As I’ve written about before, Jesus Christ Superstar has been formative to my faith journey. My earliest memory is connected to Pilate counting the lashes and asking my sister, “Are they nailing him to the cross?” Portraying Pilate planted the seed of needing to know who Jesus is, a seed that germinated in my becoming a religion major in college. But what is Truth, is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?
My Christology is somewhere between “Personal Jesus” and “Losing My Religion.” A Jesus who guarantees us personal salvation but allows us to spend most of our times telling people what they cannot do or be is odious; a Christianity that permits us to do whatever we want, to engage in pleasure while simultaneously causing and contributing to suffering is equally problematic. One detail that is non-negotiable to me is that Jesus pulls us into community. I simply cannot understand how one can follow Jesus outside of being a servant of God for others. This does not have to be a church. I love the church, but I came to faith as an adult and have been lucky enough to find communities in which an others-based, radical love approach to Christianity is practiced. Many others have not been so lucky, so they have formed their own communities. That’s our hope with the Beloved Community Project. But I reject out of hand the idea that confessing faith in Christ is the alpha and omega of salvation.
As I wrote yesterday, my aim here is to set forth a working Christology. There are two goals: the first is presenting a cohesive vision of Jesus, the second is that in so doing I will create a starting point for conversations with others that are not initiated by me. Over the next several years, I will write an entire systematic theology but I gots to get that doctorate first. So, if I am working with someone else and they want to know what I think of Jesus, we can start with this and then talk in person. Enough qualifications, let’s get into it.
“Be you angels? Nay, we are but men.” –Tenacious D
One of the biggest intellectual stumbling blocks I’ve had even post-conversion is the divinity of Christ. The doctrine of “fully human, fully divine” took several centuries to develop, and a not insignificant number of lives were cut short for daring to hold contrary views. And while I have always been fascinated with theology and the study of religion, I grew up outside the Church. I was not indoctrinated, I was not abused. So while I have been and continue to be disgusted with how supposed followers of Christ have used God to justify horrendous things, I believe in a Jesus who has helped me battle demons while growing in love. Still, one cannot claim to know Jesus and not have a biblically-based understanding of the man from Nazareth.
I am not intending to inundate the reader with lots of biblical references and theological jargon. I have other writings for that if people are interested. When I do use specialist language, I will define it but this obviously is not meant to be the Christology section of an ordination paper. This is honest reflections on a vastly complicated subject.
The first thing to establish is Jesus’ relationship to God. There are myriad texts that present him as a preacher, a teacher, a miracle worker, a revolutionary, as one predicted by the prophets, a Son of God, and even as God himself. I have found that those who take Scripture literally rarely emphasize the various aspects equally. To be fair, that is true for me as well. The difference is that I emphasize the things that will help me be a servant to others while far too much of Christian history has been filled with and those by who emphasize the things that make others afraid. Vulnerable. Subject to persecution. A person who is willing to wield violence unto death in order to extract a confession that Jesus is fully divine does not seem like the sort of person who really knows Jesus Christ. But what do I mean by that?
For most of human history, people lived in a comfortable gray area as it concerns human-divine hybridity. Across cultures and time, it has been reported that heavenly beings came to earth, often using rape as a tactic, to impregnate. An early documented accounting of Haley’s comet postulated that the streaking across the sky was the soul of Julius Caesar becoming fully divine. Comic books are filled with modern examples of ancient cosmogony. Full humanity and full divinity became a modern sticky wicket, though, especially for monotheism. How can corporeal flesh, with all its attenuating limitations and imperfections, contain the fullness of the divine, which is the ur-perfection of all things? This rabbit hole is interesting, but it is filled with sub chambers that burrow to the center of the earth. We’re aiming with a bird’s eye view.
My Christology began in and with Buddhism. Siddhartha taught that we are the cause of our own suffering, which we perpetuate as a result of constructing and defending ego. I read widely and deeply on the Four Noble Truths, particularly the Eightfold Path. I examined myself regularly to untangle the web of ego within myself, an ongoing process. I began to understand that this is what Paul writes about in Romans 6-8. When I am feeling anger or I’m engaged in envy, I remind myself that such feelings more often than not are rooted in egotism. Dying to that self and being clothed in Christ, to me, means that love, compassion, mercy, and grace are always abundant, but only if I commit to seeing them. If I am not able to love even as the temporary situation elicits other emotions, I have some dying to do. This does not mean allowing oneself to be trod upon as if a doormat; rather, it means that in this walk of life, one steps mindfully and aware of how the footfall impacts others. Jesus has helped me understand that sometimes we need to love people from a distance, as their toxicity cannot be addressed by anyone but themselves.
