Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jesus' Importance: Divine or Human?

This is a topic that’s even less discussed by me, because I honestly don’t really crack open a bible much except to combat Christian apologists or just look up random quotes people throw at me. The Gospels in particular are my main interest, alongside Ecclesiastes and Proverbs just for philosophical scrutiny of ethical/moral aphorisms. On the subject of the Gospels, the topic I speak so little of is the relevance of Jesus Christ/of Nazareth to the modern world. It’s usually a tendency in one of two directions; one is that he’s as pertinent as any American president or other major historical figure. He’s bigger than even someone like Martin Luther King Jr., because without his existence, he wouldn’t do what he did or reference those sayings. The other is that Jesus is simply a good person, a teacher, a rabbi. Believing Jesus never existed and is completely made up by other writers as a myth is something that no doubt resulted from the controversial Jesus Seminar, which apparently started two years before I was even born, but has only recently gained popularity in the early 2000s with books like The Jesus Myth and even more immediately with Bart D. Ehrman’s Forged, who claims half of the New Testament is a forgery. So now, we’ll get into the dialectic of Jesus: man of God or God as man?

The person of central importance for a modern and moderate position about Jesus is John Dominic Crossan, who isn’t well thought of by many theologians, from what I understand. While considering himself a Christian, he is rather unorthodox in his exact regard towards Jesus. He says you don’t have to believe Jesus was God incarnate, performed miracles or resurrected from the dead to see him as important on the same level as other nonviolent protestors like Mohandas Gandhi. On such things like his resurrection and the majority of his miracles, he says they should be seen as spiritual parables. Jesus’ resurrection is seen as the vindication of the values of God against the values of Rome which crucified him; including nonviolent resistance, which is a rather minority position in Christianity these days. His approach seems to hinge on metaphorical interpretations, which have always been uncommon in popular Christianity. Literalism works better with a common and uneducated community with a few literate and educated elites that have the capacity to read and understand the bible, usually in one particular way that seems best.

The alternative, of course, is at the very least that Jesus is supernatural, and that it is necessary to see Jesus as such for the Gospels to make sense. Many would say that Crossan’s reductionistic view of Jesus ignores a massive amount of evidence in historical connections of the New Testament to secular history, especially the allegation that a messianic group like Christianity could not have gotten off the ground if they were claiming metaphors about Jesus to convince people that he was the Messiah spoken of in the Jewish prophets. To say that Jesus’ resurrection was less important than his radical social teachings about helping the poor and downtrodden and turning the other cheek, as he preached in his Sermon on the Mount, is to teach a Jesus that is accessible but not challenging. Many Christians would no doubt say this picture of Jesus doesn’t make you face your alleged sinful nature before God and just makes you want to challenge the system in a sort of jaded way many people in my parents’ generation tried to do and supposedly failed miserably on some level. My own generation might be said to have more potential for change in the technological era we live in, being able to spread our message across cyberspace within seconds. This sort of dialectic is a good way to continue the discussion, however much they’re at each others’ throats.

The key point here is whether there is any common ground between these sides that exists. To start this conversation out right; yes, there are agreed upon values that Jesus taught in the Gospels that both flavors of Christians, metaphorical and literal (along with more cherry picking varieties) can find quickly. The socially radical nature of Jesus’ teachings, his challenge to Roman and Jewish authority of the times, preaching love and compassion tempered by a strong faith in God, all of these and more resonate equally well with Christians of both stripes, albeit with differing approaches. Of course, many might question whether such metaphorical Christians actually believe in God or are just masquerading as such with academic credentials. This is always an issue I’ve found with studying theology and religion of theistic varieties; you can understand a great deal about the believers, but you can’t get to that level of understanding how they come to believe as they do. There’s always an existential plane that others can’t get to, which applies equally to the condescension that many believers throw upon nonbelievers. The dialogue is a double edged sword in that believers don’t always try to understand where unbelievers are coming from and vice versa. Of course, this has a similar difficulty as any sort of dialogue about the value of religious studies, as I observed in “Religion and Secularism’s Questions and Answers,” I can try my best to understand things from a Christian’s perspective, but “true” Christians would say that I can’t truly understand this because I don’t believe. The problem with that is it presumes a similar mistaken idea as in religious studies; that is, you have to be religious in order to study religion academically. Otherwise, people allege, you’re just looking at it in some scientific fashion. But that’s simply not true. If I’m anything of a representative of religious studies students, I don’t view religion as strictly predictable like the law of gravity, nor do I view it purely as a private matter. As much as the personal aspects of religion are important to me and others, the cultural and communal relevance of religion and Christianity in particular with America, is something I can study without needing to actually believe in Jesus as anything more than an admirable human being. Do I have to believe Buddha was some super entity after he achieved enlightenment as is still portrayed occasionally in popular media? No. And similar to Jesus, one can believe many things people claimed about Buddha, but those neither have any importance for Buddhism as a philosophy/religion, nor do they determine whether you’re a true Buddhist. Christianity, being more focused on orthodoxy, is going to always be in a state of conflict with Christology, since Jesus is not only the founder, but to most, God incarnate, who saved the world, in a spiritual sense, from itself. Christianity is a fascinating cultural and religious phenomenon, but you don’t have to see Jesus as God in order to appreciate him as a teacher. Unitarians (believing God is one) and Adoptionists (believing Jesus was adopted as God’s son and made divine from a human state) attest to this, however much in the minority they appear to be. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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