You’re walking down the street and someone asks you a question: “What is Christianity—the religion of Jesus or the religion about Jesus?” How do you reply?
This is not a new question. For centuries, faithful Christians have had to ask, and to answer those who ask, what is the true nature of the Christian religion? What is its source? What kind of religion is it?
I believe the answer is found in faith. It is precisely faith that enables Christians to transcend the horizontal categories of strict rationalism and empiricism, so cherished in modern times and so characteristic of many contemporary interpretations of the Gospel. It is in faith that Christians can explain the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the religion he left us.
The original question—is Christianity the religion of Jesus or the religion about Jesus?—thus presents inherent difficulties, because both of these conceptions of Christianity describe a religion that limits faith.
Popular Episcopalian minister Barbara Brown Taylor recently explained in an interview her choice to practice the “religion of Jesus” as opposed to the “religion about Jesus.” Appealing to Jesus’s moral character, she argues for Christianity on the grounds that it is a sublime ethical achievement in the history of man.
She is right, of course, in recognizing Jesus as a great moral exemplar who gave to the world a new, evangelical law. But Jesus is so much more than that. He is the God-man. Brown’s version of Christianity does not take into account the divinity of Jesus as one in being with the Father (Jn 10:30), a core claim of the Christian faith. In reducing faith to ethics, she thinks Christianity is tenable only under a moral umbrella. If this is the case, then Jesus is no different than Ghandi, and choosing Christianity amounts to choosing the proper ethical system.
Christianity is not Taylor’s religion of Jesus, but, equally, it is not a religion about Jesus. To claim that Christianity is essentially a study of Jesus’s life and teachings, is no different from saying that Christianity is a historical exercise. On this view, Christianity is relegated to departments of Religious Studies, and it is perfectly compatible with complete indifference to revelation. Access to the divine Son of God is closed, and our lives as Christians are nothing but conversations about a man who once lived and is now dead.
Both of these conceptions of Christianity, then, exhibit a detachment from revelation that leaves little room for faith and its purpose in the Christian life.
So what is Christianity? Christianity, I would propose, is more properly described as a religion in Jesus. We enter into it through the door of faith, and on the other side of this door we find something more than a discussion of history or morality; we find the reality of God descending as man in order that we may ascend and be like God. In Jesus, true God and true man, faith is a dynamic enabler, leading us to eternal life. It transcends history and morality and offers the believer a profound communion with the one true God. In a word, Christianity is transformative, because it is living contact with the divine.
Perhaps it is best to conclude with the Holy Father himself. In Porta Fidei, his Apostolic Letter announcing the Year of Faith, he wrote the following:
The “door of faith” (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime. It begins with baptism (cf. Rom 6:4), through which we can address God as Father, and it ends with the passage through death to eternal life, fruit of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, whose will it was, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, to draw those who believe in him into his own glory (cf. Jn 17:22). To profess faith in the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is to believe in one God who is Love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8): the Father, who in the fullness of time sent his Son for our salvation; Jesus Christ, who in the mystery of his death and resurrection redeemed the world; the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church across the centuries as we await the Lord’s glorious return.
Image: J. Labrado, Door of Valencia Cathedral at Night (Valencia, Spain)