"A personal relationship with God." It's a phrase you've probably heard before if you've spent any time around church folks. Many would say it captures the very heart of what it means to be a Christian, and I agree. There are a lot of Christians, however, who have a problem with the idea -- people I have a lot of respect for. Rob Bell, for example, correctly points out that the phrase is not found in the Bible. But then again, neither is the word "Trinity."
The real question is whether the concept itself is biblical, and Jesus says the very heart of the law is to "love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself." Those sound like relationships to me. So what's the problem?
For Brian McLaren, the problem is the stress on "personal" relationship and "personal" salvation. The original intent of stressing the personal was to distinguish it from an impersonal relationship (like the orbital relationship of the moon to the earth), and stress that faith is not something we are born into by default, but involves us personally. It needs to be lived. The problem, as McLaren points out, is that the idea of something being "personal" also has an individualistic self-focus to it: personal computer, personal trainer, personal space. As a result, faith becomes focused on us as individuals -- a focus on personal morality, personal prayer, personal Bible study.
The idea of a personal relationship with God should not be taken to mean a privatized faith. If we really took the idea of relationship seriously, we would recognize that faith understood as relationship needs to be both personal and social. A relational faith, by its very definition, is inherently social. As the epistle of John so powerfully says, "if we say we love God, but do not love our brother, then we are deceiving ourselves." We simply cannot say we love God if we do not love those around us.
While salvation begins personally and intimately, it cannot end in a myopic self-focused faith. Genuine personal relationship with God must flow over into all of our relationships -- caring for the least, loving our enemies, and showing the fruit of that genuine personal connection. How could it not? If we really are in a living relationship with Jesus, then won't we come to see people the way he does, and care about the things he cares about?
I'll say it again: If we really took the idea of relationship with God seriously, we would also love others. So rather than focusing on relationship less, I think we should focus more on it. Relationships are at the core of who we are as humans. Nearly every artistic expression is about relationship, from Shakespearian dramas to the current top 10 music charts: songs of love lost and found, tales of our deepest longings and greatest tragedies. Relationships reflect our deepest human struggles. They are the source of our most profound joy and pain -- what we long for most, what keeps us up at night.
It is in relationship that we find out who we are as humans, and what matters most in life. We as humans are made for relationship, and outside of relationship cannot be truly ourselves. We have a relational identity, a social self. As babies we begin life as self-focused and gradually learn to see ourselves as beings in relationship as we learn to love and be loved. That relational love from our parents shapes our self-image, who we are. Our very identity as humans is found in relationship.
This all goes to say that relationship is central to understanding who we are and what life is about. That's why I think that speaking of having a "personal relationship with God" has the potential to revolutionize and deepen theological reflection, so long as we move beyond cheap slogans and sound bites. Again, the problem is not with speaking in terms of a "relationship with God," but that we do not take it seriously enough.
So what might it look like if we did? I've written about this in a lot more detail elsewhere, but here are a few of the consequences of what understanding faith through the lens of relationship would entail:
It would mean a focus on a loving relationship with God and others, and not a focus on abstract rules or doctrine. It would mean an experienced faith now, and not just one that looks to a book from the past. Or more precisely, it would look to Scripture not as a set of rules, but as a witness to what the disciples had experienced of God in Christ in order to get a hold of what they had gotten a hold of.
A focus on relationship would recognize that believing in God is not simply to affirm a fact, but to engage in a trust relationship. Faith means trust. It would see that sin is not primarily about a legal transgression, but more deeply it is a relational breach -- cutting us off from God, others and ourselves. A relational faith would remember that "knowing" in a biblical context is not about intellectual surety, but relational knowing. To know truth does not mean we possess independent absolute knowledge, but rather is a statement of trust and intimate surety that we are known by God.
Most of all, focusing on relationship means caring more about treating others right, than about "being right." As the Apostle Paul says, if we have all the correct doctrines in the world, but have not love, it means nothing. So many Christians use truth like a weapon, and don't seem to care who they hurt with it. But one cannot separate truth from love any more than one can separate the head from the heart. Truth without love is not truth at all.