Jesus the Place to Begin - An Arbitrary But Rational Choice
We have concluded that philosophical arguments in support of the meaningfulness, reality or necessity of the concept of god are not very convincing. At the end of these several arguments the most we are able to conclude is that god appears to be synonymous with the creative force of the universe, which is a very long way from the Judaeo-Christian conception of God. It is evident to me that we must learn to get along without a belief in god.
Philosophical arguments intended to bolster the claim that god refers to an objective reality have the peculiar characteristic of circularity. Those who are inclined to believe in a god that is separate from (outside, beyond) the universe will see these several arguments as supporting and confirming their inclination or desire to believe. Those of us who are disinclined to see god as an ultimate reality separate from the universe will conclude that logical or philosophical arguments in support of the validity or meaningfulness of the concept of god are not persuasive. The believer will see the unbeliever’s inability or unwillingness to be convinced as arrogance or stubbornness and conclude that if the unbeliever would only give belief a chance and step inside the circle of faith he would see that his faith is confirmed. That is what is meant by the circularity of the arguments of faith. If one steps outside the closed circle of belief various philosophical arguments look very different than they do to one who is in that circle, who can pray ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief.’
However many of our contemporaries who are seriously interested in religion have one foot planted in the circle of faith and the other foot planted just as firmly in the modern world. They want to believe but just can’t quite make that leap of faith out of the world of experience and sense that is required. That is certainly true for me. As far back as my early adolescence I have struggled to believe what seemed increasingly unbelievable and I suspect that my long internal struggle for and with faith helps explain both the anguished desperation of my college years and my early commitment to a fundamentalist vision of reality that denied the obvious world of our experience and knowledge in favor of a view of the world that was both preposterous and anti-intellectual. In this alternative fundamentalist reality, lack of faith is defined as the stubborn unwillingness to believe and is equated with sin.
In any event, for the Christian the beginning place for religion and faith is not god, it is Jesus. Christian theologians have argued rightly that we cannot know God directly. We cannot demonstrate God at the end of an argument. Rather than beginning with God whom we cannot know, we must begin with Jesus, who in Christian thought is the pointer to ultimate reality and meaning, the place of revelation. Everything that we claim to know about God, so Christian theologians say, is extrapolated from what we know about Jesus.
There is no serious doubt among contemporary historians regardless of their religious faith that Jesus was a real person who lived in Palestine in the First Century. We know that he was an itinerant teacher who traveled and taught throughout Palestine and who gathered disciples around him through the force of his personality and the compelling nature of his message. He was viewed by the Romans who occupied Palestine in those days as a religious radical and a disturber of the peace. He was arrested by Temple police and was finally executed by the Romans in the fashion of his day by public crucifixion. We do not know much more than this with any degree of certainty.
There is much disagreement among historians about how much of the New Testament record can be relied upon as history in the ordinary sense in which we understand history, given the fact that a fairly long time passed from the days in which Jesus lived and taught until the various stories were collected and eventually put in their present form as the canonical gospels.
The writings that comprise the biblical tradition reflect the world view of the time in which they were composed and therefore they have a mythological character. That mythological character is evident in the various contemporary accounts about Jesus and his teachings.
Missionaries and travelers carried the stories and teachings from place to place and from church gathering to church gathering throughout the Roman Empire in the early days of Christianity. These stories and sayings were collected to preserve them for those who had no direct experience of Jesus. These early remembrances began to take shape at different times, in different places and for widely different reasons. More than a century after Jesus’ death the various written collections were finally collated and edited into “books” in the form of the four canonical Gospels that we recognize today.
Not all the stories in circulation among various groups of Christians made it into the official collection of stories and sayings of Jesus that comprise the Gospels. Those that were ‘accepted’ by the church were those that were believed by the leaders of the early church to be the most authentic, consistent and reliable accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings and they were given the official blessing of church officials as sacred texts. The writings that did not make it into the official Gospels were considered less credible, but many of them continued to circulate and some of them survived the centuries and appear in collections today, including a very interesting small book known as The Gospel of Thomas.
The four official Gospels, known by the names of their reputed authors, are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They have much material in common but there are some stories and sayings that are unique to a particular Gospel. They reflect the views about their world that were common at the time that they were written but that does not detract from their essential message or from their validity as our only early historical source for what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus.
We need to be clear about what we mean by the mythological view of the world that was prevalent in the First Century. Simply put, a mythological world view is one characterized by the belief that forces outside our world of experience operate independently of the laws of physics and arbitrarily interfere in the events and circumstances of life and history to cause good or evil, victory or defeat, success or failure. People living in the First Century believed that external forces directed the course of our individual histories as well as the history and destiny of mankind generally.
