Comments: Opinion - 29 April 2017

Chad Bird makes valuable points about community, but I believe he dramatically overstates his case.

It is not 'either...or'.

As a practiser of Carmelite spirituality, I believe that encounter with God is both deeply communal and deeply personal.

We are not some conglomerate entity. Each of us has an individual soul, and I believe that God cares for us in a deeply intimate, deeply personal, deeply individual way.

In Teresa de Avila's 'Interior Castle', we are presented with a model and an experience of a God who waits for us in the innermost and most intimate centre of the soul. I like to express it as the cloistered garden of the soul. Augustine viewed it in a similar way when he acknowledged that God is 'within' us even when - at times - we are without.

This is a God who knows us individually and personally, and was prepared to die for us individually and personally. A God who calls us by creative word into being and the ongoing becoming of who we are and who we are becoming.

In ecstatic experience, this encounter and desire of God for us may even be termed in quasi-sexual terms, so intimate and ardent is God's love.

Jesus cared for people individually, not simply as part of a movement, and interacted with full, given attention to each individual.

Having said all that, I agree with Chad's other point, that we are called into community and shared lives. God is within us and beyond us. In Carmelite practice, when God comes in perfection, what one may become deeply aware of is the way God's vast consciousness and awareness is shared. God shares consciousness, as indeed the Holy Trinity does in all eternity. And we are invited and called to this eternal household and community. Nuns in religious houses explore and discover this in all its cost and joys.

It doesn't end there. When we realise how deeply we are called into community, it also speaks about the precious nature of community in the world around us. We are shaped and grown by our interactions. There is such a crying need for community and sharing. The whole world needs it.

But I wholly refute Chad’s suggestion that personal relationship with God is not deeply important and treasured. Read Song of Songs. God loves and desires each one of us that much.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Saturday, 29 April 2017 at 2:38pm BST

I think a personal relationship with God is essential, and central to our Christian life. But surely the orthodox, Trinitarian (and liturgical) understanding is that we come to God the Father in and through the Son. So to talk about a personal relationship 'with Jesus' stops short. Doesn't it? Or have I fallen into the opposite heresy?

Posted by David Emmott at Saturday, 29 April 2017 at 5:46pm BST

Chad Bird makes me think of Paul Burrell as a contrast to the valet of the Prince of Wales who has no particular fame. Should a butler/valet have a deeply personal relationship with their principal? Should we, as servants of the Lord, have a deeply personal relationship with Jesus or is that overly presumptuous?

I had hoped Chad Bird was going to dwell on that question since I think it is complex and I am undecided where I stand. I was interested to see his thoughts. Instead he presumed an answer, which I thought was a shame.

Posted by Kate at Sunday, 30 April 2017 at 3:39am BST

I think we come to faith through a personal encounter with God. After that, church seems a logical progression. Equally as important as a relationship with other believers, is our relationship with those who do not call themselves 'Christian'. Indeed, it's possibly more a reflection of our spirituality to interact in a faith-filled way with non-churchgoers. For many people church is challenging and there may be more useful ways for them to show their love and commitment to God. Chad Bird's ideas seem a little bit inflexible to me.

Posted by Pam at Sunday, 30 April 2017 at 9:01am BST

Chad would have us discount the life and activity of the great Christian mystics - if he really beieves that one does not need a 'personal' relationship with Jesus. The very presence of individual baptismal rites in the Church give testimony to this. We are baptized into Christ - not merely the local congregation. This, surely, is an intimatre personal relationship to Jesus.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Sunday, 30 April 2017 at 11:41am BST

Talk of a "personal relationship" with God always reminds me of Scott Cairns' story of the visiting American who asked one the monks of Mount Athos if he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. “No,” said the monk, with a smile. “I like to share him.”

Posted by Steve Lusk at Sunday, 30 April 2017 at 12:23pm BST

That's a neat story, Steve, thank you. But again, it's not "either...or" is it?

