What!?! Serious!?! Evangelical Christians – a group in which I place myself – retort, “Who would say such heresy!?!”
Well, in a recent interview, Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas made the provocative remark. But before he’s thrown off the orthodoxy bus, here’s the larger context of his comment:
Question: Christians often describe their faith as a "personal relationship with God." Is that a useful category for those who are looking on at Christianity and trying to figure out what it's all about?
Answer: No. The last thing in the world I'd want is a personal relationship with God. Our relationship with God is mediated. Without the church we know not God. No Israel, No God, Know Church, Know Jesus. Our faith is a mediated faith with people formed through word and sacrament. So I 'd never trust myself to have a personal relationship with God.
I’ll admit I resonate with Hauerwas’s comment. He provokes a critique of our normal categories in Evangelical Christianity that is greatly needed. Let me elaborate:
“Personal” – Perhaps a more accurate word would have been “private,” as really, that’s what Hauerwas is rejecting – faith where the primary expression is between God and the individual. Yet how often does the phrase “personal relationship with God” refer to faith/spirituality practiced in privacy? Lots! In a culture where everything in our lives is private – finances, sex, ethics, to name a few – religion and spirituality is expected to be private as well. And the extent Evangelicals promote a “personal relationship with God” only serves to further the retreat of religion into the hearts and minds of individuals. Hauerwas’s critique, however, isn’t only driven by sociological developments in North American religion. For him, the privatization of faith is a theological disease. A sickness with only one remedy: church.
“Church” – If you’re one who considers the word “church” a derogatory term – likely for very good reasons both personally and socially – Hauerwas’s proposal seems absurd. The last thing we need is more control, more legalism, and more abuse of authority. I agree, as I think Hauerwas would. That church, whatever it is for you, is a church that retains control. We must catch Hauerwas’s distinction, then, in defining the church: “people formed through word and sacrament.” This vision for church, for community, for the people of God, isn’t defined by the typical leadership values of the modern Western world or the bleak past of Christian authority. This church isn’t self-sufficient or controlling. And this church isn’t simply an impersonal God-less reaction to overly individualized faith either. Far from it. Hauerwas’s vision for faith is one in which individuals journey together as a people formed by the narrative of God’s action in the world (word) as experienced in their worship together (sacrament). You could say this is the church out of control. We don’t determine who we are and what we do. I don't determine who I am and what I do. Rather, relationship with God in the biblical narrative is by nature corporate – transformed individuals reflecting the kingdom of God in the world together as the people of God. One person cannot make up the people of God.
I’ll close with a quote a friend passed on to me:
When asked if Jesus Christ was his “personal saviour,” a monk replied with a smile, “No, I like to share him.”
Here is the full video clip from which I got this Hauerwas quote (which occurs around 05:45):