By matthewkelley

Is Jesus Still Relevant?

December 5, 2008

It should come as no surprise to us that, in this modern environment, the relevance of Jesus is being seriously questioned. The reason is simple. The philosophy of Christ is very different from the prevailing philosophies of our modern culture. In fact, they are completely opposed to each other. And yet, the teachings of Christ and these modern philosophies both claim to be the key to the fulfillment of a yearning that is common to us all.

Our Quest for Happiness

The human heart is on a quest for happiness. Every human heart yearns for happiness like the desert yearns for rain. You have a desire for happiness; I have a desire for happiness. This desire is universal, common to every member of the human family. We simply desire to be happy, and we act from this desire.

We often do things that we think will make us happy, but which in fact end up making us miserable. Under the influence of philosophies such as Individualism, Hedonism, and Minimalism, we often seek the happiness we desire through pleasure, possessions, power, and the path of least resistance. Each of these may offer moments of happiness, but they end too soon, having lasted ever so briefly, and our quest for a lasting happiness continues. These moments of happiness are of course real, but only as real as a shadow. The shadow of a person is real, but it is nothing compared to the actual person. So many of us spend a large portion of our lives chasing shadows.

The modern search for happiness is governed by Individualism, Hedonism, Minimalism and their fruits: greed, lust, laziness, gluttony, selfishness, exploitation, and deception. And yet, as these philosophies become more and more the focus of modern lifestyles, people seem to be filled with a greater discontent and unhappiness with each passing day.

Is it possible that these philosophies cannot deliver what they promise? Is it possible that there is something lacking in these philosophies that makes it impossible for the human person to find happiness through them?

God and Happiness

I believe God wants us to be happy. I believe God gave us the yearning for happiness that constantly preoccupies our human hearts. It is as if God placed this yearning within each human heart as a spiritual navigational instrument designed to reunite us with our destiny. As a Father who takes a sincere and active interest in the lives of his children, God sent his only Son to respond to humanity’s yearning for happiness, and to offer direction in satisfying that yearning. After all, God himself is the author of our yearning for happiness.

The philosophy of Christ is the ultimate philosophy of human happiness. At the same time, the philosophy of Christ is one of self-donation. This is the great paradox of God’s teaching. In our misguided adventures, we may catch glimpses of happiness living outside of the philosophy of Christ. You may even taste happiness for a moment living a life contrary to the philosophy of Christ, but these are stolen moments. They may seem real, but they are just shadows of something infinitely greater.

The Attitude of Christ

Jesus never asked, “What’s in it for me?” He was not motivated by the Individualist creed; he was motivated by a spirit of service. Far from advocating a Hedonistic deification of pleasure, Jesus gently proclaimed a life of self-denial, saying, “Whoever wishes to follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24). He certainly didn’t ask himself, “What is the least I can do and still bring salvation to humanity?” No, he asked, “What is the most I can do?” For this is the question of the lover. The attitude of Christ forms a stark contrast to the philosophies of Individualism, Hedonism, and Minimalism.

The life that Jesus invites us to live is very different than the lifestyle our modern culture invites us to live. Individualism, Hedonism, Minimalism – and their various sundry ally philosophies such as Relativism and Materialism – encourage us to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want. On the other hand, Jesus invites us to a life of discipline.

Having appeared to Mary Magdalene after his Resurrection, Jesus summoned the disciples to Galilee. When the eleven were gathered together on the mountain, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus did not say, “Go and make followers of every nation.”

It is easy to be a follower, but to be a disciple requires discipline. Christ invites us to a life of discipline not for his sake, but for our sake; not to help him, but to help us; not to make him happy, but to allow us to share in his happiness.

The Role of Discipline

Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have it to the fullest” (John 10:10). The path that leads to “fullness of life” is discipline. There are four major aspects of the human person – physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. When we eat well, exercise often, and sleep regularly, we feel more fully alive physically. When we love, when we give priority to the significant relationships of our lives, when we give of ourselves to help others in their journey, we feel more fully alive emotionally. When we study, we feel more fully alive intellectually. When we come before God in prayer, openly and honestly, we experience life more fully spiritually. All of these life-giving endeavors require discipline. When are we most fully alive? When we embrace a life of discipline. The human person thrives on discipline.

Are you thriving? Or are you just surviving?

Discipline awakens us from our philosophical stupor and refines every aspect of the human person. Discipline doesn’t enslave or stifle the human person; rather, it sets us free to soar to unimagined heights. Discipline sharpens the human senses, allowing us to savor the subtler tastes of life’s experiences. Whether those experiences are physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, discipline elevates them to their ultimate reality. Discipline heightens every human experience and increases every human ability. The life and teachings of Jesus Christ invite us to embrace this life-giving discipline.

Many people consider Jesus irrelevant today because he proposes a life of discipline. Is discipline then to be considered the core of Jesus’ philosophy? No. Christ proposes a life of discipline not for its own sake, and certainly not to stifle or control us; rather, he proposes discipline as the key to freedom.

In the midst of the complexities of this modern era, we find ourselves enslaved and imprisoned by a thousand different whims, cravings, addictions, and attachments. We have subscribed to the adolescent notion that freedom is the ability to do whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want, without interference from any authority. Could the insanity of our modern philosophy be any more apparent? Freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want. Freedom is the strength of character to do what is good, true, noble, and right. Freedom without discipline is impossible.

