Can We Come Together?
December 16, 2011

R.I.P., Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949 – December 15, 2011

(Image from his last article, featured in Vanity Fair)

Believers and nonbelievers both have at least one thing in common: We all feel there’s something broken, something wrong with the world. We may disagree on what that brokenness is, but bickering over that makes no difference in changing or helping what is really broken. It just makes us feel better about our own position.

There are brilliant minds, pure hearts, and strong hands in every camp.

It’s high time we agnostics, atheists and believers work together to address the very real brokenness that is, for instance, poverty and hunger throughout the world.

That is all.

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What is Jesus?
July 30, 2010



Forgive me while I flesh out my thoughts here:

When someone says “Turn to Jesus,” what do they really mean? Or, “All you need is Jesus.” Or even, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Responding with a blank look of incredulity, some Christians might say, “C’mon. You know what we mean by that.” Because such sayings are so ingrained in the collective Christian psyche that it’s assumed that everyone, including the rest of the world outside of Christendom, knows exactly what is meant by…well, Jesus.

The fact is, I’m not sure that people, including Christians and non-, know what Jesus really is. Sure, we know who he was, but what is he, in the present tense?

(By the way, when searching for a “Jesus” image for this post, there were nearly 32 million image results… Which one is right? I think I picked the right one. 😉

Of course, theologically speaking, this is answered with explanations of his divinity and such, and even treatises on his resurrection. And the question of the nature of Jesus, in relation to God, has left theologians bantering for millennia. But those are just theological statements. What I want to know is what exactly does one think of, or what ideas or images are conjured up, when someone is referencing “Jesus” in a way that attempts to relate to everyday life. What, for example, does Carrie Underwood really mean by the word “Jesus” when she says, “Jesus take the wheel…”?

My hunch is that for many (not all) Christians, “Jesus” is a concept, an idea, like God. Even for those who adamantly assert and believe that Jesus is a real, live person who interacts with humanity today, he is a concept. Now, before we get all huffy, let me explain:

People use the name “Jesus” usually when things are beyond them. Just like when non-Christians speak of “God,” perhaps when the bills aren’t getting paid or when grandma dies. But for me, in this sense, “God” is easy to imagine as a placeholder for my longings. When I think of “God,” that word/name serves as a bucket for all things beyond me. Because I do feel that I have some sort of connection with a higher being, “God” is that bucket into which I toss all my hopes, dreams, desires, etc. (some call those things “prayers.”)  But if I were to say, “All you need is a relationship with Jesus,” my mind gets a bit muddled with conflicting ideas:

Yes, my teaching tells me that Jesus is God, so I can just substitute all my thoughts about God with the word Jesus. Synonymous, right? But then I was also taught that Jesus was—or is—a real human. Of course, history teaches us, including sources outside the Bible, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, live person who lived and died in the first century CE. So it’s easy for me to imagine with the name Jesus, a man, a rabbi, a prophet, even some mysterious, hard-to-explain person who had an uncommon link with the divine. But he was a person. Then he died.

If someone says they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, what does that mean, and what does that relationship look like? It’s a relationship with someone who died 2,000 years ago. Many Christians would say, “Well, I talk to him and he talks to me.” How? “Well, I pray. And he speaks to me  through the Bible, and he speaks to my heart.” Okay…so you pray and read the Bible and listen to your heart. So in essence you are doing what you have been told being a Christian is…it’s the Christian way of life. Is that really what you mean when you say, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship?” But how is that a personal relationship? “But Jesus is alive.”

Then come all the theories associated with whatever happened after his death. So millions of people believe that Jesus is alive today. And for many he really is “on this earth, now” alive and is acting in the world. But there is absolutely no evidence that this first-century person called Jesus of Nazareth is in fact alive, now, in flesh and blood, on this earth, anywhere. So what do Christians really mean when singing, “Alive, alive, Jesus is alive!” Is it just habitual re-chanting of an assertion of resurrection? Or a claim of something else?

So we must be brutally honest with ourselves when we say “Jesus is alive.” We must admit that Christians use the term “alive” very, very loosely. Symbolically. And it confuses things. And in that way it just makes Christians look stupid. So next time you try to convert an atheist with the argument that “Jesus is the only prophet who is not dead,” check yourself.

