Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jesus is Not My Pal

One of the elements of modern (often Evangelical, but sometimes Catholic) spirituality that I find most foreign is when people talk about Christ as being "my best friend." It seems an even more familiar form of the relationship suggested by hopeful missionaries, "Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?"

It's possible to err in either direction on these things, and I make no representation that I am a perfect Christian, but I don't think of myself having a "personal relationship" with Christ, certainly in a "best friends" kind of way. The ways in which I would normally envision Christ are not guy-next-door, my-buddy-the-savior kind of images. Christ the King, enthroned in eternal splendor into union with whom all Christians wish to enter for life everlasting. Christ Crucified, pouring out his blood for the sins of the whole world. Christ Risen, triumphing over the reign of death which had doomed humanity since the Fall. Christ in the Eucharist, kneeling before the glittering monstrance in which the Body of Christ forms the center of a sunburst of golden rays, with the crucifix above and the tabernacle behind.

This is not to say that I see Christ as distant. But while not a sparrow falls without the Father knowing it, you can hardly expect a sparrow to understand God, much less consider himself God's friend. God knows us better than we know Him, because we are understandable to Him in a way that He is not to us. I wouldn't say that I feel distant from God. Indeed, the reality of God is as foundational to my ability to understand the world as are the non-material qualities of Good, Justice, Mercy and Beauty which spring from Him, and as basic to life as the physical laws and order of creation.

Though in many ways a classical liberal, in personal as in political life, suspicious of too much power concentrated in one person -- Christ is the king to which my knee bends eagerly, the perfection which deserves utter love and obedience, the authority which is at the same time absolute and freeing.

Certainly, all this represents a relationship between persons. Christ is one of the three persons of the Trinity; we are persons made in God's image. Yet I find it hard to think of it as a "personal relationship" in the sense that I take the phrase to be meant. And it certainly is not what I would think of as a "best friend" relationship. When I look for Christ, my gaze is naturally upward. I don't picture throwing my arm around His shoulders and asking, "How's it going, buddy?"


bearing said...

I agree with you and have a similar feeling, or reaction, to the "Christ is my best friend" sort of thing.

But I think it's best understood as an attempt to express the perfect knowledge Jesus Christ has of each individual -- that He knows me better than anyone else knows me, including myself -- and the intention Jesus Christ has to save each individual -- that Jesus Christ didn't just die to save everybody, He died to save me.

I prefer to emphasize a more corporate, Church-centered, we're-all-in-the-barque-of-Peter-together view of salvation over the individual one. But the individualistic view is also a true way of looking at salvation. And I think the "personal relationship with Jesus" thing is an expression of it.

The problem with the "best friend" image isn't its intimacy, it's that it implies an equality. We are divorced from an idea of the relationship between a man and his Lord and Master as an intimate one. If we can envision a relationship like this that is as intimate or more intimate than the best of friends, we will be getting back on track.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

"We are divorced from an idea of the relationship between a man and his Lord and Master as an intimate one. If we can envision a relationship like this that is as intimate or more intimate than the best of friends, we will be getting back on track."

I think that's about right. Perhaps we can look to Frodo and Sam for an example of that intimate master-servant relationship. Or if you're a Dorothy Sayers fan, Lord Peter and Bunter. Or even Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. I think all of those start to get at the intimate but unequal relationship. No one can deny that each of them is rooted in deep love; but there's still a basic inequality.

I wonder if this "Jesus is my pal" mebntalty is mostly an American phenomenon? And, if so, could it be rooted in our inherent distrust for anything smacking of classism?

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Your posts reminds me of plaques I've seen in Christian gift catalogues which show "my buddy Jesus" playing baseball with one or more kids (who presumably represent the recipient of this tacky gift). Makes me cringe.

(I can't figure out how I ever got on their mailing list.)

Rebekka said...