Put in another way, a mythological world view assumes a world of beneficent and malevolent but irrational forces ‘outside’ and ‘beyond’ [and sometimes quite literally ‘above’] our world of experience that directly influences the events and circumstances of mankind and determines the flow of history. By ‘irrational forces’ we mean forces that we cannot explain or demonstrate by the usual means that we use to measure, explain or understand our world. The concept of a two-story universe (or three-story universe of earth, heaven and the underworld, as is assumed in the biblical tradition) is foreign to the way we think about the universe.
Most of our contemporaries do not explain events by assuming, for example, that the sun god moves the sun across the sky, that water can be turned into wine, that God determines the winners or losers in soccer games or wars, or that guardian angels protect some people from harm and leave others to their fate at the hands of malevolent powers.
It is clear from the surviving historical record, captured in different ways and from different perspectives in the several Gospels, that ‘something happened’ following the crucifixion of Jesus that transformed the lives of his followers and compelled them to continue his message and teachings. Immediately after Jesus was arrested and executed his disciples were initially discouraged, disappointed and frightened. They feared for their safety as they contemplated the fact that they too might be arrested and killed. They abandoned Jesus to his fate and ran.
However some time shortly after his death the crushing sense of disappointment, frustration and defeat that the his disciples experienced at the death of their leader suddenly gave way in the face of what we term the Easter Event -- the life-transforming conviction that in some sense of what that means Jesus was alive in them, demanding their commitment and challenging them as his disciples to carry on with his message and his teachings. They came to the realization that his message was true and his teachings were important and that realization confronted them with the challenge to continue to teach about the Kingdom of God and to make Jesus life the model for their own lives. The Easter Event meant a radical transformation of their lives and commitments.
That ‘something’ that ‘happened’ after the crucifixion that we call the Easter Event is described in the Gospels in mythological terms, but today we are inclined to demythologize those accounts so that we can understand and interpret their significance to us without resorting to mythical language. They had an existential experience that required a life-transforming decision. We do not know the details of what actually happened and we have no way to reconstruct the sequence of events as they unfolded at the time. The various Gospel accounts are sketchy and conflict with one another on many of the details.
Once we get beyond the mythical language in which the post-Crucifixion events are described in the Biblical record, it is clear that the disciples had a resurrection experience through which their lives acquired a new meaning and importance. They interpreted this life-transforming experience as new life or a rebirth. This new life came with a sense of freedom that reoriented their priorities from things that were inconsequential to a new way of thinking about what was seriously important. They understood this to mean two things: they were to model their lives after his life, and they were to carry on his teaching ministry about the kingdom of god and its implications for their situation. This new life demanded their commitment to continue the ministry of Jesus and to do so fearlessly and courageously.
Over the next few decades the disciples told the stories and continued the teaching of Jesus. Groups of followers began to meet regularly to share their remembrances of Jesus’ life and teachings. Frequently they shared a meal together. A communal celebration emerged in which they memorialized his life and death and their emerging sense of new life as his followers. The symbolism of bread and wine became important to these first followers of the new Christian religion as they reminded themselves that they symbolically shared in his life by making it a model for their own lives.
A number of leaders of the new movement began to emerge as the years went by and the memories of those who knew Jesus became fewer and fewer. His followers wrote down what jthey remembered of his teachings and collected the stories that were circulating among various groups of followers. They also began to interpret the significance of Jesus not only to his followers, but also to those that they wanted to convert to the new religion as new followers of Jesus, new Christians as they were called. Different approaches were developed to various ethnic, cultural and religious groups as early Christian leaders sought ways to make the story of Jesus intelligible to people of different backgrounds, a point that we must not lose sight of in our generation.
The first Christians were Jews and the significance of Jesus and his teachings for them was framed as a new freedom from the ritualistic law of Moses to the higher demands of love of of one’s neighbor.
To messianic Jews, Jesus was explained as the Messiah who had been prophesied and for whom they had been waiting, but who was not the political leader they were expecting to lead them in a crusade against their enemies. They described the messianic Jesus as a rabbi whose teachings would bring about a different sort of kingdom, the kingdom of god, a kingdom of the heart and mind rather than a political dynasty.
To those Jews who were accustomed to priestly ritualistic sacrifices as atonement for sin, Jesus was explained as the sacrifice that made all other sacrifice unnecessary, that as he sacrificed himself for others, so too his followers were called to live a life of commitment and sacrifice to the service of others and to do so as a celebration of his memory.