And in the same way that Christians use the term “alive” loosely when speaking of Jesus, Christians also use the specific name “Jesus” just as loosely. And I think that when those of us with a Christian mindset say “Jesus” we really mean “our conception of God.” Jesus is that bucket into which we cast all our hopes, dream, desires, prayers, etc. But let’s get it clear that Jesus is not literally a real, living human. …At least that’s the way I figure it. (Sorry.)

So I contend that when we say, “Turn to Jesus,” we really mean, “Convert to my particular conception of God.” And it’s in that sense that Jesus is a what, not a who.

By stripping the historical reality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth and replacing him with an imperialized concept of God, we really have stripped the message of Jesus of its real relevance. We have replaced the literal meaning of “Love your enemies” with the Pauline concept of “Love is deserved based on how someone treats my ideas of God, and when I say ‘God is Love’ what I really mean is that God, in his justice with respect to Hebraic covenant laws,  is tough love for those who don’t worship my God.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “Turn the other cheek” with a Constantinian-American concept of “We must not let non-Christians have more power than we have.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “If someone asks you for your shirt, also give him your coat,” with the truly American concept of “I might need this coat for the Christmas party at church, but you can have my spare granola bar, because you can’t spend that on alcohol.”

By replacing the historical words of the historical person of Jesus–the who–with our own handed-down concepts of the nature of God and the Trinity and such, we have made Jesus into a what that we really don’t know anything about other than that it somehow represents our notions of God, or the bucket of our longings–our “faith.” And so Jesus really represents our longings. For many, many people, Jesus is simply an abstract reflection of our hopes. And that reflection has taken the form of Hebrew and Greek words from middle-eastern scrolls, and from patriarchal, imperial texts, and from sermons, and from rants, and from political platforms.

For some, however, they themselves try to embody Jesus. For them, while they may see Jesus as a historical person, they believe that his teachings live through them. Some of these people are Christians and some are not. And regardless of what they believe about doctrines associated with Jesus, they try to live out what they understand as the literal meaning of his words. They take care of the “widows and orphans” among them. They “seek justice and walk humbly.”

Some visualize “Jesus” as everyone around them. He is the crack whore. He is the business man. The suicidal teen. The President, Obama and Bush. The unemployed mechanic and the unemployed graphic designer. The pedophile priest and the abused altar boy. He is Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. Bill O-Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Marilyn Manson and DC Talk. Perez Hilton and Ted Haggard.  He is the starving Haitian child and the little blond darling in the Baby Bjorn. He is ‘The Situation’ and Mother Teresa. The illegal alien and the Arizona lawmakers. He’s the person behind the ‘Jesus’ Twitter handle. He is you and me.

For those, he is a person, and yes, maybe he is a set of teachings too, but teachings that have become more than a concept because they are lived out, made alive in those who see everyone around them as the one who said, “When you did it to them, you did it to me.”

It’s a concept embodied rather than imposed.  And so “Jesus” becomes synonymous not with a “longing” but with everyday living, when we live intentionally, regardless of what we believe.

I’m trying to rediscover, and stutteringly live out, the teachings of that person in spite of the concept, in spite of the beliefs swirling around him. And to see that person in everyone around me. And in that sense one can’t “Turn to Jesus,” because if we really believed his teachings, they are “Jesus.” Not his concept, but maybe his spirit or something, just as we all are part of each other. At least we share the same elements, if nothing else. We are all star dust. And so was/is Jesus.

But maybe that is in itself nothing more than an idealistic concept.  And so maybe this is all one big logical fallacy, a bunch of bullshit not worth writing about.

***

I know this was a long one, and even with all these words I still don’t think I’ve expressed exactly what I’m trying to get at. I ended up preaching more than posing the right questions. So it’s a source of frustration. But if nothing else, perhaps this will at least stir up others’ thoughts to help me. You got anything?

