Jesus: History, Mystery and Doubt
It simply MUST be the way I was taught as a child!
Often we encounter the suggestion that if Jesus were to somehow appear in
this day and age his own reaction to who and what Christianity believes him to be might be surprising. There is a vast variety
of images that come to mind among practicing Christians.
On one hand, Jesus is expected to return in a supernatural and dramatic context,
coming to judge and backed by a righteous army of angels – justifying a relatively new belief (perhaps 150 years) and
investment in a concept of rapture, end times and judgment day. For these, the supernatural is an absolute must: the end times
when God will intervene and overturn the negatives in life and set things right once and for all.
For others, the return of an all-powerful deity who will set things right
once and for all, execute judgment with vengeful, righteous and indignant wrath has little or no bearing on how attitudes
and actions are justified. For these, the supernatural external God is not necessary to make real the life and teaching of
the historical Jesus.
What then is there of value in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth
if the ultimate intervening God is left out of the picture?
From a fundamental perspective the litmus test seems to be “Do you believe
Jesus is God?” Or, “Do you believe Jesus was/is the Son of God?”
I’ve been asked this question many times. From some, the question is
asked with an intent to understand more about who I am and what I think. From others, the question has seemed more a test
of orthodoxy, a means by which I may or may not be then perceived as “Christian.”
Someone recently wrote to me that the whole foundation of Christianity and
believing in Jesus is in fact pointless if one cannot believe in the Synoptic miracles. Without the miracles, Christianity
From my perspective, the implication is that without the supernatural, Christianity
as a spiritual practice - a way of approaching life - is useless. If, once upon a time, long ago and far away, a supernatural
deity did not beam down and live as an anonymous “superman”, defying the limits of natural law and processes,
then Christianity is a lie, a hoax and a waste of time.
A supernatural Jesus Christ is by no means the sole basis for seeking a life
of goodness in thought and action. To many, the prospect of an indignant returning judgmental God has little to do with why
a choice is made to join or remain within a Christian context. For these there is little of the either/or thinking that is
spawned by exclusivity taught in a literalist obsession with orthodoxy.
Historical Jesus has become perhaps the biggest stumbling block to literalists
while a Christ-like life is the motivational mainstay for those who have sought the Jesus of history with a desire for understanding
and an attitude of inquiry based upon critical thinking.
A stubborn insistence on the Jesus of the end times is at best adolescent
in its blind trust and refusal to question. Questioning cannot happen if one is afraid of the answers.
How much of what we first learned in childhood – that which we accepted
and believed uncritically – was discarded as we grew older and acquired a greater experiential understanding of life?
The pattern for a child is that of gradual maturation toward the world as
it really IS rather than permanency in what was dished out as a necessary foundational pablum. We all learned to negotiate
life with a beginning vocabulary of spiritual and environmental concepts. Yet, what comes to our maturing pereception, regardless
of the accuracy of any outside teaching, enculturation and societal programming, is most powerfully defined by experience
interpreted through the assumptions of our personal story.
A very young child, without any awareness in vocabulary, will experientially
develop an attitude towards parents as the source, environment and power behind all things seen, learned and understood. Parents
in these early years can be truly God-like to children. Yet as the children grow and mature, there is less sense of being
in total subjection to the will of a parent and more a sense or urge toward defiance, independence and self-proprietorship.
In this regard, young parents will also undergo a maturing. I remember asking
my oldest daughter, now in her thirties, “Remember when you thought I was God?”
Her reply, “Yes, when I was two. But I remember when I was 12 and you
still thought you were God.”
“Indeed,” writes Dr. Marcus Borg, "for many Christians, especially
in mainline churches, there came a time when their childhood image of Jesus no longer made a great deal of sense. And for
many of them, no persuasive alternative has replaced it.”
Many of these have fallen back on the childhood teachings of a supernatural
religion, perhaps because of a perception that any alternative will not fill the void with sufficient meaning.
Paul speaks of this from inside the early Christian belief and practice:
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that
I am become a man, I have put away childish things.”As we grow out of childhood and
into the greater independence of adolescence, we begin to loose more and more of what Borg calls pre-critical naivetÚ:
“an early childhood state in which we take it for granted that whatever the significant authority
figures in our lives tell us to be true is indeed true.”
For example, Borg describes how we come to doubt the existence Saint Nick.
As we continue our sifting of what is still useful and what no longer
works, we develop that absolutely essential ability to practice critical thinking which Borg defines as:
“Critical thinking begins in late childhood and early adolescence. We sift through what we
learned as children to see how much of it we should keep."
Perhaps influenced by authority, intellectual charisma and peer pressure,
we find that our attempts to think critically become more and more difficult as our own internally programmed assumptions
assert themselves. This activity is a natural part of growth and while it contributes to harmonizing with one’s culture
and society, it may also hinder a sense of independence and the growing natural urge to feel self-reliant, self-confident
and assured in where our “automatic stance” is founded.
Personal spirituality is very much the lifeblood of embracing life as it IS
rather than naively embracing life as it might be according to someone else’s magic. That magic may be very accurate
and totally useful, but until personal experience confirms such a knowing, someone else’s magic remains a borrowed attribute.
This borrowed spiritual attribute by na´ve assumption can become habitual and addictive; more internally defined with conscious
insistence and lazily labeled "faith" than by honest and critical testing.
Such is an appeal to the lazy in us for it basically offers us the use of
someone else’s kayak- which works in their reality - when in our own we need something with which to negotiate an uphill
climb on a mountain path. However, if we are convinced that the kayak is the only way to climb the mountain, we will remain
in our state of pre-critical naivetÚ, struggling upward at great loss of opportunity for personal wisdom and an honest faith
attained thru critical thinking and experience.
