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The Hidden Danger of “Jesus-Shaped Spirituality”

“We know what God looks like; God looks like Jesus. We know what God sounds like; God sounds like Jesus. We know how God acts; God acts like Jesus.” Amen to all three. Huzzah for pointing our attention to Jesus, “the exact representation of God’s nature.” I’m all in with that.

It’s a popular idea these days. And who could disagree?

But from a corner of the parlour comes a polite “hem-hem” that sounds suspiciously like Delores Umbridge—except I take no umbrage with the sentences written. It’s just all the other sentences that come afterward that have me worried.

The danger of a Jesus-shaped spirituality is us: all of our preconceptions and values, deeply held and secretly directing our steps even as we announce we are “following Jesus.” When first encounter Jesus, it is through the lenses we have used all our lives: the lenses of our generation, our culture, our politics, our venerations, and our personal needs and hopes. We love the idea that Jesus looks like God even as we are unaware that we’ve spent our lives worshipping ourselves. One example: What good is it to say “God is love” if we know nothing of the love of God?

And so the danger: We make him our very own personal savior. Quietly, unwittingly, we absorb Jesus into ourselves. We co-opt Jesus when we see in him only those qualities and actions that already support our causes and ideas. We co-opt Jesus when we force-fit him into the popular notions of our worldview, whatever it is: Jesus the patriot; Jesus the environmentalist; Jesus the socialist; Jesus the capitalist; Jesus the … well, the list is almost endless.

When we earnestly say we want a Jesus-shaped spirituality, we’ve only taken the first step. Discovering what Jesus-shaped spirituality looks like requires every step we take after that. Jesus is not a subject to be studied and mastered. He’s not the stuff of our ideology or even our theology. He’s a living Being: infinite and wise, profound and joyful. We follow him because he is on the move, going somewhere new and mystifying.

Following Jesus is a perilous journey because he asks us to leave our home, our occupation and our life-skills behind. Our understanding is part of the problem, which is one reason the Proverbs suggest we should not lean on it. He asks us to become little children set into a new Kingdom. He asks us to learn a new way to live. It’s his kingdom, not mine; nor should I require that your Jesus-quest fit mine.

And so, unlike Delores Umbridge, the Grand Inquisitor of Hogwarts, I have no desire to post regulations on the wall defining Jesus-shaped spirituality once and for all. I can suggest that the scriptures—all of them—reveal something of Jesus. I can point to his Last Supper words where he commends us to his great Helper, the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth. What I cannot do is insist that my faith expression has captured all of who Jesus is. The infinite, forever God-Man is at work forming me, and it would be wise of me to allow him to form you, too.