One of the common Christian catchphrases is having a ‘personal relationship with God/Jesus Christ.’ It is part of the en vogue notion of Christianity not being a religion, which is thought to be man-made, and relationship which is supposedly real and meaningful. The problem with this and other motto’s of popular theology is that it is regularly assumed to be true and not actually examined. Is Christianity really about a personal relationship with God?
Even though the personal relationship paradigm has the benefit of promoting personal investment and devotion towards God the danger is that it tends to do the reverse. It rather collapses on itself and becomes centred on the individual and his wants. The ‘personal’ in the relationship is not about God knowing me but me knowing him. In other words the relationship is defined by the individual so it becomes ‘me’ oriented. What the individual thinks and wants is fully fleshed out but the Lord becomes a two dimensional cartoon figure. The other danger is unchecked subjectivity. God becomes the childhood imaginary friend, constantly available, constantly agreeable and completely unverifiable. The personal relationship ends up becoming a replacement for communal life in the Church. Going to church is no longer the assembly of the new people of God, a new ethnos in Christ, but rather a weekly convention of private spiritual enthusiasts.
I understand that the motivations are sincere. People want to freely express themselves and not be bound by the strictures of arbitrary “religious” convention. The mistake they make is that they do not take time to actually find out the purpose of these religious acts in the Church before getting rid of them. Just because you do not see the use of something does not actually make it useless. The other issue is the idea that religion hinders more emotionally invested and expressionistic worship. The fact is it this has little to do with religion or church and more to do with cultural sensibilities. For example the Roman Catholic Church in Ghana decades ago had services that closely resembled what was done in Europe. Emeritus Archbishop of Kumasi, Dr Peter Kwasi Sarpong, then introduced the use of indigenous songs, dancing and instrumentation which revolutionised the complexion of mass in the country. He called this “inculturation.” The Pentecostal/Charismatic churches had been at this for decades ever since the days of William Wadé Harris. He was an extraordinary evangelist from Liberia in the early 20th century who came to Ghana and enjoyed phenomenal success with his contextualised approach, typical of what has made Pentecostalism so popular globally. What might be called religion is just an issue of cultural temperaments. Furthermore, to assume someone not heavily emoting is because what they are doing is not meaningful to them is just not true. Some people are just not built that way and we need to respect that.
On an existential level I recognize that some people do actually have some unique sense of closeness and relatedness to God. This is especially true when a person has some kind of mystical experience. Having warm fuzzy feelings every time you think about God is fine but it is a private experience. That alone cannot be the basis for theological truth. What about those who do not have a sense of intimacy with God. Even those who feel close to him do not feel that way all the time. What can serve as a legitimate basis for truth is scripture while not discounting the value of personal experience. The latter needs to be judged by the former. So is there a biblical basis for talking about a personal relationship with God?
The scriptures are our primary source of understanding about God. In it we have an account, a story, of human divine interactions spanning centuries, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The chief failure of the theology of a “personal relationship with God/Jesus” is that it is rooted in modern existential thinking and not in the scriptural narrative. When you listen to Christian contemporary music you detect the fervour of romanticism urging such sentiments on.
The first indicator that it is a theologically deficient is that kind of phrasing never appears in the Bible. I recognize there are many theological terms that never appear or seldom appear in the Bible but we are sure of them. What I am pointing out is that such vocabulary is not present. People did not talk about God or themselves in that way because that is not how they understood their relationship. The very word relationship is a very vague, it could refer to anything but we tend to use it in a bilateral, private sense. It something between two people. It is focused on individuals where they somehow share their privacy. Until the advent of modernity most people in the world did not have personal space. Perhaps, if you were rich you could afford it but otherwise everyone’s business is everyone’s business. It’s quite hard to wrap our heads around the idea that our sense of individual identity is somewhat an innovation in the course of human history. The extent of modern individualism is quite unique. A sense of communal identity was far stronger than it is today. It’s only recently in my own culture that people are moving towards a more Europeanized nuclear family system even though I doubt we will go fully the way of the West. I, like many others, are very familiar with third cousins and other very distant members of the family tree. With a strong sense of communal identity it was very hard for them to imagine an individual having private access to God.
What we might call religion, for them was not a personal choice, it came with your birth certificate. Depending on your ethnicity you worshipped certain gods. Even your own family had deities and ancestors they worshipped and you were expected to do the same. The reason being the gods were the foundation of the society and indeed the natural order. In modern secular societies that is not the case. It is quite curious that in the West the secular hyper-pluralised state is moving in to be the supreme authority over society, effectively inhabiting the same role and doing similar things to what they criticised Christendom for. Go figure.