“ Is it not time to present this matter of Christianity exactly as it is, to take away all
false reverence for Jesus, and not mistake the stream for the source? God is in every man. God is in Jesus, but let us not
magnify any of the vehicles as we magnify the Infinite Law itself. We have defrauded him [Jesus] of his claim of love on all
noble hearts by our superstitious mouth honor.” – Emerson, quoted by Stephen Mitchell in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING
Who is made uncomfortable by such thinking?
Writers like Emerson and others who have publicly proclaimed a powerful personal
spirituality seem to have always aroused the greatest concern – so great at time as to engender even violent resistance
– from those who remain stuck in pre-critical naivetÚ.
“Jesus’ faith doesn’t prove itself, either by miracles or by rewards and promises,
and least of all ‘by scripture.’ It is, at every moment, its own miracle, its own reward, its own proof, its own
‘kingdom of God.’” – Nietzsche, quoted by Stephen Mitchell in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS.
Can we believe in Jesus without the background of supernaturalism?
A child is able to learn at a very young age not to walk into the street,
understanding from parental instruction that danger lurks in such an action. Yet comes the time when the child must –
absolutely needs – to learn to cross the street independently and alone. Such an action is not a betrayal of the earlier
“don’t go into the street” injunction from god-like parents. Nor is it a refutation of respect or regard
for both the status and wisdom of parents.
Such learning is in fact a restructuring of the relationship to the parent
in a positive way that builds independence and self-reliance. To carry the analogy further, the ability to cross the street
on one’s own enhances the child’s ability to participate in life over an expanding range of abilities with the
parents. Putting away childish things does not necessarily mean destroying or refuting what was once true in a necessary way
for a child.
What is there about Jesus that we absolutely cannot nor must not give up?
The answer to that question is not up to group-think. For some, there are
things about a childhood understanding of Jesus that will and probably should remain in place for a lifetime. However, those
things may not be useful for every person regardless of whether or not “someone else” insists that it has to be
part of the magic.
The more we worry about the proven or provable facts of Jesus, the more we
remain stuck at the image of Christ given us by someone else. Although we may insist that we are in the right place, so long
as we refuse to look in the direction to which Jesus taught and pointed, we remain in a stuck place, regardless of our sense
of security and assuredness.
The focus of Jesus’ teachings was in opposition to the notion of God
as a God of purity with rules and policies emphasizing purity and obedience as the primary virtues. Who would argue with the
idea that to Jesus the Spirit of the Law was more important than the Letter of the Law?
Jesus in fact taught not a God obsessed with purity so as a God of compassion.
A literal reading of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament can easily
leave us with an idea of God as wrathful, selective, judgmental, punishing, even cruel. In more contemporary terms, many Christians
see God as a kind of benevolent Patton rather than a powerful but gentle Gandhi.
It is precisely the gentle attribute of compassion that Jesus sought to portray
in practically everything He said. It is precisely the tender relationship of son to father that Jesus portrayed. He most
certainly did not come to teach or pattern a relationship with a God who looked like a more powerful alternative to Julius
The God of Israel as Jesus knew God, was more than that. Christ as a mortal
man was a devout and practicing Jew who never departed from His Jewish perception and understanding of God, and who certainly
did not “remake” God into something else.
Neither should we.
Jesus said that if one had seen Him one had seen the Father. I say that if
one has heard the words of Jesus, one has heard the words of the God of compassion.
The God of compassion has no need to practice supernatural intervention.
The God of compassion is the God of internal emotions, the God of the Spirit
of the Law, the God of understanding as something superior to blind obedience.
The God of compassion does not need to come and judge, for as we learn, understand
and appreciate compassion, we become our own harshest judges. For when we “sin” - a word that does not denote
an evil act in it's original non-English meaning -we have missed of the mark. Our sense of missing the mark and not measuring
up to standards we ought to have internalized will be more spiritually grounded than the idea of accountability to a clipboard
full of evil behavior.
Until we define Jesus for ourselves, we will not succeed in developing an
internal and comfortable “fit” of what we know about a Christ-like life and how we will be able to live in such
as way as to experience what He promised.
There are those who view God as a deity of requirements, rewards and punishments
and who say that there is only one internal “fit” given by God and if that "fit" is uncomfortable, it is because
we are not on the true path.
In response, questions need to be asked:
With such a view, what absolute internal necessity exists that implies a terror
of doubting someone else’s magic – the pablum by which we have been nourished since childhood?
What if a singular and exclusive “true path” is not what Jesus
What is conjured up in the mind if one cannot know God as an external super-natural
deity “up there” or “out there” who remains outside of our lives but occasionally used to do divine
What is conjured up in the mind if God is not and does not have to be the
“Boss of the Universe” who runs things according to strict prescription and ignores the majority of petitions
sent His way?
If Jesus patterned a relationship with God as “within “ us, permeating
our spiritual mind with a loving constancy, why is that not enough?
Thomas Jefferson offers an answer as to how to decide:
“In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudices on both sides, and neither believe nor
reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it.
Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are
answerable not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision. I forgot to observe, when speaking of the New Testament,
that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well as those of whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us,
to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists, because those Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration, as much
as the others, and you are to judge by their pretensions by your own reason, and not by the reason of those ecclesiastics.”
– quoted by Stephen Mitchell in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS.
Dr. Borg offers an equally powerful objective:
“Now I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing. The experiences
of my mid-thirties led me to realize that God is, and that the central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God
or believing in the Bible or believing in the Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship
with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoke of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit. And
a Christian is one who lives out his or her relationship to God within the framework of the Christian tradition.” –
MEETING JESUS AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME, Marcus Borg, HarperCollins, 1994.