(This essay was originally published in issue 3 of The Mockingbird. All issues and subscriptions, including issue 4 which ships tomorrow, are available available here).
“We can permit ourselves to be more romantic than the romanticists and more humanistic than the humanists. But we must be more precise.” —Karl Barth, “The Christian’s Place in Society”
Every recess for eight years, I was picked last on the team for two-hand-touch football. The turning point came in the ninth grade, when recess was replaced by study hall.
But, before that, there was another turning point I had blundered right past: the opportunity to referee. If that sounds a little pathetic, it was. Somewhere around second grade, I gracefully bowed out, trading the indignity of the ever-stranded receiver for the higher calling of a rules person. I felt like I was doing most people a service—and the clear impact I now had on the game was certainly a trade-up.
Nonetheless, I would have traded that in an instant for the coveted position of a mid-tier pick. Hand-eye coordination and speed lagged (and still do), but recess football is about as much fun as anything you can do, short of Capture the Flag or Risk: The Game of Global Domination. I ended up a three-sport athlete until junior year (dropping track), and by senior year (after dropping wrestling, too), football was all that was left. I still believe I was the most disruptive defensive lineman on the scout team whom anyone had seen in years.
It’s impossible to describe the position occupied in the public imagination by the sport of football in southern towns. Likening Friday nights to the Eucharist in a liturgical church would perhaps make a start. Six and a half years out of high school, I could still go back and watch strangers play out there, and it would be electrifying. My own hatred of practice and frustration with play time notwithstanding –and neurological research notwithstanding –I still plan to put enormous amounts of pressure on a future son to play. The intangibles are through the roof.
I came home one day in second grade, and I remember my dad asking how recess was. I told him, with as much false cheer as a seven-year-old can reasonably muster, that I was refereeing now. “Try getting out there and playing again. You might like it. You don’t have to be the best, it’s still fun,” he said, and no doubt that was the best advice I could’ve received. I had seen a line of disappointment, real or imagined, cross his face, the line I could imagine crossing my own if my future son had found Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to be just so-so. My dad had been a defensive end on the first team of Lanier, a public high school in the sixties that would’ve put my own Stratford Academy to shame.
I kept refereeing, though, and at the end of the week, my dad called me into the living room for a talk. He had brought home two printed out sheets with common referee hand signals. “Thought you might want to look at this,” he said.
I have an acquaintance in Dallas who created her own interdisciplinary major in “Grand Gestures of Love,” from Philosophy’s visiting lonely Boethius in his cell to Launcelot du Lac’s labors for the honor of Guinevere. It’s incredible how these well-planned, grand gestures are often completely lost in translation—a scavenger hunt for tickets to a ski trip my parents were giving me once ended in screaming tears—while the most small-scale and casual “gestures,” like these referee signals, can stick with us for years. Perhaps it’s because, in their off-handedness, we can receive them as uncontrived and utterly genuine. Or that there’s such a gap between our generous intentions and how others receive the acts which flow out of them. In the case of the signals, it was my dim perception that he was subordinating something he found so valuable to what I, as a second-grader, had chosen for myself.
The aim here is to explore our ‘relationship with God,’ but on our way to this metaphor’s payoff, there’s a hitch. If I’ve described that signal-sheet scene well, there should be a certain sadness in it, a sadness I’ve always felt when thinking about it and for which I’ve never fully accounted. It seems that any full description of grace must find a place for that sadness.
One place to start would be the feeling of unworthiness on the part of the gesture’s recipient. There is a humbling which happens, which happened when my dad, who knew my own good much better than I did, placed my wishes above his own. It was my feeling that his time, judgment, and wishes were more valuable than my own—as was certainly the case, and continues to be so—but that I, alone of the two of us, recognized that. But thinking back on it, “placing my wishes above his own” isn’t quite an accurate description. It’s more that my wishes became his wishes, too: not a mere humbling of opinion, but a humbling of one’s entire person. No doubt, with good parents, this happens all the time. But that particular time was one of the few when I could see, clearly, how he always thought—and still thinks—of me. The sadness perhaps comes from the still-persistent feeling that he was wrong to so much embrace a seven-year-old’s wishes, and the sadness also comes from the knowledge that love, if it is genuine, will require me to do the same. Well, not ‘require,’ but maybe make me want to do so freely. I can’t go quite deeply enough into the feeling to say more, but I suspect that for a saint, that sadness would be so interfused with gratitude as to become indistinguishable from it.
