Friday, October 5, 2012

"I love Jesus" and other Facebook religions

A sweatshirt from JCLU Forever
How many people do you know (perhaps yourself included) list as their religion on Facebook something like "I love Jesus", "Jesus is my savior", or "Jesus is king"?

There are a lot. And I think people list their religion as "I love Jesus" because it really does best describe their faith. But I think there are two different reasons why that can be the case:

Is "I love Jesus" really a religion? I don't think so, and, for the first group, that's part of the point. Let me be clear: Jesus should be at the center of any authentic Christian faith. But this first group goes further (or perhaps stops there). Remember, "it's not a religion, it's a relationship", "I hate religion, but love Jesus". Such rhetoric has been common among evangelicals for years now. As a result, the people in this group really do think that the lack of any real connection to an institution is a good thing. It's a way to avoid what they see as sectarianism, empty formality, dead theology, and to cut right to the heart of what's most important.

Unfortunately, by cutting away everything, they end up being left with nothing. While "I love Jesus" may sum up one's faith in a certain way, such a statement, if it is to have any meaning, must have some content behind it. Who is Jesus? Is he divine? Is he human? If he's both, how does that work? What about God the Father, or the Holy Spirit? If the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all divine, how does that work? Did Jesus' death and resurrection have any salvific value? If so, in what way? How does a person access its benefits? By trying to answer any of these necessary questions, one is already back deep into theology and thus necessarily taking sides in denominational squabbles.

And answers to these questions aren't as straight forward as I think many "I love Jesus" people may initially think. All of these questions have been hotly debated by some of the Church's greatest minds during her 2000 year history. The questions regarding who Jesus is, for example, took the Catholic Church centuries to iron out, and were only settled when the Church's bishops wielded their apostolic authority received via apostolic succession (an authority that Protestants deny exists). Following the Tradition is an option. But that just shows that one's personal one-on-one with Jesus wasn't enough. And if one is going to follow a tradition, one has to a have a good reason to follow that tradition, and should do so with some consistency. For example, if a person decides to follow the Christological decisions of the Catholic Church in the 4th and 5th centuries, one needs a good reason why it's ok to piggy back on those accomplishments and at the same time spurn the very authority and structures by which she made such decisions

These and other questions do have to be answered, even if only implicitly, if the words "I love Jesus" are to have any meaning at all. All of that dead theology these Christians thought just got in the way of what was most important was actually holding everything up.

There's a lot of ways that "It's not a religion, it's a relationship" is really just "I'm spiritual, not religious" with a dose of Jesus thrown into the mix. CNN's Belief Blog had a recent post critical of the latter sentiment, and much of its points could be applied directly to this first group of "I love Jesus" Christians:
At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. [...] Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? [...] Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.
There's a second group of Christians who refuse to identify with a denomination, but they do so for the opposite reason: because they take theology and institutions seriously. I think I was in this category when I was still an evangelical before I joined the Catholic Church. I, too, thought that the "I love Jesus" religious identification was a cop-out, so I listed myself as "Christian - Protestant" on Facebook. I didn't try to artificially transcend the limits of what I really was, which was someone participating in a Christian movement begun in the 16th century. But I also wasn't able to be anymore specific than that. "Christian - Protestant", though it has a little bit more content than "I love Jesus", is still very vague.

And I felt pressure from that. Sola scriptura had left me with no principled way to sift through all the different interpretations out there other than simply doing the work myself of seeing if they were true (and to those who make a distinction between sola and solo scriptura, there's ultimately little difference). But that's a whole lot of work! There is a virtually unlimited number of interpretations out there even if one restricts one's inquiries to interpretations given by theologians. And did I have to do this with every single point of theology? The Bible is a big book, and it says a lot. This certainly made joining the first group seem tempting. It would have made things a lot easier to turn away from the work that was needed and pretend that I being more profound in doing so.

Thankfully, I discovered that God in His wisdom had not made his definitive revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ only for us to flounder around with no way of determining what it was. Jesus founded a Church (Mt 16.18) and left His Apostles in charge (Acts 15), and it exists today in what is called the Catholic Church. Determining that the Catholic Church's claims to authority were true still took work, but it was a much more doable project that trying to figure out on my own every last detail of theology.

The Catholic Church is not a sect because it is the Church founded by Jesus. Her teachings are not just opinions because they are given by bishops who stand in succession of the Apostles to whom Jesus gave authority to rule the Church he founded. The Church is not just one church among many because, instead of being some regional association founded in the 19th century by self-appointed pastors who left some other regional association founded in the 18th century, she is the original Church. She is the safe harbor.

While saying "I love Jesus" as one's religion might seem beautiful, simple, and devoid of anything that could possibly obscure what's most important, it's also often devoid of any meaningful content. And that's a bad thing. For myself, I can be a lot less wishy washy than I was before. I can confidently list my religion as "Christian - Roman Catholic" and embrace everything that comes with that.


  1. " All of these questions have been hotly debated by some of the Church's greatest minds during her 2000 year history"

    Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ which contains the answers to all these questions and more was had from the beginning by Adam, given to Abraham, and known at least in part by all the prophets since the world began and has different answers to many of the questions then what the "'s greatest minds", who cribbed from Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian thought, came up with due to the wisdom of God not being the same thing as the wisdom of the world.

    "flounder around with no way of determining what it was."
    Yes, He promised us the Holy Ghost would lead us to the truth if we asked...

    "Jesus founded a Church (Mt 16.18) and left His Apostles in charge"
    Yep, He did that too and provided means such that the Apostles could refill the quorum back to twelve whenever there was a vacancy due to apostasy or death.

    " and it exists today in what is called the Catholic Church."
    Really, the Catholic Church continues to be led by prophets and Apostles by way of revelation? That is news to me, even accepting the claims of successor to such and such Apostle there is still well fewer then Twelve, and most of those don't agree with Rome.

  2. It's perhaps not "religion" that these people dislike, but the connotations that the word religion has these days. It's almost always used in a negative way, to mean blind fanaticism and intolerance. In common language, people would describe arguing between Macs and PC's as a "religious war" or supporting a particular technology as a "religion". I think it's more a sense of getting away from those negative ideas surrounding the word "religion".

  3. I just found your blog today, and I love this post! I'll be sharing it on Facebook momentarily.