In our fiercely individualistic and overly cynical society the statement, “I don’t need the Church,” has become somewhat of a truism. Typically followed by something like, “I don’t see why I need to go to some building every Sunday when I can experience God just as well on my morning walk?” Faith or, as it is nebulously referred to these days, ‘spirituality’, is viewed as purely a private affair. Church is perceived as some drafty building filled with stuck up, superstitious, people who gather to hear some stuck up preacher foist his opinions on a bunch of mindless drones for an hour. Ironically, these sentiments are increasingly shared by Christians who feel all they really need is their Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus.
Now, it is certainly true that we can experience God on our morning walks (or whilst doing any number of things); it is equally true that we need to read Holy Scripture and have a relationship with Jesus. But, is the Church largely irrelevant in this process? Can a vague spirituality, practiced in relative isolation, ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts? To answer these questions, let’s examine the popular sentiments I just canvased a little more closely.
Experiencing the Numinous
Clearly, there is more than one way to experience–to have some sort of contact or interaction with–a person. Take my wife, for example. One way I can experience her is through her art (she’s an extremely talented photographer). When I observe her photos–paying attention to the way she frames each shot, to the colors and lighting she utilizes, and to the story each picture tells–I, in some limited way, experience her thoughts, her intentions, and her creative power. Yet, I am far removed from her. She is the cause and her art is but an effect.
Another, more intimate, way I might experience her is through reading her blog. Her writings afford me a glimpse into her mind. In them I discover her hopes, dreams, and desires; I learn about her values, convictions, and overall philosophy of life. I become very close to her; yet I am still one step removed. For she is not wholly present to me; her words are but a shadowy extension of the reality that is her.
Which brings us to the next level of experience: personal contact. When I sit down with my wife, and speak to her face to face, I encounter the creative power behind the photos and directly interact with the mind from which the writing sprung forth. I have come into personal contact with the reality I had, up to that point, only experienced from afar. I am no longer interacting with the cause through its effects but dealing directly with the cause herself.
Yet, I can get even closer still. As her husband, there is an even deeper way in which I can experience my wife; and that is through the nuptial embrace. When she and I become one; and share ourselves with one another in the most intimate way possible.
Each of these interactions describe very real ways to experience my wife; yet, clearly, these experiences vary greatly in terms of the level of intimacy involved.
The point being, many of us only seek to experience the numinous from afar; avoiding any intimate or personal contact. This is not to downplay the importance of such interaction. For, surely experiencing God through the beauty of His creation whilst on our morning walk is a great good (like any experience of great art). However, if I want to draw closer to and fully experience the Creator of all things I have to come into direct contact with Him; I must move beyond the Universe and interact with its ultimate cause.
Just as with my wife, I might seek to experience God through something He has written (or has inspired to be written). Again, this too is a great good. For, without a doubt, reading and meditating on the Bible will reveal much about God’s character, His motives, and His plans for my life. The key question is: Is this all God has to offer? Are we stuck merely experiencing God vaguely through the Universe He has made or through reading His inspired writings? Or, has He provided a more intimate, more personal, more direct way to experience Him? Something akin to the intimate relationship that I share with my beloved bride.
A Personal Relationship
As I said before, many Christians advocate having a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet, most understand this relationship, this experience of the numinous, to be an isolated, private, affair; one that is mediated almost entirely through the private study of the Bible. Perhaps, however, this is only scratching surface; it is only the tip of the proverbial ice-burg. Perhaps, God is interested in something deeper; something more profound. Perhaps God is offering Himself to us; that we might intimately experience Him in a way analogous to that of the relationship I share with my wife.
The biblical theologian Brant Pitre explains:
…none of these ways of seeing God–as a distant watchmaker, as an impersonal force that binds everything together, or as a kind of invisible superhuman hero–is the way a first-century Jew like Jesus of Nazareth would have seen God. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the one true God–“the LORD” or “He Who Is” (Hebrew YHWH) (Exodus 3:15)–is not just the Creator. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the God of Israel is also a Bridegroom, a divine person whose ultimate desire is to be united to his creatures in an everlasting relationship that is so intimate, so permanent, so sacrificial, and so life-giving that it can only be described as a marriage between Creator and creatures, between God and human beings, between YHWH and Israel.
Christians believe this divine marriage was fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ who, through His incarnation and passion, initiated a New Covenant between God and men; who gathered for Himself a people; namely, a Church; i.e., the New Israel. St. Paul communicates this idea, utilizing the imagery of marriage, on multiple occasions. Perhaps, most clearly, in this passage from Ephesians:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the Church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Ephesians 5:25-30).
Being a Christian means being grafted or adopted into a community; a family. It means entering into the life of God who exists as an intimate communion of three distinct persons sharing one essence and will: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It means being part of a living Body–the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church–whose head is Christ. It is within this community that we fully and completely encounter the risen Lord; the Bridegroom who desires us to know Him and to experience Him directly.
Within this community, this communion of saints, we are able to experience Christ in a very real, very tangible, very personal, and deeply intimate way: namely, through the most Holy Eucharist. Through partaking of the Eucharist–the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord really present in the bread and wine–we not only become one with our Lord but He draws us into union with each other as well. St. Paul explains:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinth. 10:16-17).
Understood in this sense, asking the question, “Do we need the Church?” is on par with asking, “Do I need to spend time with or make love to my wife?” I suppose I could get by with a long distance relationship; but that is not my hearts deepest desire and longing. My desire is to be near her, to experience her personally, and to be as intimate with her as I possibly can. Likewise, we can get by on our own, experiencing God from a distance, but this will never satisfy the deepest yearning of our hearts: which is to be known by and to know the God who brought us into being in the most intimate way. Such an experience of the numinous can only take place within the context of the Church.