Now many would concede that communal identity is very important in scripture but they will still point out that there are still stories of individuals. This is a fair and important observation. The Bible does talk about individuals but how does it talk about them? Going by the pop theology emphasis on “personal relationship” each individual’s experience is of equal value. In scripture we find something else. Biblical figures are not all given equal treatment in the narrative. Those who are given sufficient attention are not always the ones according to our contemporary literary sensibilities we want to know about. Adam and Eve are hardly spoken of in the Old Testament. Also we mostly do not get the autobiographical details the modern readers craves. Their inner thoughts and feelings are not given much priority but their actions and reactions in the context of God’s purposes are. My point here is the stories of individuals in scripture are not constructed in a way to think of a personal relationship. It is rather more concerned with how God is acting in the course of human history, through his chosen people. The individuals that play a significant role in scripture are those who help push the story forward in important directions with regard to the ultimate goal of God’s plan for the world.
The idea of a “chosen people” is far as I can tell, is pretty unique in antiquity. There is evidence some people had covenant relationships with deities in the ancient Near East. What was interesting about the biblical narrative is that we have a god who does not depend on human worship, who goes out on his own initiative to seek out a people as instruments in accomplishing his will in the world. No other gods did that. It is also quite contrary to our notions about religion being a personal choice when it is the object of religious devotion choosing his adherents. Furthermore, this god demands absolute fidelity in the covenant relationship, which means exclusive worship. Ancient Israelite monotheism was a strong statement to the nations around them regarding their societies which were built on the cultic worship of the gods. Saying there was one god meant other deities were false and were only pretenders. To say to a neighbouring culture that their society was built on a false worldview was massive. A relationship with God in scripture encompasses more things than the word ‘personal’ could possible admit. It includes all aspects of human society such as politics, ethics, art, culture etc. The shrunken view of what it means to believe in God today is something very foreign to scripture.
When we take a look at the individuals highlighted in scripture, they mostly act as representatives. That is they often play pivotal roles on the behalf of the community. A figure like Joseph is a clear example of this along with many others. From the beginning God had chosen a human family to fulfil his agenda, so individuals worth noting in the biblical record are in some way tied to the destiny of the family.
Now when it came to how the community related to God certain individuals were also singled out. Again this was not to grant one person exclusive access to God but rather to serve the people. The chosen individual among the chosen people would also represent God’s interests before the people. These select persons had a mediatory role between God and his people. This goes back to a very ancient notion that humans could not have direct access to the divine. There had to be designated individuals to perform the necessary rituals so that society and deity could communicate. The divine was not something they took for a laugh. It was a very serious business having contact with the spiritual forces that govern human fortune. Dealing with that was dangerous so, for a lack of a better word, you needed “specialists” to do that for you. For Israel whether it was prophets, priests, judges, kings, whatever, there always had to be an intermediary. For them what added an extra dimension of fear was the fact they had a holy God. Unlike the pagan deities who were like humans so moral behaviour was not a top priority, for YHWH it was. Pagan gods were as fickle and taciturn as the people who worship them so they could be manipulated. YHWH on the other hand was a righteous judge. Going before God meant you were exposing yourself to impartial divine scrutiny. It was therefore a necessary precaution for a relationship with God to always be mediated.
In scripture the difference between creature and creator is a necessary ontological one. That is to say creator and creation belong to two distinct categories of being. Titles like ‘Most High,’ ‘the Holy One,’ convey the sense of God’s otherness. The idea of a personal relationship where you are besties with God is non-existent in scripture. Two people can have that sort of relationship but God is something completely above and beyond. The same scriptures that say God spoke with Moses as a man with his friend also tell us that he could not look into the Lord’s face and live because of his matchless glory. We equally should not caricature Jesus as God’s favourite guy, as if the Almighty is a surly begrudging mobster who before you can meet, his right hand man has to vouch for you. He is the full embodiment of God not the guy who gives you V.I.P access to his presence for an all-expenses paid, care free life.
In the New Testament this posture of mediation continues with Jesus the Lamb of God. He is the sacrifice for our sins through which we can approach God. That means without him we do not have God or as I should say, we do not belong to him. So being a child of God in the New Testament does not mean direct unmediated access to God. In fact our sonship is described as an “adoption”, that is, the unique sonship of Jesus is extended to us through the Spirit of God. We are members of God’s family by being grafted into the Messiah. The author of Hebrews actually says Jesus is in heaven interceding for us. He is understood to be the ultimate divinely appointed mediator between God and humans.
When we are use the language of the ‘personal relationship’ in the way that we do, we end up flattening out the Gospel by screening out the intercessory role of Jesus. He paid the ultimate price for us to be in relationship with his Father. Instead, we need to adopt the biblical language of a ‘mediated relationship’ with God, with all the theological weight of the scriptures brought to bear upon that term. That includes Jesus being giving all judgment and authority by God. As unsentimental as that sounds this is the true God we are dealing with.