Saturday, August 27, 2005

Give Me That Old-Time Relationship

Some notions from a WSJ Opinion Journal review by Mark Noll of David Gregory's Dinner With a Perfect Stranger are moving across the blogosphere, leaving a trail through Christianity Today, The Christian Mind, Jolly Blogger, Pontifications, and A Conservative Blog for Peace, which is where I picked it up.

The question at hand is that evangelical catchphrase, "a personal relationship with Jesus". As usual, the issue with this is in two parts: What does it mean? and What does it signify?

The latter is easy. What it signifies, as the theologian in Al Kimel's tale states, is participation in evangelical Protestant Christianity. And the bishop's "I don't care if I lose a convert" answer can be just as well taken to signify politically as spiritually. Presumably if the question had been answered, the answer would have been "yes". The actual response is right our of the beginning of 1st Corinthians-- the bad part, the "I am with Christ" part.

Which brings us to the meaning. Googling for the phrase will keep you searching a long time, because unfortunately it is a catchphrase. But this explanation from "Christ's Ambassadors" will do nicely (unfortunately in the original it's way down the page):

The natural man (unbeliever) and his world can understand "religion". They can readily see how religious originations function, solicit finances, see the propaganda they use to proclaim prospective messages and religion's adherence to a belief-system.

Natural man can also understand statements of history, theology, ideology and even doctrine. And as it's proclaimed today by every so-called moral ideal religion under the sun, the term "Spiritually" is so misused that what spiritually means is blurred out of all relevance.

But it is not possible for the non-believer to understand what it means to "have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" The Apostle Paul explained that "the natural man cannot understand spiritual things" 1 Cor 2:14. Therefore, it is hard to adequately explain the meaning of this reality to a non-believer. That is because a believers relationship with the Spirit of Christ is outside of natural mans ability to understand on a purely rational, philosophical and scientific basis. He can't see, touch or hear it! It's only revealed to believers through our Lord!

Here is the clue to motives of the Florovsky's interrogator. "Personal relationship", it seems, isn't so much about itself as it is about theology. "Relationship" (a dangerous word in the hads of a mathematician) doe have to be qualified; not just any relationship will do. And it appears that the relationshp that is specifically bad is one that is strictly intellectual-- that is, founded only in theology.

Surely anyone who can take a step back from theology knows that its greatest peril is to end up talking about things of which it really knows nothing. Ironically, the most famous exponent of this criticism is also its most famous offender: Thomas Aquinas. Therefore it is pitifully easy to translate the theology student's query out of any specificly Protestant context, and read it as saying, "Is there any Jesus in the ocean of words you've just poured over our heads?"

The single biggest problem Christians have in talking theology to the World is convincing anyone that our words have any relationship to anything real. Indeed, as Jolly Blogger hints in his discussion of Harold Bloom's dissection of the SBC, in some respects the world likes it that way, because it makes it easy to dismiss the Christian message.

The irony, then, is that the revisionist plague is largely a self-inflicted wound, though no traditionalist is going to want to admit that. In a context where a theologian can blythely dismiss the question of such a relationship, a context where theology moves with great freedom, it is not hard for theology to escape from any such demands of relationship and being willing to live without Jesus. Evangelical "revisionists" collapse into mere vacuous spirituality, but it is the duty of epsicopal revisionists to seize the ecclesiological edifice and put it to work for their own ends, because (it perhaps seems) there is no Jesus there to act as the true landlord. The revisionists see every traditionalist bishop not merely as Saruman, but as a Denethor; and each one calls himself the herald of Aragorn.

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