About that ‘Personal Relationship with Jesus’

It’s a good idea, of course, that “personal relationship” with Jesus. It works itself around any number of contemporary roadblocks to the faith. Which is unusual for Christian truths in current conditions. But without some other, very good, ideas, the personal relationship turns into a very bad idea.

Because if, as in most of the “relationships” we have these days, we limit what transpires between us and Him only to what we’re willing to agree to, we’re not in a personal relationship with Jesus. We’re in a toxic relationship with our own egos, a cocoon we create for our own comfort, but which, ironically, is one of the deepest reasons for our current unease.

The whole problem can be seen by asking a simple question: Which Jesus are we supposed to have that relationship with, anyway?

  • The Jesus of the Scriptures and Early Church Fathers

  • The Byzantine Pantocrator

  • The Mystic Lamb of the Ghent Altarpiece

  • The Da Vinci Salvator Mundi

  • The Reformation Christ of sola fide and sola Scriptura

  • The Enlightenment rationalist Jesus (miracles optional)

  • The early modern, liberal Protestant, or Social Gospel Jesus

  • The countercultural hippie Jesus of the 1960s

  • The Marxist guerilla Jesus of liberation theology

  • The Cosmic Christ of Teilhard

  • The Rahnerian Jesus of “anonymous Christians”

  • The prosperity gospel Jesus

  • The uncertain, terminally debatable, and mutually contradictory figures conjured up by the historical/critical scripture scholars?

If these seem too tied to other times and places, we’ve now gotten the todos, todos, todos Jesus, who loves us all just the way we are – well, not exactly all, equally, more LGBT+ and other “irregulars” than the rigid, the backwardist, the Latin-lovers. This Jesus doesn’t (formally) change His teachings, but can swiftly turn previously unchallenged Catholic practices by 180° – with far-reaching implications about the teaching at some future date.

It would be easy – if masochistic – to go on. But perhaps, for present purposes, the point is clear enough.

It’s true that we all have to work out our salvation in relationship with God Himself, a person, Three Persons in fact. But this is impossible in America A.D. 2024, without other considerations, lacking which Christianity, winds up – and each Christian individually as well – in immense self-contradictions, endemic incoherences, almost as if God had not come precisely to deliver us from our poor, questing, inconstant, and inconsistent selves.

The Lord who really dwelt among us is, yes, the Jesus of  “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) But He’s also the Jesus of “strait is the gate and few there are who find it;” who had to die horribly on a Cross to redeem us from sin; and will one day come to judge the living and the dead. A Jesus both demanding – leave everything and follow me – and at the same time tender, as none of us ever are.

He Sent them out Two by Two (Il les envoya deux à deux) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum, NY]

Instead of this complete Jesus, the “personal relationship” for many of us amounts to what the great St. John Henry Newman called the “religion of the day,” the easy, cheery one instead of the more varied one that Christ brought us.

Richard Niebuhr, brother of the great Reinhold Niebuhr, once famously said (and was often famously quoted for saying) that many modern Christians believe, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

Catholic thought, morals, and disciplines developed precisely to prevent such defections, which are entirely predictable once a self-indulgent “personal relationship” is allowed to trump everything else. Witness liberal Protestantism.

True, it’s not sufficient merely to know what the Church teaches – though that’s where the personal relationship ought to start since Jesus sent the apostles into the world to “make disciples of all nations. . .teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19)

Without the authoritative Church teaching, Christianity is just a do-it-yourself hobby. We need to know the real Jesus that the tradition preserves, and also “take to heart” what he actually said and did,  to work out – in “fear and trembling,” as was said when we were less fragile – to make it real in our lives.

The great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, after a lifetime brilliantly exploring the mathematical relationships within the universe and proposing various theories to account for the world we see, once asked: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”

In a way, Christians pursue a similar question. We may have learned the various teachings well, in an impersonal way, but the whole purpose of those propositions is to point back to something personal, to lead us to encounter Someone who makes our own living both possible and meaningful.

 The Creator of “what is” doesn’t just present Himself to us like another object in the world. And He certainly doesn’t negate all the particular truths that He’s told us that we need to live a real Christian life when we enter into a “personal relationship” with Him. Quite the opposite. The whole point of such truths is to lead us and prepare us to encounter Him. To negate those truths is to miss the point, literally, to render ourselves pointless.

Faith – knowledge of God – comes by hearing. We hear a lot about “listening” these days, but to whom?  To one another? To digital media? To – worst of all – ourselves?

As St. Paul says: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)

Sent. Preaching. Mission. Not merely “walking together,” but going out bearing the Truth, to all nations. That is the Church, her primary reason for being, the full embodiment of the “personal relationship.”

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.