Tim Dalrymple tells about how he lost much of his faith at Princeton Theological Seminary — not because of seminary, necessarily, but because while there, he fell out of the practice of personal piety and spirituality. Christianity became an abstract intellectual thing for him, and he hadn’t noticed it until a severe health crisis revealed how hollow his faith had become. And then, a friend from seminary came back from a month-long Ignatian retreat — and bore a kind of witness that brought Dalrymple back:

As he described his retreat, I kept hearing a particular word — a word that surprised me, a word that I had not heard or spoken so openly and frequently for years.

Do you want to know what the word was?  Jesus.

I had stopped saying the word “Jesus.”  95% of the time, I only spoke of “God.”  Or if I had to speak of him, I referred to God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, the Logos…names that sounded intellectual and sophisticated.  If I had to speak of the Son incarnate, then I spoke of Christ, or the God-man.  Never Jesus Christ, and certainly never just Jesus.  Loving Jesus, following Jesus, seeking Jesus — these were the province of fundamentalists, Bible thumpers, Jesus Freaks, crude Christians who wore WWJD bracelets and listened to Michael W. Smith and read Max Lucado instead of Jurgen Moltmann.  We had even begun to subtly mock Jesus by talking of “Jeebus” or mocking the way certain preachers shouted “Jesus!” in their sermons, or by laughing at Jesus action figures and the other strange cultural artifacts emanating from Jesusland.

But now, here was this friend of mine, whom I admired, and he couldn’t stop talking about walking with Jesus and talking with Jesus.  He spoke of Jesus telling him something, or showing him something, or holding him.  It was striking only because I had not heard language like that since I had come to seminary.

As Dalrymple tells it, he used to talk that way, to live as if Jesus was a constant, active presence in his life. But he’d forgotten that.

For two years I had scoffed at things like this.  It seemed simplistic and sentimental.  But really, it’s the simple, heart-changing truth, a truth that confounds the wise and lifts up those the world calls fools.  I had left behind the language of Jesus, the spirituality of Jesus, and I had certainly left behind the imitation of Jesus.

That was the beginning of my long climb out of the pit.

This story is so, so important, so I hope you’ll read the whole thing. It reminded me of a rebuke my wife delivered to me one night a decade or so ago. We’d just said goodbye to some dear friends of ours in Brooklyn who had come over for dinner, fellow Catholics. We had done what we often did: fallen into a long, deep discussion about the Church, mostly bitching about it. Julie said later, “You know, we could use a lot less talking about Peter, and a lot more talking about Jesus.”

Her point, and it was a good one, was that for people who professed Christianity, and who took the faith seriously, so much of our time was spent on talking about the Church, and comparatively little talking about the One to whom the Church was supposed to lead us. She was absolutely right. The thing I always, always take to confession is my failure to pray as I should. I would rather read about the faith than quiet myself enough to be still and “connect through prayer to the living God. Someone, I think a Catholic writer, once said that of all the people he knew who had left the faith, it always began with the loss of intimacy with God in prayer. Jesus ceased to be real to them, and instead became “Jesus.” You know?

I know. This is one of my great failings. My temptation is to intellectualize the faith, and to substitute intellectual activity — reading, writing, studying — for prayer and contemplation. Others are tempted to substitute church activity, activism, and evangelism for the cultivation of a deep spiritual life of the sort Dalrymple mentions. As he rightly observes, “A Christian never outgrows Jesus,” by which he means a Christian must never believe or act as if simple, direct piety is a childish thing to be put away. When and if he does, he is on the way to being an ex-Christian, even if he never formally leaves the church.

The late, great Michael Spencer, a Southern Baptist who developed a wide following as Internet Monk, said it all so well here. Excerpt:

I once read someone who portrayed evangelical Christians as people using all their abilities to get other people to agree to evangelistic sentences. The sentences mattered very much; more than almost anything else. Correctly worded sentences, turned into prayers, lectures, books and so on.

Miroslav Wolf said that Christianity carries a life-lived along side its truths-claimed. Saint Francis — and many others — have suggested that the life-lived communicates far more profoundly than the truths claimed, especially if it’s a matter of which shouts the loudest.

One blogger recently lamented the callous behavior of knuckle-headed cage phase Calvinists, and also lamented the theological cynics who act as if theology doesn’t matter. Having been one and constantly suspected of being the other, I liked what he said.

He makes a good point. The knuckle-headed cage phase Calvinist has theological problems as well as human relationship problems with manners, maturity and civility. My experience tells me that the two are more related than we like to think. The person who says that theology and those who live to obsess over it are an unmitigated good seem to be, uh….a bit overly optimistic.

Take, for instance, the seminary student who discovers that one theological system has all the answers he’ll ever need. All he needs is to buy the books, go to the conferences and check the websites. In more than a few cases, it would be best if he simply stopped his education and went home until he’s willing something to learn again. While he’s certain that he’s right, and he’s correcting his professors and working to overthrow any teacher who doesn’t subscribe to his hobby horse theological system, he’s useless as a student and probably off balance as a human being. The wise and the know-it-alls have no reason to learn from those who can’t/won’t/don’t see the light. (Yes, that’s me in the corner….losing my religion…)

The real problem is whether our know-it-all student is still devoted to Jesus and to what Jesus means in his life. No doubt he’ll say that it’s for Jesus’ sake that he’s hassling his professors, pastor and friends. It’s for Jesus sake that minutia now matters more than his anniversary. It’s for Jesus’ sake that theology stirs him and evangelism/church planting need more study. But does Jesus matter? Period?

Yes. Plus, a Kierkegaardian point: if you want to know whether or not Christianity is true, you’ll be better off looking to the lives Christians lead. The sociologist Bob Bellah made the same point from a sociological point of view in his recent book about the evolution of religion. And the kind of life actual Christians of whatever church or tradition lead depends most of all on whether or not the personal Jesus matters to them.