There is a continuing rumbling discussion in the Church Times about the phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ since Angela Tilby’s diatribe against ‘evo-speak’ in February, to which I responded with a letter the following week, and to which there have been further responses. Before exploring the issues, it is worth reflecting on the different reasons for reaction to this phrase—and on reflection I am aware that it is not a phrase that I use myself, and I confess to feeling uncomfortable with some ways in which this language of ‘relationship’ is deployed.
One possible objection is that ‘relationship with Jesus’ focusses on the second person of the Trinity rather than being fully Trinitarian, though in recent discussion that theological concern doesn’t appear to be evident. Another objection might simply be what we might call ‘ecclesiology-cultural’: it doesn’t fit very comfortably with a certain church ethos. After all, there isn’t anything very ‘chummy’ about the language of the Book of Common Prayer, with its ‘manifold sins and wickedness’ which do ‘most justly provoke thy wrath and indignation against us’. Related to that, and connecting theology with the culture of our language, I remember having a debate with a friend at a summer New Wine conference a few years ago, where my friend argued that God is something akin to a celestial chum, and that if we found God mysterious or difficult to understand then we were missing out on God’s friendship. I think this approach is in serious danger of reducing the analogy of human friendship in our understanding of relationship with God, can trivialise our worship, and doesn’t attend to our confident but still partial understanding expressed in 1 Cor 13.12 as ‘seeing through a glass darkly’ or, in contemporary English, ‘dim reflections in a mirror’. This is reflected in many of our contemporary praise songs, where (in one charismatic tradition) as we ‘come closer’ in some sense to the presence of God, we move into celebrating intimacy, rather than being overwhelmed with the holiness and ‘otherness’ of God or being challenged (as were many who came close to Jesus in the gospel accounts) about the demands of discipleship. So there are clearly some important issues to explore here.