Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

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A Personal Relationship?

August 13th, 2013 · 11 Comments

I am reading James Wellman’s Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest. It raises several questions which have puzzled me over the years, about both liberal and conservative Protestants. I have honest questions for both, if anyone is out there.

What do evangelicals mean by “a personal relationship with Jesus”?

Wellman interviewed one woman in an evangelical church. she said

I grew up in a very devout Catholic home. We were in church whenever we were supposed to be and practiced the sacraments and religious holidays.

She dated an evangelical Methodist and her experience in his church raised several questions:

he would direct me to the Bible, which I had never actually opened at that point

I realized what the truth was and that I needed a relationship with Jesus as opposed to pursuing a religion.

I can believe that she had never opened the Bible. Catholics of all stripes are remarkably ignorant of even the New Testament. I read the Bible cover to cover when I was 12 or 13; it was a quasi-miracle for a Catholic boy to do this.

But no relationship to Jesus?

I was born in 1946 and grew up in the pre-Vatican II church, which was if anything sentimental. The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus emphasized his sympathy with our troubles. The Stations of the Cross asked us t sympathize with is physical and emotional pains. We were taught to speak to him intimately at Communion. This produced in many people a highly affective, if not downright sentimental, relationship with Jesus.

How does this differ from “a personal relationship”? Or did the Catholic practices not work for some people?

This is an honest, not an accusatory, question. Can anyone help me understand?

Tags: Protestantism

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 tioedong // Aug 13, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    She is post Vatican II of course, where they don’t learn catechism and mass is about them, not Jesus. I just returned from my brother’s funeral, and his daughter told me she doesn’t have to go to church because “she went to Catholic school”. Huh?

    The problem is that teens and kids are not taught these things in the home. Often they grow up in a self centered world, where things are more important than prayer or even social action. Hopefully, one day they may “grow up” and notice God.

    And of course, the pat “answer” is not reality but the routine way ex catholics are taught to parrot what’s wrong with the Catholic church when they convert. Lots of them here in the Philippines, where poaching Catholics is a full time and lucrative job for pastors.

  • 2 John // Aug 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    I’m a Catholic, raised evangelical. It seems to me most Catholics relate to Jesus like you might relate to a good boss. You may admire him, you may want to please him. But you don’t bring your boss home with you like a close friend, and open a bottle of wine, and let down your guard and discuss your deepest worries and joys. Because your boss, however admirable, isn’t interested in you to that extent.

    Actually, Pew surveys show that about 30% of Catholics think of God as purely an impersonal force! Not personal at all. I find this almost unimaginable. And only 48% are certain that it is possible to have a personal relationship with God.

    I was taught that God cares about me. Personally. He wants me to talk to him. He has a specific job for me to do.

    Imagine you are among a crowd of thousands following Jesus along some dusty road in Galilee. A typical Catholic might think it’s very cool to be an anonymous soul in that crowd. But I was taught He knows that I am there, knows who I am, knows who everybody is, and will call each of us by name. This is what the Church teaches too, but it is unfortunately not Catholic practice.

    The book to read on this subject is Forming Intentional Disciples, by Sherry Weddell. I’m a huge fan of you, Leon, and of Church Impotent, and this is a rare case where I’d say you have a peer. Send me your address and I’ll send you a copy. weidners-AT-pacbell-DOT-net

  • 3 John // Aug 13, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Faith is above all a personal intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.
    — Benedict XVI, General Audience, 10-21-2009

  • 4 Mary // Aug 13, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    I was raised in the Church and went to Parochial schools both pre and post Vatican Two.
    We learned the Faith rote through the much maligned Baltimore Catechism however we also read Scripture. When I entered sixth grade the ambiguities of interpretation of the Vatican Two documents were obviously put into practice.
    Suddenly we all felt we had joined a new religion.
    I thank God for the unscathed nuns who taught through the memorization of the Baltimore Cathechism because I was able to use what I recalled to apply the principles of learning to
    ” Know” ( through Scripture ), “Love “( Through prayer and the Sacraments ) and “Serve” God
    ( Through love and compassion for others ) so I may hopefully serve Him in this world and be with Him in the next .”
    Sound corney? But a very effective teaching tool for catechesis and thanks to the pre Vat Two methodology I can happily account for a personal relationship with Jesus that has also served me well along the way, especially during some very difficult times. In the nineties a Baptist told me they used the same catechism in their Sunday schools ( minus any references to the Pope or Catholicism) and more recently a DRE told me the Baltimore Catechism fell from use because the Bishops labeled it as divisive !
    Post Vat Two all kinds of catechisms hit the churches and schools. Many parents opted to home school after they got a look at what passed for religious ed. I heard complaints from parents that their children were being taught that the Bible is all myth in their Parochial schools.
    “Christ Among Us” was one of the more ridiculous books that hit the CCDs and schools. But there were many many others.

    Now it would seem that our unevangelized youth are to evangelize via rave and flash mob productions!

  • 5 cmm // Aug 14, 2013 at 4:53 am

    I am not sure how old this woman is but that may have something to do with it. Devotionalism stopped around 1963ish so if you are a 50ish or younger Catholic your relationship with Jesus may be very different than someone older, especially if you only had CCD training or were taught by laypeople at a Catholic school. The first time my daughter attended an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament as a teenager it frightened her as it seemed to be cultish…

  • 6 Tom Nealon // Aug 14, 2013 at 9:50 am


    I have spent much time in both worlds. It’s interesting that many well-known Catholics, lay and ordained, speak of the need for a “personal relationship with Jesus”, and say something like “being a Catholic (or Christian) isn’t so much about a religion but a relationship.”

