Jesus or religion–it’s assumed by so many today that the two are very different. It’s popular to emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus as in opposition to religion. It’s as if religion is this external stuff, objective, cold, dry, and Jesus is warmth and life. Well, that’s hardly a critique unique to today’s postmodernism. It goes back to the disputes between Lutheran Orthodoxy and Pietism in the 17th century, and between Anglicanism and Methodism in the 18th.
Yes, Jesus is the heart of Christianity. Yes, people can focus on rote and ritual and miss the heart. But the risk of these heart movements is they tend to separate the person of Jesus from what he actually said and did. Thus Pietism’s repudiation of Orthodoxy led to the Liberalism of Schleiermacher–and the cycle continues in generation after generation.
Postmodernism isn’t content with the vacuous critique of liberalism, and I think that’s a positive. It sees the need for relationship, for community, for connecting with the past and reinterpreting it in new ways. But it puts the focus on the self, the observer, the bricoleur who builds a new structure of personal meaning.
Christianity doesn’t allow of such a split. The doctrine of the Trinity connects the transcendence of the Father, and a relationship with the Son, mediated by the Spirit who connects us to Father and Son in the community of believers. The center is Jesus, but the real Jesus, crucified and risen, who lived, and taught, and acted with compassion and justice. This Jesus taught truths that provided meaning and gave standards that showed his disciples how to live. He gave rituals, such as a bath that washed away sins and brought one into the community–a community given visible expression gathered around a table, breaking bread and drinking wine.
In short, Jesus started a religion. It shares a lot with other religions–it answers many of the same questions, sometimes the same, sometimes different. It provides rites of passage. It provides moral standards, metaphysical meaning, and a community of fellow believers. But it is unique in that it is centered on him, the one who declared himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. The truth he taught, the life he lived, the way he demonstrated–all are inseparable from him. He isn’t separate from the Christian religion–he is its living heart.