Many of us today look askance at circles of piety, especially fundamentalistic ones.
Most mainline Christians, share a common distrust and disdain for those who, with irritating enthusiasm, proudly, militantly, publicly and of ten times obnoxiously, proclaim: “Jesus Christ is my personal Savior.”
A certain religious (and emotional) apartheid exists today between those who make a private personal relationship to Jesus the sole centre of their religion and those of us who believe that being Christian involves a whole lot more than claiming a private spiritual rebirth (“I have been reborn in Christ”), a private personal relationship to the person of Jesus (“Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior”), and a private morality based rather selectively on Jesus’ demands for prayer and private ethics.
Many of us have certain distrust of those who make a private relationship to Jesus the sole focus of their faith.
Thus, the “born again” athlete who, after doing some marvellous feat to help his team win a championship, says on national television: “First of all, I want to thank Jesus Christ, my personal Savior'” generally garners for himself more disdain than respect for such a remark.
Likewise for the TV evangelist who reduces his entire message to: “Give your life to Jesus.” In mainline circles and especially in theological and social justice ones, there is a massive distrust of that kind of talk.
And that distrust has its roots not, first of all, in fact that sometimes the personal lives of those people belie a deep personal relationship to Jesus, but in the sense that this is not true religion.
To many of us, it smacks of fundamentalism, naive simplicity and bad piety that provides its adherents with an escape hatch from the tougher demands of religion. A privatized spirituality of “Jesus-and-I”, it’s often sarcastically called.
We are, I believe, right in that critique… to a point. There is more to faith, especially Christian faith, than having the subjective assurance that God exists, that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus personally relates to us, loves us and forgives our sins.
There is a real danger that faith can become too privatized, too caught up in itself, a form of narcissism, blind to the true demands of Christ, a form of religious sloth, personal therapy more than true religion.
But, as John Updike says, truth has more nooks and crannies than we normally think. Hence, despite these dangers, there are, I believe, some very deep and important truths lodged in the nooks and crannies of “Jesus-and-I” spirituality.
As one who moves in circles that too often uncritically criticize it, I see now more clearly the deep challenge that this king of piety offers to the rest of us.
In our lives the danger is not that we might have an excessively private relationship with Jesus. No. The danger is rather that we can easily end up not having a private relationship with him at all. Strange as this sounds, it’s often true.
Where circles of piety and fundamentalism stand in danger of unhealthily privatizing Jesus, we stand in danger meeting Jesus only as a cosmic, moral, religious, prophetic and psychological principle… “Make sure you are dogmatically sound!” “Work for the liberation for the poor!” “Run great ecclesial programs!” “Higher consciousness be with you!” ·
For us, Christ too easily becomes just a deep truth; but little more. In the end, we are not privatized and personal enough. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that of ten times in our liturgies—not even to mention in our social, ecclesial, theological, and prophetic actions—our consciousness borders on agnosticism insofar as a real personal relationship to Jesus is concerned.
We are doing things for Christ, that’s true. But too infrequently do we draw real energy from talking to the person, Jesus, in whose name we are supposedly acting.
In her Booker Prize winning work, Possession, Anne S. Byatt, comments that the trend today is to turn “away from individual sympathies (with concrete individual persons) to universal sympathies with Life, Nature, and the Universe.
“It is a kind of romanticism reborn, but interwined with the new analysis and the new optimism not about the individual human soul, but about the eternal harmony of the universe.” (London, 1990, p.250).
I believe that she is right and that not all of this makes for good religion. From our more fundamentalistic brothers and sisters we do have a lesson to learn.