Back in June 2014, Pope Francis was typically misrepresented as saying ‘a personal, direct, immediate relationship with Jesus Christ’ was ‘dangerous and harmful’ in front of c. 33,000 people. Naturally, the nutty wing of ‘American Christianity’ jumped all over this calling him the Antichrist.1 His statement was actually that this was only dangerous if it was ‘without communion with and the mediation of the church’.
And in May 2017, a lone heretic with ginger hair started an excessively long Facebook debate on his wife’s timeline with many people over a prior post he wrote on Christian youth evangelism methods vs. standard child welfare practice. This also touched on the idea of ‘a personal, direct, immediate relationship with Jesus Christ’, where I pointed to the enormous gulf between normal popular usage of the term ‘relationship’ and what is being meant here.
On reflection, however, I am also going to outline without qualification why I think this idea is not just misguided, but can well be ‘dangerous and harmful’. This is on three counts: (1) it is ‘special pleading’ and leads to a disdain for critical thinking and evidence; (2) it could idealise misogyny and other ills in earthly marriages; and (3) it treats ‘religion’ as a ‘dirty word’ and implicitly demeans those of different faith traditions who do not claim personal connections to the divine.
I admit these points may feel like an intellectual (or even personal) attack on your faith if you are an evangelical reader and I would never wish you to feel that way. However, all cases deserve a hearing and I hope you will read on, if only for the sake of better understanding non-evangelical perspectives on faith so you can argue more persuasively against them in your apologetics. For what can you argue well against if you do not understand it?
1. What Relationship is Your One with Jesus Like?
Modern worship songs frequently compare the relationship to a romantic one: “I’m madly in love with you”, “you are more beautiful than anyone ever”, “I want to touch you, I want to see your face”, and “I’m desperate for you”. Try singing some worship songs to your partner, if you’re blessed with one, and see what I mean! This isn’t entirely an evangelical thing, either – there are around 400,000 Catholic nuns worldwide,2 and many of them symbolise their spiritual devotion with a ring worn in place of a wedding ring; they are married to Jesus.
This powerful marital ideal is written all over the New Testament (NT); it would be daft to suggest, as some atheists and more traditional believers have, that this concept is not “in the Bible”. Jesus compares himself to a bridegroom in the Gospels.3 Paul warns the church in Rome against false messiahs since they ‘belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead’. (Rom. 7:1-4) He gives this warning to the Corinthian church too: ‘I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.’ (2 Cor. 11:1-4) At least Paul recognised here that this is ‘a little foolishness’ of his!
If, as I believe, there exists an enormous gulf between a ‘relationship with Jesus’ and a normal human relationship, then the claim to be ‘in a relationship with Jesus’ merely represents ‘appeal to emotion’. Worse, it is ‘special pleading’. This logical fallacy occurs when you are asking for an exception to a rule to be applied to a specific case, without the proper justification of why that case deserves an exemption.
Other ‘religions’ need to provide evidence for their claims, yet Christianity doesn’t work like that. You can – and should – just start being ‘in a relationship’ right away! (And avoid the tough task of evaluating the complex set of truth claims which Christianity represents.)
In terms of explaining the origins and popularity of this ‘relationship not religion’ apologetic, it has been used time and again as a shallow ploy by the US Christian Right to bypass First Amendment protections against the establishment of one privileged religion above others. Ironically, if Christianity is not a religion, why should it then qualify as ‘charity’ since it does not ‘advance religion’?4 I digress.
The main point of this first part of 3 posts is to try to explain why those with a different faith, or without faith, might find the whole ‘relationship with Jesus’ thing hard to understand, no matter how frequently it is proclaimed to them in apologetics books and conversations.
For the sake of empathy and stepping outside of one’s own comfortable use of language, let us imagine that my marital relationship resembled the one which I used to claim that I experienced with Jesus:
“I have never seen my wife before. In fact, nobody I know has either. When she wants to let me know how she feels or what she would like to do, I sit in a circle with a group of friends and try and figure it out.”
“I’ve been told that it is better to say what I think she is feeling or asking me to do and risk being wrong than saying nothing.”
“When I would like to know more about her, I read some translations of books which were written about my wife a couple of decades ago in two different dead languages from authors who almost certainly never met her.”
“I’ve been told that I love my wife best when I am loving other people.”
“I often meet up with other people who have a relationship with my wife on the same day every week. We declare how special our relationship is, how great our wife is and what she has done (indirectly) for us in particular that week.”
“I usually don’t see anyone who doesn’t believe my wife exists on this day, though when they do, it is because they are interested in her.”
“I am always apologising to my wife but never the other way around. She is moral perfection personified.”
“If I do anything good at all, it is only down to her operating through me. If I do anything bad, it is because I am despicably evil beyond redemption.”
“If I don’t apologise, if I doubt she loves me, if I ever should happen to leave her, she will torture me for eternity.”
How does this even remotely look like a ‘relationship’ in a way that anybody would actually recognise? Much of the point of healthy relationships is that they are a partnership of equals. In what way are Yahweh and / or Jesus supposed to be our equals? Isn’t it true that the entire Bible is screaming at you that this is not the case?
This will be the focus of my second post. I will explore what the Bible has to say about ‘relationship’ with Yahweh and Jesus and more generally what marriage meant in the ancient world. In the third post, I intend to show how the “Christianity is a Relationship, Not a Religion” claim is not just ignorant of other religions, but actually demeaning to them too, as well as non-faith perspectives.
If you liked this post, please follow the Facebook page and / or comment below. If you didn’t like this post, please still follow the Facebook page and / or comment below. I am delighted to fairly consider other people’s point of view and gladly change my mind when presented with good evidence to the contrary of what I have written.
- Interestingly, I too got accused of harbouring the Antichrist this week. I have my sympathies with Pope Francis. ↩
- McKenna, J. (2013). ‘Number of Priests and Nuns in Marked Decline’. The Telegraph. ↩
- Matthew (9:15; 25:1-13), Mark (2:19), Luke (5:34) and John (3:29) all refer to Jesus as a bridegroom. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus told the ‘disciples of John’ that his disciples will not fast when he, as the groom, is with them. They would only fast when he ‘is taken away from them’. ↩
- The ‘advancement of religion’ is considered charitable in most of the world, yet the ‘advancement of a personal relationship’ is not. I have written at length (3,000 words no less) in an undergraduate paper on this topic. I believe this charitable purpose should be abolished from the law, though it is unlikely to be for the foreseeable future. Please feel free to contact me to obtain a copy of my argument if interested. ↩