During such moments, speaking of a ‘relationship’ makes little sense. Did this moment make my relationship with my dad stronger, or weaker? Such a question is meaningless, because what makes the signal-sheet so touching was my recognition, in it, of the unchangeable nature of our ‘relationship.’ In general, we think of relationships as fluctuating, moving closer or farther apart, growing stronger or weaker. The first relationship we are meant to have, though, when parents are good ones, remains fixed over distance and time. It is our first ever ‘relationship’ to someone else, and by God’s design that ideal thus serves as a template for all future relationships.
Whenever we talk about our ‘relationship’ with God or with Jesus, a common enough thing in the Evangelical world, the phrase—as with all human words about God—expresses something true and something false. One element of truth is that Christianity involves a relationship to a person before it involves assent to a set of doctrines. Jesus did not say “believe you are going to heaven” or even “believe I have atoned for your sins,” but simply, “anyone who believes in me will have eternal life.” No doubt, we cannot see Jesus accurately as a person without including in that portrait the thought of his death and resurrection, of his divinity, of his place “at the right hand of the Father,” of his position as head of the Church, and of his coming again; just as one cannot admire the beauty of a flower without focusing, in turn, on its stem, it individual petals, its color, and so forth. But we examine these parts of the flower in order to draw back and see it again as an enriched whole, and our perception of Jesus as a whole person works similarly. We may draw back, too, and see the landscape where the flower lives, how it is part of a harmonious whole—thus the Gospel accounts are preceded by Jewish salvation-history and followed by the Apostle Paul’s, and others’, reflections on Christ. In short, Christianity is a relationship to a person, and the idea of a ‘relationship’ with him expresses this.
But there are limits to the appropriateness of this expression, one being that the ‘relationship with God’ idea meets the same absurdity we find in talking about a child’s relationship with his father. The word, with its usual connotations of growth and atrophy, proximity and distance, maintenance and give-and-take, does not apply. Another time in childhood, maybe around age eleven, I remember yelling at my mother, “I hate my life!”, not because it was true, but because it was the most hurtful thing I could think to say, turning her love for me into a weapon. Did it ‘weaken’ my relationship with her? Not at all. All that mattered was (and is) her unchangeable identity as my mother, and mine as her son. In that case, it’s less accurate to talk about a ‘relationship with’ than it is to talk about her relation to me. It is fixed. The important thing here is not that parents are always perfect, nor that their love be wholly unconditional (unfortunately, it isn’t always such), but that the underlying relation, parent and child, cannot be altered. Thus, the Bible speaks of God as a heavenly Father, and modern theology is right to speak of God as a Mother, because the unconditional nature of a parent-child relationship, and its utter asymmetry (the child can never repay her parents’ care or neglect) comes closest to describing what God is like.
So, properly speaking, I cannot say that I feel ‘close’ to God or ‘far’ from God. God is closer to me than my own heart, and always will be. What changes is not our relationship—that is, God’s relation to me—but my own awareness of it. Similarly, in our ‘walks with Christ’ we do not, properly speaking, grow closer to or further from him: like the men on the road to Emmaus, sometimes our own concerns blind us to his presence, so we cannot see it is he walking beside us, and other times, he breaks bread, and our eyes are opened.
We can never properly describe God as present or absent—His Spirit is always present in all things. When we say, “God was just here in the room,” we mean, “My eyes were briefly opened to God’s ever-presence while I was here in the room.” When we say, “I just feel like God has been withdrawn,” we mean, “My awareness of God’s presence has diminished.” It’s like an embarrassed child who thinks that covering his eyes means no one can see him; we mistake our fluctuating awareness for changes in what God is doing, or worse, changes in God’s attitude toward us. The idea of a ‘relationship with God’ sadly makes more room for these misunderstandings, and speaking of God’s unchanging ‘relation to us’ perhaps curbs them.
