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Jesus: The Way or Just Another Path?

by Drew 8 Comments
Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Is Jesus a unique revelation of God, or one of many sages or prophets who point us to the Transcendent?  Is he God in the flesh, or just another means for my personal growth and self-affirmation?

In John 14:6, Jesus makes a claim that was as startling then as it is today:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the commentary from his excellent For Everyone series, retired bishop and St. Andrews professor N.T. Wright puts the ensuing controversy thus:

How dare he, people have asked. How dare John, or the church, or anyone else, put such words into anyone’s mouth? Isn’t this the height of arrogance, to imagine that Jesus or anyone else was the only way? Don’t we now know that this attitude has done untold damage around the world, as Jesus’ followers have insisted that everyone else should give up their own ways of life and follow his instead? I know people, professing Christians, for whom it seems that their central article of faith is their rejection of this idea of Jesus’ uniqueness.

I echo Wright’s observation that many Christians seem rather embarrassed by this passage, quick to dismiss it or downplay it.  Such folks are especially found in mainline and progressive evangelical circles.  There is a reason Lesslie Newbigin named this phenomenon “the scandal of particularity.”  It is a scandal that God calls a particular people (Israel).  Likewise it goes against all our enlightened notions of tolerance, of our axiomatic faith in the equal validity of every possible religious expression, to take Jesus at his word when he claims to be the unique path to truth and life.

As Wright notes, however, when we reject this truth, the medicine is worse than the illness:

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work. If you dethrone Jesus, you enthrone something, or someone, else instead. The belief that ‘all religions are really the same’ sounds nice and democratic—though the study of religions quickly shows that it isn’t true. What you are really saying if you claim that they’re all the same is that none of them are more than distant echoes, distorted images, of reality. You’re saying that ‘reality’, God, ‘the divine’, is remote and unknowable, and that neither Jesus nor Buddha nor Moses nor Krishna gives us direct access to it. They all provide a way towards the foothills of the mountain, not the way to the summit.

This is why the overwrought sermon illustration about the blind Hindustani – in which several blind sages try to describe an elephant by touch and they each declare that their part is the whole beast – is so misleading.  The only way one can argue that every religious truth is equally valid is to claim a fictional place of neutrality to all beliefs AND do violence by leveling every faith tradition.  This is re-heated Enlightenment ideology run amok, and it’s as patronizing as it is false.  We do not have to grind every faith down to some fictional core essence (see picture to the left) and pretend they all have the same conceptions of the divine, of values, of the ends of life in order to get along with others of differing beliefs.  We actually honor our Muslim or Buddhist neighbors more by engaging the fullness of their traditions as they describe them than by pushing every religion through a sieve of modernist bias so that we can compare similar crumbs of truth.

Nothing less than the New Testament witness is at stake here.

It isn’t just John’s gospel that you lose if you embrace this idea. The whole New Testament—the whole of early Christianity—insists that the one true and living God, the creator, is the God of Israel; and that the God of Israel has acted decisively, within history, to bring Israel’s story to its proper goal, and through that to address, and rescue, the world. The idea of a vague general truth, to which all ‘religions’ bear some kind of oblique witness, is foreign to Christianity. It is, in fact, in its present form, part of the eighteenth-century protest against Christianity—even though some people produce it like a rabbit out of a hat, as though it was quite a new idea.

Another way this gets argued is by folks who describe themselves as Christians but are clearly uncomfortable with the divinity of Christ.  If Jesus is primarily a sage, a healer, or a prophet declaring the righteous justice of God, then his divinity becomes

incidental.  Allan Bevere notes in an importance piece,

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Much contemporary theology has been quite deficient…by attempting to keep the significance of Jesus, while denying the necessity of his identity as the God-Man.

The way to clicks and headlines in contemporary Christianity is to claim that Jesus was everything BUT God in Jewish flesh: an activist, a Republican, an African-American, transgender, a capitalist, a rabble-rouser, a defender of the status quo, a teacher, a comedian, or the ideal member of the proletariat.  Stanley Hauerwas, in his characteristic wit, likes to argue that Jesus was bald (because of the patristic dictum, “what he has not assumed, he has not healed”).

Of course, the fact that Jesus’ life and teaching relates to us on so many levels is wonderful, a testimony to his ongoing appeal to folks in all walks of life across time space.  But all such reflection should be a celebration of the beauty of the incarnation, the radical affirmation that God has become flesh and never ceased being God.

The moment, however, that it’s more important to make Jesus affirm my identity than it is to affirm his divinity, we’ve dramatically reduced the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.  To make Jesus primarily an agent of personal affirmation or some other selfish purpose is to make incoherent the Jesus of John 14.  Instead of the way, the truth, and the life, we are left with a way, some truth, and my life.

