Monday, August 25, 2014

The problem with "Not" having a "personal relationship" with Jesus

Dr. Jay Boyd recently raised some concerns about what it means for Catholics to adopt this language in his article, "The Problem with a Personal Relationship with Jesus" (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, July 10, 2014).

Now Dr. Carole Brown has written a complementary piece entitled "The Problem with 'Not' Having a Personal Relationship with Jesus" (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, August 11, 2014).

The issue as discussed in these two pieces is detailed and complex, involving the question of personalist philosophy as it has become enshrined in magisterial documents since the pontificate of St. John Paul II, in particular.

But the issue can, I think, be put rather simply. What should a "personal relationship with Jesus" NOT mean for a Catholic? It should not mean a subjective relationship experienced as subsisting in isolation apart from the Church, her sacrament, and teaching.

What MAY a "personal relationship with Jesus" mean for a Catholic? Many things. (1) It can mean a subjectively experienced relationship that is more than sacramental, as for example when one makes a spiritual communion with Christ (without cutting ourselves off from the sacramental life of the Church). This is something incumbent upon all Catholics to cultivate as part of their response to St. Paul's injunction to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thes. 5:17). (2) It can also mean a sacramental relationship with Jesus, particularly when receiving the Eucharist. The Church stresses the objective component in this relationship, the fact that one receives Jesus whether one has any subjective experience of this or not. Another dimension of this is the relationship of being incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ via baptism, even while one is yet an infant and oblivious of what is happening. This is nonetheless a "personal relationship with Jesus." Still another dimension of this is the relationship of Old Testament "saints" to Jesus, not through any awareness of the historical Jesus, but through the "sacraments" of the Old Covenant, by which they were also incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ. (Yes, their salvation was through no other than Christ and a "personal relationship with Him," though mediated Levitical sacrifices anticipating the sacrifice of Christ.)

When all is said and done, however, the important thing for those of us who are adults is our response to the truth of God's revelation in Christ and through the Church. This is why the claims of the Gospel obtain also for the contemporary Jew. We are all called to communion with Christ through the Church and her Gospel. And those of us who are Catholic are called by our Lord through His Church to a conscious (and conscientious) response to a life of conversion and amendment of life -- in short, discipleship. This means that we cannot remain sacramentalized infants, much less sacramentalized pagans. We need to respond in faith, aware of all the levels and dimensions of our personal relationship with Jesus that we've received through our baptism and incorporation into His mystical Body.

We're not saved by information about Jesus that we know. Even infants and the Children of Israel in the Old Testament with no knowledge of Jesus are not excluded from the redemptive work of Christ. But for those of us living today who are beyond our minor years, knowing information about Jesus can play a decisive role in our acquisition of a personal relationship with Jesus of which we are consciously aware, a role, in fact, in our salvation.

[Hat tip to JM]


JFM said...

Louis Bouyer's chapter on personal religion in TN&FOP is helpful on this subject. I thought these words were interesting for a variety of reasons. The last para. hits on why Protestants are so concerned about Jesus. He is there bridge to a Holy God. When you grasp the concept of God's holiness, the idea of Jesus and Savior becomes immediately relevant.

"We can see why so many Protestants in all periods feel uneasy about infant Baptism. It is for the same reason that they always attach such importance to the ceremony performed on the threshold of adult life. Before that time, they consider, the child cannot really belong to God and Christ, for belonging means nothing if it is not personal. From this point of view, the contrary tendency among Catholics to lower the age for Confirmation and first Communion seems to them absurd, even if they do not simply discern in it a purely magical idea of Sacraments acting as a lucky charm.

The counterpart of this insistence, too exclusive though it be, on the personal character of every genuine religious act, is a quite remarkable development of the sense of responsibility. Since all gregarious activity appears valueless to the Protestant, he feels himself in no way dispensed from personal action by any form of mass-movement or collective acquiescence. Thus it is that Protestant individualism does not prevent Protestants from having a civic sense—quite the contrary, in fact; in general, they have a practical respect for the law much greater than a number of non-Protestant Christians. In most of the Latin countries putting anything ‘under the protection of the public’ is tantamount to delivering it over to the vandalism of each and all. In countries where Protestantism has left its stamp, it constitutes an appeal to all much more likely to be effective than any command enforceable by penalties...