    I find your question interesting. I left the Catholic Church for the evangelical world in my very early twenties and returned in my late thirties. What did strike me about evangelical and charismatic or Pentecostal friends was that they seemed to know Jesus as a friend rather than as a more remote figure. I do not mean that they did not believe he is God. They did–and sought to live according his teachings as they understood them. Jesus was the center of their existence. This seemed radical and amazing and exciting to me.

    I do not mean by any of this that Jesus was not the center of the devout Catholic’s life–though at that time I certainly failed to perceive it. I arrogantly thought of Catholicism as some kind of dead religion–rules and useless rituals. I later saw that this was mistaken, but I think the at times breezy liberal-ish Catholicism of my youth led me to an inaccurate perception of the Catholic Church as something of a museum rather than a place where I might actually meet God. There was also much good in the Catholicism of my youth–I do not wish to bash it or dismiss it all as liberal nonsense.

    I can only point out that something like my experience was shared by many people I knew. The evangelical/charismatic Episcopal church I ended up in was filled with ex-Catholics who would say that they had found Jesus (I know that this utterly dismays many Catholics). These people wanted to share their love of Jesus Christ with one another and with those who did not know Christ.

    I returned to the Church for many reasons, but one was that I was so impressed with the clarity of the Church’s moral teaching–even though I had been to 13 years of Catholic school, I seemed to have missed much of the actual doctrinal content of the faith; again, it’s very possible–likely even–that my teachers diligently taught me and I just wasn’t listening. I cannot blame them.

    In the evangelical world, doctrine is at least in theory open to revision by better scriptural exegesis–though many evangelicals are solid and immoveable on the basics as they understand them.

    Though I see weaknesses with evangelical ecclesiology and in some cases with evangelical moral teaching (which varies widely on some issues) I cannot fault their evident and enthusiastic love for Jesus. Their way of expressing it is much different from the way a Catholic would, but I think it’s getting at the same reality.

  • 7 Oso Pious // Aug 14, 2013 at 10:40 am

    I was born in 1944 with my father in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. I grew up in occupied Japan and Okinawa. I belonged to a group of boys called Knights of the Altar who served all the Masses on the base. My relationship with Jesus was like a soldier or warrior to a commander. That is why I loved the military orders of warrior-monks like the Paracletes, etc., which I joined in 1965. Jesus was like a loving uncle, guiding me but also like a sacred King giving me my orders. Recently I read the book Zealot by Reza Aslan which shows Jesus as a revolutionary Che Guevara type of Messiah. Jesus is still my friend, leader and model but the paradigm has changed!

  • 8 Mary // Aug 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    If the Catholic Church is the as we were taught, the One True Faith, why has it changed so much so as to marginalize one generation from another ? The Orthodox also consider their Church as the One True Faith ,both having Apostolic Succession.
    Both lay claim to a foundation of Scripture and Tradition when they were once One Holy Catholic and Orthodox Faith.

    The Charismatic Movement in some Catholic circles is considered Evangelical and has become indistinguishable in many churches .This is why
    I prefer the timelss advice of St Vincent of Lerins

    “St. Vincent of Lérins, a soldier who became a monk at the monastery in Lérins, and wrote his famous Commonitory in AD 434, three years after the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus, and seventeen years before the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon. Because Protestants generally accept both those councils, St. Vincent’s Commonitory provides a window into Catholic thought during a period treated by Protestants as still orthodox, prior to any ‘great apostasy.’ ”
    For the record the “great apostasy” was a financial and politically motivated schism that resulted in the first split of the Christian religion for which both sides have been equally propagandized throughout the ages.


  • 9 Joseph D'Hippolito // Aug 14, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Leon, I think a “personal relationship with Jesus” involves several things:

    1. Deliberately embracing His sacrifice on the cross as one’s own remedy for sin.

    2. Engaging in open, honest communication through prayer.

    3. Realizing that anyone who embraces Christ becomes an adopted son or daughter of God and an heir to everything He has, including (and especially) salvation.

    I believe Catholics have missed that latter part because so much popular piety concentrates on Mary and the saints as intermediaries to Jesus. That approach obscures the emphasis in the Letter to the Hebrews on Christ’s role as the Heavenly High Priest who “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do” and enables Christians to “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God” to “receive his mercy, and … grace to help us when we need it most.”

    Given the popular piety concerning Mary and the saints, and given the role of the priest as a sacramental mediator and alter Christus, it should not be surprising that the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus,” as evangelicals define the term, would seem foreign. I dare say that Catholic ecclesiology mitigates against such an idea.

  • 10 Mary Ann // Aug 15, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Joseph, I agree as to the effect of a popular understanding of intermediaries and the priesthood, a poor understanding of Catholic ecclesiology, and I would say that a good relationship with Christ is one of the protections against that poor understanding. However, there is a way in which the faith starts all over again with each generation, and what is passed from parent to child is always rote or external until internalized, no matter what it is that is passed (great or good or poor or bad). Every younger generation believes its experience of the prior “reality” was universal. Finally, we are all imperfect and we are all different, so the invitation to know and love and serve God should be the immediate and paramount concern for every priest in everything he does, so that each individual person at whatever stage is constantly invited to a renewed personal encounter with Christ, within the context of truth and sacrament and community.

  • 11 Janice Fox // Aug 15, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    I was raised in a Presbyterian Congregation where people were well educated and living comfortable middle class lifestyles. I cannot remember hearing anyone talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ except for televangelists. At church we had Bible study in its historical context and discussed how the Bible lesson could be applied to our daily lives.

    I never heard of the Rapture, the Antichrist, Armageddon, Gog and Magog or the Protestant Ethic until I was in college. At that time a Catholic classmate thought he should tell me the sociological implications of the Protestant Ethic on all of American Society. I tried to hide my ignorance.

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