26 August 2005

personal jesus 2

The conversation regarding the language of "a personal relationship with Jesus" has generated some good and helpful discussion. I still don't think that the category of "personal" itself should be problematic and I'm not sure how one would get rid of it. Perhaps the phrase "a personal relationship with Jesus" has become such a piece of jargon that it needs to be shelved for a bit. But I can't imagine doing without the category and language of the "personal" more widely.

I think it's also important to recognize that there's a significant distinction between the "personal" and the "individual," even if that distinction isn't always recognized or maintained. For instance, one sometimes hears people speak in terms of "personally believing" something, when the speaker really means "individually believing" something, a supposedly private belief that isn't part of a larger system of belief and practice that would ever make any demands on anyone else.

In other contexts, however, the "personal" can be distinguished from the "individual" and that distinction is a necessary one to promote, I think, if we are going to retrieve and redeem the notion of the personal, a notion, I submit, that history suggests to be distinctively Christian and rooted in trinitarian theology and the Personhood of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Something can be very "personal," even having the nature of a direct personal encounter with Jesus as the living Lord, without thereby being "individual." If I hear a sermon that is profoundly convicting, then the Spirit himself addresses me through the word of his minister, so that I am brought "face to face" with Jesus Christ and his demands and Gospel. While perhaps intensely personal, that experience is not at all individual since the person of the minister, though not coming between me and Jesus is also not merely incidental to that encounter.

Rick Phillips, in a helpful blog entry, notes rightly that the experience of an adult convert may sometimes involve a strong sense of solitude, a dying to the old man and the old world of which one is part, while wrestling with God and undergoing conversion of heart. I'm sure, in fact, that we all go through such experiences from time to time. I know I have.

Nonetheless, while that experience is extremely personal and can involve a profound phenomenology of solitude, that doesn't make the experience at all "individual." Apart from the word of God ministered through others, the transmission of culturally-founded patterns of experience and interpretation, the rising expectations of a Christian community who are praying for your conversion and spiritual growth, and so on, that experience wouldn't be what it is or perhaps even be recognizable or detectable.

To pray or read Scripture in solitude is itself to take up practices of prayer and a text that have come to us through the Christian community, in a language we have received from others. This ineluctable presence of the "other," even in the most seemingly individual, betokens and manifests the ultimate Otherness of God.

Frankly, I don't know what a truly individual experience would be, for even to experience oneself involves all the ways in we bump up against the world and other people, within which we are reflected back to ourselves, all conducted in language, gestures, symbols, and categories (even within the confines of internal dialogue) that are ultimately gifted to us by others. A truly individual experience would have to be an experience that is less than fully human, that bypasses every structure of culture, language, community, practices, ritual, and so on, until we are left with nothing but empty silence. To then interpret that silence as the presence of God, even that would be to draw implicitly upon the traditions of a community of interpreters.

Thus, while the Christian life for some may seem to begin in an individual solitude, that is not in fact the case, no matter the degree to which one might have felt entirely alone with God. Certainly, as one grows in the faith and comes to recognize and embrace the Christian community (more and more serving others with one's gifts and more and more receiving from others in word and deed), there is also a definite growth in one's apprehension and practice of the irreducible relationality of the Christian faith, the goal of which remains, as Augustine says, "life together in God."

But that growing relationality is not simply a matter of doing more for or receiving more from others, but of an increasing recognition and embrace of how much one's own identity and personhood is wrapped up in the lives of others, that we are most fully human and personal when we most realize and live in our relations opening out towards others: he who wishes to save his life, after all, must lose it.

Part of this process of growing in Christ involves learning to re-narrate our own past from the standpoint of faith, as Augustine so marvelously did in his Confessions. And part of that re-narration involves seeing all the ways in which God's Spirit made Christ present to us even before we realized it: the Bible verse we were forced to memorize as a child, the Scripture stories great aunt Susan told us during summers at her house, encounters with various Christian believers along the way some of whom may have shared the Gospel explicitly and some who simply lived an attractive pattern that dislcosed Jesus, a sermon half-listened to on the radio when we had hit bottom after a night of binge drinking, a college roommate who now has gone off to be a missionary in Paraguay, and so on. Time and again Jesus came to us in that Bible verse, that story, that other person, that sermon, even if we lacked the eyes to see it. More and more we came to be enfolded within the story of God's people, the story of the church, which is also always the story of the living, present Jesus who remains with his people by his Spirit.

And when we find ourselves in seeming solitude, wrestling with God, it is those voices, those events, those Scriptures, that come back to us, often not even to our own recognition, woven together into the fabric of our spiritual struggle and growth. As such, every person's story is utterly unique and personal, but it is never a story of independent individuality. Rather, your personal sotry and my personal story are unique because they are both part of that greater story of the new creation people whom God's is gathering together by his Spirit. And no two characters in that story can have the same exact role, for each of us occupy and act in our own role, time, and place.

Part of our growth in the Christian faith is more and more to die to self, even with regard to our own afflictions, solitude, and the like. We learn, thereby, to see things less in terms of our own aloneness or struggle or even conversion (terribly important as those things may be, existentially and otherwise), and more in terms of all the ways in which God has graciously drawn near to us in Christ, in and through the means he uses to minister to us, even when we weren't aware of it. Thus we come better to apprehend the inevitable and necessary relationality of the Christian faith from its very inception as the site of God's grace, as well as how who we are in Christ is wholly dependent upon our relationship to him in all the ways he is present and makes himself known to us by his Spirit. Through such re-narration, even our lonely afflictions can then be offered up to God in gratitude for the sheer gift that they are, granted to us through all those people and events that God has brought into our story.

The Christian faith is, then, a deeply personal faith, yet also fully inter-personal, since the personal and the communal are not in competition (in the way that the individual and the collective might be), but are the necessary conditions for one another. And what else would we expect, for our faith is one that confesses the world to be a creation of what Maximus the Confessor called "the eternal circle of love" between Father, Son, and Spirit.