George Weigel wrote an article in First Things about his most recent book Evangelical Catholicism. In it, he listed 10 things that are essential for the Church if it is to re-emerge as an instrument of true progress in the midst of the social decay we currently live.
The first and fundamental characteristic of Evangelical Catholicism is “friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ”. And it really is fundamental. And evangelical or “fundamentalist” Christians get that, perhaps it is why they focus on their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” so much, perhaps even exclusively. And while there is much more to a tree than its roots, if the roots are not healthy, the tree is as good as dead, because the rest of the tree “flows” from its roots. In the same way, our life of Faith flows from our relationship with Jesus Christ. He Himself said “I am the vine, you are the branches… …apart from me you can do nothing” [John 15:5].
And there really is no substitute. Sometimes it is easy to glaze over the antics of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Oh there they go again, worshipping idols… how dense are these people anyways? But one of the beautiful things about Sacred Scripture is that its depths cannot be exhausted. In every age, for every person, there is something. After all, it is not simply a document, but an expression of the living and eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ, God’s public revelation of Himself to mankind.
So what do I have to learn from the mistakes of the Israelites? Sure there were social pressures, economic pressures, and all kinds of other external pressures, but more than all that, something on the inside was missing.
“But once the rest of that generation were gathered to their fathers, and a later generation arose that did not know the Lord, or what He had done for Israel, the Israelites offended the Lord by serving the Baals.”
They did not know the Lord. That was what they were missing inside – their relationship with the One True God. Their surroundings were about the same as their forefathers – the same nations, the same idolatry – but unlike their forefathers, they didn’t have that fundamental relationship with the Lord from which observance of the law flowed as an act of love, rather than a bunch of unconnected external acts. Before long, they were worshipping idols, and acting just like the nations around them.
There is no substitute for a relationship with Jesus Christ. Spiritual exercises, devotions, and the like are both rooted in our relationship with Jesus and nourish it, just like the way leaves and flowers depend upon and contribute to the plant as a whole. But once cut off from the roots of the plant, no matter how impressive the container or their arrangement, they are as good as dead, and before long, we ourselves can end up worshipping idols of our own making. The only real, lasting fruit comes from those branches still rooted in friendship with our Lord Jesus Christ.