It's a common catch cry among my generation of Christians of my generation; I know I grew up with it as a standard that I carried proudly. I think I even thought it was the thing or the idea that would mark myself, and the people around me, for the rest of my life. The idea was encapsulated in a simple catchall phrase: "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion."
This phrase has a lot of power; it captures probably the essence of what a lot of Christians sought to communicate in an age that ceased to be nominally Christian. In many ways it contained both a liberating idea and a challenging ideal.
On the one hand it emphasised that the gospel is grace all the way down. There is no appended 'but…' or any fine print. It also however emphasised the nature of Christian discipleship of one that wasn't just rule following: 'dotting is and crossing ts.' Faith was engaging, involved our whole being and required communication, attention, and even affection. All of these are important to hold on to.
However, I have also noticed recently the way this saying has become a closed door now too. It's often reduced faith to personal preference and the micro-politics of self-presentation and window dressing. When pressed to give an explanation of the gospel, people prefer to more and more talk about the relational element of following Jesus (important!) but at the expense of the nitty-gritty. Why should I want a relationship with God? How can I achieve that? Why would God want that?
Even more, it seems to me that it has contributed to a division in our mind, we shy away from intellectual engagement with our own faith, and I don't mean apologetics, but solid theological engagement. I think part of this is the solipsistic tendencies of this talk about 'relationship'. When relationship is the key phrase and image of our faith, it is internalising and personalising, so that the demands of the faith, the demands of the gospel, are tailored more like a 'coffee' from Starbucks than an external call to holiness and faithful living as exiles in this world (cf. 1 Peter).
Perhaps more interesting, or damning, of the phrase is how little shrift it gets in the New Testament. This is, by itself, not that important, we have a triune God even though the word is never explicitly in the bible, however I think the way we have made a shibboleth of it should at least let us look to the scriptures to back it up, and what I find there instead is what I think a focusing of three big images that can structure our faith, how we talk about our faith, and what is important.
These are not new, they are not novel, we have all heard of them and they are as old as they come, but I think a rejuvenation of this language amongst my generation would be the best thing to happen.
The three images are I think: the Cross, Resurrection, and Community. These three images do a lot more work than simply 'relationship' they cover the whole spectrum of our faith, from its defining moments in history to its continued presence today. They also mirror the trinity: The Son died on the Cross, The Father raised him from the dead, and the Holy Spirit lives in us as a community. They emphasise all the work God has done for us, and they emphasise all the ways in which we are to live now, on the other side of the Cross, in communities bearing witness to the resurrection.
As a way forward, I see our conversations becoming deeper and more imaginative as we explore what these focalising images can mean for our lives and the way we communicate the gospel, at different times we may emphasis different elements of these.
Obviously the relationship grasps the idea of the community, but community goes so much deeper than just the vertical one we have with God, it goes to the horizontal relationship we enjoy with all members of Christ's body, and therefore calls for a discipleship that can never be insular and one which can never be solipsistic as it always seek to serve the other.
The Cross brings us to the heart of the gospel but also focuses us in on the cost of discipleship, as Jesus calls us to carry our cross and follow him. Resurrection reminds us of the victory of God, that our work is not done in vain, and reminds us of our hope to come. All of these also, put together give us a story to share that can never be separated from the everyday world we live in, they shape us, and make demands upon us.
It captures all the truths of our talk of 'relationship' but pushes us even further as it gives the positive claim that God has acted in history and calls us through the death of his Son, and his vindication in the resurrection, into communities that engage, challenge and shape the world we live in today.
First published July 14, 2014
Dale Wang (23) is writing a MA thesis in Classical Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch while making slightly passable coffee at Starbucks. He has been heavily involved in the Christian Union on campus, being their communications officer and leading Bible studies.
Dale Wang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dale-wang.html