Personal relationships with Jesus and the Myth of The Autonomous ‘I’

American anthropologist, David Graeber, notes that “Western social theory is founded on certain everyday common sense, one that assumes that the most important thing about people is that they are all unique individuals. Theory therefore also tends to start with individuals and tries to understand how they form relations with one another”. This idea that we are all autonomous beings is so deeply ingrained in Western culture that we have accepted it as a universal truth. But the autonomy of the individual is not a given fact; it is a theoretical framework from which to begin understanding the world. We are fortunate, here in South Africa, to have an understanding of humanity that far surpasses this modern Western one. The philosophical framework of Ubuntu – that we are who we are through others – contains far more impressive insight into human identity than Western ideas about human identity do.


More and more, research in Western psychology (like, for example, the work of Jean-Michel Oughourlian) is demonstrating what Ubuntu already intuited: that the idea of the individual is a fiction. We are not, in the first instance, individuals; we are interdividuals. That is, we are not born as autonomous selves who, from that starting point, enter into relationships with others; we are born into relationships that are instrumental in shaping selves. In the words of French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, we are “being-with” before we are “being”. It is impossible to make sense of any individual without first understanding the relationships of which that individual is a part. In a very real sense, those relationships are the individual; they are not simply social contracts into which that individual enters.


Think of it this way: a braincell is an individual organism, but cannot be understood in isolation. It derives its identity not from its individual attributes, but from the way it interacts with the other braincells. Humans are the same: without the complex relationships that exist between the individuals in society, the individual is incomplete. The individual gives shape to and is shaped by the community of which that individual is a part. Any notion of the individual as apart from others is absurdly reductive.


So I hope you will begin to understand why I find the concept of a personal relationship with Jesus problematic. At least in the way that contemporary Protestantism has framed the notion. It has made theology absurdly reductive. Protestant theology would have me believe that an (if not the) integral aspect of my faith journey is the formation of a personal relationship with Jesus. Without this, I am refusing to accept God’s gift of salvation and am consigning myself to damnation.


Now I understand why this notion of a more personal God is good, even necessary. Religion has always mediated the relationship between humanity and the divine through priests. Ordinary folk have no direct access to the gods, and only indirectly connect to the divine through rituals performed by an elect priesthood. Aside from the fact that this arrangement allows the priesthood to exploit people with little – if any – accountability (like, for example, the selling of indulgences by Catholic priests that, in part, produced the Reformation), it also creates a sense of an unbreachable distance between humanity and God. The intent of these mediations by the priests is invariably to defer the expression of divine wrath directed at us, usually by redirecting that selfsame divine violence elsewhere, like onto some unsuspecting farm animal. Priestly activity invariably paints God as a monster we need to appease.   In fact, if you think about it, the very idea that our relationship with God needs to be mediated at all prevents us from understanding that God is neither violent nor retributive. And that is not even to get started on the mimetic rivalry that plays out when the priest becomes the mimetic model and “faithfulness” becomes the desired object. No, the whole notion had to go. No wonder, then, that Jesus was regarded by the writer to the Hebrews as the perfect high priest – the last of his line. If we are reconciled to God, in other words if the relationship between God and humanity is mended (however that came about), then there is no need for a priesthood.


So I agree that there is every need to make the relationship between humans and God a personal (unmediated) one. It is not the idea of a personal relationship with God that I oppose, but the Protestant understanding of what that means.


My first critique of Protestant thinking in this regard would be that it completely misunderstands the nature of personhood. As I have outlined above, there is no such thing as a completely autonomous moral being, a being with absolute freedom to make moral decisions independently. We are always, first, our relationships. Before I have any sense of identity, I have my relationships. I am born into them. I do not choose the relationships that are foundational in shaping me. From the moment I am born, before I have any self-awareness, I have parents. And those parents are located in specific cultural spaces, living in communities that express those cultures in particular ways. And all of that shapes my awakening sense of self. I start by imitating them, and gradually come to see myself as apart from them. But the baseline of my identity has been constructed through those relationships: the values that I hold, the things that I desire, the ways that I define what is right and wrong, the mechanisms I use to resolve conflict, are all socially determined. They are never autonomously acquired. They are also very seldom conscious, and if so, only in very limited ways.


A theory of atonement, then, that is predicated on the capacity of the individual to make independent and conscious moral choices – to make any sort of autonomous choice at all, actually, would seem profoundly unjust. A god who designs a species of interdividual beings would be cruel to require them to act outside of those constraints in order to be saved.


Furthermore, if we are interdividuals rather than individuals, there can be no relationship between me and God that is not at the same time a relationship with every other person with whom I am in relationship. Nor can God heal the relationship between me and God without also bringing healing to the relationships between me and everybody else. The brokenness in one relationship will always play out in others. That is why, I think, Jesus – when asked what the greatest commandment was, responded that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind (note that the original Scripture in Deuteronomy 6:5 does not have ‘mind’, but ‘strength’. I wonder why Jesus did that…), and stated the second was just like it: to love your neighbor as yourself.


