Jesus > Spirituality
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
March 12, 2012 - Although his fifteen minutes of fame has now begun to recede into the eternity of nanoseconds past, the popularity of Jeff Bethke’s viral video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” speaks volumes about our cultural mood. Bethke professes to speak to a generation who “wants authenticity.” And his 4-minute riff on Jesus-sans-religion is his attempt to, in his words, “get the blurriness out of [people’s] eyes so they could see Jesus for who he really is.” According to a recent issue of Time, Bethke has tapped into the ethos of 18-29 year-olds who, in recent surveys, increasingly identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
In the wake of the video’s success, Bethke has (to his credit) backpedaled from the tone of his critique. However, the video’s popularity in conjunction with Bethke’s missional philosophy is an occasion for theological reflection. This is because the claim to be helping people “see Jesus for who he really is” (unless one is merely reading from the Gospels) is theologically dangerous. And its danger lies precisely in its resonance with the ever-chic concept of spirituality.
Spirituality is hip precisely because it is Gnostic. Spirituality is enticing because it promises to get at one’s “core” – the heart – by circumventing the bodily demands of external religious conformity. What is appealing about a Jesus who is stripped of his associations with the messy, sometimes sinful, concrete realities of organized religion is that we can see Jesus for whoever we would like him to be. But a spiritualized view of Jesus is no assurance of its rectitude.
C.S. Lewis offers this reminder in The Four Loves. “. . . Let us beware of the ambiguity in the word spiritual. There are many New Testament contexts in which it means ‘pertaining to the (Holy) Spirit,’ and in such contexts the spiritual is, by definition, good. But when spiritual is used simply as the opposite of corporeal, or instinctive, or animal, this is not so. There is spiritual evil as well as spiritual good. There are unholy, as well as holy, angels. The worst sins of men are spiritual.”
A person who professes to love some specific vision of a pristine, unalloyed Jesus – one which he or she claims to have isolated from the epistemological haze caused by the grime and fog of organized religion – is merely looking in the mirror. The spiritual vision may be lovely, to be sure, but as Lewis points out, the pride that produces it is more damnable than the material “evils” it’s meant to cure.