Source: Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (pp. 59–60). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Accessed via Logos 6.

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Would You Invite Jesus To A Party?

Would You Invite Jesus To A Party?
"Jesus Laughing," by Ralph Kozak.

Would you be comfortable with a celebrating savior?

The Jesus Christians often portray is not someone who would be considered enjoyable to be around.

Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights.

Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights. For the “Jesus Laughing” image feat. above, see here.

We portray Jesus in many ways: the wise teacher, the comforting healer, the zealous prophet, the suffering servant.

But do we preach, pray, and share Jesus as someone we would actually enjoy being around?

Dallas Willard notes,

“…the currently accepted image of Jesus all but makes it impossible to find him interesting and attractive, lovable. The responses of common people to him throughout the pages of the gospel show how false that image is. He was such an attractive person and such a powerful speaker that, from the human point of view, the leaders of the day killed him out of envy of his popularity (Matt. 27:18). He was a master of humor and often used it to drive home the truths he imparted, as any good speaker does. But few today would put him on their guest list for a party – if it were really going to be a party.  Just as we don’t think of Jesus as intelligent, so we don’t think of him as pleasant company, someone to enjoy being around. Is it any wonder that someone would rather not be his student?” (The Divine Conspiracy, 239)

This doesn’t mean going the Cal Naughton, Jr. route and picturing Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt (“I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party!“- see below).  But, following Dallas Willard’s observation, it suggests we should take seriously just how Jesus attracted so many followers (and detractors).

Jesus ate and drank with sinners; he comforted those in distress, he fit in with outcasts, and was a physician for the sick of body and spirit.  In fact, the only folks that weren’t that comfortable around Jesus – the only people who wouldn’t invite Jesus to party – were the religious.

Can you worship a Jesus who would go to a party?

What would you say to Jesus at a party?  Are our churches full of people who would talk to Jesus at a party, or would they condemn him for being under the same roof as a keg? Leave a comment below!

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Jesus: The Face of God

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.

“Who do you say that I am?” -Jesus, Mark 8:29

Who is Jesus?

I get very nervous around clergy who dodge this question.  There are all manner of open questions in life.  Questions of politics, identity, and justice are often multivalent and complex, and should be treated as such.  When Christians repeat the (well-worn but still useful) phrase, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity” the list of essentials is, for me, pretty short (not much longer than the Nicene Creed, in fact).

But for Christians, there are some non-negotiables, else the descriptor has no value.  Chief among these are the two most sacred mysteries of Christian confession: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, and the Trinity (the revelation that God is three and yet one, without division but with distinction).

Why does it matter that the Triune God is most fully known in Jesus?  William Placher recounts:

The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance tells how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation – and how they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.”

With apologies to Tillich, there is no “God above God” other than the Holy Trinity.  While it is very much the case that the economic Trinity (God’s work as revealed to us) does not tell us everything about the immanent Trinity (God’s essence), if we trust God and what God has revealed there must at least be a correspondence between these.  God in the immanent Trinity remains a mystery human intellect cannot comprehend; Jesus, however, as the Word of the Father sent in the power of the Spirit, tells us much about who God is: he is the loving Father who welcomes the prodigal home, the one who heals, restores, and makes new, the One who would rather suffer exclusion, torture, and death than watch His creatures do so.  To see Jesus is to see God.  This is Christian confession.  This is the Good News.

Placher concludes,

“If the Holy Spirit leads us to know that Jesus Christ, as we come to know him in the biblical stories, is the self-revelation of the one God, then Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be three separate Gods. Indeed, such a God cannot be just any one God, but must be the God whose identity we have come to know in the biblical narratives about Jesus. Thus, in Moltmann’s formulation, ‘The doctrine of the Trinity is nothing other than the conceptual framework needed to understand the story of Jesus as the story of God.’ The one God thus known does not hold power in reserve, apart from the love revealed in the crucified Jesus or the Spirit’s indwelling in our hearts; there is no God beyond the God triunely revealed, a God of love.”

Incarnation and Trinity: on these twin pillars Christian revelation stands (and they stand or fall together).  Embrace them, and you have a more beautiful, hopeful, loving God than any other religion, philosophy, or worldview has ever conceived.

But to deny, forget, or marginalize these is to begin doing something other than Christian prayer, thinking, and living.  Deny who Jesus is, or deny the Trinity, and the faith “once and for all delivered” is lost. (Jude 1:3)

To see Jesus is to see the very face of God.  Thanks be to God.

 

Source: William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2007), 139-140.

