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Miniblog #149: I’ve No Good Answers for How to Replace a “Relationship with God”

by Carson T. Clark on November 20, 2012

Preface1

After my most recent entry about how I don’t have a “relationship with God,” a well-known blogger and Facebook friend inquired what I would propose as an alternative. It’s a solid question. Coming from a lot of people that may have annoyed me. I deeply respect this guy, though. 1.If you’re new to my blog, here’s a pair of posts that help frame my perspective here:
- A Relationship with God? (Canterbury Trail Series)
- Miniblog #148: According to NPR, I Don’t Have a “Relationship with God”
He has a rigorous mind, compassionate heart, humble spirit, and genuine love for his neighbor. A rare combination, indeed. He’s by no means a rigid pragmatist, but if I’m challenging the standard model he’s curious what I’m replacing it with. The trouble is, I don’t have a good answer. Honestly, I’ve not the foggiest clue where to go from here. This journey feels a bit like a person who has come up to a high, chain link fence separating two sides of an alley between adjacent buildings. I’ve tried to find a gate. There’s no gate. I’ve tried to scale it. There’s barbed wired atop it. I’ve tried to cut through. There’s no wire cutter available. I’ve tried to tunnel under it. There’s solid concrete below. I’ve tried to climb over it by piling things next to it. There aren’t enough stackable items. And I’ve considered finding an alternative path, only to be told this is the only way forward. Confounded and exhausted, I’ve sat down to think. That’s where I am. Inspirational, right? I wish had good answers. I wish I could write something like, “Evangelical Christians tend to uphold a sort of ‘relationship with God’ that I find to be not only without much biblical warrant but also most spiritually unhelpful. What I’ve come to affirm instead is…” But I got nothin’. I’m increasingly coming to suspect this will be the great enigma I spend my life attempting to solve, and I have to confess that I’m none too pleased about it. <– Cue the Debbie Downer/Bob Bummer noise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leostaley Leo Staley

    Is it in fact the standard model?

    • http://www.facebook.com/doulos05 Jonathan Bennett

      It’s the only model I’m familiar with, and given the varied pedigree Carson comes from, if he hasn’t encountered an alternative, I’d imagine ‘standard model’ would be a fair description.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      hehe… pedigree. Fun word choice for that context.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I mean, there’s variations on it reflecting different denominations, traditions, personalities, educational backgrounds, and so forth. But it seems to me those things largely just provide nuance for what is a rather consistent outlook in American Christianity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gjsnedeker Guy Snedeker

    My problem with the Evangelical paradigm is that it smacks too much of atomized individualism, which in the final analysis is an unbiblical notion to start with. In fact God creates and calls us to be in relationship with Him in and through His body which is the Church, entailing a wide web of relationship not just a collection of unattached vertical strings.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I’d like to disagree with that. But I can’t.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

    And honest and courageous post friend. I wonder if you’ve read anything by Dallas Willard? He is not only intellectually satisfying but points us to the deep well of water that quenches our thirst for knowing Christ. He is deeply committed to the Christian tradition as well, which ought to appeal to a guy like you :-) I’m also wondering how much of your journey is a reaction against Pentecostalism? I’m sure, knowing a little bit about your journey, that your roots that you have now rejected might play into the equation.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      I might also add Brennon Manning to the list of folks who have shaped my view over the years…

    • http://zackallen.me Zack Allen

      Ditto on Willard. Took me a long way from feeling detached from God to that elusive *relationship.*

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I’m familiar with Willard to the extent that I know who he is, have watched a number of videos, and read a few articles… Big question: If you were to recommend a single D.W. book to me, what would it be?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      The first book that I would recommend is called “the Divine Conspiracy.” It was the first book recommended to me. It starts out a bit slow, but if you truck through it, it is profound.
      KURT WILLEMS
      http://KurtWillems.com
      http://twitter.com/kurtwillems
      http://facebook.com/kurtwillems

  • http://www.facebook.com/leostaley Leo Staley

    Also, Let’s explore the metaphor. Sounds like you either need to be given, or acquire wire cutters somehow, or go back another direction.