What you didn’t see on TV: Grammy for BEST BELIEFS goes to….
February 1, 2010

“First and foremost, we just want to thank Jesus…”

…Yes, I know I touch a very tender spot with this one. You just don’t mess with the creeds. People throughout the centuries suffered for these statements of faith. People today also suffer for these statements. So I know the Christian creeds are precious to millions and should not be spoken of lightly. And without the devoted guardians of doctrine, the Apostles’ Creed might sound something like this…

Some may think I’m crossing a line here, but my sermon today does not debate the value of the creeds for the Church, but it’s about the value of the creeds for me. For years, I have not been able to honestly confess all the elements of the Christian creeds, even while I was helping lead others in worship. The ability to confess all the items listed in the creeds is like your passport that grants entrance into Christendom, or a VIP badge that gets you a backstage pass to Heaven, or a line you cross that defines you as a pick for the favored team, or whatever example you want to use. But because of this, I have hidden my inability to say all the things those teens did in the video above. I subscribe to some of the thoughts but not all.

Anyway, my quarrel is not with the larger truth that the creeds attempt to protect, but it’s with the value of creeds in the first place and the criteria by which they exclude potential followers of Christ. I know my words would be weak here, so I’ve found someone much older than I, a saint on whose shoulders I stand, who bears witness for me from the grave. He passed on 30 years ago, but he captured his thoughts in writing. One of his books reads me, so let me pass on some quotes from Rev. Leslie Weatherhead, who was sort of another version of C.S. Lewis and one of the legendary English preachers of his day. These excerpts are from his book, The Christian Agnostic:

This is how a man falls in love. he could not write a creed about the loved one at the beginning. He finds someone whose life he would like to share, and, if she is willing to do so, as fellowship deepens, he comes to believe certain things about her. Then he can write his creed, and it is of far more value, and much more his own, than if it were imposed upon him by someone else at the beginning as a condition of belonging to her. In my opinion, the beginnings of the Christian life have much in common with falling in love.

I wonder what the state of the health of this country would be like if, four hundred years ago, a committee of physicians had written down thirty-nine articles and demanded that, for ever after, physicians should prescribe according to them. Yet we have [a list of specific articles which every Christian] declares that he believes….[I do not] sneer at the creeds and ancient statements of what some men used to believe. But they were written down to rebut current charges [of their time], not to impose formulae on future generations. Though not as important as loving, believing certainly matters. it matters so much that, if it has any relevance to the business of living, it must be born in the individual mind, not thrust by church authorities on others.

The Christianity of tomorrow will embrace all truth wherever it is found or however men have come to apprehend it, whether through specifically Christian teaching or through [other religions] or even in the bleak desert of apparent atheism. Many of our greatest minds pass through the latter, feeling that to deny all is nearer the truth than to be identified with those who deny all approaches to truth save their own, and in their narrowness and exclusiveness deny love which is more fundamental than anything else.

Jesus never mentioned the Virgin Birth, neither was it for centuries any part of the missionary message of the church. We still make of prime importance matters about which Jesus said nothing. How can a matter be fundamental in a religion when the founder of the religion never mentioned it? And all this goes, not for the Virgin Birth only, but for a dozen improbabilities about which not even a reverent agnosticism is allowed by the die-hard Scribes and Pharisees of today, and the sad result is that we lose from Christian discipleship some of the ablest minds of our time.

Believing theological dogmas was not Christ’s test of those who sought to be his disciples, and for another very important and fundamental fact, you cannot believe a thing because you are told to believe it.

I do not have truth imposed on me. I do not impose it on myself. Truth is self-authenticating, and when it possesses me, nothing can shake it from its enthronement until some greater truth displaces it or gives it less prominence.

[In quoting Brunner,] “Who can establish criteria to judge whether or not the Holy Ghost is really active in a human heart to which God is only just beginning to reveal himself?”

It is [unfair to] demand that to be a Christian one must “believe” this or that intellectual proposition which has put so many thoughtful and lovable people off. “Must” and “believe” are words that should never go together.

…Otherwise, we end up with something like this…

I have a hunch this is not what God had in mind. So please, believe in and hold fast to your creeds if they give you truth, but don’t exclude me from being called a follower of Jesus if I can’t.