In spite of the fact that some people have "issues" with the bearded oldster in the clouds cliche of God, I think that the parent-child imagery suits the unequal-but-intimate nature of the relationship between God and man(kind). Although it can be humbling to entertain the notion that in some respects I am the equivalent of a toddler who refuses to accept the advice of a parent who "knows best". (OK, in a lot of respects. Temper tantrum much?)

To Melanie B: I have never met the Jesus + me = BFF mentality anywhere except the US. And it never fails that when I'm in the States some random stranger sidles up to me in a public place and embarrasses me terribly by asking me if I'm aware that Jesus loves me. ("Um, yeah." "No, I mean, do you REALLY know?")

Jamie said...

I mostly agree with what you're saying, but it is harder to see the fully human nature of Christ in the examples you provide -- Christ who is "like us in all things but sin," who would go to a wedding and make sure there was plenty of wine for the guests to drink, who could become weary and sleep even when his disciples were frightened, and who could weep at the death of his friend.

I have struggled with perfectionism for as long as I can remember, and I have learned that it is essential for me to keep my eyes on Christ's choice to accept the limits of a human frame. If I look only to the exalted Lord, crucified, risen, ascended into Heaven, it is easy for me to get stuck in perfectionist hell -- which is unpleasant as well as unproductive.

I wonder if perhaps the "best friend" thing grew out of youth ministry as a way to reach teens for whom relationships with friends can be supremely important. He did say to his disciples "I call you friends."

Anonymous said...

I think you have raised an important point and unfortunately too many of our (corporate) liturgical expressions seem to ignore the bending-the-knee-in-adoration-to-Christ-our-King reverence we are indeed supposed to have. Nevertheless, as Bearing touches on, we are also called to the kind of personal relationship that the apostles had with Christ, a theme which the Pope explores in his recent biography of Jesus. Even with our "best buds" we should seek to develop the type of true intimacy that matures beyond just sharing a drink or ball game, otherwise how are we helping each other sanctify our lives?

Diana said...


I'm new to your blog--just directed here by Julie at Happy Catholic--so forgive me if I've misunderstood you. This is actually something I think about a bit--read on to see why--so I felt moved to comment.

It seems to me that, in your post, you are equating friendship with understanding (when you say "But while not a sparrow falls without the Father knowing it, you can hardly expect a sparrow to understand God, much less consider himself God's friend.") I don't think one is required to understand someone he/she calls "friend". In fact, I would venture to say that we don't understand anyone--TRULY--including ourselves. I don't think that understanding is required to be friends with someone. I think loving a person is more important that "getting" them.

Also, it seems that you are saying that if one says Jesus is my "best friend" or that he/she has a personal relationship with Him is the same as seeing Him as the "guy-next-door, my buddy-the-savior". I actually see the two as opposites. The guy next door generally tends to be a stranger or an acquaintance at most. A best friend tends to be someone with whom we have a strong connection. Like God (ideally).

When I read this post, the prayer below came to mind. This prayer was supposedly written by St Augustine, whose feast day approaches. I pray this prayer every day after Communion, and it always strikes me, the things he calls Jesus: "my best helper, my beloved friend of overwhelming beauty." Granted, St Augustine was not only brilliant, but he was blessed, so much so that he is a Doctor and Father of the Church. So maybe he has more grounds for calling God these things, but when I pray this, I always want to say, "my best friend", because although I can never even hope to come close to understanding God or His ways, I can still love Him so very much, more than myself. I appreciate His guidance in my life so much that I do consider Him my BFF (best friend forever in today's IM parlance). It seems to me, that if we were to truly love God as much and as we should, He would HAVE to be our best friend. In fact, He seems the definition of the very thing.

So I humbly have to disagree with you, although I'm really glad you made me think of it! I'll have to poke around your blog some more. Thanks!