    It has been my idea for a while that because we cannot relate to God directly, God gave us ritual and community by which we can experience something approximate to him. The Eucharist and Baptism, yes, but all manner of sacraments, meditative prayer (or maybe even just meditation?), Song and music, sermons to remind, metaphors and narratives to internalize what God is like, and such.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I’d rather enjoy going Magneto on this fence.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    Hi Carson,

    Here’s Father Stephen’s take on it. He suggests “communion with God” as the alternative.

    http://glory2godforallthings.com/2008/05/24/is-a-relationship-with-god-what-we-want/

  • Dcn. Brench

    Carson, just the other day I saw a quote that seemed on topic to this very question. Forgive me if you already saw it, but hopefully it’ll give you something to work with either way.

    “I should say, without any doubt or hesitation at all, that the approbation of Him who sees in secret depends not on conscious emotions, but on sincere endeavors to obey Him. This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. Do so because it is your duty, and put your heart in his hands by prayer, and He will deal with it as He knows best; by-and-by you will find that you have been loving Him, perhaps even when you felt coldest. Our conduct He leaves to ourselves, but our feelings He keeps, in great measure, in His own hands.” — John Keble

    Although the appeal to “duty” isn’t a popular notion in our present culture, I’ve found it helpful in my own walk with God, because, like you, I find it difficult to say “I love Jesus” in the way that evangelical culture expects me to. But in recent months I’ve found that I actually do love God, not by any emotional experience or worship high, but by looking back on the obedience I have willingly offered him. And that’s basically what Keble wrote.

    God bless;
    Matt

    • Rob K

      I really like this response (and the quote). Unfortunately, it can be a hard thing to do or hear for someone who might strongly de-emphasize any kind of “works”, which I have found to be pretty common on the evangelical side.

      Personally, however, I find that when I am doing my duty my mind is more focused on the presence of God. There is plenty of emotion there, but not so much the “love” I always heard about from my hippie, Jesus People parents. ;) It is more of an awe.

      Anyway, thanks for your insight!

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I agree with Rob.

  • Jay

    Maybe you’ve answered this already, but what are your thoughts on reading through the Psalter as a prayer/devotional? If nothing else it’s at least scriptural, and it gives words to a vast range of human experience.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Honestly, I’ve not given it a whole lot of thought.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    I think you already know I’m with you on this one, Carson. My beloved brother Kurt notwithstanding, my own experience is that the well of the so-called “spiritual disciplines” is, in fact, dry as the Sahara. Given that most of the “disciplines” are physically and/or emotionally unpleasant exercises to me, absent an assurance of return on investment I have not seen, they are highly unattractive to attempt.

    Besides, reading somebody’s book, however great that book, thinking about the book and its author, speaking out loud while thinking of the author, all the while never meeting not hearing from that author, does not a relationship make. I refuse to accept the use of that language to describe what is clearly not interactive communication.

    I don’t recall if you ever saw this post of mine from about 3 years ago, but you might find some resonance: http://nailtothedoor.com/jesus-is-all-i-need-not/

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

    Relationship should not become a tired word. The First Nations speak of ‘all my relations’. ‘Your’ relationship to God is in your ‘relationship’ to others, particularly to ‘the other’ who is not like you. If you do not love your enemy whom you have seen, how can you say you love God whom you have not seen. (That’s pure visual science).

    As to the historical content, I would strongly recommend a close reading of the Psalms. The Psalms are used in Hebrews as the conversation between the Father and the Son, between God and his elect.

    The fact that I have a 525 page book on Seeing the Psalter (available Jan 18th) has nothing to do with this advice. Anyone with care and a database can do what I did – learn Hebrew and mutter the ancient text and ponder. If this muttering and pondering is done in ‘wait’ mode, the one who learns will not be disappointed. Discipleship is obedience to that love and mercy that is the content of all covenant.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Thanks for sharing.

