4 April 12 // Christology in the Contemporary World

In trying to bring together disparate thoughts concerning Jesus and the Christology which surrounds him, let me begin by making the mistake of “showing my hand” and disclosing my own experience.

Though I am twenty-nine, I feel much older. Circumstance and experience have been disproportionately ungenerous. At times, I feel my narrative is akin to a Dickens novel. Though raised in a family fluent in Christianity, in more ways than can (or should) be enumerated here, I have found little consolation in the empty rhetoric of “high Christology” which communicates a transcendent savior who has delivered me from evil. Quite the contrary. For me, I relate much more to the lower estimation of Jesus which depicts him as a futurist ahead of his time, trying to grapple with the debates of his time and feeling tradition and “right” teaching insufficient to the task. In this sense, I affirm a very human Jesus – an introvert who felt it necessary to periodically retreat from his environment, whose views attracted hostility for the way in which they did not conform, affirm, or align entirely with the “big names” of his religion, and who ultimately was abandoned or betrayed by those he loved the most.

As we all know, the world is a hazardous place. Tolkien wrote over six decades ago that the world can be a terrible place and if you do not watch your feet, you hardly know where they will take you. The flattering rhetoric which Western Christianity so frequently invokes (lest they invite divine damnation?) to praise Jesus solves none of our problems, does not feed the naked or clothe the hungry, and seems entirely out of sorts with the message of tikkun olam (“repairing the world) that Jesus detailed. At best, we picket and alternatively rally for our cause of the week and when we think of “the marginalized and oppressed” (a polite way of “othering” even as we talk about the injustice of “othering”) our presence is indistinguishable from social workers. We are, in short, entirely devoid of the very essence of Jesus which we are told he promised all who would follow his teachings, love him, and do good to others.

While my experience has perhaps marred the otherwise glorious vision that many of my privileged contemporaries hold, it does not however extinguish my hope that Jesus is all that high Christology presents him as – the transcendent, eternal one who will set things right and establish order and peace for all eternity. Jesus’ holiness and eternal life just is not the motivating factor for me. I do not pursue a goal in the sweet by-and-by, or at N.T. Wright so dryly has stated, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” The ways that Christianity presents the eternal hope, or glorification, has been in terms of a purge where all who disagree with our interpretation are burned and scoured and suffer violence forevermore. To me, the thought of sipping Mai-Tais on evergreen lawns under such a violent Eternal King brings more fear than awe of glory for the way in which it cannot be reconciled with the ancient Hebrew faith. If “getting my mansion” comes at the expense of others going to hell by way of judgement, is this not simply a twisting of Western economic principles? They hurt me when things were good for them, but it’ll be all work out in the end because it’ll all work out for me and they’ll get hurt in return.

Is that really all the Jesus lived and died for?

Though our individual treatment and understanding of Jesus may be reduced to the binary of the high versus low Christological estimation, Christianity presents both on a continuum – thus we reenact the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon even as we, like Peter, are confronted with the question of who we believe Jesus is. But, speaking personally, I think he was a human first and foremost. Like Peter, I believe he was (and is) the Messiah – though I am often disappointed in him – just like some of my closest friends and family members. He has not established the kingdom he promised, nor established justice and righteousness like the prophets declared he would. The Jews who reason this as proof of his not being the Messiah, however, believe his failure is defined by the way we view success. S. Mark Heim, in his Saved from Sacrifice, challenges the way we understand and interpret the Messiah, success, and sacrifice. The reality is that his death proves his humanity and the more one hyper-spiritualizes Jesus, the further they are moving away from both his humanity as well as reality. It is not wonder then that D.M. Ballie notes in God was in Christ that “all schools of thought today take the full humanity of our Lord more seriously than has ever been done before by Christian theologians” (151). There is much more to be found in his humanity that is practical and relevant for the contemporary world. His solidarity with a marginalized people group is the popular trend in theology right now, though Mother Teresa was able to articulate his penultimate impassioned statement of thirst as evidence that he was universally human for all peoples. Her theology comes on the heels of many other members of Christianity who understand the very personal and primary feelings of abandonment by God in his Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani where “people groups” and “communities” become tangential because we see them as abandoned or “judged” already by God. In the end, his humanity proves we are closer to God than ever imagined, for what is more human than the primal need for understanding and self-preservation?

