In Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence, Diana Butler Bass discusses six ways of approaching Jesus, six ways that Christians have spoken of Jesus, and most importantly, six ways Christians have experienced Jesus — or as she calls it, the “Jesus of experience.” In particular, Bass uses her own life story to explore how over the last 60 years she has related to Jesus — from being a young child, to being an aspiring academic, and onward to today.
But it’s not an evolution upwards — as if the Jesus she experienced as a friend in childhood is to be put away when she arrives at Jesus as presence and way. Rather, each of the six approaches, the six ways of experiencing Jesus, have a place in her life. As she began to see them as templates for relating to Jesus, she was able to pick up older ways of relating to Jesus in a new light, processed through the experiences she had over time.
Each approach highlights something important in the life of Christian faith — and also suffers from blind spots. I don’t believe she says this directly, but one conclusion I draw from her account is that none of the approaches work by themselves or are self-sufficient. You really need a breadth of approaches — in fact so much so, that these six approaches hardly exhaust the ways people have experienced or could experience Jesus. They simply give us a good starting point for reflection.
It may have to do with my autism, but I could never imagine Jesus as a friend. While I loved church as a child and was active in every area of church life from VBS to Sunday school to church camps to youth groups, I would have been confused about the idea that Jesus is my friend. It would have made as much sense to me as Jesus being in my heart. Maybe such phrases were more metaphoric than I knew what to do with, or maybe my inner imagination had different characters. I suspect I had more imaginative play with Luke Skywalker than I did with Jesus.
But in Bass’ account, these templates also serve as a model for how we should be in the world. And she wonders why friendship is not a more central category for how Christians understand our lives. Jesus modeled a kind of friendship with his disciples. Perhaps to be a friend of Jesus is simply to be a friend the way he was.
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15)
Yet as a philosophy instructor, I invariably go to the Greeks and Romans to read accounts of friendship. Aristotle makes it central to his ethics; Cicero has a whole book on the subject. It’s telling that the first time I read accounts of friendship by a theologian, they were written by feminist theologians.
I’m thinking of books such as Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship, for example. In the Christian world, Bass notes, friendship seems to be the domain of children and women — but in a society dying of loneliness, this should not be. Friendship should be raised up as central. And not just in children’s books and literature. We train children for friendship yet imagine it as just another thing to leave behind in adulthood. But if Christianity is to be salvific, then friendship — the friendship of Jesus and with one another — needs to be lifted up again.
That friendship was modeled by Jesus because in the end, Jesus is the good teacher. While liberal Protestants are often discounted for talking about Jesus as a teacher, Bass makes clear that this is the overwhelming portrait of Jesus we find in the Gospels. With more than 60 references to Jesus as teacher, rabbi, and master — more than any other term — it may be time to reclaim this way of relating to Jesus.
As a philosophy instructor I was tempted to go to other sources. I think of Xunzi’s writings where education is central to what it means to be human, to teach, and to receive teachings. It forms the crux of Confucian writings. But somehow I hadn’t noticed how much of the Gospels and Paul were shape by teaching, by the renewing of our minds. “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” For Paul, ethics was just not mere ethics, it was the living proof of the good intentions God has for the world being played out.
This is not to be confused with moralism. As Reinhold Neibuhr writes in Man’s Nature and His Communities:
The long history of religious self-righteousness reveals that religious experience is more effective in inducing repentance for deviation from common standards than in inducing repentance for the hatred, bigotry, and prejudice involved in the common standards of race, nation, or church. Perhaps human self-hood in its collective form constitutionally is unable to imagine any higher value. Hence, the redemptive value of dissident individuals, the prophet, the critic, even the rebel, in a free community.
One of the most fascinating pieces in Bass’ book was not about her stint at Scottsdale Bible Church, which promised an escape from death in the rapture and heaven for those who believed rightfully. We’re all familiar with that kind of evangelicalism. It was the story of her time at an evangelical college in the late ’70s where earnest young evangelicals, seeking to follow the Lordship of Jesus, took seriously the idea of mission, of bringing hope to the hopeless, of working with those on the margins of society.
What I did not know was how significant this form of evangelicalism was. It was the folks like Jim Wallis and Sojourners, Ron Sider and Evangelicals for Social Action, and Tony Campolo. It was Jimmy Carter’s evangelicalism; he himself in 1976 won over half of the white evangelical vote. To realize the significance of this expansive and justice-oriented evangelicalism is to realize what was lost. I’m 49 and grew up in the shadow of the religious right. So I had no idea that evangelicalism could be anything other than its modern incarnation.
There was another strand of evangelicalism that found its way into the academy by the 1980s. It rejected the caricatures of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but it too was a form of reaction. It found its power in orthodoxy, in the creeds, in the magisterium, in the historical traditions of the Church. Calling themselves “radical orthodox” and “post-liberal,” they had no time for experiential religion and those not firmly rooted in “the faith of the Church.”
This movement never went away and seems to have a significant foothold among many, both in the academy and in mainline churches. They trend left in support of marriage equality and socialist economics — but if you doubt any article of the creed, if you have questions about the virgin birth, you are to have no place in the church. Bass’ line about women preaching against women pastors has reminded me of how many LGBTQ+ clergy have told me that as a gay pastor, I should not be in the Church because of my doubts.
In Bass’ description of Jesus as a way, as presence, she hopes that the new generation of folks, LGBTQ+, women, the neurodivergent — any group that has traditionally been marginalized in the church — will find their theological voice, and claim it — which is exactly what Bass has done, to the great benefit of the wider church. But some of the exchanges with the orthodox, regardless of denomination, age, or demography, seem more emphatic about a narrow vision of Christian faith. Changing the demographics has not opened the church up after all.
And so many of the groups that could open up the faith have left the church, including many who may well pick up Freeing Jesus. My hope is that these “nones” and “dones” find avenues for critique and, even more, cast a new and more generous vision of faith that can open the church and Jesus up to imagine a more generous and shared world.
An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Rev. Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings, where he also serves as a part-time philosophy instructor. He is married to Jim Reindollar and is owned by two cats, Annie and Adler. He blogs at Approaching Justice.