It’s worth noting that, although the Bible never speaks of an abstract ‘relationship with God,’ it also does not speak of an abstract ‘God’s relation to us.’ There are so many different kinds of relationships and relations that this language, too, is excessively expansive: it leaves us free to project our ideas onto God, to define the ‘relationship’ as we wish to—and we fallen humans relish conditionality, because it gives us control. No doubt this is part of the reason why this vague language is so appealing and has become so common. But when the Bible speaks about God’s relation to us, and ours to him, it does not risk vagueness; it speaks precisely.
The language of ‘relationship with God’ finally should be questioned, and perhaps dismissed, because relationships do not really exist. A relationship is neither in the material world, like a chair; nor a felt emotion, like anger; nor an invisible force, like gravity; nor a logical principle, like 2+2=4; nor is it an object of faith, like God. There is no reason for supposing that my relationship with my friend Stephen is a real thing. The things which are real are my attitude toward Stephen, my affection for him, my memories of time spent with him, my thoughts about him, and so forth. Also real are Stephen’s attitudes and emotions and thoughts toward me. But these are two separate things: my feelings about him, and his about me.
This does not mean the word ‘relationship’ is useless. What the word does express is the interconnection between my feelings about him and his about me, and how our actions and time together affects those feelings. It expresses their interdependence: I buy him dinner, and he is grateful, and this gratitude later leads him to express affection for me, which increases mine for him. Or, conversely, Stephen betrays me somehow, and I lash out verbally at him, so he feels hurt, so he yells at me, etc. When I say the ‘relationship has turned sour,’ all I really mean is that my feelings toward him have diminished or become hostile, as have his toward me.
Although there’s no such thing as a relationship, we benefit by using the word to describe how interconnected our feelings about each other are. With God, whose attitude toward us is unchangeable, and therefore absolutely unaffected by anything we say or do, the word has little or no usefulness.
In the NRSV English translation, the word ‘relationship’ appears in the Bible only if you are Georgian Orthodox (4 Maccabees), and there it refers to human friendship. Nowhere is it used to describe our relation to God, and even the phrase ‘relation to God’ appears only in a negative light: “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God. . . Do you not teach yourself?. . . as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Rm 2.17-24). As mentioned, ‘relation’ doesn’t have quite the dangers of connotation that ‘relationship’ does, but it lacks precision. The function we assign to those words should be, as in much of Church history, given over to the names of God.
When we talk about God, therefore, we do not properly talk about one relationship, but about two separate things: God’s unchanging love for us, on the one hand, and our fickle, ever-fluctuating attitude toward God, on the other.
Although the Bible, and therefore theology, too, does not talk about a ‘relationship with’ God, it has the world to say about God’s relation to us. What kind of relation is it? The Bible frequently uses Divine Names, which are all names of relation: “Redeemer,” “Wonderful Counselor,” “Everlasting Father,” and “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us,” among others. Again, since God is unchanging, these names which express his relation to us are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Every relational name of God, of course, gives us a name too. If God is ‘Redeemer,’ we are ‘redeemed.’ If God is our God, then we are His people. If God is Savior, we are those whom God saves. If God is Father, or even ‘daddy’ (Abba), then 1 John speaks truly: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Biblical language does not speak of better and worse relationships with God, nor with strong and weak, but with facts about God’s relation to us and facts about our relation to God. It speaks of identities which we are called not to build, but merely to recognize.
In the example of the referee signals, which would add sorely needed credibility to a failure at recess, there was clearly a shift in identity. In my own eyes, my persona was largely that of a hapless player, but through my father’s eyes I could see myself as, well, his child. Maybe that’s what Christ meant when he told us to become as children: that status of dependence and belovedness prior to any real accomplishment, prior to any intentional reciprocation. But that identity was the true one all along; it just took an act of love to make me see it.
