Soon after I started dating my future wife (we met in Seminary), I explained some of the ways in which my faith had been stretched, and she had a pointed question, “but you still love Jesus, right?” Having grown up overseas, I was wary of the question.
Americans in general and Evangelical subculture in particular seemed to have an addiction to sentimentality.
The agape of the Gospels, this moment to moment love-in-action springing out of rootedness in the divine so often seemed instead to refer to an intense emotional attachment.
We hear the language all the time, but what in fact did it mean to “love Christ?” What did it mean to “follow Christ?”
There seemed to be three general responses.
One attitude seemed to be that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Following Him means trying to put that moral teaching into practice as best we can. Call it a non-committal approach. Take the good parts. Don’t get too caught up in the ballyhoo.
Another approach seemed to be identifying with a particular group that holds a set of dogmatic definitions of who Jesus is and what following him means, and organizing our lives around that. This membership during life is held to be key to ensuring an afterlife of bliss and love vs. suffering and torment. In this view, Jesus is a moral teacher, but he’s also the unique, pre-existing Son of God and an object of worship.
Here, conversion is key. You’re either all in, or all out. Helping others to convert is also key. Following Christ is called discipleship. The point is to become more and more deeply righteous, committed, holy, a better and better Christian.
Yet another approach that many of the great mystics point toward is divine union. From Dionysus the Areopagite to Thomas Keating, mystics have taught that we mistakenly assume Christ to be Jesus’s last name, that is, a unique quality. Rather it is an eternal, pre-existing energy underlying and giving rise to the created order. The historical person of Jesus was so aligned with this energy, and manifested it so fully, the New Testament authors identify him with it, but The path here is not necessarily to become more and more moral, or even more and more Christian, but to dive deeper into the mystery of an all-encompassing love.
15th century mystic Nicolas of Cusa writes, “the Logos of creation in whom all things were created can be nothing other than divine wisdom. Thus it is that wisdom is eternal, for it precedes everything and all created reality.”
The mystics teach that arriving at this awareness is the purpose of the spiritual path. This is Christlikeness rightly understood. The purpose of his teaching was to say that we can have it, too, once we let go of the obstacles that keep us from it.
Author and psychologist Dr. David G. Benner goes further, “Although some contemporary writers speak of this as a journey toward Christlikeness, I prefer to describe it as an increase of Christ-consciousness. Too easily becoming like Christ gets reduced to changed behavior. Genuine transformation involves something much deeper: changed being. It is taking on the mind and heart of Christ and consequently living with the awareness that we participate in the life of God without any loss of our uniqueness. This is the destiny of all humans.”
But what moves us toward this destiny, what removes the obstacles is usually only deep suffering. In the mystical tradition this is called the Paschal mystery, the downward way, or the way of the cross. It’s the fruit of the mythical journey. It’s the place we arrive at when we’ve suffered enough to let go of the attachments that constitute our ego mechanisms. Keating calls them our illusory “programs for human misery.”
There is a deeper and far vaster awareness waiting beyond that veil, should we care to drop it. This is the reality the person of Christ invites us to partake of.