For Jurgen Moltmann, Christology or how we understand Jesus as Christ, is inextricably linked to his humanity and his death as a human on a cross (The Way of Jesus, 151). It is here that, whatever our claims may be about his nativity and life, we can never divorce Jesus from his purpose – his death as a human. The modern presentation of the gospel seems to focus more on the “higher” end of this event, namely Jesus’ return from the dead, as they pursue the best way to feel empowered as believers. This is a dangerous business, for when we begin to forget the humanity of Jesus, again, we move farther away from the reality of who he was together with the experience we share with him – that of life and suffering.

Though I must acknowledge his divinity as well – that same nature which ultimately incriminates me, for nothing is less divine than wanting and being unfulfilled – I do not relate to this. The acknowledgement is more a hope that things will get better rather than an experience I can relate to. Moltmann would appear to agree, though he offers the corrective that when we begin to focus more on Jesus’ life (as I do) rather than his more supernatural/divine qualities, we “dispense with the allegedly ‘high Christology’ of Paul, John, and the ancient church” – a position which is a breach from the unique “faith in God [who] is historically Christian” (xvi-xvii).

This has caused me considerable concern in my own experience as a Christian. Am I more Jewish than I recognize? While describing myself as Christian, I fail to fully embrace the signature teaching of Christianity emphasizing Jesus’ divinity. Still struggling with this question, I must conclude this not to be the case. I accept Jesus as the Messiah, admittedly with reservation, because the movement of the last forty years towards a theology of liberation struggles with this same question, if Jesus is so great, why didn’t/ won’t/ can’t he fix things that are wrong with our world? As detailed by the prophetic writings of Hebrew scripture, Jesus failed. Though I must here again rely on Heim’s work which questions how we understand success and failure.

Many Evangelicals, whether consciously or not, have adopted the parameters of mythological “glory” from the writings of Joseph Campbell. For Campbell, the means were human and the end result mythological. The story of Odysseus, for example, was not the journey itself, but a universal experience of isolation and trying to get back home. For Heim, the opposite is true; the means were the myth and the end result human. Jesus, in this approach, is not a universal god who must die to reclaim the world for God, but a person who saought to reclaim the world for God and had to die because of the human tendency towards violence. Instead of a mythological God who requires sacrifice to appease his wrath, Heim presents a God who “used our own sin [of violence] to save us” (xi). It is fitting then that I have rarely been wooed to the Christian message by the violence Anslem proposes as proof of a loving God. Instead, I find the humanness of Jesus and his death as the proof of God’s love, proof that he chose to experience life on my terms or “walk the mile in my shoes” so to speak so as to better relate to me. In doing this, I align (ironically enough) with the depiction in Hebrews of a great high priest who suffered and was tempted even as I am each day rather than a distant and “high” savior who deigned to become “like” a human only long enough to achieve his objectives before flying as fast as he could away from this place.

And, it is here, this humanity, that I find the ultimate reclamation of human dignity and worth. By Jesus’ solidarity with those who suffer – all humans – and his pursuit of living the life of righteousness outlined for the people of God in the Hebrew scriptures, I find someone whose life testified to the same ideals that I hold to: that there is good in the fallen world and that it can be set right. We may die in the process, inviting violence from those who wish to choose another path and somehow feel we are thus stealing their spiritual resources, but in the “low” estimation of Christ, I find again and again a savior who wants not to abandon this world, this life, or even his own body (Jn 11:16; 20:26-28; Rev 5:2-12) but whose divinity is proven by his humanity.

One thought on “4 April 12 // Christology in the Contemporary World

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