[This is a “companion piece” of sorts to blog-post #4]
Which Holy Grail?
My childhood hero was Indiana Jones, and my favorite film in that series is (obviously) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which Indy is searching for the mythical Holy Grail, the one of Monty Python fame. One of the last scenes of the film features Indy attempting to discern the true Holy Grail from a multitude of counterfeits in an ancient temple. He finally points to one hidden in the midst of the ornate gold and silver grails–one that is old and plain and unremarkable to the eye in every way. “That looks like the cup of a carpenter,” he says. And he was right.
In our pluralistic age, Jesus is similarly shelved as just another religious figure standing among other attractive and appealing figures (like Buddha or Muhammad) on the shelf of religion. Every now and again, my generation likes to pick one up and blow the dust off it before reaching for the next one. Yet among the religions and their founders, Jesus sticks out for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the fact that he was an obscure, carpenter nobody in first century Palestine that claimed to be the Son of God and changed the course of human history for the next 2,000 years. Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge in the introduction of her book The Crucifixion writes: “Christianity is unique. The world’s religions have certain traits in common, but until the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man.”
A Question of Infinite Importance
The weight, the magnitude, and the implications of the Christian message–the Gospel–and its claims were not lost among its hearers in the first century. And yet it seems to be lost among the ears of people today. C.S. Lewis once said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Unfortunately, many of us treat it as if it were “moderately important”, believer and unbeliever alike. What do I mean?
We’re definitely not short of options to choose from among the world faiths. But this has had the unintended side-effect of giving rise to an ambiguous, amorphous, and nebulous blob that we like to call “spirituality”, customized for each individual. It’s common for people today to say that they’re “spiritual but not religious”. It’s common for us to pick and choose our own custom-made combos from the spiritual smorgasbord–to pick the best “parts” of each religion. Ours is a consumerist culture and generation that tailors the world religions to our liking. The religions cater to our immediate wants and needs. We want the perceived “benefits” of religion; but we don’t want to get tied or bogged down by claims of truth or exclusivity.
I am reminded of a scene from the 1999 film The Mummy (the Brendan Fraser version; not the lame Tom-Cruise remake), in which one of the characters in plight pulls out from underneath his shirt a collection of necklaces: one has a crucifix; another a Star of David; and yet others a Buddha, a crescent, and others representing Daoism, Hinduism, etc., all as lucky charms to invoke when the time calls for it. We’re not much different. In our approach, Jesus is often thought of as another good, moral teacher among others, or even a guru of some sorts. We like to have Jesus tucked in our pocket as a matter of convenience.
But as Lewis was famously fond of pointing out, if Jesus Christ is who He claimed, it’s impossible to “shelve” Him as simply another good, moral, religious teacher among a pantheon of others. He is either a “liar, a lunatic, or Lord.” You can have one or the other, but never a genie in a bottle.
For the modern ear that’s actually willing to give him a listen, Jesus’ words are often jarring. And they must be. In the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Jesus is consistently putting His would-be disciples (along with his detractors, dissenters, and overall interlocutors) between a rock and a hard place–an in-or-out invitation to a life of discipleship and following Him. I believe it was John Stott that noted that whomever Jesus talked to or encountered, he always elicited an extreme reaction from them, whether positive or negative. Those that loved Him absolutely adored Him. Those that hated Him wanted Him dead. But what He never elicited were mild reactions or attitudes of indifference or apathy. No one ever shrugged their shoulders at Jesus and said “meh” before walking away.
The message of Jesus Christ and His claims (about Himself, the world, and salvation) still makes demands on our lives today, in the present. Our preference for amorphous forms of “spirituality” might stem from the fact that we’d rather not come into contact with a personal God to whom we might be obligated to. That idea doesn’t jive too well with our Western, individualistic, self-expressive mindset. We’re afraid of what we might have to give up. It doesn’t sound “safe”. “Spirituality”, on the other hand, sounds comforting and non-demanding.
It reminds me of Mr. Beaver in Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when asked about whether Aslan (a Lion and Christ-like figure in the story) was a “safe” lion: “Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Similarly, the God of the Bible–the Lion of the tribe of Judah, ultimately revealed in Jesus–never claims to be “safe” (in fact, quite the opposite!). But He always claims to be good, and calls for us to entrust our lives to Him.
But people don’t want that. We want a tame lion. We want a muzzled lion, one that’s not allowed to speak (let alone roar). We want a domesticated Jesus, a domesticated God. And so “spirituality” sounds like a great alternative. The only trouble is that when we turn to “spirituality”, we deny the very thing our hearts are longing for deep down.
A Personal God
Last week, I wrote about the apostle Paul’s trip in Acts 17 to the ancient Greek city of Athens: cultural hub and philosophical/intellectual capital of the Greco-Roman world, where all the greatest thinkers and cultural elites lived and debated. There he was confronted with a host of religions, spiritualities, beliefs, philosophies, and ideologies in the form of countless idols. And he was given the opportunity to share the Gospel.
“People of Athens!” he begins. “I see that in every way you are very religious.” [One might substitute “religion” today for “spirituality”]. He continues: “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” [Acts 17:22-23].
In other words, Paul was telling them: your instincts largely are correct! Your longings point to something more! There is something beyond mere physical, material existence! And yet, Paul argues, just having that knowledge is still incomplete, whether an “unknown god” or some other form of amorphous spirituality. Because there is a God that has made Himself known [John 1] in real space-time history, and He has disclosed that in the the story of Israel, in the prophets, and ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ. To confess this belief as Paul did in the first century even among the multitude of ‘spiritualities’ in our present day is part of what it means to be a ‘confessing millennial‘ in the 21st century. And just like the reactions that Paul (and Jesus) elicited, it probably still sounds just as outrageous in our context. I can live with that.
For some, this kind of talk may feel somewhat uncomfortable and squeamish. Consider the possibility that maybe it’s the start of encountering a personal God nudging at the corners of your heart. In my second blog post, I wrote: “…a god that never challenges you through His Word and never rubs you the wrong way from time to time is likely to be an idol and a god of your own making.” Anything less than a personal God (and specifically the God as revealed in the Bible) is to make him like the Stepford Wives of Stepford, Conneticut: programmed to say “yes dear” to all of our preferences. But to do so is to rob ourselves of the true, intimate relationship that God invites us to. God is not a robot or automaton that is programmed to fulfill your desires so that your wish is His command (much less one that you can switch on and off at a whim). He can challenge you. He can contradict you. He rubs up against you. All this because He is a Person. He is a personal God. And yet, He is good.
C.S. Lewis, as per usual, put it more eloquently than anyone else:
“An impersonal God? Well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness inside our own head? Better still. A formless life force surging through everyone – a vast power we can all tap? Best of all. But a living God – pulling at the other end of the cord approaching at infinite speed, the hunter, the Lord, the husband? That is quite another matter.”