Probably the most consistent theme of conservative Christianity is the concept of a personal relationship with Jesus.
I have never understood this.
The emphasis on personal makes sense within the context of traditional Baptist theology. It’s drawn from our emphasis on piety and responsibility. But against the larger Christian tradition, it doesn’t resonate so well. Surely the community matters as much if not more than the individuals within it. The Prayer starts with “Our Father.” The Nicene Creed begins “We believe.” It seems to me the community is more important than the individual. Why do we place so much emphasis on the personal?
My strongest sense of God’s presence comes in group settings, primarily worship, and particularly at Communion. The experience of Christianity isn’t about me. It’s about us.
The relationship part sometimes makes no sense. I have relationships with several people. All of these are characterized by two-way interactions. But I don’t have a two-way interaction with Jesus Christ, at least not in the ordinary sense of the word “interaction.” I don’t hear voices, and I don’t recognize impulses or emotional reactions as messages from Jesus. (That’s not to say your experiences are mere impulses. I’m talking about my experiences.) I don’t believe an invisible person is walking next to me, guiding me or helping me. Yet these seem to be characteristics of the relationship emphasized by the conservative Christians I’ve known through the years.
One might say that relationship means simply a connection or an association. Certainly I have an “association” with Jesus Christ. It’s partly historical. Jesus is the focal point of a religious movement that has had a profound effect, for better or worse, on world history. But even atheists have this same historical connection to Jesus.
I also have a connection to Jesus as an object of study. Jesus’ words and actions form the basis of our faith. We study them. We try to emulate him. Of course, we fail. But we also study others. Consider Thomas Jefferson, for example. If Thomas Jefferson is the object of my study, and I make an effort to emulate him (a worthy effort, to be sure), then I have a connection with Thomas Jefferson. One might say I have a relationship with Thomas Jefferson. In the right context, such a statement could make perfect sense. But then Jefferson is like Jesus, and this is surely not what my conservative Christian friends mean by a relationship with Jesus.
So, for those who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus, I have some sincere questions.
What characterizes your relationship with Jesus? If you talk to him (prayer), does he talk back? In what manner?
How do you understand the personal nature of your relationship with Jesus? How is your relationship with Jesus different from that of the guy sitting next to you? If your relationship with Jesus is fundamentally identical to his relationship with Jesus, then in what sense is it personal?
How you understand your relationship in the context of Trinitarian theology? Do you also have a relationship with the Holy Spirit? With God the Father?
Because my experience is different from your own, and because I apparently have a different kind of relationship with Jesus compared to your own, do you believe I’m going to hell?
Rodney Dunning is a physics professor at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. He attends Farmville Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This column appeared previously on his blog.