Buddhism also helped me to wrestle with the human-divine conundrum. From the beginning, Christianity has been home to metaphorical and allegorical hermeneutics. In other words, interpretations of Jesus Christ have always included symbolism. Jesus used parables to teach; does it change the truth of the stories if factually there was no prodigal son? Of course not, so how does it follow that the evangelists wrote only what is literally true? Jesus used stories, so did the evangelists, and so do we as followers of Christ. There’s a Buddhist teaching that I have consulted much over the past 15 years. The unenlightened person is like one who will ask the master about the location of the moon, only to stare at the pointing finger rather than the object in the sky.
I began with understanding Jesus as the master pointing to the sky, showing the way to the moon (God), but not as the moon itself. This is not unique or original to me, and in fact, stretches back to primitive Christianity.
This intellectual conception of God allowed me to engage more confidently in following Christ and working for Christ within both Christian and non-Christian circles. I came to God through Jesus, which satisfies a basic requirement for those who wish to seek ordination. But more importantly, it propelled me into relationships with others while focusing on service and genuine community. Jesus transgressed cultural and religious lines, proclaiming as the Beloved those especially who had been abused and shut out by prevailing powers. Following Jesus means loving your enemies, and not just saying that you do. It means not looking at others as inferior or less-than; again, this does not mean anything goes. It does not mean that people aren’t held responsible here and now for what they do. It means, though, that God doesn’t say, “take care of those who think like you, look like you, and only those whom you feel deserve it.” God says that we are our siblings’ keeper. And everyone is a child of God. Following Jesus means abhorring the argument that everyone who cannot meet all of their needs is lazy, asking for a handout, is holding others back, or is asking for special treatment. It means that you are more disgusted by a society that has failed to clothe, feed, affirm, and protect all people than you are by the needy people themselves.
Jesus being fully human means that we do not lack an example of how to live an authentic life. The fully human Jesus does not have anything extra or lack anything necessary; he is one of us.
The trite expression “What Would Jesus Do?” sadly was more marketing tool than ministry truth, but there is a kernel of usefulness present. Knowing what I know about Jesus, where would he see God in this situation and what would be his response as a servant of God to and for others?
Beginning with the fully human aspect of Jesus helped me explore the divine. I don’t say “fully divine” because I think the phrase is overused by those who don’t fully understand what it entails beyond being a litmus test for those who want to be card-carrying members of Team Jesus. Right now, I believe this: through his life, Jesus was filled with the Spirit of God. His manner of life led him to an execution at the hands of religious and civil authorities who saw his message as inherently dangerous. Jesus submitted himself to judgment because he knew no other way to live a genuine life, and if this world wouldn’t let him he would simply leave. He did all things in love. I remain agnostic as to whether Jesus is ontologically God–that is, eternally and absolutely divine–or if Jesus experienced an awakening that, like others across time and space, propelled him to perfect union with God. In other words, I can make arguments that Jesus’ identity was an evolutionary process, just as it is for all other humans. I’m a modified Gnostic (or perhaps a Gentile Hasidic) in that I believe there is a spark of divinity in all of us; the purpose of our lives is to identify the spark, and allow the Spirit to stoke it into an all-consuming flame.
Through following Jesus, submitting to the Gospel, orientating myself toward the priorities Jesus identified, I have grown closer and closer to God. I’ve done a shit-ton of drugs and drank oceans of booze, but the all-encompassing feeling of being connected to the source of Love is beyond the high produced by anything I ever put into my body. The more I live the Gospel, the more I am able to let go of the false self. I know that there are some things worth dying for, and while I do not wish to perish I know that the spiritual death of being a slave to capitalism and American nationalism will be far worse than even crucifixion. We turn to Rome to sentence Nazareth.
Is Jesus God? In my mind, there is no separation between Jesus and God. I refuse, though, to participate in theological-purity witch hunts. A fully-human Jesus who reveals God, but whose resurrection is symbolic is still a very powerful cat. A Jesus who provides us the perfect paradigm for how to live an authentic life? Why would we want to shut that out? How does that understanding prevent someone from following the Gospel? I’ve Hindu and Buddhist acquaintances who see Jesus as an istadevata (a figure to whom one dedicates one’s religious life in exchange for divine benefits) or as a great teacher. The respect they accord to him and the ways in which they live their lives is far preferable to the hateful destruction I’ve seen from Christological purists.
For me, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. But I believe in a God much bigger than one interpretation or even one religion.
In the next installment, we will consider how Jesus does or does not alter human anthropology. Please share this with friends!