Monday, August 8, 2011

Glossing the Phrase "Personal Relationship With Jesus"

Growing up in church, no memories stand out in which the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" played any significant part. That is not to say that I never heard it, just that in what were my given ecclesial circles -- both youth and adult -- the expression exerted little to no formative weight.

However, and precisely for that reason, I was not immediately cognizant of the unfortunate uses to which the popular all-purpose phrase was put. It sounded to me both innocuous and generically (if blandly) correct, and so it took some time for me to grasp the offhand critiques and snide dismissals of those who paraded around such an (apparently) sappy and sentimental sense of faith. Since these were -- if not in congregational fact, then at least by the concentric circles of tradition, similar beliefs and practices, and sheer proximity -- "my people," I took the insults personally on their behalf, given what I knew many of them meant by the phrase. It was only when I realized what some others intended by it that I comprehended, and found myself in fullest agreement with, the critiques leveled by theological and other authorities.

My own language, personal and theological, remains more or less devoid of talk of a "personal relationship with Jesus" (or God), so I have no intention of rehabilitating a perhaps already irrevocably damaged expression (whether or not that spoiling deserves a cheer of "Good riddance!"). What I would like to do, instead, is to explicate the two chief alternative meanings behind uses of the saying, and so to defend one of them over against the other.

One use of "a personal relationship with Jesus" might be glossed as "an unmediated individual codependency with a self-validating ghost." All the key themes are there, for the phrase is deployed in an effort, first, to undercut connection to outward forms and to the church (warehouses of the bodily, by way of mediated living and communality); second, to engender an unhealthy independence from all other relationships except this one (thus making "this one" the far end of a continuum of ordinary "relationships," and so a case of soft idolatry); and, third, to facilitate a disembodied spirituality focused on an ever-present spooky companion who can always be relied upon to affirm me-and-my-decisions. And so we have it: the ever-reliant, ever-friendly, ever-smiling Jesus of American pop evangelicalism.

This Jesus is, of course, a terrifying (and quite new) hybrid creation of human hands, often innocent but at times deeply harmful in ugly and lasting ways, certainly to the gospel but no less to actual people's lives. Whole books have been written on the subject, so more of my two cents is unneeded.

My claim, however, is that there is another way of using the expression that both intends something substantially different than what is taken to be its more common use, and commends itself as theologically defensible, even valuable (in content if not in now-ruined parlance). This second glossing goes something like this: "personal relationship with Jesus" signifies that mediated but intimate relation, both communal and individual, to the risen crucified Messiah given to the church in the power of the Spirit.

Per this reading, "personal" stands in merely as antithesis to impersonal: God is no self-projected abstraction nor some generic numinousness, but rather living and acting, with a name and a story; a Person, not a thing -- or better, a communion of Persons, a personal communion, and therefore ripe for relation. (One encounters this emphasis especially in older church members who grew up in profoundly strict "religious" environments. The discovery that God is not a capricious and distant object to be appeased by formalized dead ritual is received as the genuine good news that it is.)

This brings us to the second term: "relationship" need not connote radical individualism or lack of mediation. It names, rather, the fact that what happens in the Christ event, in the incarnation of the living God among us, is the objective and subjective "new relation" in which humanity as a structural whole, and the church as a proleptic foretaste, stands before God. This "personal relationship" is neither islanded as an ideal nor alienated by distance, but, paradigmatically, is marked by the fellowship and mediation of life in community oriented "in both directions" by and to the God revealed in Jesus.

And who is this Jesus? Is it the ghost who puts to rest our fear that we might be wrong? No, this One is the crucified Jesus now risen in the power of God's Spirit -- and so the Jesus of both judgment and forgiveness, the true Jesus who speaks the divine No and the divine Yes, together and unseparated, on each of our lives. It is this Jesus and no other with whom we have, because we have been given, together, a "personal relationship."

Though the theological articulacy may be slight, and the terminology less than exact, and the usage at times slippery with ambiguity -- with the temptation never absent to adduce guilt by association -- this latter glossed meaning is, I propose, often as not the intended one. And whether it is or not, for those of us who hail from the tiny ranks of the theologically trained, ever ready with linguistic scalpel in hand, it seems a reasonable enough act of charity to let our first assumption be the better and the more respectable one.


  1. Thanks Brad this is a very constructive post. As one who has reflected on this not too long past and posted on the matter, based on my familiarity with the former (problematic) form of 'personal relationship' I would be interested in any further reflection on what the authentic 'personal relationship' with Jesus ends up looking and feeling like. The opposites of 'personal' and 'relationship' don't quite work. Perhaps we need different language.

  2. I'll have to read your post and return with more reflections, if I have any. I did want to make one point that I forgot to make in the post: The theological concept of mediation is (clearly) more complex than I reference. For in one sense, "personal relationship with Jesus" is anti-mediation in the sense of a specialized representative of the divine "through whom" one has access -- i.e., a heavy religious hierarchy, God specialist, and/or non-universalized priesthood. The phrase does directly and intentionally stand against any notion that mediation may be found through some particular individual or group; rather, Christian life is mediated through witness and mutual service: the testimony of the apostles and the prophets, of the community of faith, of the stories of the saints, of the proclamation of the word; the service (ministry) of each according to his/her gifts for the building-up of the community. By such things God's presence and character and life and word are mediated to the community in the power of the Spirit -- not through a holy man who alone has the authority to do such-and-such, without whom we would not have "access" to God.

  3. The grammar of 'communion' or 'union with Christ' comes to mind.

  4. I like your direction here. Speaking of the Triune nature of God definitely gets at the heart of His personal nature.

    The phrase does carry a "you doth protest too much" tone. It's as if we talk about relationship because we are concerned that we might not have one.

    With community and relationships, it is much better to simply be ourselves and live our lives instead of entertaining empty chatter.

  5. @ Jason. Say more Jason. How would you parse that grammar in a couple of sentences?
    @ Athanasius. I think you are exactly right about the protesting. It is feared that a relationship which is mediated by, say liturgy, or even neighbour would not be personal enough.

  6. At the heart of the matter to me seems to be an ambiguity that gets the church into all types of problems. While the nuances and details of theology and Biblical interpretation are terribly exciting- except for those few of us who have chosen such tasks as a career- they are important because of the fact that we are all coming from a different context. (that phrase makes me sound a lot more post-modern than I am, haha) I have thought about this in reference to baptism and how our ambiguous language has caused some, understandably so, to interpret our emphasis on said act as being motivated by some work of works-based self-righteousness. Surely things like "personal relationships with Jesus" and baptism are significant enough for us to take the necessary time to discuss their deeper meaning. It is true that we will never fully understand either one, but that only serves to underline the importance of beginning the conversation in the first place.

  7. thanks, Brad--I'm reminded of Bonhoeffer's take on this phrase, which very much emphasizes interior communion with Christ while directing this individuality toward corporate union. Without the individual, one loses a doctrine of the soul; without the corporate, one loses a doctrine of the church.