Wineskins Archive

December 18, 2013

Why the Name of Jesus Matters (July-Aug 2010)

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by Jaron Bentley
July – August, 2010

82 - What Really MattersWhy does the name of Jesus matter? Christians, at least traditionally, can easily answer the question. After all, it is through the name of Jesus that we are saved; it is through the name of Jesus that we have a relationship with God; and it is through the name of Jesus that we engage the world with love and compassion. Indeed, it seems the importance of Jesus’ name couldn’t be clearer for Christians.

But what about the difficulties such claims cause? Not everyone accepts Jesus’ name, and there are good reasons for it. The name of Jesus hasn’t just been used for love and compassion, but also for violence and injustice. Many people, without claiming the name of Jesus, seem to have just as real a relationship with God as those who do. And how, exactly, do we know that the name of Jesus is what saves us? Many of the reasons Christians give to support that conclusion— things like release from selfishness and emptiness, and a more moral life — also seem available to followers of other religions. Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus do not claim the name of Jesus the way Christians do, yet they historically seem to be just as successful at living selflessly and morally as Christians seem.

A now common response for Christians to these questions is to emphasize spiritual commonalities between religions, and to downplay tradition-specific language and beliefs. “I’m spiritual, not religious,” is a familiar precept of this approach to relationship with God. In this sense, spirituality generally is spoken of as a relationship with God marked by one’s personal beliefs about God’s nature, and understandings of love and compassion amenable to followers of all religions, in contrast with any beliefs about God’s nature associated specifically with Christianity. Religion in this sense is thus negatively associated with the binding of one’s spiritual life and feeling, the dogmatic or intellectual shackling of love and compassion.
A spiritual approach to a relationship with God, defined against a religious approach, is seen as avoiding these problems by bringing one into better moral practice and promoting an attractive tolerance of others and their beliefs. The name of Jesus as a specific marker of religious affiliation gets lost in the mix, but isn’t that a reasonable response when the fruits of a religious life — love, compassion, relationship, and salvation— seem to be more appropriately attributed to a tradition-unspecific spiritual life? When each religious tradition’s dogma seems only to cause problems whose answers seem unnecessary to having a substantial relationship with God, why bother with religion?

My answer is that religion matters because a spiritual approach to a relationship with God is incomplete by itself. That is to say, the name of Jesus matters because that name brings us into community, because the spirituality marked by that name is tied to it, and without it we tend to engage God in excessively self-guided and self-centered ways. Yes, the problems seemingly caused by religion defined in the way above— legalism and the ambiguity of religious pluralism— can make a spiritual life free of association with a specific name or religious tradition an alluring option. But even if such issues are due to only the religious dimension of a relationship with God, that dimension is indeed necessary for the flourishing and substance of that relationship.

The religious dimension of a relationship with God is necessary to the spiritual dimension because it provides the latter with a way into communal life. One of the great beauties of a relationship with God is that it calls us into relationship with humanity as well, with all the difficulties and frustrations that come with it. Certainly, the spiritual dimension of life with God heightens our awareness of the multi-faceted needs of those around us and makes us desire to meet those needs. But it is through the identity-giving and community-forming name of Jesus that we begin to do so. It is through Christ-formed love and compassion that we serve the impoverished and lost. Indeed, it is through Christ-formed spirituality that we and our fellow believers are able to discern how best to serve the world. Without the identity-giving name of Jesus, without the religious dimension of a life with God, there are few resources available to help work through the difficulties that arise when seeking to serve the world.

Further, religion is important because a relationship with God marked only by spirituality is too frequently guided only by the self. We are broken and sinful, and a relationship with God that has no guide other than the self quickly becomes a relationship guided by selfish and flawed interests. The guiding precepts available from the religious dimension of a relationship with God, such as the traditions and wisdom of the Church and its community, bring guidance and substance to the spiritual dimension.

That is not to say that the religious dimension of a relationship with God cannot and has not caused problems for individuals and communities. But to do away with religion because of these problems is an overreaction, just as it would be an overreaction to say that the problems’ excessive self-guiding can cause make spirituality unnecessary. Each brings great and irreplaceable things to a life with God, and the intertwining of both must be honored to enter into the fullest possible relationship with God.

It is this point that brings us back to the specific importance of the name of Jesus: his name matters because it is through it that we come to know the spiritual dimension of a relationship with God. That is to say, the spiritual life that leads us to value love and compassion over legalism is the spiritual life found in the name and religion of Jesus. Spirituality is not hindered by the name and religion of Jesus, but is enabled by it; they are a package deal. The ways that love, compassion, and right relationship are experienced and defined by Christians are not tradition-neutral but rather are formed by the ways in which the Christian tradition has come to recognize and describe what those things are. Separating Christian spirituality from Christian religion, and Christian religion from Christian spirituality, is like trying to separate the backside of a piece of paper from the front.

However, the difficulty of religious pluralism remains; while it may not make sense to separate Christian religion from Christian spirituality— the name of Jesus from the practice he exemplified and teachings he gave— why would one choose the name of Jesus over another if she has not experienced spirituality or religion through that name? The question is essentially about the superior truthfulness of Christianity, a question whose answer may never be known. In the face of such a humbling question, we are certainly brought to a greater level of understanding, tolerance, and respect for those who do not share our religious convictions, and with whom our beliefs seem to conflict. But such respect needn’t come at the expense of the religious dimension of our lives with God. Rather, it asks us to persist in our struggle with it — a struggle in great need of the deep resources of our religious tradition.

So, why does the name of Jesus matter? The name of Jesus matters because it is greater than individuals; because it provides the example of selfless service and selfless relationships with God and others. The name of Jesus matters because religion matters; because the communal identity is greater than individual identity. The name of Jesus matters because it is his name cannot be removed from our conceptions of love, right relationship, and compassion. The name of Jesus matters because we believe, with great humility and trembling and conviction, that it is through him that we are saved, that we know God, and that we are formed to serve.New Wineskins

Jaron BentleyJaron Bentley is currently a candidate for the M.A. in Theology at Abilene Christian University. He formerly attended Rochester College, where he received the B.A. in English and, more excitingly, met his soon-to-be-wife, Erin. The couple has leased a room in the Brown Library at ACU, where they will live for the next two years as they finish their degrees.

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