings. May I suggest that we begin our theological exploration of gun violence by dealing with “natural religion?”

Natural religion may be an unfamiliar term to you. We define natural religion here as the expression faith in a higher being by means of reason rather than revelation. Simply put, natural religion appreciates Jesus but would stop short of believing in things like his Virgin Birth, crucifixion for our sins, and his subsequent resurrection. Such miraculous powers are viewed with skepticism in natural religion due to their seeming unreasonableness. Jesus’ power over sin and death is likened more to mythology or mysticism than basic, foundational mastheads of saving faith.

Natural religion consequently puts one in a position of mistrust against anything or anyone who may be considered transcendent or divine. Even Christians have allowed natural religion to mix in with biblical faith. For instance, the proliferation of self-help philosophies, the Prosperity Gospel, Fundamentalism, and New Ageism among Christ-followers indicates a distrust for God and a penchant for depending largely on our own wits and abilities. In fact, if you encounter a Christian or church that requires what H. Richard Niebuhr called “rituals of placation,” then you can be nearly certain that you are watching natural religion at work instead of disciple-making. Rituals of placation are those required activities or beliefs that mark the in-crowd of a specific, natural religion group.

Due to its inherently distrusting foundation, we can make a good argument that natural religion comes more from fear than faith. People become quite anxious when they view their relationship with God purely in terms of being adversarial, or that they are up against one who forbids and prohibits them from becoming their best selves or living their best life. This fear often results in one of two outcomes. First, one may attempt to escape their anxiety by constructing his or her own fairy tale about God (or a higher power), aiming to achieve happiness at any price. We could call this a “flight” response. Or, second, the anxiety could be used as justification for violence. In this case, violence either comes from one’s effort to make people get a sense of their deep-seeded agony, or it comes as an outcropping of one’s act of violence towards God. We call this the “fight” response. Since natural religion cannot result in salvation, then one can only cling to flight or fight in this life.

Which leads us to the shootings on 6th Street. The increase in violence not only in Austin but also in the nation appears to be linked to natural religion, or the mistrust of God. A political or legal solution to violence from the Right (“Don’t you dare take my guns!”) or Left (“Take their guns!”) may not even be able scratch the surface of the problem. We must deal with the vicious virus of natural religion before we talk about guns, bullets, knives, tools, fountain pens, or any other inanimate object we could use for violence. For instance, when people become more critically aware of their foibles and concretely understand that all have sinned, natural religion begins to become manageable. Since we are so finite, we cannot see very well into the depths of God. We therefore should not allow ourselves to give in to the anxiety and mistrust caused by our finiteness. No amount of appeasement nor escapism will satiate the deep longings of the soul. The answer is not fight or flight. It is faith–specifically faith that Jesus Christ is Lord.

At this point, we must encourage one another about the God who is Emmanuel, or God With Us. The only one who can situate our trust and anxiety correctly and effectively is Jesus Christ. Consequently, churches must be equipped to turn loose of their me-centered faith and focus on Christ. As the planets revolve around the sun, so we must revolve around Christ. He is a Person to be trusted, not a coagulation of propositions into which we must buy, appease, or escape.

If we want to curb the violence, then we must start re-trusting God.