I was recently at a talk on Catholic New Evangelization and the speaker began with a provocative question: What is our central goal and purpose as Catholics?
After giving the audience a little time to consider, the speaker provided us with the answer: To have a personal relationship with Jesus. According to him, it was the only thing we need, and without it our spiritual lives could never be fulfilled.
Now, this hadn’t been the first time I had heard about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus. It has always been popular with Protestants, and lately it has become a standard bearer for Catholics as well. But it struck me as odd that it should be considered to be the entire goal and purpose of our faith. Is that really what Christianity is all about? Isn’t a personal relationship a little lacking when considering the awe and glory of God? What does it mean to have a personal relationship with Jesus anyway?
As the speaker continued, he never really defined the phrase. He just sort of left it perched up there as an assumed standard that we should all follow.
By the end of the talk, I realized that he couldn’t define it by nature. The concept is amorphous, and intentionally so. To have something that is personal is to have something of one’s own, like a personal pizza. And, like a personal pizza, an individual gets to decide what goes into it.
As I have come to understand it, what people mean by ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ is something of an intimate connection with God. It is a strong familiarity as with a best friend or loved one. The thought is that we all have close friends that we spend a lot of time with, and that God should be the closest, most intimate friend who we spend the most time with. We’re all going to dedicate tons of energy to our friendships, so we might as well make God our best friend and devote that energy toward Him.
This makes sense as far as it goes, but, for some this concept of a personal relationship can be misleading, and, if the goal is godliness, it is ultimately counterproductive. Here’s why:
1. The phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ is nebulous at best.
When I ask someone why it is important to have a personal relationship with Jesus, the answer usually goes something like this: Jesus is a person and all persons of the Trinity have relationships, so we should have personal relationships with Jesus.
And, while this is undeniable, it is also a tautology. If the ‘person’ in ‘personal relationship’ is Jesus, then the only kind of relationship we can have is a personal one. Having a relationship at all means that we are having a personal relationship. There is no need to stress the personal aspect, and doing so doesn’t help bring us closer to Heaven.
As Dr. Jay Boyd explains, “a baptized, confirmed Catholic who faithfully partakes of the sacraments of reconciliation and Holy Communion in the manner prescribed by the Church certainly has a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus, whether or not he or she uses that phrase to describe it.”
It’s possible that personal relationshippers want to guard against the deist notion of an impersonal God, a God which doesn’t interfere with the universe through incarnation and miracles, etc. But those who emphasize a personal relationship are not engaging in a theological discussion on the nature of God or whether He came down to earth in the form of Christ. For them, it is assumed that God is personal and engages with us personally. As such, saying ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ is just being redundant.
2. The concept is awfully subjective.
More commonly, the term ‘personal’ is used to describe not Jesus, but us, which makes the concept of a personal relationship awfully subjective.
It is hard to view it any other way. The etymology of the word ‘personal’ is straightforward: ‘pertaining to the self’. If we are to pursue a personal anything, we are talking about something that is specifically for an individual and usually customized to preference. Like a personal pizza, personal computer, or personal ads, it has to do with a single person’s needs and wants.
Those attuned to theological debates will recognize in this the current of Immanentism, described by Fr. John Hardon, S.J. as “A method of establishing the credibility of the Christian faith by appealing to the subjective satisfaction that the faith gives to the believer.” Elsewhere in the Christian spectrum, Evangelicals have for some time used the idea of a relationship to replace that of religion outright.
There is a clear appeal to all of this subjectivity: comfort. One thinks of the Depeche Mode jam ‘Personal Jesus’ in which the singer assures us, “Reach out and touch faith / Things on your chest / You need to confess / I will deliver / You know I’m a forgiver”. A personal relationship with Jesus means that you will be understood and taken care of. Who doesn’t want that?
Of course, it also means that the relationship can’t be objective and therefore cannot be universal. What you want on your personal pizza might not be the same thing that I want on mine, especially if you order mushrooms.
