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?

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No Experience Is Better Than False Experience (Guest Post)
July 2, 2010

Following is a guest post from my Kiwi friend, Jonathan Elliot, who writes about faith and being a friendly agnostic at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

***

I’d like to tell my story of not being slain in the spirit.

I spent a fair bit of time in spirit-filled practice when I was a student, attended a charismatic church and worked closely with Pentecostals in our campus christian group.  I can still speak in tongues on demand, if you want me to. At the time, a pentecostal ministry ran a revival week in a huge tent out in the countryside. I’ll let the cynical among us note the appropriateness of using a circus tent for such events.  They brought a number of apparently-big-name preachers in from overseas and one of them was a clean-cut young man who was surely not even thirty years old. I’ll call him Redfords LaGrange. God had allegedly been talking to him since he was seven years old, and he’d made a study of “God’s Generals,” famous spirit-fooled preachers.

Standing at the rear of some 1500 people, I listened to him. On another night I’d heard Redfords exhort the whole crowd to voluntarily speak in tongues at the top of their lungs.  I felt uncomfortable with this, mainly for what I felt were Scriptural reasons. It also seemed kinda stupid and I quietly left to stand in the dark field and pray. As the roar of the crowd behind me surged, I could hear the cry from the poor folk trying to sleep in a distant farmhouse: “SHUuuuuuuuuT UuuuP!” This rather amused me, especially since they actually used more colorful language.

Anyway, on the night in question Redfords LaGrange called for those engaged in youth ministry up the front; he was going to pray for them. I walked up the long aisle into the spotlights along with about 50 others and we stood in a line along the front.  Now, when you’ve got 50 people to pray for individually and you’re a preacher with no time to spare, you have to kind of rush along the line and spend about 15 seconds with each person.  You don’t have time to even ask the person’s name. As Redfords was coming, I prayed “God, I’m open to anything you want to do. Do anything you want to me. Make me fall over if you want, only please let it be you and not psychology.”  I’d been praying that all the way down the aisle too. Let me say, I was very sincere about both things.  I wanted a touch, but only if it was real.

I knew falling over was likely, as that tended to happen in these kind of meetings. I always preferred to call it “falling over”, as the term “slain in the spirit” is not one found in scripture. The cynical can point to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were slain BY the Spirit.  I doubt anyone wants to recreate that experience.

Indeed, as Redfords came down the line, I saw people falling over out of the corner of my eye. “Catchers” ran forward to make sure they didn’t hit the ground too hard. Many of us already had catchers standing behind us in advance. If it’s an experience from God, I always wondered why he would allow you to be hurt?

Redfords LaGrange reached me and prayed, his hand gently on my head. I didn’t sense any physical pressure from him, I was alert to being pushed.  He prayed kindly and briefly, and moved on.  Did I sense him hesitate when I didn’t collapse? I stayed there praying, slowly realising that out of the whole line, I was the only one who hadn’t fallen over.  Maybe I was resisting the spirit, maybe my intellect had made me hard-hearted. But I know I was sincere. I just didn’t want it to be weak buckling at the knees under the influence of emotion, tiredness or peer pressure.

Mark Vernon migrated from christian clergy to atheist, and now calls himself an “agnostic christian”. He’s an advocate of silence and
not-knowing. Vernon says it’s important to draw a clear line between silence and an experience of ecstasy.

There is an emphasis on experiencing ecstasy in much contemporary churchgoing. This is Christianity that is authenticated by some kind of peak experience, from speaking in tongues, to being healed, to seeing a statue move.  Typically, the experience is noisy, demonstrative and, qua the experience, often barely distinguishable from a bungee jump or druggy high.  But this is Christianity as psychological buzz; its passion is no more than emotion.  It’s aims may be valid – happiness, satisfaction, belonging – but they eclipse the goal of spirituality, at least according to [Meister] Eckhart, which is that of sacred ignorance. For the pursuers of pure experience, the unknown is regarded suspiciously.  They substitute the language of personal fulfillment for the language of … doubt.” –After Atheism, p 120.

So what do I make of this? As it happens, in the course of many other meetings I’ve never fallen over. I’m not a hater; I believe that if God was there, then my prayer was honored. I also have a funny feeling that at least some of those people fell over because they felt they had to, or look unspiritual in front of the audience. Have you ever felt left out when others all seemed to be getting blessed? What did you make of it?

Again, check out Jonathan’s blog at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.