We hear the phrase all the time: a “personal relationship” with God and/or Jesus. Some valorize it, others critique and mock it. But few can explain what it means.
The phrase itself, though not biblical, points to the reality of a connection with God that can only be called “personal.” The issue for those who value this phrase is what “personal” means. For those who dismiss it, it is shibboleth of a theological/ideological posture they reject.
I want to try to briefly reformulate what this phrase might mean in a way that both sides might find agreeable and might push them to a fuller experience and expression of the gospel in daily life.
Let’s begin with the meaning of personal. In our culture we are taught from birth that we are individuals. It is not unfair to picture us as billiard balls. We see ourselves as complete and self-sufficient in and of ourselves. Relationships are external, like one billiard ball striking another as they move around the table. They may send us in important and helpful directions but they add nothing essential to who we are.
In this perspective a personal relationship with Jesus is individual, private, one-on-one relationship, nobody else’s business, nurtured and sustained by prayer, devotions, and worship. The church is seen as a place or group of people each seeking to deepen their own personal relation to God/Jesus.
There is much good here and it is sad to me that the disagreement between Christian traditions has led some to reject this reality as so much conservative fluff.
For in truth, those who dismiss a personal relationship with God/Jesus usually operate with a similar understanding of what it means to be a person! Their notion of what they usually call “religious experience” is equally individual and private, and church is also a “voluntary gathering of like-minded individuals” for them.
It’s actually the entire complex of conservative theology and right-wing politics that sours these folk on the notion of a personal relationship with God/Jesus. If a personal relationship with Jesus entails all that, well . . . no thanks!
But what if there’s another way to conceive of a person more in line with the Bible and the best of our Christian tradition. If our western view can be pictured as a billiard ball, this view can be pictured as one of those models of a molecule we used to make in high school chemistry class out of small styrofoam balls connected with toothpicks or pipe cleaners. A person is a person in relation to others. An H does not a water molecule make. Nor an H2. Only H2O makes a water molecule.
We are created in the image of our triune Creator, who is himself an eternal community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, giving and receiving love from each other as the one God forever and ever. In a way, we can say that God is his triune relationships. Analogously, we can say that human beings, too, are their relationships. To live as billiard ball is to live as less than human, less than what we are created for. Thus we can conclude that personal means open to and in need of connection to others. Our relationships, even with God, are personal, but not private.
To have a personal relationship with God, then, means to live with him in community with others. Community is a necessary corollary of the personal in a biblical perspective. Further, the inwardness of our life with God is matched by an outwardness of sharing that same life with others. Knit together as one by the our life together (think Bonhoeffer, Life Together) in our common life, we have the matrix or womb of genuine growth. It’s not for nothing that the church has often been called “our Mother”!
Finally, the life God has given us is a life connected to the creation as well. We are made of “soil” from the “Soil” God created and to that “Soil” we shall return. Its well-being is our well-being as the habitat that makes our life possible. A personal relationship with God will also include passion and compassion for the flourishing of this earth.
The Celtic Cross pictured below is, I suggest, an apt image for this “molecule” model of humanity. The cross, of course, is God’s love for us and for his creation, poured out for us in the power of the Holy Spirit (dove at the center). There were the Spirit is the vertical and horizontal dimensions are firmly knit together. The downward/upward reach for God to humanity and humanity to God is extended to the world in God’s horizontal embrace.
The distinctive circle uniting or lying behind the beams of the cross have been variously interpreted. I propose seeing the inner circle (the open spaces between the horizontal and vertical beams) as the church, the metal circle itself as the world of humanity, and the space beyond the circle as the creation.
If this be accepted, then life with God, our “personal relationship” to God begins at the cross, is given life by the Spirit at the center, extends upward to God, outward to humanity, is realized in the community of faith, and directed to the world and the earth. Interestingly, the Spirit’s presence at the center symbolizes his role as “the Lord, the Giver of life” (Nicene Creed), in and through all creation.
I propose, then, the Celtic Cross as a symbol of our real, living relationship to the triune God. In it we meet the God who has, is, and continues to act in and on our world to move it in the direction of his ultimate intent for it (Rev.21-22). In it, we are called to respond, in belief and action to God’s work, tracing the trajectory of divine love from the intimacy of the human heart to the largest task of creation care. If, then, this is what we mean by a “personal relationship” with God/Christ (though the phrase itself is likely irremediably beggared by the baggage it has acquired), I, for one, am all for it.