"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." - James 1:27
Of course, there is a marketing ploy in all of this rhetoric. By seeking to identify Christianity as a relationship rather than a religion, Christianity becomes differentiated from other religions. I must admit that I am finding this idea all the more strange of late, considering that the phrase "personal relationship" doesn't appear in the Scriptures. The notion of a personal relationship with Jesus sounds more like a slick corporate slogan than a timebound biblical principle.
Closely related to the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus is the idea that as Christians we love Jesus, which I'd argue is somewhat more biblical. Nonetheless, this much more biblical concept has given birth to countless manifestations of this idea. One of these manifestations has been the emergence of so-called "Jesus is My Boyfriend" songs, which seek to define our relationship with Jesus in romantic, or even erotic terms. Though these songs are popular in many churches, they have incurred the wrath of other Christians, who see these songs as essentially oversentimentalised and self-absorbed. Without wishing to subscribe to this point of view absolutely, it is an argument that I believe is not without some degree of merit.
This got me thinking. Seeing that Jesus is no longer incarnate, what is the concrete object of our desire? Some Christians will appeal to the Bible, but I'd ask such Christians this question: In what sense is the love Christians have for Jesus different to the love that Marxists have for Marx? Perhaps this idea is even better articulated by the late Jacques Derrida, who made the following comment about the ambiguities of love during an interview in 2002:
Love is a question of who and what. Is love the love of someone or the love of some thing?
Suppose I love someone, do I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are? i.e. I love you because you are you. Or do I love your qualities, your beauty, your intelligence?
Does one love someone, or does one love something about someone? The difference between the who and the what at the heart of love, seperates the heart. It is often said that love is the movement of the heart. Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is?
Often love begins with a type of seduction. One is attracted because the other is like this or like that. Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realise the other person doesn't merit our love. The other person isn't like this or that. So at the death of love, it appears that one stops loving another not because of who they are but because they are such and such [a person].
That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what. The question of Being is divided into what is it 'to Be'? What is 'Being'? The question of 'Being' is itself always already divided between who and what. Is 'Being' someone or some thing? I speak of it abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love, or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone - singularly, irreplaceably - and one perceives that this someone isn't x or y. They didn't have the qualities, properties, the images, that I thought I'd loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what.
These words were deeply revealing to me. As Christians who say we love Jesus, do we love Jesus as that first century Jew living in Palestine, or do we simply love the ideas we associate with Jesus? And if the latter, is it simply our own ideas that we love - to be blunt, are we enamoured with our own intellect? If so, then this would suggest that our so-called love for Jesus is an act of self-love, rather than love, per se.
Some may lambast me at this point for trying to equate love with a feeling rather than an action. But the fact is, love is no less a noun than a verb. English sometimes works like that. Sure you can show love, but you can't show love without there being an object (of is we proceed existentially, a Subject) of this love. This being the case, it seems that there will always be this tension between loving Jesus as Subject and loving ideas about Jesus, which quite often are ideas of our own making.
As I see it, one solution to this dilemma may lie in Jesus' own words that if we love him that we will obey his commandments. But even then, does our obedience reflect a commitment towards Jesus, or simply a commitment towards our own ideas about Jesus? And if the latter, how do we love Jesus as Subject, rather than a Jesus as the object of our ideas?