  • DanutM

    Dear Carson
    You continue to challenge us on very meaningful issues, like this one. I wish I had enough time to engage with all of them.
    Just a short comment on this topic.
    It seems to me that we tend to get confused when we mix psychology and theology.
    ‘Relational’ language, so dear to Pietists, lends itself so easily to psychologising that I am as weary about it as you are. It’s reminds me of a recent quote (unfortunately in Romanian) on my blog, from Christos Yannaras, in his book The Truth and Unity of the Church (I doubt it is in English), in which he merely calls Pietism a ‘heresy’. One may disagree with him on this (not me), but he is right on one thing, sat least. The Pietist privatization of the religious experience is virtually undermining the ecclesial dimension of salvation, making it a sort of ‘capitalist enterprise’.
    From a theological perspective, if Father, Son and Holy Spirit are divine Persons, ‘ relational’ language may be legitimate, but is it helpful? And is this the way the Church talked historically about engaging with God? I doubt.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      You continue to challenge us on very meaningful issues, like this one. I wish I had enough time to engage with all of them.”

      Thank you. Please just know that I genuinely appreciate and value whatever contributions you’re able to make.

      “It seems to me that we tend to get confused when we mix psychology and theology. ‘Relational’ language, so dear to Pietists, lends itself so easily to psychologising that I am as weary about it as you are.”

      A-freaking-men.

      “The Pietist privatization of the religious experience is virtually undermining the ecclesial dimension of salvation, making it a sort of ‘capitalist enterprise’.”

      Wow. That’s profound. Must reflect on that…

      “From a theological perspective, if Father, Son and Holy Spirit are divine Persons, ‘ relational’ language may be legitimate, but is it helpful? And is this the way the Church talked historically about engaging with God? I doubt.”

      Agreed on all accounts.

  • DanutM

    I hope we a not trying to deny the possibility of genuine personal intimacy with God. That would make us practical Deists.
    I think the language of intimacy (including its mystical sexual overtones) and that of communion (indicative of the Trinitarian meaning of perichoresis) are much more helpful theologically and safer from the point of view of the risk of psychologising.
    I hope this helps a bit.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      “I hope we a not trying to deny the possibility of genuine personal intimacy with God.”

      Of course not. My questions are more like…

      - What does intimacy with God mean?

      - How much that intimacy be manifest differently from person to person?

      “That would make us practical Deists.”

      Agreed.

      “I think the language of intimacy (including its mystical sexual overtones) and that of communion (indicative of the Trinitarian meaning of perichoresis) are much more helpful theologically and safer from the point of view of the risk of psychologising. I hope this helps a bit.”

      Indeed. I prefer both intimacy and communion to relationship in this instance, though I remain… ehhhh… curious by what people when they say intimacy in this context.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darin-Cerwinske/118900913 Darin Cerwinske

    You know I’m a simpleton Carson, and while I understand that the Scriptures don’t “specifically” say we need to “have a relationship with God” He uses a lot of familial metaphors (Father, Son, family, bride, groom). If God loves me and shows that love in various ways, and I’m supposed to love him, how can one have a reciprocal love WITHOUT a relationship? That would seem to me an awful cold, dull, and lifeless love, empty of emotion. Let me ask my wife and kids and I’ll get back to you on that. (I’d also agree with the posts mentioning Willard & Manning)

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Copying/pasting a paragraph from an old post:

      When I’ve shared these sorts of thoughts with people, I’ve gotten every response you can imagine: relief, intrigue, confusion, shock, annoyance, anger, and even threats. Seems it’s a novel concept to most people. The most common response, however, has probably been a defense of the idea. “Of course a relationship with God is biblical,” said one guy. “It doesn’t have to be said explicitly ‘cuz it’s implicit all throughout Scripture!” He pointed to passages like Jesus’ addressing God the Father as “abba father,” best translated “daddy” to us. He talked about how God strolled through the garden with Adam and Eve, how Jesus had built relationships with His disciples, how He said that He’d send the Holy Spirit to comfort them, and even the nature and purpose of the indwelling Spirit. None of which I’d argue against. Nevertheless, if restoring our “relationship” with God is the, or at least one of the, central theme(s) of Scripture isn’t it strange that the Bible never comes right out and says it? When I read the Bible I don’t see a lot of key points left unsaid. Moreover, if God is completely beyond our five senses, then wouldn’t any “relationship” we might have with Him be completely unlike our relationship with any other person? And if that’s the case, is it even a “relationship” at all? Does the term even apply?

