Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Christ of Faith: The Face of God

Regarding my post on "the historical Jesus"A thoughtful reader asked me if I cared so much about what the Jesus of history said because, perhaps, I thought "he was God." This is a question I've heard many times "was/is Jesus God?" I think the very question itself misunderstands the issue.

In popular imagination God is a supernatural (and usually male) person who "lives" outside of the universe somewhere and periodically intervenes in it to perform "miracles." If one believes in this kind of God and adds to it the un-nuanced belief that "Jesus is God." On believes presumably that Jesus was not really a human being, but simply God visiting us incognito. This perspective sees the humanity of Jesus as some kind of costume that he temporally donned before flying up back home to heaven.

I might take the view seriously if a kindergartner suggested it, but it is far from the view of any sophisticated Christian theologian.

First I repeat my own position about the reality we appropriately term "God":
I ascribe to a theology known as panentheism. To sum up this position briefly: I understand panentheism as the view that the term "God" does not refer to a separately existing supernatural and person-like being "out there" beyond us. The term "God" refers rather to reality at its ultimate level, "Being itself," "The ground of being," the all-inclusive whole. The best way to understand what these abstractions signify is through an analogy: We know from physics that reality has levels of being which require ever deeper descriptions of the same object. Take, for example, a table. At the level of human interaction the table is a solid object of such-and-such size, weight, height and so on. But at a deeper level of physical description the table is properly described as a certain relationship of interaction between fundamental particles. Both descriptions are correct, the latter simply describes the realty of the table at a "deeper" level.

The panentheist takes this basic claim about the table and extends it to reality as a whole. The universe at the level of physical observation is the total collection of matter and energy interacting in space and time. If we go deeper, however, we can think of the universe as being reality itself only at a less than ultimate level of description. If we think of reality at its greatest or ultimate depth, we must think of it has having no boundaries or limits of any kind (after all what could limit it?). Ultimate reality would then be infinite (no limits), eternal (no beginning or end), and self-caused. All things in our universe can be seen as simply various expressions of the one ultimate reality at a level of less depth. Panentheists call ultimate reality "God" partly because it is eternal, infinite, and self-caused, but also because reality as a whole is so awe-inspiring, mysterious, and tremendous, that we can only feel reverence, humility, and awe when we contemplate it. In other words, for the panentheist all things are parts of God, but the reality of God goes deeper than reality at the level of things, though God does not exist apart from things as another being; God is, rather, the "ground of all being."
Now, let us try to understand the traditional idea of the "divinity of Jesus" in light of this panentheistic understanding of God. To begin with, a great many theologians and New Testament scholars would never say, crudely, "Jesus was/is God." The position is usually stated with far more nuance. Theologians tend to say things like "Jesus is the decisive revelation of God," "the place where we meet God most clearly," "our fullest of experience of the divine in our lives," or other subtly worded variants.

Usually the theologian makes the following moves: 1) The truest way to God for the Christian is through love and justice. In other words, in fighting for justice, in compassion, in loving others, we meet the divine. 2) Jesus is the clearest expression of a human being dedicated to compassion and love that we can know (more on this point below). 3) Therefore, to the extent that Jesus incarnates the very compassion and justice that is where we find God, he is the clearest expression of God to us and for us.

In short, theologians need not - and typically they do not - say that the historical Jesus was/is God; but they are committed to the view that, for the Christian, God is made known most clearly, most fully, and most powerfully in the life, deeds, words, death, and abiding presence (for my view of the resurrection of Jesus click here) of this first century Galilean.

This is my position as well.

Let me now consider two objections to it:

Objection 1: Christians for many centuries called Jesus God, so you can't be a Christian without saying it so bluntly.

Reply: It is not the case that all Christian theologians said, so bluntly, "Jesus is God." But even if they did, the claim that religions can never change, and must always and forever express exactly the same ideas in exactly the same sense is both absurd and manifestly false.

Objection 2: "Why do you choose to follow Jesus as the decisive revelation of God? Lot's of people are committed to justice and compassion! Can't the same claims be made for Buddha, Muhammad, Gandhi etc?"

Reply: Yes the same claims can be made for other figures. In fact, to the degree that anyone lives a life of justice and compassion, that person incarnates God. There is a necessarily subjective element at play here in seeing Jesus as the fullest incarnation of God. It's similar to my love regarding my wife. I often tell my wife that she is "the most amazing, or the most beautiful, woman in the world." When I tell her this I mean it and believe it. But I'm not claiming it as some kind of objective fact about her; rather, I am proclaiming my commitment to her. My statements are statements of my commitment to her; not objective facts about her person. Yet they are not totally subjective either. If my wife turned out to be very different than the person I thought she was, say she turned out to be a cruel and evil person (she is not- don't worry!), then my commitment would end.

Exactly the same is true of my commitment to Jesus as the clearest and fullest incarnation of God for me. In saying, "in Jesus is where I see God most clearly." I am making a claim about my commitment to Jesus; not simply stating facts about Jesus (e.g. that he was 5'3). But again, this claim is not without objective content. If historical research revealed that the Jesus who actually lives was not a man committed to compassion and justice, but was actually a violent sociopath, then I could not follow him, could not see God in him.

To use another analogy. Suppose I declare that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist in history. One way, perhaps the most helpful way, to understand that is to say that this is how Tolstoy effects me: the power and beauty of literature comes to me most clearly and fully in Tolstoy. Furthermore, although there are many other novelist I also find great, none quite effect me like Tolstoy does. This claim does require, I think, that Tolstoy actually be a remarkably great writer, but to call him the greatest instead of say Dostoevsky or James Joyce requires an element of subjectivity.

Similarly, I do see God made known in lives like Gandhi and Desmond Tutu, but other lives just don't quite bring God to me like Jesus does.

I believe that we all incarnate God to the degree that we are passionate about justice and have compassion for our fellow human beings. Jesus of Nazareth, both in the gospels and, as far as I can tell, in history was a person who manifested these traits to a remarkable degree. I do not, of course, claim he did so to an unparalleled degree. But, in a way similar to my love and commitment to my wife, or my personal view that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist of them all, I find that it is Jesus who most clearly makes God known to me.

That is how I understand the divinity of Jesus.

Update (8/24/11):

In conversation with a Theologian friend on this post, I mentioned to him that:
The suffering of Jesus and the failure of his mission is clearly part of this revelatory package too. In the brutal death of this man, his betrayel by those close to him, etc, we learn, clearly, that God is present - maybe even most present - in our moments of pain, sorrow, suffering, defeat, and loss.
He replied to me by adding:
I would add that in Jesus Christ God pronounces a final verdict on the choice human beings have made and continue to make for violence. But instead of inflicting violence on his enemies, God chose to absorb their violence in himself, in the one nailed to the cross.
It is clear to me that these insights have to be added and developed to my account of the "divinity of Jesus."

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