Monday, August 04, 2008

Jesus is Not a Feeling

A big cliche from a few years ago (which I think is finally starting to fade out) in Christian circles was to say that "Jesus is not a religion, he's a relationship." While I understand, and even agree on many levels, with the statement, I find it terribly lacking. Truly there is something other than ritual and repetition in being a Christian. Truly, Christ's death on the cross does reconcile us in a very personal way to the Almighty, to whom we, prior to Christ's death, stood as rebels and enemies. I agree with these sentiments. However, I think a rebellion against one extreme has lead into another. Just as Jesus is not a series of formalities and traditions (liturgical and theological), neither is he an "experience."

Many of those who eschew formalism and liturgy do so on the grounds that they are pursuing an "authentic" spirituality, and seem to advocate a pseudo-mystic experience as their end. Laudably, their goal is to "know God," but somehow they have come to accept that the only real "knowing" available is of a purely subjective nature. Taken to an extreme, we find the "God is Love" people who see Christianity as one great big warm fuzzy. To such people, Jesus is certainly not a religion. Indeed, Jesus has become an experience.

To "Jesus is an Experience" Christians, "worship" means the band gives you an emotional high during the concert on Sunday morning right before the self-help motivational talk designed to make you feel better about yourself. To the "Jesus is an Experience" Christian, "divine revelation" means God talked to you when you watched Braveheart. Or was that the left-over pizza from Friday night?

Such a spirituality resembles little the Faith professed by the Apostles, the Early Church and the Martyrs. Apparently before the advent of rock bands and music with a back-beat, there was no such thing as "authentic" worship. Apparently the Martyrs who suffered and died did not do so under the provision of their God, who is too "nice" to let people suffer.

I do not contend that there is no subjective aspect of Christianity. However, I think we have over-emphasized this "experientialism" and have slipped into a much more narcissistic spirituality. Is it little wonder that a people caught up in the pursuit of a religious experience struggle to see the point of local church membership and accountability? When the mark of spiritual maturity is thinking that God is there to tell you to order vanilla instead of chocolate, are we to be surprised when they push aside pursuits of the mind as being "unimportant, inauthentic, and constricting?" It is not the formalists and traditionalists alone who put God into a box.

Jesus is not a religion, but neither is he an experience. He is the second person of the Trinity, who, through the Incarnation, lived a perfect, sinless life, and then really, truly, and actually died in a very horrible and painful manner to atone for the sins of his own. Further, he really, truly and actually rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven and is right now really, truly and actually at the right hand of the Father. He has sent his Spirit into the world to convict us of sin and to conform us into his own image. Finally, Christ will really, truly and actually return triumphantly and will judge each one for his sins, casting into eternal fire all those who stand guilty before his real, true and actual Holiness, but ushering into eternal life all those who stand justified because of his shed blood.


Joshua Keel said...

Jesus most certainly isn't a feeling. He's a person. Relationships with people always involve feelings. They also involve knowledge (hopefully true knowledge) of that person.

My relationship with Jesus is a very complex thing that can't be reduced to either feeling or cold, dead fact. But, my relationship must involve both elements (feeling and fact) to be any sort of real relationship (in other words, not just something that exists in my head or on paper).

My firm belief is that feelings are part of love, and feelings of love for Christ are required to truly love Christ in any meaningful way. Sometimes I don't have the right feelings, and in that case I consider it my privilege (God gives grace to the humble) and duty to call out to God for those feelings which I can't manufacture, but must come from God himself.

All my feelings about Christ should find their basis in reality. I love Christ for many reasons, one major one being that he daily gives grace to escape the entanglements of the sin that leads to death. But all my feelings must be based on truth, or I must discard them as lies, realizing that they belong not to my redeemed nature but to that fallen one I still carry around.

In my Fundamental surroundings right now, I find it exceedingly hard to focus on relationship and feeling. Some people struggle (or not) with finding the truth in their relationship with Christ.

Actually, I think I'm always tilting between the two extremes I want to avoid, missing a sheer drop by mere inches. The danger on both sides is ever present. I must be ever vigilant.

Jacob said...

I think what you wrote is a great description of the tension that we should all feel between the two extremes. I'm definitely one to tend toward "religion" but I realize that. I'm afraid a lot of "experiential" Christians do not understand. I pray more of us will understand the need for the straight and narrow.

Laura said...

Jacob, one of the Theologica guys has an interesting quote about the "externality" of our salvation, and there follows a surprisingly edifying conversation weighing the merits of that understanding. Recommended.