The farther I proceed on my theological and experiential journey, the more convinced I am that one of the most fundamental mistakes many churches and believers have made is to turn the Jesus of the Gospels into a kind of abstract spiritual persona.
Let me explain.
For many evangelicals in particular, the important thing is to have a “relationship with Jesus”. That might sound very earthy and real, but in practice what it usually amounts to is believing that Jesus somehow lives inside you, having conversations with him, either out loud or in your head, singing to and/or about him with other believers at church and, most importantly of all, believing that he is the Son of God who died to free you from the curse of sin, death and hell. Do all this and you can be assured of your ticket to heaven.
I realise that one might easily conclude from the above paragraph that I am deriding huge and important aspects of Christian practice, namely faith, prayer and worship. However, that’s not my purpose. I’d simply like to ask one question about this approach to Christianity: just who or what is this Jesus with whom one has a relationship?
It seems to me that in this paradigm, Jesus basically functions as the recipient of one’s prayers and worship and the invisible object of one’s faith in a theological mechanism that is believed to procure post-mortem salvation for the believer. That, in a nutshell, is all Jesus needs to be. Anything else about his actual, embodied existence in time and space – in particular the circumstances and manner of his living, teaching, dying and resurrection – is largely relegated to the realm of background information, if not total irrelevance. Jesus’ ethical teaching, his radical inclusion of social and religious untouchables, his dangerously subversive take on scripture, his outrageous flouting of established religious practice and expectations… as long as your “relationship with Jesus” is intact, none of this is of more than passing interest. The only thing that really matters in your reading of the Gospels is that Jesus is “God with a flesh suit on” and the perfect, spotless sacrifice; everything else is moot.
In approaching Jesus this way, we have essentially turned the fleshy, down-to-earth and very human Jesus we read about in the synoptic Gospels into an abstract entity of purely theological value. According to one definition (found at dictionary.com), metaphysical means “concerned with abstract thought or subjects, as existence, causality, or truth” or “highly abstract, subtle or abstruse”. One might say, then, that we have metaphysicalised Jesus.
This kind of metaphysical approach to Jesus admittedly does a decent job of honouring his divinity. But it also has a powerful side-benefit which, in my opinion, explains its longstanding and widespread popularity: it purports to confer upon us great benefits in terms of the assurance of our eternal security, while at the same time allowing us to continue with our comfortable, self-oriented, exploitative lives more or less unhindered. To put it bluntly, if salvation is all about going to heaven when you die, then Jesus needn’t be anything more than a Golden Ticket dispenser, and how we live here below has little or no bearing on our ultimate future.
So how do we untangle this problem and put Jesus back in his proper place? Well, just as we have so often metaphysicalised Jesus, so now we need to demetaphysicalise him.
Put simply, I think we need to start deliberately paying a lot more attention to Jesus’ life and teaching, rather than focusing almost exclusively on his assumed divinity and the role he plays in our theological system. Yes, Jesus was and is fully divine. We can take that as a given. But as long as that’s all he is, the only kind of relationship we’re ever going to have with him is the kind I described earlier – one where he is, in effect, little more than our invisible friend and divine sponsor.
What we need to get back to, I would suggest, is examining how Jesus lived and what he taught. And, in light of how he lived and what he taught, we need to consider what it might mean to be one of those to whom he says, “Come, follow me”. This is not – and never was – an invitation to believe in a set of abstract theological formulae and to have a metaphysical relationship with an invisible deity. Jesus didn’t teach much about abstract things that you must believe, or about what happens to you after you die. Instead, he was pretty relentlessly focused on how you live in the here in the now, how you treat other people, where you stand in relation to questions of social justice and violence, how generous you are with what you have, and so forth. If you try to read the synoptic Gospels with your head in the metaphysical clouds, Jesus will drag you back down to earth time and time again, and he’ll challenge your motivations and lifestyle to the core at every turn. That’s the kind of guy he was in first century Palestine, and I really don’t see why his focus and his message would have changed for today.
When we look at Jesus from this much more practical perspective, we find that he begins to come alive and affect our thinking and living in myriad ways. He is no longer safely contained in the pages of a holy book; instead, he messes with our comfortable and unjust world. And he does so in ways that bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to captives and announce God’s favour – not in some invisible heavenly realm or some distant, disembodied future, but right here, right now.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s the kind of salvation Jesus really offers. I think the world could use some of that kind of salvation, don’t you?