In some Christian circles, it is often said that everyone should have a personal relationship with Jesus, and that everyone should ask Jesus into his heart. These phrases assume rich truths: That Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of meaning, hope, and love. That a fruitful life finds him at its center. That this center is not merely a matter of priority, but that it is a relationship, and a very personal one at that.
On the other hand, the way this is said often puts a kink into that relationship. It assumes that unless one does something—usually praying a certain prayer, said in a certain way—one does not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Also lurking in the background is a Jesus who passively waits for us to pray before becoming our friend.
This approach encourages transactional faith. If we do X, God will do Y. And a great deal depends on us. That’s a lot of pressure: to start this personal relationship with the right prayer and keep it going with the right spiritual life.
To be fair, people who extol a personal relationship with Jesus don‘t necessarily take the language to its logical conclusion. Still, the fact that it so easily lures us into transactional faith may be the reason the New Testament never urges us to “have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” or tells us to invite Jesus into our hearts. Instead of exhorting us to have a personal relationship with Jesus by saying a certain prayer, the Bible says something much better: You are already a friend of God—enjoy it.
His research has also shown that the vagus nerve — the nervous system’s longest grouping of nerves, stretching from the brain to the abdomen — also shows activity when we feel compassion. (Science of Us contributor Maia Szalavitz also co-wrote a book about human empathy, if you’re hungry for more on the subject.) Taken together, research by Keltner and others suggests that we are biologically set up to care about other people. Being nice is human nature.
Referring to a belief as unfalsifiable is a classic way of undercutting it — “How am I going to argue with you when you believe a thing that no amount of evidence can prove wrong?” But an interesting new paper by Justin Friesen of the University of Waterloo and Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay of Duke suggests that unfalsifiability isn’t a bug, but rather a feature. It seems that we derive a psychological benefit from believing in things that can’t be proven wrong, and that when we’re presented with evidence contradicting our opinion on something, we turn to unfalsifiable evidence for comfort.