As everyone knows, Christians put great stock in the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus. But how is it possible to have a relationship with someone who is invisible and inaudible?
What does communication with Jesus actually consist of? For sure, there is plenty of talking from the Christian’s side of the relationship. Daily prayers uttered to Jesus, or sent out in the quiet of one’s thoughts. This can, as I know from experience, feel a little like a relationship. The problem, though, comes with reciprocation.
How does Jesus communicate? Try as I may, I cannot find any Christian who is willing to admit to hearing a real voice in her head. Perhaps some Christians are afraid of being accused of having a mental illness. Auditory hallucinations are a well documented psychological condition that often follows trauma of some kind.
If Christians do not hear voices in their heads, the only language-based communication Jesus has recourse to is the Bible. But I don’t think that anyone would regard reading a book, and feeling strongly compelled by its message, to be a “relationship”. No one claims to have a relationship with, say, Shakespeare, simply by reading and enjoying his works.
And then one is reminded that neither Jesus, nor anyone who witnessed him preach, actually wrote any of the words in the Bible.
And the Bible, of course, is static. You can’t have a conversation with a 2000-yr old book (or any book for that matter). More importantly, there is no information specific to one particular reader that all other readers must be expected to ignore. The only personalization that comes from reading the Bible is one’s own interpretation of words originally meant for a crowd or a congregation.
So, we are left with a Jesus relationship that contains no actual words from Jesus. At this point, what many Christians fall back on is the idea of “signs”. Little events and coincidences that occur throughout the day, and are interpreted by the observant Christian as communications from Jesus.
Unfortunately, our growing understanding of the human mind is casting an extremely heavy cloak of doubt over such things, which share many elements with basic superstition. (See confirmation bias, illusory correlation, etc.)
Lastly, then, many Christians simply claim to feel Jesus’ presence, as if he is there listening. But once again, this does not make a relationship. A relationship requires both parties to use language, to engage in novel, information-rich dialog. This includes clear signals from each person that she has heard, and understood, her partner. This simply doesn’t happen in the stream of internal thoughts and interpretations that occupies a single mind.
At the end of the day, humans have rich and emotional imaginations, and it’s quite easy to imagine being in a relationship with an invisible entity. But this illusion cannot survive current knowledge about the human mind and how easily and willingly fooled it can be. Once this knowledge is obtained, standards go up: it becomes clear that feelings are not enough to show that another person is there, communicating original and independent thoughts. Little events and coincidences have perfectly viable natural explanations, and do not imply communication from Jesus. Taken seriously, then, these realities are devastating to the belief in a real relationship with Jesus.
Having laid these ideas out, I must emphasize that I don’t know what goes on in every Christian’s mind. I have my own quite long experience with Christianity (more than twenty years), and my experience with Christians before and after my deconversion to atheism. I would therefore welcome feedback from any Christian readers who see their relationship with Jesus differently.
1. Some Christian bloggers also struggle with the concept of a personal relationship with Jesus. See here, and here. Amusingly, another blogger lays out exactly the same sort of requirements for personal relationships as I do, and then spectactularly fails to explain how these can be achieved with Jesus, even as he exhorts us to enter into that relationship!
2. A personal relationship with Jesus implies that all people with such a relationship should learn the same things about Jesus, if they really do communicate with him. Their reports about him should build a cohesive picture of his character. Yet they don’t – Christians report conflicting views about what Jesus allegedly supports and what he doesn’t. NonStampCollector makes this point brilliantly in this video.