To those who were versed in Greek philosophy Jesus was explained as the divine Logos, the Word of god, not as a theoretical philosophical concept but a man of flesh and blood, a man living among us whose message carried divine authority.
The essential message of Christian faith continues to arise from the Easter event and is at the center of the Kerygma – the proclamation of the early Christians that Jesus is the Christus, the one who demonstrated to us in his life what it means to be truly and authentically human, a man for others whose compassion for his neighbor is evident in his attitude and teachings and whose commitment and integrity is unwavering when it mattered most, a man who was faithful to who he was even when it meant his life.
The Christian concept of Incarnation is that God is uniquely present to us in Jesus and, once the concept is demythologized into ideas we comprehend, we understand it to mean that in his life and teaching we are confronted by the man through whom we can see what is ultimately significant and come to understand the meaning of the ‘ Kingdom of God .’
To say that ‘god was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself’ means that in Jesus we see the realization of authentic humanity, the model as it were toward which we are to strive, the highest and best that we know, the actuality of authentic human life that demonstrates our possibility.
To confess 'Jesus as Lord' is to make a commitment to follow Jesus, to make his life the example and model for our lives, to take his teachings seriously both in obedience to those teachings and in their advancement and advocacy as the “saving grace” available to us and to our neighbor.
To have 'faith in Christ' means to make a commitment to follow the example of the life of Jesus with the utmost seriousness of our being.
A Christian is one who commits to Jesus as the center and focal point of his faith and life. At its simplest, to be a Christian is to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus and his teachings. It is to honor Jesus through our lives, to honor truth and show compassion, to live as Jesus lived and to teach as he taught, and when it really matters to maintain one’s integrity regardless of the implications to oneself. In short to be a Christian is to be faithful to the spirit of Jesus and his teachings. That is both the meaning and the cost of Christian discipleship.
That apparently simple concept of faith is not as simple as it may seem, for it involves a number of different issues and implications that we need to consider. Faith can mean different things to different people at different times, which is to say that the word faith can function in a variety of different ways.
Sometimes we use faith to mean a particular religious faith, such as the Christian faith, in which case it is used as a synonym for religion.
Sometimes faith refers to a belief in something that cannot be established by any of the criteria that we ordinarily use to determine whether a statement is true or whether a statement that looks like a factual statement really is, as for example, a belief in angels or fairies or an afterlife.
Sometimes faith is used to mean hope or confidence against the odds, as for example, the parent of a desperately ill child that says he has faith that the child will not die.
It may mean confidence or reliance, as in our faith that our leaders will make the right decisions or will act in our common interest or that our ship will hold together in a storm.
Sometimes faith is used to mean the content of belief, as in the affirmation made by a person who says his faith is in Jesus Christ, a phrase that implies a very specific fundamentalist Christian belief system.
We have to be clear about the sense in which we are using faith in this essay. I prefer the definition of faith used by the theologian Paul Tillich, for whom faith is a commitment that all of us make to whatever we see as most important in our lives, that which ultimately matters to us, that for which we are willing to make an ultimate commitment. For Tillich, it is not an issue of whether we have faith or not. We do. The issue rather is whether or not the object of our faith warrants our ultimate commitment. To commit ourselves ultimately to anything unworthy of an ultimate commitment is, in Tillich’s view, to commit idolatry.
A person may say, and may really believe, that he values honesty and integrity, but the test for what he actually values is what he does or how she acts when he believes that no one will know what he has done or is about to do.
In the same way a person may claim that he is a Christian but his claim, if it is to be understood as more than a claim to believe particular ideological propositions about Jesus that may or may not be true (and that cannot in any case be verified), is subject always to the litmus test of whether what he says he ultimately values can be seen playing out in his life as a serious commitment to ultimate values in his decisions and actions. It then becomes apparent whether a serious commitment as a Christian informs one’s actions and decisions or whether the self-identification of being a Christian is merely an affirmation of belief in a particular set of propositions without any particular relevance to the decisions one makes in the course of one’s life.
Seen in this way, faith is an essential characteristic of all our lives. Whether or not we have thought about it in any consistent or serious way or are even aware of it, each of us lives and makes decisions in accordance with some set of values that when it really matters guides the decisions we make and implies what our ultimate faith is in.
The sum of my argument is that it is reasonable to make a commitment to be a Christian without any necessary concept of god in the customary sense and without any assumption of any world beyond this one or any after life, and to do so as a rational choice in favor of a particular set of values to strive to live by. I have made that choice from among the range of possible choices of values and styles of life because it is an option that I found compelling, challenging and worth committing oneself to. The choice to consciously identify myself as a Christian involves my commitment to use the life and teachings of Jesus as the basis and model for my own life so far as I am able.