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“Teachings of Jesus” vs. “Teachings About Jesus”

The resurrected Christ trampling down the doors of death.

Classic icon of the the resurrected Christ trampling down the doors of death.

As Christians, should we prioritize Jesus’ teachings, or teachings about Jesus himself?  Some Christians (and some Unitarians who consider themselves followers of Jesus) suggest emphasizing the former:

“UU Christians look to the teachings of Jesus (not about Jesus) as a source of wisdom and guidance in building the Beloved Community.”

“…the fundamentalists see Christianity as a religion about Jesus, while I and others understand Christianity to be the religion of Jesus. The key difference here is that a religion about Jesus casts him as a god who(emphasis original)m we worship, whereas seeing Christianity as the religion ofJesus allows us to see him as a brother, as the role model for how we can attain a mystical union with God just as he did.” (emphasis original)

These two examples come from Unitarian Universalist sources, the first from Eno River UU in Durham, NC and the second from a UU Fellowship in Churchville, MD.  More troubling is that I have heard these exact same sentiments shared by Christians, including United Methodists (who, supposedly, have clear doctrinal standards emphasizing particular teachings about Jesus).  Why is this bifurcation problematic? Lesslie Newbigin gives us the answer:

“And indeed it is the very nature of the gospel itself which always defeats these attempts to separate the word from the deed, to give one primacy over the other, because the gospel is precisely the good news of the Word made flesh…to set word and deed against one another, and insist that one or the other has primacy, is futile. The announcing of the good news about the Kingdom is empty verbiage if there is nothing happening to make the news credible. On the other hand, the most admirable program for human welfare does not provide any substitute for the name of Jesus in whom God’s reign has come. At its very best, such a program can be no more than a sign pointing toward the full reality which we encounter only when we encounter Him.” (Signs Amid the Rubble, 99.)

With Newbigin, we see that choosing between the teachings of Jesus (feeding the poor, forgiveness, clothing the naked, etc.) and the apostolic teaching about Jesus as the Word made flesh is ultimately a false choice.  Word and deed, piety and mercy, hang together or not at all.  We don’t have to choose. Jesus did not intend us to.

The message is the Messenger. The Messenger is the message.  To paraphrase an old wedding liturgy, what God hath joined together in Jesus the Christ, let no one put asunder.

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Incarnation Roundtable (#ICYMI)

by Drew 0 Comments

cpost

Some young Christian thinkers have an interesting project going over at Conciliar Post.  They are hosting regular “Roundtable” posts on major points of Christian doctrine or church practice, featuring voices from a wide swath of Christian traditions.  It’s refreshing to see such effort put into substantive engagement with doctrine and church teaching.  Clickbait and fluff are the stock-in-trade of the blogosophere, and Jacob Prahlow and the team over at CP should be commended for offering something so against the grain.

I was honored to be asked to contribute a Wesleyan voice to the latest Roundtable discussion which focused, appropriately enough given the time of year, on the Incarnation.  You can read my  Wesleyan/Methodist offering, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican perspectives, here.

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A Prayer From Libya: Dancing With the Angels

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St. Thalassios the Libyan

St. Thalassios was the abbot of an Orthodox monastery in Libya and a contemporary of the great 7th century figure St. Maximos the Confessor.  In volume II of the Philokalia, we find a stirring prayer included in his treatise On Love, Self-control and Life in accordance with the Intellect:

“Christ, Master of all, free us from all these destructive passions and the thoughts born of them. For Thy sake we came into being, so that we might delight in the paradise which Thou hast planted and in which Thou hast placed us.  We brought our present disgrace upon ourselves, preferring destruction to the delights of blessedness.

We have paid for this, for we have exchanged eternal life for death.  O Master, as once Thou hast looked on us, look on us now; as Thou becamest man, save all of us.  For Thou camest to save us who were lost.  Do not exclude us from the company of those who are being saved.  Raise up our souls and save our bodies, cleansing us from all impurity.  Break the fetters of the passions that constrain us, as once Thou has broken the ranks of impure demons.  Free us from their tyranny, so that we may worship Thee alone, the eternal light, having risen from the dead and dancing with the angels in the blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.  Amen.”

As a Wesleyan, I am quite drawn to the Orthodox language of “those who are being saved” (and of course, such language is Pauline also).  The emphasis on salvation as a path rather than an achievement is sadly overlooked in much of the Western church.

I also love the image of Jesus victoriously dancing after the resurrection, and bidding all to join in his “blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.”  I know many Christians for whom Jesus and dancing are opposites!

