I was listening to a podcast where Stanley Hauerwas was being interviewed, and he made a statement that caught my attention. This is par for the course with Hauerwas, who often uses language to shock his audience in order to make his point. That was the case here as well.
Interviewer: Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with God and they describe it as a kind of friendship with God; is that a useful category for those who are looking on and trying to understand what Christianity is all about?
Hauerwas: No, The last thing I want is a personal relationship with God. Our relationship with God is mediated and that’s the reason that why without the church, we know not God. My little tag is ‘Know Israel, Know Jesus; Know Church, Know Jesus.’ Our faith is a mediated faith through people by word and sacrament. I would never trust myself to have a personal relationship with God.
The interviewer asked him what his thoughts concerning a person’s personal relationship with God. Hauerwas responded that it would be a frightful thing to have a “personal relationship” with God. Today, he argues, the Divine-human relationship has been mediated through the church and the people of God.
On one hand, I can see Hauerwas’ hesitation with the language of “personal relationship” or “personal Savior.” Americans in particular have taken this language to an extreme, such that there are many Rambo Christians today who feel like they can have Jesus in their heart without any context of the church. They claim to have a personal relationship with God, but it is only a personal relationship.
On the other hand, I would never want to diminish the personal aspect of trust, discipleship and prayer. I keep thinking of Heb. 10:19-22 where we are given confidence to enter the throne of grace because of the blood of Christ. All Christians should have devotional periods, taking time to be “alone with God.” As Daniel, we should regularly offer up personal, private prayers to God, knowing that he will hear us.
When it comes down to it, this is a case where both components are essential. There is not a need just to pick one. Authentic Christianity requires a personal and communal aspect. All individuals must come to a personal relationship with God, relaying on Jesus as their “personal Savior,” but the relationship can never be considered only as personal.