We may enjoy intensely personal relationships with God, and at the same time, know God shares love with everyone else as well.

I admit I liked the monk's riposte to what may have been a testing and challenging question, packed with US evangelical cultural assumptions. I just think it's not one or the other.

I think it needs to be both.

Contemplative experience suggests that God invites us to share - to share even God's own consciousness and awareness, which is absolutely astonishing.

But as Father Ron observes, the great mystics of Christian tradition - and indeed millions of Christians in their personal testimonies - speak of encountering Jesus Christ in a personal relationship; and experiencing intimate and personal understanding - being known and loved by God - and daily presence and encounter.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Sunday, 30 April 2017 at 2:41pm BST

I agree with Susannah that the personal and the communal are both essential to the Christian life. We have the examples of the saints, the mystics and others who developed a deep and intimate relationship with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father. Biblical figures too experienced a personal relationship with God. Moses was called the Friend of God, Abraham was on arguing terms with God, the Psalms speak of a clearly personal relationship. Jeremiah, and especially his Lamentations, also talk of a personal relationship. And that's just the Old Testament!

If a Christian life without community were impossible, what would become of those of us who are ill and housebound? I have found that God can be very close to those who can no longer go to church or be active for him. 'Nada te turbe, nada te espante, quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta...solo Dios basta.' As St. Teresa of Avila said, 'He who has God lacks nothing, God alone is enough.'

Posted by Janet Fife at Sunday, 30 April 2017 at 5:22pm BST

It's both/and.

Posted by Cynthia at Sunday, 30 April 2017 at 6:46pm BST

Janet Fife: 'If a Christian life without community were impossible, what would become of those of us who are ill and housebound? I have found that God can be very close to those who can no longer go to church or be active for him. 'Nada te turbe, nada te espante, quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta...solo Dios basta.' As St. Teresa of Avila said, 'He who has God lacks nothing, God alone is enough.'

It's a very superficial view of community to imply it excludes those who rarely see or meet other people in the flesh. Yes, 'God alone is enough', but being in God means we are in God's Church, the Body of Christ. Teresa suffered enough from her contemporaries in the institutional church, but in her solitude she knew she was united 'with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.'

One of the weaknesses of the present-day C of E is the superficiality of its worship and emphasis on 'fellowship' at the expense of mystery and solidarity at this deep level.

Posted by David Emmott at Monday, 1 May 2017 at 12:16pm BST

I agree with Susannah Clark that it is not an "either / or" proposition. I would say this, as I resonate strongly with the article: In the US context of evangelicalism, there is a deficit because the tradition is not only non-liturgical, it is largely anti-liturgical. Speaking for myself as one rooted in the western catholic tradition, my spirituality is formed, shaped by and nurtured in common prayer, and the overlapping cycles of readings. My experience is that I see the entire enterprise in a much more communal way than my evangelical acquaintances do.

Posted by Lou Poulain at Tuesday, 2 May 2017 at 10:47pm BST

'It's a very superficial view of community to imply it excludes those who rarely see or meet other people in the flesh. Yes, 'God alone is enough', but being in God means we are in God's Church, the Body of Christ. Teresa suffered enough from her contemporaries in the institutional church, but in her solitude she knew she was united 'with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.'

David Emmett, that's a useful point. But I would draw a distinction between community and communion. Community I take to be a social and usually geographical relationship (in the broad sense) of people with at least some common interests, activities or contiguity. Communion I understand as spiritual relationship, which can include those not present, no longer alive, or on a different plane of being altogether. Of course there is some overlap, as one can be in communion with members of one's community. But I find I'm much more aware of communion when I'm not able to participate in community, and/or when experiencing adversity. So that the persons of the Trinity, saints, angels, and those who hold me in their prayers seem almost to be present at times.
I don't think, however, that this is what Chad Bird's article was saying, nor what it was addressing. It would be interesting to see his views on communion.

Posted by Janet Fife at Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 11:59am BST
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