I was reminded of one of my favorite hymns, The Lord of the Dance, which I was blessed to hear in worship this past Sunday. No, not the Irish dancing guy.  But here are some Irish guys, not dancing, but singing it quite well:

It also seems appropriate to offer a prayer from Libya asking for deliverance from destructive passions, which have been on display so tragically in Libya and across the Middle East.  May Christ, the Lord of the Dance, free us from love of self and slavery to sin, and may he teach us instead to join in the blessed, eternal, life-giving dance.

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Dare We Read Hans Urs Von Balthasar? (Or, Who’s Gettin’ to Heaven?)

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Hoping to finish up Dare We Hope? from the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar tonight.  I first encountered his ideas in seminary, and a recent bible study on the Revelation of John inspired me to finally take this off the shelf.  The question guiding the Swiss Catholic’s tome is a daunting one: from the Biblical and other evidence, do we have any grounds to hope (not claim!) that all might be saved?  Citing the RC Catechism, he points out that official dogma has never held that anyone is absolutely in hell right now.  Might it be that, as so many biblical texts imply (or claim directly), Jesus might achieve his stated goal of “drawing all men” to himself?

For anyone who has struggled with the question of salvation, particularly its scope, Von Balthasar is a welcome read.  Far from liberal claims that God would “surely” not damn anyone (because God, like liberal theologians, views all judgments as passe’), Dare We Hope insists in on nothing more than the what the title suggests: if we truly love our neighbors and wish for them their highest good, we can, and should, dare to hope that they will be saved…as well as ourselves.

I leave you with a succinct statement, from his Short Discourse On Hell (attached to Dare We Hope? as a response to his critics):

The question, to which no final answer is given or can be given is this: Will he who refuses [salvation] now refuse it to the last?  To this there are two possible answers: the first says simply “Yes”…the second says: I do not know, but I think it permissible to hope (on the basis of…Scripture) that the light of divine love will ultimately be able to penetrate every human darkness and refusal. (Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved” with A Short Discourse On Hell [San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1988], 178)

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“Jesus Didn’t Tap” says the Green Power Ranger

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Jason David Frank, a lifelong martial artist most famous as the Green Ranger on the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, has recently decided to get into mixed martial arts (“MMA”, or ‘cage-fighting’ for the uninitiated).  He also has a clothing line…about Jesus.  Check out the gloves in the above picture, as well as the t-shirt below:

// <![CDATA[// Seen guys wearing Tapout or Affliction t-shirts? Well, this is the Christian version…whatever that means.  Here is the description from the website:

Jesus Didn’t Tap was one of the first Christian based MMA clothing companies to hit the scene. In the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, to “tap” is to quit or give up. The message of the Jesus Didn’t Tap line is that Jesus didn’t quit after going through unimaginable suffering and pain when he was crucified on the cross. The company aims to represent both the competitiveness of MMA and honoring God in all of their designs and hopes it will help spread the Christian message of salvation to a whole new audience.

First of all: there are more than one Christian MMA companies??  Oh well.  The problem with this is that, in MMA, to “tap” essentially means to submit.  And while they are correct that Jesus didn’t give up due to pain, they seem to overlook the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion was essentially an act of submission.  Philippians makes this clear:

Philippians 2

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This plays on two facets of Jesus’ crucifixion, one of which is usually emphasized to the detriment of the other.  One the one hand, the cross did display the power of weakness the shame the strong, the total abandonment of human power and the acceptance of a shameful and common death – the death of slaves and traitors.  This is the Christology seen in Paul, who tells us that God’s power is “made perfect in weakness.”  The cross is the prime example of this.

On the other hand, Jesus’ torture and execution required a great deal of fortitude, will, physical endurance and spiritual strength.  Paul told Timothy that God gave us a Spirit of love and discipline, but also of power.  The Bible is clear that the anointed of the Lord do receive power from on high – they slay Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, administer kingdoms, suffer torture and imprisonment.  And so, while the cross is a display of weakness, it is also an exhibition of spiritual strength par excellence.

These are hard to hold in tension.  For instance: Neoconservatives who love Jesus will emphasize power and control, the Pantocrator, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and the strength that comes from conviction and duty.  Pacifists and many more Christians who trend left will,  on the other hand, emphasize the weakness of Jesus (and the church) and the power of holy defeat to overcome the strength of the world.  They are both theologies of the cross, but of very different varieties.

I respect Mr. Frank for being open about his Christian convictions, and for attempting (in his own fashion) to get “the message” out there.  But here, as usual, popular expressions of Christianity lack both theological substance and intellectual nuance.  Sigh.  These folks mean well, and have given us a good opportunity to think about the meaning and message of the cross.  There are worse things to sell than Jesus MMA shirts.

At any rate, Jesus did tap.  Thanks be to God.

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