Why A ‘Personal Relationship’ With God Is Impossible

Mainstream Christianity carries the imperative that a believer must have a “personal relationship” with God akin to that one has with other humans. (At least, it is akin to these in its being “personal.”) My simple view is that God is just not “built for” a personal relationship. He isn’t the kind of being that could enter into such a thing as we understand it. (Therefore, to the extent Christianity requires this, Christianity cannot be true.)

For example, a relationship requires a certain degree of novelty and “accident.” It is something mutually determined as opposed to pre-determined—not spelled out in detail from the start. A relationship “unfolds” over time. Neither party knows precisely how it will turn out. This makes it interesting enough to sustain itself over time; knowing precisely how some human exchange will happen, in every tiny detail, would render it pointless for a participant (from the perspective of the relationship, at least). It also allows for certain virtues key to a relationship: We wish and hope our partner the best, we wait to see if things work out for them; we probably worry about them; we listen to stories of her day, excited to hear how they turn out; surely we laugh together—which requires not knowing all the “punchlines” in advance.

This entire dynamic is so central to any genuine, deep human relationship that we literally don’t know what it would mean to have one without it—nor to be a “person” totally incapable of entering into such a dynamic. But God is precisely incapable of it, because he is omniscient. He can’t hope, nor wish, nor worry, nor appreciate novelty nor accident. He can’t co-create something with another that is beautiful and exciting precisely because a myriad of unimagined possibilities await. He can’t get to know somebody, or develop an interest in someone (or in something together with someone). He can’t do any of these things because all of them require not knowing precisely how things will turn out before they happen.

Likewise, God can’t learn from us in any way, nor be left better than when we “met” him—for he knows everything beforehand and is perfect already. Not to mention his all-powerfulness: Only a deficient being needs anything. And a relationship in which we have literally nothing to offer the other is too one-sided to be authentic. It cannot fulfill our human need-to-be-needed. And an omnipotent being probably can’t enjoy us or suffer along with us either. He cannot feel frustration, or sadness, or fear, so he can’t possibly feel our frustration, or be sad or fearful along with us. God can know facts, but he cannot know what it is to do wrong or be tempted to do wrong, or struggle to do right. In short, he cannot identify or empathize with us.

This implicates a distinction philosophers have made between different types of knowledge. Believing true statements is one kind of knowledge, but it isn’t the only kind. A person could know every single true statement about how to ski, but this wouldn’t mean he could actually ski. Yet the skill of skiing amounts to real knowledge nonetheless. As God lacks a physical body, he can’t ski—therefore he can’t know how to ski, therefore he can’t know what it is like to ski. This goes equal for knowing what it is like to hold a job, to feel the sunshine on one’s back, have sex, walk along the beach, and, if we believe our emotions are causally connected to chemicals and receptors in our brains, to feel and love and to give a damn as well. (And if you don’t think emotions require a physical brain—fine, then: God doesn’t know how to love and feel as a human does it.) When you subtract all the types of activities one needs direct, embodied acquaintance to know, it is hard to pick out anything recognizably human among the remainder. If God can still be called a “person,” he can by no means “relate” to one like us.[1]

One always hears that mutual trust is the bedrock of a sincere personal relationship. But trust means believing in the other person when one doesn’t fully know what they’re up to. We have to trust because we don’t have all the facts. God has all the facts, so he can’t trust anyone. Also, Christians believe that God will not ever fail them. This means, if Christianity is true, that this belief is true—Christians know God will not fail them. But to the extent that they know God cannot fail them, they “have all the facts” about his behavior as well. Therefore Christians cannot trust God, either. (Therefore a personal relationship is not possible.)

Also, being in a personal relationship means giving certain information to a partner at critical times. We are aching to know whether this cancer will pass—or which of two treatments lends the best chance for success, and the least chance for painful side-effects. We need to know who started that vicious rumor about our child so that we can address the parent and teacher. Can we imagine a “personal relationship” with someone who possesses this information, but refuses to give it to us? (Much less with someone who can just heal the cancer—or could have prevented it from the start—but won’t, nor tell us why they won’t.) Perhaps there are good reasons a God witholds the future from us, or denies us certain benefits; well, so be it—but it doesn’t make for a personal relationship.

Finally, for evangelicals, the relationship with God is not free but compulsive. We must enter into this, or face eternal damnation. This is problematic enough: Even a freely chosen relationship with a benign, loving individual will strain greatly if it becomes evident that the other cannot leave without punishment—even if he doesn’t want to leave! Also, with God, all of the reasons authentic friendship is difficult between authority figures and their subordinates would apply to an infinite degree. Could you be friends with someone who was openly planning to judge you on a certain day (known only to him) and to execute you with this gun, right here, if you didn’t turn out to prove worthy? Even if this judgment were perfectly legitimate, it isn’t conducive to a “personal relationship.” Even if you could be friends with such a person, could you ever know that your motivation was “personal” and not a rationalization borne of fear of falling afoul of the coming judgment?; and if you couldn’t know, could the relationship be authentic?

Conclusion

I have presented the “facts of the case” as I see them. This is partly the point. To the extent that evangelical Christianity is false, and it is better to believe true things than false things, this stands as an appeal to believe the true and reject the false.

But my second point is to stress that these facts have—must have—some effect on believers. On some level they must apprehend them in the basics. If they’re being honest with themselves, they know we don’t converse with God as we might converse with our spouse or coworker or mailman. The false idea of the relationship must be forced by the believer, against all evidence, and nobody can do this perfectly. And the idea of this personal relationship is no more harm-free than when a child holds an imaginary play-pal into adulthood, long past the point of developmental benefit. It becomes a case of wanting something we can’t get, developing needs that can’t be met. Whether or not this makes us blow up coffee houses or vote against stem cell research—some atheists speak as though this is the only way religion can be bad—it is degrading and alienating, and wars against authentic human living. In some ways, that is the worst thing ever.

* * *

Notes

[1] Some Christians respond that omniscience requires only that God know all things that are logically possible for him to know; and as skiing, etc., aren’t logically possible for a disembodied being to know, not knowing how to do them does not disprove the existence of an omniscient being. That is, for a disembodied being, not knowing how to ski no more calls into question his omniscience than not knowing the highest possible number would. For these things are logically, in principle, not the kinds of things that can be known—“skiing disembodied being” and “highest possible number” are not phrases that mean anything.

Again, God’s existence is not at issue here. Maybe there can be an omniscient being after all. The point is that this entity lacks the makings of a “personal relationship.”

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One response to “Why A ‘Personal Relationship’ With God Is Impossible

  1. What if we do not assume god is omnipotent, nor perfect? What if god needs to be loved as we do? The way I see it is god must have been created at some point out of whatever there was, hence becoming the first conscious being. I imagine being the only conscious being in existence would make for a pretty lonely state. God needed to be loved. That’s why he created us!

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