Today, a popular Christian concept has become common among many Christians. It is the idea that Christianity entails having a personal relationship with God. The use of “personal relationship” in this context suggests an intimacy. In an interview with CNN, Professor Stephen Prothero of the Department of Religion in Boston University states that Christianity in America has “gravitated to the evangelical religion of the heart, where it’s really all about feeling and loving Jesus and having a relationship with him, rather than knowing something about the (Christian) tradition.”
The idea of a “personal relationship” with an intimate connotation is nowhere explicit in Bible texts, and must be derived theologically. This lack of an explicit statement within the Bible led me to curiosity. Where did this theology come from? Having read Victorian and modern literature, the term “God-fearing” is commonly used to describe religious people. Having an intimate relationship with God suggests the loss of this “fear of God”. Just google “personal relationship with God” and you will find that this idea is very popular among Christians. What is going on? I did my research and this is what I found. I thought I would put it here to clarify with people, especially Christians, as to where their ideas originate. I could be wrong, but the facts can be verified on the internet. After discussing facts, I’ll give my own take on the situation.
The idea of a personal relationship with God evolved from the theology first developed by Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834). Schleiermacher expounded that religion itself is a personal experience that must be understood through intuition and feeling. In other words, relativism, and not absolutism, defines belief and religious perception. Schleiermacher and other theologians who came after developed Liberal Christianity. It is not an innate fear of God, but the innate need of religion in humans that leads to religion (note how God-fearing is put aside). In Liberal Christianity, as opposed to conservative Christianity, the statements in the Bible are not considered factual. The Bible simply reflects the understanding of Christianity at the time in which the scriptures were written. Liberal Christianity does not have the presupposition that the Bible is inerrant in its critical analysis of the Bible. Ideas such as repentance and the sinfulness of Man are deemphasized, in favour of personal experience.
This is perhaps Schleiermacher’s most influential theological idea to Christianity; a relativistic and individualistic approach to Christianity. Is Schleiermacher’s concept of “personal relationship with God” similar to the one that is being preached in modern churches? No. But I believe what some modern churches preach is a modified form of Liberal Christianity. Here’s where things get interesting. Because even though some churches preach Liberal Christian theology, they also believe in the conservative views, such as the inerrancy of the Bible. Bible inerrancy can be classified as a concept of Conservative Christianity.
So what we are seeing or (hearing), from some churches, is the preaching of conservative and liberal Christian views. I have spoken to two West Africans, one from Togo, the other from Ghana, on separate occasions. I doubt they are from the same church, but they certainly share similar beliefs. These beliefs might be indicative of Christianity in the West Africa region. Both of them believe in the concept of having a personal relationship with God, as well as the Bible not being a collection of factual accounts. So, they have liberal beliefs, and not conservative ones.
What does this mean for Singapore Christians? The various churches should respect one another, and not criticize each other. Just look at the criticisms City Harvest Church got on the internet. Some people name the church City Harvest Cult. By the way, I am in no way affiliated to City Harvest Church, and I do not approve of their actions if they really did break the law. And I am not going to criticize their “Gospel of prosperity” or defend it. They probably have a liberal approach. So be it. And perhaps for Otto, there really might be some hope in the acceptance of homosexuality by all Christians in the future. After all, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire has a gay bishop. That is liberal.
Might I be wrong? Definitely. To prove me wrong, find a theologian who came up with the concept of “personal relationship with God” before Schleiermacher.