Religion, Relationship, and New Life

“Christianity, it is said, owes this, that, and the other to Judaism. It has borrowed this, that, and the other from Hellenism. Or from Essenism. Everything in it is mortgaged from birth….

Are people naive enough to believe, before making a detailed study, that the supernatural excludes any possession of earthly roots and any human origin? So they open their eyes and thereby shut them to what is essential, or, to put it better, to everything: whence has Christianity borrowed Jesus Christ?

Now, in Jesus Christ, ‘all things are made new'” (Henri Cardinal de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith).

There is a perennial Protestant contention—found especially among fundamentalists—that there exists a tension between religion and relationships. The casual observer might remark that this tension is aggravated into outright opposition, that religion is diametrically opposed to a relationship with God. This dichotomy is used as a barb against Catholicism—Protestantism exists in large part to protest, after all—and at the same time as a hook for the agnostic or atheist who is put off by what might be called the formal practice of religion, with its outward signs and mundane moral codes.

Religion is posed as being merely “for show”, the rules and regulations and outward pageantry, at its best the physical things we do as a body and at worst a guise for impure souls to hide behind. The relationship with God is what counts, and while this may lead to outward signs, it is mainly a distinctly inward reality, a spiritual union which touches upon heart and mind and soul. The outward actions are perhaps movements of this interior relationship, but they otherwise have no part in it and don’t help to deepen it.

This contention was brought back to my mind by something mentioned by my pastor on Sunday, namely that in Christianity there is a sort of tension between and balancing of two ideas of perfection. The first is Greek, and loosely consists of becoming virtuous to a high degree. Our good—the goal of our lives—is to attain the greatest amount of virtue, the greatest amount of knowledge, the greatest self-actualization, the realization of our fullest potential as human beings. The second is Jewish, and consist merely in walking with God [1]. Chesterton encapsulated this latter idea of the perfect life by stating that we ought to let our religions be less about theory and more about a love affair.

There should be some healthy tension between these two conceptions of perfection, that is, of the good life. We should want both—to be perfected and to be in the presence of very Perfection—and we should recognize that in this life, we don’t get to have either in its fullest. At the same time, we should realize that both go together, that the external act and the moral code and the religious observance are part and parcel of the perfect relationship with God [2].

While at the end of the day the dichotomy which makes us choose religion or relationship is a false choice, the Protestant preaching relationships first does get faith partly correct. Indeed, as concerns the salvation of one’s soul, the Protestant’s relationship with God can be said to be the most important part, but it is not the only part. To disregard the other parts is ultimately to make the relationship suffer, for if we love Him then we will keep His commandments.

The perfect relationship begins with walking with God and worshiping Him and keeping His commandments. It begins with our knowing Him and loving Him and serving Him in this life, and ends with our being happy with Him forever in the next. That is, it ends with our sharing in the life of Christ, and with Christ being alive within us:

“When Christians say that the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental or moral. When they speak of being ‘in Christ,’ or of Christ being ‘in them,’ this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

This is the end of religion, the goal it is oriented to, and at the same time it is the consummation of our relationship with God. Far from being opposed to each other, the religion and the relationship both work together to lead us to a fuller life with God.

—Footnotes—

[1] The pastor tied this latter perfection to the idea that there is a sense in which the weeds and the wheat of the Gospel parable both exist in each of our hearts. Thus, to walk with God means to place both before Him, the former to be burned away and the latter to be gathered into heaven.

[2] A billboard for a large and nondenominational Christian establishment in Austin boldly proclaims that only imperfect people are welcome. Only sinners are allowed here! While the purpose might be to discourage pretension and to welcome those figurative lost lambs, one wonders how a person is to find Jesus where only sinners may read.

6 thoughts on “Religion, Relationship, and New Life”

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    ” They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
    This fine quote brings to mind Matt 26:41 – the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The tension that you refer to existing between religion and relationships also exists between the mystical body of Christ and the mystical mind of Christ. It explains why for the most part we have the right intentions but fail to fully follow through on the hard working of making them real. In the end I believe we are judged by the fruit we produce and not the garden it was grown from.

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    “St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure define the human being’s final goal, his complete happiness in different ways. For St .Thomas the supreme end to which our desire is directed is to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems are solved: we are happy, nothing else is necessary. Instead, for St. Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in his and our love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness…It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. For both of them the true is also the good, and the good is also the true; to see God is to love and to love is to see. Hence it was a question of their different interpretation of a fundamentally shared vision. Both emphases have given shape to different traditions and different spiritualities and have thus shown the fruitfulness of the faith, one in the diversity of its expressions.”

    –Pope Benedict XVI in his 3/7/10 ‘Wednesday Address,’ as quoted on the Dominicana Blog, discussing is greater detail a point that I’ve seen elsewhere: where we Catholics have the supposed binary of God is Love (Francis) and God is Truth (Dominic) that outsiders think is two separate views, but we know to be just two ways of saying one thing — and hence why those two orders have been brothers for eight hundred years…

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    “… the Protestant preaching relationships first does get faith partly correct. Indeed, as concerns the salvation of one’s soul, the Protestant’s relationship with God can be said to be the most important part, but it is not the only part.”

    I had roughly 40 years in Protestant / Pentecostal churches from my conversion and baptism at 20. A year ago I was received into the Catholic Church, thank God. Those 40 years were remarkable and fruitful, but a pale shadow of what I’ve now come to. I’m still reflecting on and processing the transformation; here I’d like to comment on what you say about the Protestant claims for his relationship with God. My testimony now is that it is primarily in that area that coming home to the Church has transformed me. The problem for the Protestant is his individualist outlook – it’s all ‘me and Jesus’. And in that order: stemming from the stress on personal acts like ‘giving my heart to Jesus’. Protestants really struggle to submit and follow the path of humility – and are often quite tormented over their impasse, to be fair.

    The reason for this is their alienation from the Church; and that is why from the moment I received my first true Communion, an inward earthquake slowly began in me which granted everything I had longed for by way of intimacy with Jesus. He took the initiative, coming to me, not me deciding in some fashion to come to him. He inserted me into His Body on earth, the Church. The tragedy of the Reformation was that it rejected how Jesus does that – by His real presence in the Holy Eucharist -and it lost faith in Jesus’ power to sustain the One, eternal Church, embarking instead on individual initiatives to set up alternative versions. These two great losses are connected, of course, and have disabled Protestants’ relationship with Christ ever since.

    What for the most part they are left with is something more akin to a Catholic’s relationship to our Blessed Lady, or other Saints. Deep, vital, wonderful – but individual. Not the transcendent, mystical, consuming union which is the birthright of all who are in the one, holy, apostolic and Catholic Church. Trust me – I’ve known both.

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      “Trust me – ”
      I wouldn’t trust anyone who claims that 800 million Christians have a
      ” disabled … relationship with Christ.”

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        Until “we attain the measure of Christ” we all have a disabled relationship with Him. Nevertheless, general impediments exist amongst particular groups, such as Protestants, which can be helpfully addressed. As they can too in my kind of group!

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