To be sure, believers in the Universal Church should sense a problem with this subjectivity. As Pope Francis puts it, “There is no ‘do-it-yourself’ in the Church, no ‘freelancers’.” And even Protestants who believe in a ‘catholic and apostolic church’ should question it. The Christian God is universal and so provides the same to all, a premise that a subjective experience cannot possibly encompass.
3. It underscores feelings at the expense of thought.
When asked how we know when we have a personal relationship with Jesus, most will not be able to provide measurement for the enterprise, and will instead simply say that you know you have it when you feel it.
And it cannot be denied, as a standard for holiness, a personal relationship with Jesus is a very feeling-oriented guideline. Consider a prominent voice in the personal relationship camp, Sherry Weddell, who stresses the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus throughout her bestseller Forming Intentional Disciples. In the book, she relays a time when she was part of a successful Church experience, saying, “I could feel a spiritual energy that I have hardly ever experienced before at Mass, as though the intensity of the prayer of those gathered lifted my own prayer to a new level.”
Such talk is bound to resonate with those who consider themselves to be feelers, but what about the thinkers in the faith? Cannot believers come to spiritual heights through intellectual appreciation of Aquinas’ proofs? What about an aesthetic appreciation of the Sagrada Familia or a Mozart Requiem Mass? Are we to conclude that those who do not measure their faith along emotional lines cannot truly experience the faith?
This thinker would beg to differ.
4. It brings God down to our level instead of bringing us up to His.
To stress a personal relationship with Jesus is more than anything deft salesmanship. After all, the vast majority of the population, Catholic or otherwise, are all about personal relationships today—friends, family, lovers—we go to Starbucks with them, we text when something big happens, we broadcast milestones with them on social media. If one were to suggest a surefire way to connect with the masses these days, it would be through those very important personal relationships.
It is marketing genius to bring our relationship with God into this realm. We are already dwelling there, so showing how we can have these important relationships with God is insightful and, apparently, very successful.
And yet, bringing our relationship with God into this realm rather diminishes the value of that most valuable of relationships. To view Jesus as our buddy that we take to Starbucks and text after the football game is nice for us, but it is demeaning to Him.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, we will admit that there is nothing more un-friend-like than the awesome power and glory that is God. If we can begin to glimpse the scope of that power and glory, then we can do nothing other than fear and tremble in its presence. As Fr. Dwight Longenecker put it for The National Catholic Register, Jesus “is the judge of the living and the dead, before whom every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth”. His article is titled “Jesus is not your best buddy”.
True, we mortals rarely feel up to the call to truly worship as we should. We are weak, sinful, and ashamed at His feet. It is doubly difficult in a culture that has taught us that we are owed everything we want and all the respect we demand no matter what we do. But that doesn’t mean that we should drag down worship to accommodate us.
In today’s Church, ministers look for easier ways to bring folks back. The thought is that if we can simply get them to think about God, even if it’s while at Starbucks or when texting about the game, then we’re moving on the right track.
Ultimately, if those interactions are on our level, if they emphasize the personal aspects of our lives and the baseness of our whims, then we do a great dishonor to God and we undermine the great opportunity of our faith. Yes, these converts might be more inclined to pray and go to Mass with these more accessible forms of worship. But who cares if we attract more believers to the Church if they don’t truly believe? What good is it to bring in more Catholics if they aren’t actively reaching for Heaven?
The rejoinder is that God came down to our level in the most Christian of ways via the Incarnation. He offered the most intimate, personal relationship by becoming man and dwelling among us. And, it is only by this Incarnation and the subsequent death and resurrection that we could be saved. And yet, he did not dwell among us in order to stay here with us, at Starbucks and on the football field. He came down so that he might bring us up. The Incarnation is the path to the resurrection, and we all must follow if we truly believe.
We all know that we are sinners and cannot meet the high expectations set by Jesus. But we cannot let our fallen nature and our ridiculous inadequacies prevent us from even striving. For, if there is a surefire way to fail to meet God’s expectations, it is failing to even try.