I was an Anglican vicar in England when we announced that we were (like thousands of others at the time) leaving to be united with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
I was in my late thirties. My parish was thriving. I had a young wife and family. Everything seemed peachy, but I walked away. My people were upset–some confused, others bewildered, still others angry with me. In the discussions that followed, a sweet old lady who identified as Methodist, but often worshipped with us because her husband was Anglican, cried out in frustration, “But surely all that matters is how much we love Jesus!”
I was reminded of this some time ago when, on social media, a discussion ensued with a member of the Church of England who rejected what he called “propositional truth statements” in favor of a “personal relationship with Jesus.” The person in question happens to be a high ranking prelate in the Church of England, so it was surprising to find that his theology was reduced to such a sentimental bromide as “All that really matters is how much you love Jesus.”
Not that there is anything wrong with the sentiment of course. The importance of the personal encounter with Christ is something that is stressed not only by American Evangelicals, old Methodist ladies and Anglican bishops. It is also summed up in the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI who said,
Many people today have a limited idea of the Christian faith, because they identify it with a mere system of beliefs and values rather than with the truth of a God who revealed himself in history, anxious to communicate with human beings in a tete-a-tete, in a relationship of love with them.
There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.
So the personal love of Jesus is vital, but the trick here is in the rejection of propositional truth statements. The Catholic way is always “both/and” not mere personal experience or some sort of muddling middle way. Yes, we are called into a personal relationship with Jesus, but that demands a question: “Who is Jesus and how do I know him and how can I be sure that my “personal relationship with Jesus” is not simply a projection of my own prejudices and preferences? How do I know that I am not simply fashioning a Jesus according to my own desires and ambitions and therefore loving not Jesus, but an ephemeral self image who I think is Jesus.
Manipulating Jesus to one’s own intentions and ambitions is what Judas did.
We can only avoid sentimental subjectivism with the structure of church, liturgy and doctrine, and that involves things like propositional statements, catechisms, creeds, canon law and the whole infrastructures of religion. Notice in Benedict XVI’s words above he condemns those who identify the Christian faith with “a mere system of beliefs and values”. He does not reject the system of beliefs and values. He says the faith is more than that, not less.
I have often used the analogy of the vine and the trellis. For a grapevine to produce good fruit it must have a trellis on which to grow. Otherwise it is just another vine sprawling along the ground. The trellis is a dead thing–made of wood or metal, but it is necessary for the vine to flourish. The vine is living and fruitful. The vine, if you like, is the personal relationship with Jesus. The trellis is the framework–the man made propositions of truth, the structures and strictures of liturgy and religion. To be sure, trellis can rot with age, break and even inhibit the vine. The trellis needs maintenance, repair and occasional renewal, but it cannot be done away with.
What we need for a fruitful spiritual life is the tension and interplay between the trellis and the vine–the vine being all important, but the trellis supporting the vine. This relationship is the interaction of love and truth. Pope Benedict commented on this saying,
Truth and love coincide in Christ. To the extent that we draw close to Christ, in our own lives too, truth and love are blended. Love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like ‘a clanging cymbal.
So was the dear, good Methodist lady right that “All that really matters is how much we love Jesus”? Yes and no. In then end, the relationship with Jesus is paramount, but that relationship could be (and often is) a counterfeit–a religious experience of our own imagination–if it is not grounded on something more objective than our own feelings.
What is that foundation? Jesus himself told the parable of the wise man and the foolish man–one who built his house on the sand and one who built it on the rock.
It is no co-incidence that this parable is only recorded in St Matthew’s gospel and it is also only in Matthew’s gospel that the conversation with Peter is recorded in which he affirms the Truth proposition that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and then Jesus confirms that this truth and Peter himself is the Rock on which he will build his church.
My own experience is one of being brought up in the world of American Evangelicalism which had the wonderful emphasis on “personal salvation” and developing a personal relationship with Christ. My pilgrimage eventually led me to a fuller relationship with Christ within the beautiful, historic Church of England. The end point of this journey with Jesus was to understand and accept the need for that relationship to be verified within the full communion of his church–built on the rock of Peter and his unyielding, divinely inspired propositional truth.
It is through the objective, historical authority of the Catholic Church that my relationship with Jesus is established on a solid foundation rather than the ephemeral emotions and ambitions of my own frail and faulty mind and heart.
I relate to your experiences. Even back in Singapore, American Evangelicalism has its influences there, in the form of two megachurches in particular. Christianity was often described as a “relationship with Jesus, not religion”, and Religion was associated with legalism, paganism, and works-based salvation.
The previous megachurch I attended, which was dispensationalist and semi-Calvinistic, taught cheap grace without self-denial and striving for virtue post-conversion (because it’s assumed as Pelagian and devoid of faith in Christ’s finished work). Essentially antinomian (once justified, always justified. The law serves no other purpose but to reveal souls to Christ). Also, another idea taught was that at the Cross, believers are absolved of earthly suffering and are entitled to good health and consolation (essentially the Prosperity gospel repackaged without mention of money).
And this is dangerous because I’ve seen how it makes people lax, mean, and uncharitable. As a result, people become presumptuous believing absolution without confession is guaranteed (even I also fall into this trap). Hence, it’s vital to ask: Am I worshipping the real Jesus or an idea of Jesus?
Because a relationship without reverence can lead to perdition. Even in a loving household, house rules still apply.