Today, a friend passed along a couple of sourceless yet memorable quotes about conversion and the idea that being a Christian is about Jesus being our “personal” saviour (I’ve reflected a bit on the language of “personal relationships” with Jesus before here). Given that Mennonite Brethren issues have been on the menu here over the last little while, and given that the early MB’s were very interested (perhaps at little too interested?) with issues of personal conversion and assurance of salvation, I thought these would be worth passing along:
When asked if Jesus Christ was his “personal saviour,” a monk replied with a smile, “No, I like to share him.”
…our being saved does not have to do with an isolated instant of conversion, and its central benefit is not simply our being delivered from hell. The most traditional understanding of salvation is one that recognizes our moving toward and into a continuously thickening reality… The miracle has very little to do with the popular notion of ‘dying and going to heaven’ and has far more to do with finally living.
Although the author of the quotes is anonymous, the expressions are common. I heard them in seminary spoken by people who said they had been evangelicals but now were liberal.
My impression is that evangelicals who use the expressions “personal saviour” or “personal relationship” they are not referring to selfishness as the anonymous author implies, but are saying that Jesus has changed their lives and that a bond with Jesus has become very important to them.
I don’t think the expression “going to heaven” out of bounds theologically or conflicts with the idea of “living.” I suppose it depends on what a person means by the expression, but “heaven” has a strong association with God.
I think the anonymous author has an ax to grind – wants revenge for a grievance.
I happened to have a conversation recently with a woman whose faith is evangelical. I asked her some questions about salvation. I got the impression that she was sure she was going to heaven, but was uncertain whether anyone else is going. I got the impression that she felt like I would definitely not be going.
Now, if this woman was significant to the anonymous author, I would certainly sympathize with the author’s grievance. The expression “personal saviour” would disgust me, as it does in the context of my discussion with that woman.
Indeed. Another problem with the Pietist conception that Christianity is “about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is that it’s firmly embedded in the Enlightenment’s turn to the subject. This cuts us off from most of the Christian tradition, making us easy prey for fads and conservative, liberal, or radical ideologies of all sorts.
Here’s a related quote from Slavoj Zizek: “Europeans are aware that prior to beginning a count, there has to be a ‘ground’ of tradition, a ground which is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted, while the U.S., a land with no premodern historical tradition proper, lacks such a ground. Things begin there with the self-legislated freedom.”
I see the personal relationship theme having problems at times, but I also see this way of speaking as an expression of the long mystical tradition of the church, as well as the very language of the Psalms. My personal relationship with God was profoundly nurtured by reading Augustine’s Confessions, a work exploring his own personal relationship with God. Sure, the personal relationship emphasis can become a caricature of itself. But I see an opposite problem in old Protestant churches — the inability of people, particularly clergy, to give voice and articulation to any kind of personal connection to God. For all their faults, at least evangelicals are trying to love God and talk about what God means to them personally. At times when I listen to old liberal clergy, it seems like God doesn’t mean anything to them at all. They have no relationship with God to describe.
Point taken. Perhaps the better question is which ‘god’ do we have a relationship with?
Augustine’s Confessions are certainly about a relationship, but a relationship where God acts and Augustine is put to the question: “What place is there in me where my God can enter into me? Who am I when I love my God”? God is the powerful subject, the God who speaks and acts beyond our expectations.
In contrast, the modern relationship is typically one where we act and god is put to the question: “What place is there where god is present? Who is this god that I (dis)believe in?” The modern god is the powerless object, the god who must speak and act in accordance with our expectations. People can have personal relationships with idols, too: god as a cosmic gumball machine, a friendly santa claus, a guarantor of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I should just quote David Horstkoetter, who nails it, I think, in his excoriation of Glenn Beck:
“First, the theological side of Beck’s concept of grace centers on the individual conversion experience. Beck and others who share his view set this experience in opposition to what they call collective salvation. But this conflates individual salvation and individual conversion; it misconstrues the conversion experience as the arbiter for Christian existence. I am not arguing against a notion of conversion, against a response to a call, or even against the significance of a radical paradigm shift with a supernatural bent, but I do question Beck’s insistence that a Christian’s identity and story is simply one of personal conversion and that conversion is simply individualistic and emotive. In other words, for Beck, giving an account of faith is synonymous with giving an account of one’s conversion from unbeliever to believer.
This strong emphasis on conversion is reflected in how the testimony now has not only developed its own genre, away from simply testifying (giving witness to what God has done—you know, the good news that Jesus died, rose again, and is coming back) and toward recitation of a testimony as the badge of membership. Although the missional character of testifying is a proper aspect of the Christian life, that the conversion experience now holds its own metacategory is a reflection of profound brokenness in the popular Christian imagination.”
Thanks for the great quote (and the link) Michael.
Nice counter point, Chris. My only real connection to old liberals was a retired fellow minister from our Cdn United Church [Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian]. He the old veteran, and I, the young fundamentalist, became fast friends and when my daughter became pregnant at 16, the hand painted card he sent us was extremely powerful for us. I sensed that for all our theological differences we shared a deeply personal faith in God. He has since died.
In our tradition the opposite to a “personal” relationship to God was a fearful expectation of judgement that comes from attempting and failing to properly jump through all the right hoops in exactly the right fashion. That fearful picture of God still prevails in many Anabaptist communities. I wouldn’t say it characterizes the MB world, though.
There is wisdom in each of these comments, I think. Chris and Ken rightly alert us to the importance of a personal connection to God and the dangers of removing personal” language from our language around salvation. Not having personal experience in liberal Protestantism, I am less familiar with the dangers on that end of the spectrum than on the evangelical end. As Michael says, some expressions of evangelicalism have, as a response to the pressures of modernity, sequestered their faith into the realm of subjective experience. I am more familiar with these conceptions of salvation which is probably why the quotes above resonated with me.
It is like we have never seen the world each other sees.
Yours and Michael’s posts illuminate the evangelical culture in a way I have never known.
Personally, I don’t speak of a personal relationship with God. It is not found in the language of Presbyterians, generally, or in that of Roman Catholics. Hikers don’t usually talk about that either.
Chris is right about the “old liberal clergy” in the mainline denominations. It is unfortunate. The liberal Christian tradition may yet bear late fruit.
At the end of a series of sessions during our 150 Celebration this childhood poem based on an Eastern fable came to mind. Seems to fit with your last comment quite well.
It was six men of Hindustan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
. . .
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
What a great poem. It is like that.
On second thought, my comment about old liberal clergy not having faith was painting with too broad a brush. Wish I hadn’t said that now. It may be more of an issue of not being able to articulate what they believe, apart from formal settings with written prayers and sermons.
I think for me the issue is smugness. Whether someone has a conversionist theology or a sacramental theology or a social justice theology, there is a tendency to think our way is the only valid one and get smug about it. It’s the smugness I find troubling in ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ talk, but the folks who use that language aren’t the only smug believers I’ve encountered.
On occasion, I have been known to be smug too. Or so my wife tells me. Shocking, I know.
I think you’re right, Chris—it’s not so much what people say about how they think about/relate to God as how they say it.
(I’ve been known to be smug as well… And my reminders often come from a similar source to yours :))