One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that mainline Protestants don’t seem to take God very personally. Growing up as I did in the evangelical world, God and Jesus was up close and personal. A lot of the songs we sung in college intentionally changed the words of some songs from something like, “God is so good to us,” to something like “God is so good to me.”
In many ways, Mainline Protestants tend to think of God in more communal or corporate terms. We tend to use words like “us” and not focus on a personal Jesus. Our belief in social justice makes us wary of something that might be considered private and not beneficial. So, we might make fun of those who talk about a personal Jesus thinking this is rather silly and behind the times.
But do we lose something when we see Jesus in a more personal way?
First off, I think Mainline Protestants, (myself included) tend to confuse “personal” with “private.” Personal is something that is intimate; like a relationship- private, is something that is for you and only you. The God that we serve is a public God that judges the nations , but God is also one that is in relationship not just with the whole of humanity, but each and every one of us.
The thing is, the Bible is full of examples where God and a specific person spoke to each other face-to-face- sort of. One example is from Exodus 33 where Moses and God talk about life- their relationship and what really bugs them at times:
7 Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far away from the camp. He called it the meeting tent. Everyone who wanted advice from the LORD would go out to the meeting tent outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand at the entrance to their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at the tent’s entrance while the LORD talked with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the column of cloud standing at the tent’s entrance, they would all rise and then bow down at the entrances to their tents. 11 In this way the LORD used to speak to Moses face-to-face, like two people talking to each other. Then Moses would come back to the camp. But his young assistant Joshua, Nun’s son, wouldn’t leave the tent.
12 Moses said to the LORD , “ Look, you’ve been telling me, ‘Lead these people forward.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. Yet you’ve assured me, ‘I know you by name and think highly of you.’ 13 Now if you do think highly of me, show me your ways so that I may know you and so that you may really approve of me. Remember too that this nation is your people. ”
14 The LORD replied, “ I’ll go myself, and I’ll help you. ”
15 Moses replied, “ If you won’t go yourself, don’t make us leave here. 16 Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and your people, unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on the earth. ”
17 The LORD said to Moses, “ I’ll do exactly what you’ve asked because you have my special approval, and I know you by name. ”
18 Moses said, “ Please show me your glorious presence. ”
19 The LORD said, “ I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD .’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate. 20 But, ” the LORD said, “ you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live. ” 21 The LORD said, “ Here is a place near me where you will stand beside the rock. 22 As my glorious presence passes by, I’ll set you in a gap in the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by. 23 Then I’ll take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face won’t be visible. ”
-Common English Bible
Note how Moses wasn’t relating to God as something far off and distant, but as a personal being that is right here, right now and in relationship with him. This wasn’t a private God, but it certainly was a personal God.
In the Gospels, we see that Jesus also had this kind of relationship with God. Here’s and example from Mark 14:
32 Jesus and his disciples came to a place called Gethsemane. Jesus said to them, “ Sit here while I pray. ” 33 He took Peter, James, and John along with him. He began to feel despair and was anxious. 34 He said to them, “ I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert. ” 35 Then he went a short distance farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if possible, he might be spared the time of suffering. 36 He said, “ Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want. ”
-Common English Bible
Jesus is facing the cross and his death. He pleads to God, using the Abba, a very intimate term for God (akin to calling your father daddy).
The God we serve is not some mysterious force that is far away or distant, but very near. So why do we liberal Christians try to keep God at arms length? We don’t have to talk about God and Jesus in the way evangelicals do, but it does seem like we should be able to talk about how this God of the universe cares for us and knows us.
Conservative evangelical Timothy Dalrymple wrote last fall about his experience while at Princeton Seminary. He shares what was going on his life as he prepared for a upcoming surgery and how that strengthened his relationship with God:
Let me tell a little story — for this series on The Future of Seminary Education – that illuminates some of the critique I’ve already shared, but also some of why I nonetheless enjoyed my seminary years.
I’ve mentioned that there came a time, one month before a spinal fusion surgery, and about halfway through my M.Div., when I was confronted with the fear of death. Recently married, I was lying in bed beside my wife after she had fallen asleep. I thought of how much pleasure it brought me, simply to lay beside her. I envisioned lying beside her as the seasons, the years and the decades passed by, as our bodies changed and we grew older together. Then, I thought, we would pass away, and eventually we’d be buried beside each other as well.
That’s when I sat bolt upright with waves of scalding heat rolling across my skin and a heart that felt like it would pound its way through my chest. It literally felt as though the sky was falling down toward my head. I was suffering a panic attack. I had thought of a wall of earth separating me in my coffin from my wife in her coffin — and the thought of the separation death would impose filled me with terror. I had not been afraid of death for years. Yet now I was married. Now I had something to lose, something from which — or someone from whom — I did not want to be separated.