In that moment when the latent knowledge that I had always been loved merely as a child leapt to my conscious awareness, I recognized, too, something I’d known all along: that my dad wasn’t a taskmaster, someone with expectations to be passed or failed, but a person. It’s when we realize we’re loved independently of our accomplishments that we begin to see the identity of the lover too. Perhaps that’s why Paul seems to link the two: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13.12).
Trying to meet someone else’s standard is a hopelessly myopic affair, focused not on the other person, but solely on our performance, or lack thereof. Likewise, focusing on my relationship with someone, on ‘how we’re doing,’ is not the same as focusing on that person. Ultimately, the antidote to improper and imprecise ‘relationship’ talk—as something we can say is ‘strong’ or ‘weak,’ ‘getting better’ or ‘getting worse’—may not be theological. As long as I feel the need to have something I can make strong, can make better, can work on, that need will reassert itself in talk about God. It must instead be grace, or love despite merit, because little else can address our need for constantly improving our position with others. We feel this love precisely through the sadness of grace, the suspicion of unworthiness which accompanies any reception of an act of love.
Like my dad’s wishes becoming one with mine, Jesus’ ministry was full of senseless self-sacrifice for the inferior. We can imagine the disciples’ reaction to the foot-washing; maybe not one of instant, simple belovedness, but perhaps the recognition of knowing better. Why is he doing this? He clearly doesn’t realize how bad a person I am. Perhaps guilt, too, after the rabbi’s death: He spent his last evening on earth washing my feet.
Jesus should not have been washing the feet of someone who would deny him later that night. It seems foolish and wrong-headed. And when Jesus prayed, as he was being tortured, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do” —even this gives slight offense to truth. They knew exactly what they were doing; when I sin, I know exactly what I’m doing too. And I still do it.
When the younger brother in Christ’s Prodigal Son parable takes his inheritance and leaves, one can imagine the father telling himself, Perhaps he will be happier, maybe he does know what’s best. And when he returns, the father feels joy perhaps mixed with pity and empathy. Sometimes, in reading the Prodigal Son story, we’re maybe too harsh on the older brother. He’s actually the servant of truth, and it’s easy to empathize with him. Do you know any parents who think their children can do no wrong? The older brother probably felt that same desire to shatter his father’s delusions: We all know what he did; we all know he turned his back on the family. Why can’t you see it? Did you just forget what he did?
In moving past the language of relationship to talk instead about God’s disposition toward us, and ours toward God, a final asymmetry emerges. Neither party views the other one correctly: we are so blind to God’s goodness and majesty that even to see God, in the Old Testament, is to die. Our mental picture of him is, and will be until death, inferior to the reality. And God’s view of us is also, in a manner of speaking, inaccurate: “I will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12).
The biblical metaphor of forgetting expresses this fundamental imbalance in God’s relation to us: we are simultaneously sinner and saint, but he sees only saint. His view of us is not what we would call correct. And here, in the seeming conflict between God being Love and God being Truth, all human analogies of relation and name break down—there is no good way to make sense of it. We are left no longer with a Father or Counselor or Redeemer, but with a picture of God becoming man, dying on a cross, and rising three days later—and with theology’s feeble attempts to make sense of it. Jesus certainly never said, “Build a relationship with me,” and he even did not say, “Believe I have forgiven you” or “Believe I am your Redeemer.” Merely that “All who believe in me will have eternal life.”
Just outside the frame of our lives, outside the narrow window through which we hear of God’s feelings toward us and ours toward God, lies the vanishing point of Christ. All lines converge there. Moving from the vague, perhaps harmful language of ‘relationship’ into the various biblical metaphors of fatherhood, sonship, adoption, and marriage opens up rich possibilities for meditating on how, exactly, we could describe the relation between ourselves and God. These names and metaphors enrich our faith beautifully, but even the biblical language of relation is provisional. We will one day see not through the dim mirror of metaphor, but will become so enraptured with a face-to-face to vision that all metaphors, and all relations, fade.
 The perception of a flower here draws on Edmund Husserl’s Experience and Judgment, in which he talks about the relationships between our perception of parts and our perception of the whole in the context of a garden.