Is freedom then to be considered the core of Jesus’ philosophy? No. What then, is the core of his philosophy? Well, as it turns out, the people of his own time were curious for an answer to this very question.

One day, while Jesus was teaching a large group of people in the synagogue, a man asked Our Lord a question from his position in the multitude. He was a learned man, one of those doctors of the law who were no longer able to understand the teaching revealed to Moses because it had become so twisted and entangled in the ways of men. He questioned Our Lord, saying, “Teacher, which is the greatest of the Commandments?”

Jesus opened his divine lips slowly, with the calm assurance of somebody who knows what he is talking about and replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, and your whole soul. This is the first and the greatest of the Commandments. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Upon these two rest the whole law and all the prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).

Love is the core of Jesus’ philosophy. But, in order to love you must be free. For to love is to give your self freely and without reservation.

Yet, to give your self – to another person, to an endeavor, or to God – you must first possess your self. This possession of self is freedom. It is a prerequisite for love, and is attained only through discipline.

Jesus in History

Before Christmas last year, I saw a Jewish scholar interviewed on television. The topic of discussion was the influence Jesus has exerted on human history. In summary, the scholar concluded, “The impact this man has had on human history is undeniable. Because of this man we call Jesus, the world will never again be the same. Because of Jesus, men and women will never think the same. Regardless of whether or not we believe he was the Son of God, because of this man who walked the earth two thousand years ago, men and women will never live the same, will never be the same.”

Sometimes, in this turbulent cultural environment, which can be particularly anti-Christian, we can lose sight of the impact Christ has had on history. Caught up in the day-to-day challenges of our busy lives, it is sometimes easy to forget the unfathomable influence this one man has had.

There are a great many people today who think that Jesus is irrelevant in the modern context. I suspect these people are suffering from a modern madness caused by an ignorance of self and history. As we get to know ourselves, our deepest needs, and the history of humanity, the relevance of Jesus Christ to modern man becomes startlingly clear.

Is Jesus still relevant?

Gather all the books that have been written about the life and teachings of Jesus. Add to them all the artwork Christian life has inspired. Now consider all the music inspired by Christ. Not to be forgotten is the fact that the Church nurtured and nourished the development of the arts for centuries. Christianity was the moral foundation upon which America and many other nations built themselves. Now consider the fact that prior to Christ walking the earth, there was never any such thing as a hospital. Where were the sick when Jesus walked the earth? They were on the side of the road, left there to rot and die by relatives who feared for their own health. How is it that we have also collectively forgotten that until the Church introduced education for the masses, there was never any such thing as an education for the common man? Education was only for the elite until the Church recognized and proclaimed the dignity of every human person and introduced education for the masses.

All of these represent aspects of the measurable impact Christ has had on human history. And yet, these are all just dim reflections of the person who was and is Jesus Christ. Adding all of these together is still nothing compared to the impact Christ can have on your life, on my life. All the worldly success of Christ and the Church are insignificant compared to the change Christ can effect in your heart, in my heart.

The life of Jesus Christ is indelibly engraved upon history, neither the erosion of time nor the devastating and compounding effects of evil have been able to erase his influence. Some people thought he was crazy, others considered him a misfit, a troublemaker, a rebel. He was condemned as a criminal, and yet, his life and teachings echo and reverberate throughout history. He saw things differently, and he had no respect for the status quo. You can praise him, disagree with him, quote him, disbelieve him, glorify him, or vilify him. About the only thing you cannot do is ignore him, and that is a lesson that every age learns in its own way.

You can’t ignore Jesus because he changed things. He is the single greatest agent of change in human history. He made the lame walk, taught the simple, set captives free, gave sight to the blind, fed the hungry, healed the sick, comforted the afflicted, afflicted the comfortable, and in all of these, captured the imaginations of every generation. His teachings are not complex or exclusive, but simple and applicable to everyone, everywhere, in every time in history, regardless of age, color, or state in life. Beyond life’s complexities, there is simplicity. Beneath life’s confusion, there is understanding. It is the Gospel, the Good News. Within it, through it, we find salvation. And I believe that part of that salvation is happiness – not the foolish, empty happiness that this modern age associates with getting what you want. It is a happiness deeper and higher than any happiness we could imagine or design for ourselves.

Christ came to reconcile us with the Father, and in doing so, offered the satisfaction of this craving for happiness that preoccupies our human hearts. Love is our origin and our destiny. Our yearning for happiness is a yearning for love. Created to love and be loved, we seek out the fulfillment of our purpose. “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and our yearning for happiness is ultimately a yearning for God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church wastes no time in addressing this truth. The opening point of Chapter One, Section One, reads, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will man find the truth and happiness he never stops yearning for.”

Our desire for happiness is not going to go away. It is part of the human condition. Our quest for happiness is a quest for God. This is the genius of God. Our yearning for happiness is the ultimate and eternal homing device, designed to draw us gently toward our eternal home. Our yearning for happiness is a yearning for union with our Creator. As Augustine pointed out so simply and eloquently, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, Lord.” Wherever men and women yearn for happiness, Christ will be relevant. He alone is the fulfillment and satisfaction of this yearning, and so for every person in every place and time he remains, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).

-The above excerpt is chapter three of Matthew’s book, Rediscovering Catholicism.