Thursday, September 16, 2010

Follow Jesus or worship Christ?

Some would immediately answer "neither". You may be one of them, but you might still be interested in this question because how others answer it may affect you anyway.

For others, this seems like a false choice. Why is it even a question? Why can't it be both? Again, this distinction may not apply to you but if you are someone who would choose "both", you may be especially interested in those who emphasize or only select one answer over the other.

But where does such a question come from anyway? And what do we do with it? What does it mean, for example, when someone labels herself or himself as a "follower of Jesus" as opposed to a "Christian"?
A few of the more common reasons for doing this include:
  1. being embarrassed or ashamed of how some very vocal and visible Christians behave
  2. having friends or family who don't like religion in general or Christianity in particular
  3. having trouble accepting the way the teachings and tenets of Christianity are presented
  4. being grounded in another sacred tradition yet feeling a connection to Jesus and his ministry

These are all related in some way, and they need not be mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. The first is exemplified by a study released in 2007 which suggested that the majority of 16-29 year-olds, both church-goers and non-Christians, saw Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay.  The last is viewed as a gauge of being welcoming and loving towards all people, which likely explains the other two common attitudes.

This may also contribute to the second explanation on our list, which is bolstered by another trend.  A poll published this year claims that most Americans between 18 to 29 identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious".  Like those who may resemble the last explanation on our list (#4), they may have an attraction to what Jesus says and represents but find that they do not wish to participate in or be associated with the church.

Which leaves us with the third reason.  They have been taught or told that faith and being religious is about unquestioningly accepting a set of historical propositions from a collection of writings which must be considered an inerrant recording of exactly what happened to a certain people living 2000 years ago. Fr. Richard Rohr wrote (in Radical Grace) "Our faith is not in words being true or false. That is mere fundamentalism. Our faith is in God being faithful in love, and in the very specific ways that humans can understand love." But for some that is vague and confusing and for others it is watered-down and wishy-washy.

For my thoughts on how such an atherosclerotic view came to ascendance, there are other essays to consider, or better yet for a review of such developments there accessible books such as The History of God by Karen Armstrong.  There is also an interesting analysis of the distinction between the Jesus of history and the cosmic Christ in the works of Marcus Borg, in particular Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. The latter proposes that we can talk about the pre-Easter Jesus that some wish only to "follow" in the most limited sense and the post-Easter Jesus that was central to the emerging church and which Christians have worshipped for centuries.

For some, making this distinction helps to identify the paradox of Jesus Christ, and for others it resolves it.  In the latter case, the general theme is to say what a great rabbi Jesus was and that while he may have had a special awareness of God this got all screwed up an mixed in with other perennial religious ideas, growing into something that is a distortion of and distraction from the historical ("real") Jesus.  It may be a nice idea and may even be inspired by our sense of the divine but it is ultimately an overblown historical twist.  Yet even Borg asserts the fundamental value of the post-Easter Christ.  Is there any room to work in here?  Or does any claim that the post-easter Christ is as real and important as the pre-Easter Jesus inextricably bound to the kind of faith and religion already described above?  Where one has to accept one narrowly defined account of everything in the Bible from a strictly historical point of view?

In an article on the diverse movement sometimes referred to as the "emerging church", Tom Roberts shares the experience of Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault:
She recalled the question she received from a friend and colleague after she had preached an Easter sunrise service. “He said, ‘You mean you really believe in Resurrection?’ I said, ‘You mean you really don’t?’ It was one of those aha moments, to be sure, but it’s an aha moment we will face because a lot of the best theology which is undergirding the sweep into an emergent church really emerges from an academic, rational, polite, pluralistic home that does not take us far enough.”

Were the details exaggerated? Was it delusion? The result of cover-up? “I think not. Real transmission doesn’t work in that way,” said Bourgeault. “Whatever the details of that reality, the Resurrection and the meeting in the garden, the absolute sense that the disciples bore, that they had met their Lord as a risen presence, was an absolute reality to them, not a belief, not a proposition they were passing on, not a lie, but a reality from the imaginal realm working its way out with an explosion of energy.”

She explained that the term imaginal doesn’t mean imagination. It describes realities that are not made up but that are subtle and not easily perceived “by our usual senses, our coarser, outward-directed five senses tied to our usual mind.” Instead, she said, imaginal reality impresses itself in the still, reflecting mirror of the heart.” It is a realm for which “Jesus had a pet term,” she said. “He called it the kingdom of heaven, and it describes a reality looming on the surface, the dawn with regard to our laws and our world, that from which things emerge.”
This bring us back to the idea of paradox -- in this case the pre-Easter/post-Easter dichotomy.  An encounter with divine explodes such categories, as they are after all just models and descriptions based on limited knowledge, and cannot contain the fullness of reality.  A deeper experience of God expands our awareness and perception of reality.  We are invited then into the mystery, into the heart of what of we perceive at one level of consciousness as a seeming contradiction.  Rather than simply framing the paradox in an intellectually appealing fashion or resolving it by dismissing half of it, we are asked to dive into it.  To contemplate it (i.e. meditate on it) with our hearts as well as our minds, to live it (in life and the liturgy), to wrestle with it as Jacob wrestled the angel of the Lord.  To allow the tension to percolate until it bursts, spilling out of our pre-conceived ideas about the world and taking us into a new level of understanding.


  1. In my life, the Bible as "fact" isn't important. Some people need to "know" that the human Jesus was medically dead and miraculously came back to life in the form we know as living. I don't care about the "fact". To me it simply means we can turn around. That what looks like a dead future doesn't need to be dead. That's all I need. I won't deny others the right to believe what they need to believe as long as what they do is somewhat consistent with what Jesus taught.

  2. Hello. Your thoughts are always welcome here. And in response I guess I can share another of my own. Not as an argument but to flesh out the ideas already in play.

    For what it's worth I think that what the passages I was quoting are saying is that to try to make such an event into a mere historical fact or a mere historical falsehood or just a metaphor or any other easily accepted and comprehended label is a stumbling block because it denies or ignores the mystery at the heart of the matter.

    As I am slowly coming to see it, if it were a simple thing that could be fully comprehended and conclusively decided at the level of our ordinary intellect, then it would just be an idea to reject or accept. Instead, events such the Paschal mystery and that of the Resurrection and the Ascension are explored by living them out through liturgy and charity.

    As the book/book review I just stumbled across suggests, this would mean having patience with such paradox and what our intellects may at times find frustrating.

  3. I think following and Worshiping is a dichotomy that comes together. they are not intrinsically one thing but they merge in the life of a believer, or should ideally. They merge into "knowing Jesus."

    I can't help but think, and I know it's cultural, think of "Jesus" as a personal friend and "Christ" as a formal entity.

  4. That's the challenge. It also means we become more like Christ as we become more familiar with Jesus through our actions, speech and thoughts. I think the Orthodox refer to it as deification.


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