Here's the prayer:

Prayer of Saint Augustine

O Jesus Christ, you are my Father, my merciful God, my great King, my good Shepherd, my only Master, my best helper, my beloved friend of overwhelming beauty, my living Bread, my eternal priest. You are my guide to my heavenly home, my one true light, my holy joy, my true way, my shining wisdom, my unfeigned simplicity, the peace and harmony of my soul, my perfect safeguard, my bounteous inheritance, my everlasting salvation.
My loving Lord, Jesus Christ, why have I ever loved or desired anything else in my life but you, my God? Where was I when I was not in communion with you? From now on, I direct all my desires to be inspired by you and centred on you. I direct them to press forward for they have tarried long enough, to hasten towards their goal, to seek the one they yearn for.
O Jesus, let him who does not love you be accursed, and filled with bitterness. O gentle Jesus, let every worthy feeling of mine show you love, take delight in you and admire you. O God of my heart and my inheritance, Christ Jesus, may my heart mellow before the influence of your spirit and may you live in me. May the flame of your love burn in my soul. May it burn incessantly on the altar of my heart. May it glow in my innermost being. May it spread its heat into the hidden recesses of my soul and on the day of my consummation may I appear before you consumed in your love. Amen.

Catholic Mutt said...

Interesting post and comments! I really like the title; made me want to read right away. I agree with the point that Jesus is not my buddy, but overall I'm not sure exactly how I feel. I really like Diana's comment, and would have to say that I identify most strongly with that point of view.

I feel that having a relationship with or knowing Jesus is in a way like all of the great mysteries of our faith. We'll never fully understand it all, but we can constantly grow to understand it better. I would say that the deeper my relationship with Jesus grows (I'm going to jump out there and call it that; I don't like all the associated connotations, but it's all I got) the more I desire to deeply reverence Him at the Mass and at Adoration.

Gina said...

Your title intrigued me so much that I blogged about what you wrote and linked your post. I think conceptually you're close, and I get what you're saying.

I think the important point is that we understand what it means to have a personal relationship with Christ, and being our BFF ain't it.

If you pray often and regularly, if you attend mass and receive the sacraments, if you spend time with Christ in Adoration, then you do have a personal relationship with Christ...more personal than I think any of us realizes.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Maybe the problem doesn't stem from the trivializing of our relationship with Christ, but from the trivializing of our concept of friendship, especially of male friendship. Can you imagine an American man, today, calling a male friend "my beloved friend of overwhelming beauty"? Everyone would think he was teh ghey.

Jesus is indeed our Friend; but when "friend" can only mean "buddy," and "intimate friendship" is a euphemism rather than a straightforward descriptor, we lose an important part of the gift of the Incarnation.

Tom said...

Maybe the problem doesn't stem from the trivializing of our relationship with Christ, but from the trivializing of our concept of friendship, especially of male friendship.

I agree.

For that matter, the relationship with Jesus expressed in the mystical writings of the saints is far more intimate than most "two bodies with one soul"-type descriptions of friendship. According to St. Catherine of Siena, the servant-lord relationship is a servile love, more perfect than slavish fear of punishment but less perfect than the filial love we are called to share with the Son.

Emily J. said...

I read this post last night but had to add today that I drove past a NewLife church this morning which had this tagline in fancy script on its marquee: "Making Jesus Famous!"

Anonymous said...

The concept of Jesus as "personal savior", I admit, is so foreign to me that I often envision a cartoon of a rich man introducing his servants to a friend: "This is Denise, my personal assistant, Hugo, my personal trainer, Valerie, my personal business manager, and Jesus, my personal savior." Having confessed in the Credo for years, "For us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven ...," and, "For our sake, He was crucified under Pontius Pilate ...," I've always accepted that I was one of the ones He came down to save. While my faith teaches me that His love is passionate and engaged, like you I just don't see how that translates into a "pal" or "buddy" type of relationship. In fact, to imagine Jesus as "my homie" introduces a bit of contempt into the relationship. Far better to remember that He is my Lord -- a Lord who loves His servants intensly -- but nevertheless "my Lord and my God" (Jn 20:28).