“Personal” =/= “Individual” or “Subjective”

Here’s a well-intentioned piece that manages to get things subtly but disastrously wrong. It declares “Christianity Is Not About a Personal Relationship with Jesus“.

What the author means–and would have been right had he said it–is that Christianity is not about an individualistic or subjective relationship with Jesus. This is deeply true and the New Testament bears abundant witness to it. The communal way of the early Church is baked in deeply to the gospel. Jesus simply does not talk about the faith as an individualist project. He found the church as a society. He teaches his disciples how to live in that society. He confers on that society an order and a structure. He gives that society authority in his name. He places his apostles on “twelve thrones” ruling over the twelve tribes of Israel. He give them the authority to bind and loose (which they exercise). He pray that they may be one.

And Paul and the other apostles live accordingly. Paul appeals to the authority of the Church, having been commissioned by the authority of the Church. Even when he chews out Peter, he does so on the basis of Peter’s own authority and the decision he and the Synod of Jerusalem made in Acts 15 which found that Gentiles were not bound by the ceremonial law of Moses. When Paul curses certain members of the Galatian Church for insisting on salvation by circumcision, he notably says that even if you got a spectacular subjective angelic revelation, it’s hogwash if it contradicts the Church.

Individualism and subjectivism, when they contradict the teaching of the Church, are simply out of court in the New Testament.

But absolutely none of that is to say that God does not want a personal relationship. Rather, it is to say that our notion of what “personal” means is radically defective, precisely because we think what is personal is what is subjective and individualistic.

But in fact, what is personal is common. Things like falling in love, fear of cancer, exhilaration on a fall day as the leaves dance around us, longing for the vanished days of youth, wonder at the stars on a summer night, mourning for the death of a love one, questioning about the point of your life, or fury at being abused are all deeply personal experiences. What they are not is esoteric, individualist, subjective experiences unknowable to the mass of the unwashed, incommunicable to the uninitiated, and only received by some kind of mystical insight.

On the contrary, they are common. That’s the reality: what is most personal is what is most common.

So I have absolutely no disagreement with this:

“Christianity is not a solo endeavor. Even when we pray, we pray communally. Indeed, the only prayer Jesus taught us to pray begins, “Our Father,” not “My Father.” No one ever prays alone. We pray in Jesus, through the Spirit, to the Father, in a vast concert with all other believers. Me-and-Jesus prayers are impossible. There are only us-and-Jesus prayers—“us” being that innumerable throng of saints from the foundation of the world until now, whose unheard voices join ours in an ongoing prayer to our Father.”

The only thing I disagree with is the headlined conclusion that this means Christianity is not about a personal relationship with God. It is absolutely about a personal relationship with God. God is personal. He is also a Trinity. We are baptized into a three-personed divine life that is communal. Pitting the personal against the communal is a mistake. To enter into the life of the Blessed Trinity is to enter into the life of the Body of Christ who are the people of God. This has implications both for the individualist right winger gun zealot hording ammo and moving to Montana in preparation for the Pope to turn his Gog and Magog Komminnissist hordes loose on Freedom-loving Patriot Eagle preppers fleeing from the Vaccine That Turns People Gay.

But it also has implications for the “I love spirituality but hate the Church” former Christians who are often, fairly enough, fleeing a Christianity that has now become a MAGA freak show. Neither are let off the hook by the actual teaching of Christ and the apostles, who insist that baptism creates and irrevocable bond not only between the Trinity and the believer, but between the believer and all the other baptised.

You can pick your friends but you are stuck with your relatives. If you claim any kind of relationship with Christ at all, you are bound to everybody else who does too. He does not let us off the hook with Me n’Jesus “spirituality”.

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2 Responses

  1. Sometimes I have to chuckle at the titles people give themselves… “Resident Scholar” at 1517 eh?

    It just seems obvious that scripture is filled with teaching that a relationship with God is personal. Some very well known passages, such as Psalm 23 point to a very personal relationship with God. Rev 3:20 references a dinner at home with Jesus.

    I wonder if the Resident Scholar is downplaying, ignoring, or is ignorant of the concept of Immanence. The concept that as vast and glorious as God is, God is also very personal and approachable. Psalm 139 is an example of Immanence. In Matthew, Jesus was named “Immanuel” or “God with us.”

    What of prayer itself? Yes, Catholicism has loads of formulated prayers. But we also have the intercessions at Mass itself, which are unique to times and locales. Offering up our personal intercessions, personal prayers, is very well within the Catholic mainstream. There is also Contemplative Prayer, where we strive to simply be in the presence of God, in a mostly listening mode. It would seem prayer itself is a means of building relationship, both in a communal way and in an individual way.

    I would agree with you though that this is not radical individualism. I go back to your series on the models of the church. Contemplation and Office support each other. Office without Contemplation is just another bureaucracy. Contemplation without Office is a multitude of cults and cult leaders.

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