By then, my spiritual life had already been in decline. I had strayed from God in my first couple seminary years. I had largely abandoned my vision of intimacy and faithfulness with God. But when life was easy, the cost of my infidelity to God had not been apparent. Yet now I needed God, and it felt as though he were miles away, not because he was unfaithful but because I had been unfaithful. I had neglected the fundamentals of my faith, the spiritual disciplines, the basic everyday faithfulness, the impassioned pursuit of God and not merely the study about him. I never had sex or did drugs in those years, but when it came to drinking I was very much a part of an unhealthy, un-Christian culture. Even as I ministered in my internships, as a youth pastor and a prison chaplain, I partook in the drinking culture at seminary, and in foul language and unclean talk. Those internships were the most spiritually edifying parts of my seminary experience, but they were not enough.
Suddenly that decline became a steep and dizzying downward spiral. The month before my surgery was filled with doubt and fear and more panic attacks. Was God trying to tell me that I was going to die? That I needed to prepare my heart? Then came the surgery, and a horrific recovery experience that was badly mismanaged by my medical team. I spent the first two days after the surgery with no pain medication, and then got so much medicine that it proved toxic and plunged me into severe dysphoria. It was the most profound experience of hopelessness and godlessness that I had ever known. It felt as though my faith was broken into a million pieces and I had to put it back together again — or else leave it behind.
I sought encouragement from the professors. They were kindly available, and offered answers that were nuanced and theologically respectable — but missed the mark. I sorely missed the extraordinary James Loder, one of the professors I had grown close to, but who had died by then from a brain aneurysm.
But the benefit of my PTS years was not only in the faculty I came to know, but also in the students. At about this time, one of my best friends, J., had gone to a month-long Ignatian retreat. When he returned, we got together. As he described his retreat, I kept hearing a particular word — a word that surprised me, a word that I had not heard or spoken so openly and frequently for years.
Do you want to know what the word was? Jesus.
I had stopped saying the word “Jesus.” 95% of the time, I only spoke of “God.” Or if I had to speak of him, I referred to God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, the Logos…names that sounded intellectual and sophisticated. If I had to speak of the Son incarnate, then I spoke of Christ, or the God-man. Never Jesus Christ, and certainly never just Jesus. Loving Jesus, following Jesus, seeking Jesus — these were the province of fundamentalists, Bible thumpers, Jesus Freaks, crude Christians who wore WWJD bracelets and listened to Michael W. Smith and read Max Lucado instead of Jurgen Moltmann. We had even begun to subtly mock Jesus by talking of “Jeebus” or mocking the way certain preachers shouted “Jesus!” in their sermons, or by laughing at Jesus action figures and the other strange cultural artifacts emanating from Jesusland.
But now, here was this friend of mine, whom I admired, and he couldn’t stop talking about walking with Jesus and talking with Jesus. He spoke of Jesus telling him something, or showing him something, or holding him. It was striking only because I had not heard language like that since I had come to seminary.
As I sat there and heard my friend talking about Jesus-this and Jesus-that, I realized that Jesus was speaking to me through him. Wasn’t there a time when I, too, walked and talked with Jesus? Wasn’t there a time when I lived in fellowship with Jesus? And wasn’t that, after all, the very point of Jesus? That he is “God with us,” God made present and available and redemptive among us? Because of Jesus, God is a Person-for-us, God is personally available, and we can indeed have a personal relationship with him? Isn’t that the point of the incarnation? Isn’t that, in some sense, the point of our faith — that God came to us in Jesus, and bids us come and die with Jesus, and calls us to be Jesus in the world and to love Jesus in the least of these?
For two years I had scoffed at things like this. It seemed simplistic and sentimental. But really, it’s the simple, heart-changing truth, a truth that confounds the wise and lifts up those the world calls fools. I had left behind the language of Jesus, the spirituality of Jesus, and I had certainly left behind the imitation of Jesus.
That was the beginning of my long climb out of the pit. I began once again to talk with Jesus throughout the day, to find him sitting in the chair beside me, or walking with me down the side of the street, or speaking to me in the words of a stranger or in the music played at a youth group meeting or in the sunlight that filtered through the trees or just in the stillness of my heart. I had to trust my imagination, put aside my corrosive skepticism, and just experience Jesus (and God in Jesus) again. And I would never have known J., never would have heard his story, if it were not for PTS and the extraordinary group of men and women it brings together.
Tim’s experience at Princeton is not necessarily a normative experience in mainline seminaries, but I do think it sheds light to something I’ve noticed in the circles I run in: a tendency to keep God at a distance. God and Jesus are something to be studied and maybe to follow as a nice leader, but they are not considered to be as close as a friend or lover.
But that seems to go against what we see in the Bible and have learned through the Trinity and the Incarnation.
There has to be a way that we can have the corporate God that loves all of creation and the God that cares for each us personally, not privately. Because a God that is kept at arms length is a God that we can’t reach for when we are at our darkest hour.