  • Brendan Payne

    Thank you for sharing. I’m a firm believer that God is the God of all truth, and there is no higher piety than seeking the true God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength strength (and implicitly, all you mind). Pardon the lateness of my response, but here are some initial thought (would love to talk more in person next week).

    To begin, I discern your concern is not with the phrase “relationship with God” as such but with its association with Christianity understood as a mystical, individualistic, revivalistic conversion experience and comparable subsequent experiences sustaining the faith. I also reject this understanding as the *only* way to experience God. Conversion is essential, but might not be an overwhelming ecstasy; it might be a quiet, imperceptible change, as C. S. Lewis experienced. The mystic tradition affirms the “dark night of the soul,” or a sense of God’s absence, as a mark in the life of all mystics. Mother Theresa
    apparently never emerged from that dark night. And human community is an essential part of experiencing God: St. Paul apparently saw the people of his churches as his true letter of commendation before God and source of spiritual refreshment, while St. John said our relationship with God whom we have not seen is reflected in how we love God’s people whom we have seen.

    Personally, I had a conversion experience of sorts when I repented of my sins and consented to be baptized, but my girlfriend has not had a comparable conversion experience — yet she believes (and is Anglican like you, incidentally). Like with our dating relationship, I don’t always feel as I “should,” and often use disciplines of letter-writing, gift-giving, and remembrance of what I love about her refresh my love. Yet what matters is not the feelings alone, but the state of one’s present faith: confessing and believing one’s actual relationship with God, whatever one’s emotional state.

    Of course “relationship with God” language (or comparing it to a dating relationship) is imperfect, but is useful because there are lots of kinds of relationships (friend to friend; boss to employee; husband and wife; parent and child; etc.) and some overlap (a boss and friend, etc.), yet each relationship (including our relationship with God) is unique and impacted by other relationships. The relationship with God parallels all sorts of relationships and changes constantly (though simply because we change, not that God changes). I reject the idea that everyone at all times should have exactly the same relationship with God; though God is always our King, our relationship to the King takes different forms depending on our individual and cultural identity.

    To play off the “God is our King” language, I believe allegiance is in some ways a more useful metaphor for our relationship with God than, say, falling in love: we can fall out of love, but not out of allegiance. Again, allegiance takes different forms: some serve on the front lines, others on the home front; we always have duty, but sometimes it feels like drudgery and at other times our breast fills with emotion; and our love of the nation (or King) is not directly sensory (who has ever met “America” in person?) but we experience that relationship through constituent members of the body politic (or the Body of Christ). Of course this analogy breaks down; it is, after all, an attempt to describe a unique relationship. But I hope it helps.

    Speaking from my experience, there is a need to have some mystical experience of God, but the exact shape of that relationship depends on a person. Some people are more spontaneous, others are more liturgical; some stress the abstract, others the concrete; some focus on logic, others on experience. Yet we all need some of all of these traits, no matter which we emphasize, and I believe Christian community in a broad sense (and ideally the narrow sense of “church” as well) must embrace the full width of these traits if we are to experience God as we ought. In short: there’s no simple answer to your question, but I believe that as we seek God earnestly in humble (if not always fully understanding) acceptance of the orthodox faith according to Scripture and tradition, and love one another as God teaches us (always relying upon the help of God and God’s people), we are in God’s embrace. If you are in that place, however confused and frustrated you may be, you are in God’s embrace. That is why I wrote that you are already on the right side of the impossible impassible fence.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      This is wonderful. Though my response is brief, please know my reflections are long.

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      Brendan, I really appreciate your thoughts on this. I have greatly desired, but never been granted, the gift of a mystical element to my faith. However I want toaffirm your statement ” we can fall out of love, but not out of allegiance.” This is an important truth.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Agreed.

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