JFM said...

"...The temptations offered by a casuistry which, under the impulses of egoism, tends to become more and more elastic, are unavailing, as experience shows, for those who are convinced that ultimately they must obey their own law. Hence too, in education, those so-called libertarian methods, which non-Protestants are always tempted to interpret as tacit invitations to license, but which, in a Protestant context, are seen to be extremely exacting. The idea that one will do one’s duty, or do it well, only if practically compelled, at least to some degree, is not only false but shocking to the Protestant. On the other hand, self-imposed discipline, that which results from a moral condition created by suitable training, seems to him obviously the strictest conceivable, in fact, the only kind impossible to evade. He considers that the person who has not arrived at this point, or who does not aim at it, does not even know in what the idea of duty really consists.

At the opposite extreme, all methods of education, and, besides, all political organizations, which, with their constant scrutinizing, are based on a process of minute supervision, if not on espionage and detection, seem a negation of true education and a perversion of the life of society. Everyone ought to aim, in virtue of his education, if it is worthy to the name, to look on God as his only real judge, and so to judge himself more severely than anyone else could. For the constant background, and the only explanation, of this attitude is the living conviction that each of us, every moment, is under the eye of God, each is called to account to him for all his acts, even the most hidden, and that at every instant God is present and makes of each circumstance of life a personal appeal to which we must respond.

To many Catholics, the assertion of Protestants that they do not confess to man but to God is only a euphemistic way of saying that they do not confess at all. This judgement, in the eyes of fervent or merely serious Protestants, is a näive admission of an appalling lack of faith; to them, the duty of confessing to God or, rather, of a constant awareness that God sees us and tests us, is the most severe and inescapable of all the obligations that religion or ethics could impose."

RFGA, Ph.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous Bosch said...

Great quotation from Louis Bouyer, JM. Thanks for that.

RFGA, Ph.D. said...

I belong to the Mystical Body of Christ; I am a member of that of which He is the Head- how much more 'personal' can it get? (Think hylomorphically here.) And why would I want to be intimate with Him sans His other members? I am not looking to cut a separate deal with our Savior. I want only the love that He shares equally with all my brethren, entering with them into Paradise.

RFGA, Ph.D. said...

many of the people who go around touting their 'personal relationship with Jesus Christ' actually have strained relations with Him, if they are related to Him at all. They are heretics, risking being amongst those who will be told 'I don't know you' at the Last Judgment. (I for one would never ask a Protestant to pray for me.) Whatever the precise nature of my relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I want nothing to do with that locution because it is a euphemism for 'The hell with the Catholic Church; I don't need priests and sacraments to achieve salvation'. It is used, in short, to attack the HMC, recent papal usage of it notwithstanding.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Robert Allen states the true Catholic position on this point.

IMO, the idea of a "personal relationship with Jesus" is a bizarre notion to a properly formed Catholic. Who other than a fool or a protestant would claim such a thing? It calls to mind the booster braggadocio of Sinclair Lewis's novel "Babbitt": diminutive Chamber of Commerce pinheads claiming special access to mucky-mucks on the upper rungs. It is a catch phrase, a "hook", such as an advertiser might concoct to sell the services of, say, a financial advisor (ie, Schwab's "Talk to Chuck" campaign).

Evangelistic Catholics who seek to sell the faith by borrowing shabbily gnostic crotchets from the marketing campaigns of contemporary protestants, and then try to re-engineer them to "Catholic" specifications, succeed only in further muddying the waters.

Pertinacious Papist said...

I agree, Ralph, that the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" is all-too-often used in a presumptuous and cavalier manner, especially by Protestant Fundamentalists and Evangelicals who use a language of chummy familiarity with Jesus, their best friend.

At the same time, I would contend that there is something quintessentially Catholic about a reality to which those words may refer -- the reality that every Catholic with an active prayer life immediately understands. That much is good.

Nevertheless, I am hardly unsympathetic with the sentiments expressed in your rant, given the way Catholics in position of some influence have bent over backwards to eliminate anything in the Catholic Faith that might be misunderstood or offend their "separated brethren" -- bent over backwards often so far that they've spilled their pocket change along with their Catholic identity.