Now a bit of cultural background is pertinent here: the verse in Deuteronomy that immediately precedes this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” is regarded by Jews even today as a foundational statement about the relationship between Israel and God. So when Jesus makes his second greatest commandment “just like” the first one, he is making a radical statement, especially given that he goes on to include Samaritans and Romans in his definition of who constitutes our neighbour (in contrast to Deuteronomy, which seems to have as its sole purpose to explicate the measures by which we can distinguish between the Israelites and the Gentiles, and what God will do to those on the wrong side of the divide). Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ, in 1 Corinthians 12, where no one part is any more important than any other part, and where everyone is interdependent, is also a good analogy. The fact that we are interdividuals makes a mockery of any of our efforts to separate ourselves from those around us, in terms of faithfulness: because we are mimetic, when we judge others we are in a very real sense judging ourselves. The measure that we use to judge others must be used against us: it is written into our very natures. So it may well be that we need to rethink religion so that it involves a personal relationship with God, but we must never take that to mean that a private relationship with God is even possible, let alone desirable.


And that is precisely what contemporary Protestantism means by a “personal relationship with Jesus”. A private relationship. Me, my Bible and Jesus is sufficient, and so long as I have “accepted Jesus into my heart”, and read the Bible and pray every day, I will be considered to be on the right path. But Jesus never located God’s manifest presence in private spaces. It was always “where two or more are gathered in my name”, that God would be with us. It was never “Love the Lord your God” only. It was always “and the second is just like it; love your neighbour as you love yourself”. Personal holiness theology is a trap. Me-my-Bible-and-Jesus theology is a lie. It is a lie because we are not “Being”, but “Being-with”. It is why love is the highest Law: it is how we give moral shape to Being-with.


Faithfulness must always find its expression in relationship, and relationship is not something we get to choose to enter. Relationship includes us by default. I am as much in relationship with those who oppress me as I am with those I love. The one set of relationships impinges on the other, whether I choose that or not. I do not choose whether or not I am in relationship, only – in a very limited way – how I respond within those.


My second problem with the question of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is that to the average Protestant mind, our willingness to ‘enter into’ this relationship becomes the primary condition for salvation. While I can accept that a healthy relationship with God is by nature salvific, I cannot accept the terms and conditions that Protestantism has imposed on this.


First, a relationship is not something that one chooses. We may have some freedom to decide on the parameters within which any given relationship plays out, but whether or not a relationship exists in the first instance is seldom within our control. If we accept that God created us and that God has incarnated Godself in human form, then a relationship exists between God and humanity irrespective of whether or not we choose it, and irrespective of whether or not we are even aware of it. To make the “entering into” of such a relationship a condition for salvation is nonsensical.


The whole idea becomes even more problematic still when you take into account what, in real terms, is meant by Protestants when they advocate for ‘entering into a personal relationship with Jesus’. Generally, this means:

  1. believing that Jesus is God,
  2. believing in a penal substitution theory of atonement,
  3. believing that the Bible is the inerrant word of God (and preferably reading it every day),
  4. (in some instances) having spiritual experiences, and
  5. trying to follow a fairly prescriptive holiness code, especially with regards to sexuality.

It is notable that while Protestantism insists on the primacy of relationship with God, the measures by which it gauges the healthiness of that relationship are not fundamentally relational in nature. Belief is not a relational function but a cognitive one. In fact, all of the elements by which Protestantism would characterise one’s “personal relationship with Jesus” are private ones, not relational ones; Being characteristics instead of Being-with ones. And consequentially, we have essentially made holding the “right” theology the measure of whether or not we are saved, and in so doing, made ourselves responsible for our own salvation.


It is compounded by the fact that what we are required to be in relationship with is actually an intangible and abstract concept. So now the picture looks like this: in order to be saved, we are to transcend our interdividual natures and make autonomous choices to enter into relationship (a phrase that has questionable validity) with an invisible and silent being, whose character we must glean through nature, the various depictions of Jesus in the New Testament (a requirement complicated by the fact that we also have to make this pacifist character synchronous with the retributive God depicted elsewhere in the Scriptures) and through our own subjective experiences, and who – as a result – is only ever a projection of ourselves. No wonder then that the best we can do is to (unconsciously) read ourselves into those ‘texts’ and then read ourselves out again, so that ultimately, the “personal relationship” we believe saves us is actually just another term for our personal theology.


That is not to say that a personal relationship with God is unimportant. It is profoundly so. But a personal relationship with God is an interdividual relationship that includes God and the whole of humanity. That is why even though a relationship with an intangible, invisible and silent being is impossible, and any attempt to create one must become nothing much more than a falling in love with our own theologies, interdividuality makes it possible to express that relationship in other ways. Jesus gave us the parameters for that “personal relationship”: “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me”; “the second is just like it: love your neighbor as you love yourself”. It was never about having an emotional experience called “inviting Jesus into your heart” and then trying to be good. Those are noble things, of course, but absurdly reductive, which is of course the inevitable consequence of believing in the myth of the autonomous “I”.

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