Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jesus is the Problem: Reflections on the Scandal of Particularity

I've recently facilitated several Bible study sessions focusing on the Gospel according to John.  I'm once again struck by how much conflict and division drives the action in that Gospel.  When Jesus shows up, performs signs, and teaches, people are pitted against each other and forced to decide for or against him.  One verse sums it up rather well: "So there was division in the crowd because of him" (John 7:43).

Evidence of this division has surfaced even in the Bible study group itself.  One person openly admitted that he could not accept Jesus' exclusionary truth claims (cf. John 6:53 and John 14:6).  People of other religions and of no religion can be good people, too.  The implicit protest here, of course, is that access to God, heaven, etc., cannot be limited to Jesus alone.  Surely our good works and intentions are sufficient!  Another person countered by saying he accepted Jesus' claims in John, and that such claims are foundational and non-negotiable for the Christian faith. And so the scandal of particularity - the claim that this particular 1st Century Palestinian Jew is God incarnate and the Savior of the world - continues to pose a challenge to faith, even for many within the Church.

Writing in Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology, Thomas C. Oden teases out important implications of the "scandal of particularity" when he writes:

If anyone might imagine that to be representative of all humanity Jesus must have done everything possible that any human being could ever have done, that status would not be ordinary humanity.  One cannot be human without being a particular human being. ... [Jesus] is more like us by living in a particular time and place.  He would have been less like us if he had spent his earthly ministry in all times and places.  This is in part what is meant by the phrase "scandal of particularity" - that God comes to us in a special time (when the hour had come) and a special place (the Holy Land) to a specific woman birthing a particular child, yet in a way that bestows significance upon all other times and places.  

All of this is even more problematic in a pluralistic context in which people want to be affirming, inclusive, and tolerant of differences. The Jesus we meet in John's Gospel doesn't fare very well in such a context.  And so, in a blog posting entitled "The Scandal of Particularity: Facing Jesus in a Postmodern Age," Dan Wilt asks the question "What's the problem?" and answers it by saying, "Jesus is the problem."  He writes:

What’s The Problem?

Father Raneiro Cantalemessa, the personal teacher to Pope John Paul II, spoke to the leaders of our Vineyard movement in Rome a few years ago. We gathered in a resonant marble chapel, which to me symbolized all that which is beautiful, enduring, timeless and solid. His message? “The Battle Is Around The King.” Our entire group reeled as though intoxicated under the influence of his striking words, expressing that in the ecumenism of the day, the joy of interfaith dialogue, the quest for peace among religious leaders of the day, all is well when “God” is the topic of irenic conversation. However, in a recent gathering of Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Muslims and other faiths, Father Cantalamessa mentioned the name “Jesus.” Divisive stirrings began around the room.

In today’s world, “division” is the enemy of all that is good, peaceable and “tolerable.” We want to be united as people, and to see that unity born out in intercultural care, communication and consideration. We resist division, because we see the horrors it breeds in governments, faith systems and families. Tolerance says “You’re okay; I’m okay. We’re just different.” But, what if someone (you or I) is actually wrong? What if someone, or an ideology, is actually harmful, over millenia or in a moment? What if “I’m okay; you’re okay,” actually can, and does, bear the children of blood, tears and hatred as well as peaceful dialogue?

What if there is actually one way in the world? What if it’s a wide road in the coming to it, but a narrow road in the progressing on it? What if there indeed is a way of living for human beings, that one unique faith system (I include the faith systems of naturalism and evolutionism, all part of the “humanity’s best guess” club), at its essence, promulgates? What if the scandal of particularity is exactly the plan, and a way has been made that addresses hatred, death, love, goodness and the strangeness of the human condition.

Jesus Is The Problem.

Back to our topic. Jesus is the reason that Christian faith is a problem. “…No one comes to the Father but by me” is the bone of contention, and a Jesus who has been aligned with the Crusades, Inquisitions and Acquisitions of history is an unacceptable personage in the 21st century world.

What do we do with a God of love, who through His messenger Jesus, declares that a life of love is the way of God, and evidences this through real loving, healing, forgiving, restoring spiritual activity on the planet? We want everyone to be right, mainly because Derrida and others helped us to understand that many of us in charge actually have thought we were right, but to our own controlling ends. But, what if one is actually right? Then, what if that God declares his uniqueness among the faiths of all ages?

Dan Wilt continues by noting the response of some Christians to all of this: devotion to a general theism or what he calls "A Gospel of General Love Based on the Teaching of Jesus."

Many of my Christian friends around the world (both culturally and in their estimation, by chosen faith) are considering the scandal of particularity just that – a scandal that represents the worst of those with whom they no longer wish to be identified. They are both sad and happy for all the deconstruction of the faith in our age. In essence, they are seeking to ameliorate (improve) their language of “living a life of love” (accurately, the central message of the New Testament), and at the same time remedially ignoring any language of specificity or particularity related to Jesus. They don’t want to throw their vibrant history with God, or with God through the worship of Jesus, away; they just want to let it simmer on the other side of their outward confession for awhile while they figure this thing out.

To some friends, I would honestly and without judgement ask, “Have you left your faith in Jesus, your faith in his life as the Christ, his life, death and resurrection, while still trying to rationalize in your mind that you haven’t gone anywhere?” In other words, “Have you fallen back into a noble Theism, replacing any Christocentric language with ‘God language’, in order to compensate for your own internal struggle without letting others know how intensely it is raging? Is Jesus an example of yet another noble life, one which you and I simply choose to follow? Is Jesus becoming, in your heart of hearts, and option among options, to be embraced either to keep peace, or to remain socially connected, or because the jury of your heart and mind is still out. Or is he, as the earliest believers powerfully advanced post-resurrection, God incarnate?

I would ask them to be honest, as a friend, and answer that question – even in secret. So much is on the line for these wrestling friends; families, relationships and so much more, if they were to honestly answer this and live it out, that I think the psychological dance may simply need to continue for them until they die. Secret letters honestly answering that question may come out after they’re dead, but to live out their honest answer would cause too much pain and heartache for them to bear this side of death. In other words, the faith of their mind and heart must now hide behind the faith they express to the stakeholders in their lives. Once again, it seems that Jesus is as much about dividing as he is about uniting.
Have compassion on these ones, a group of people whom I have often lived on the edge with, and still do on my worst and best days. Somehow, they harbor Jesus in their heart still, but, when pressed, wrestle with the specificity of salvation experience he relegates to himself in the Gospels, and that the epistle writers expound on in the New Testament. The internal, rationalizing gymnastics are hard on them internally, but they feel that in order to be in integrity as a healthy spiritual person, and to be in integrity as a follower of Jesus, they must slightly hedge their bets on Jesus’ particularity and err on the side of a Gospel Of General Love Based On The Teaching Of Jesus. This may sound tenable, but aligning ourselves with the earliest, and historical, Christians, while falling to the side of the “less particular gospel of our own making” is an enterprise that would lack both academic and soulful integrity.

St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote: "If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”  And so we continue to be challenged by the Jesus we meet in the pages of the New Testament to forsake the less particular gospel of our own making for "the words of eternal life" that the Son of God alone offers (John 6:68).


Don said...

Good stuff! I am always deeply curious when I encounter self identified Christians who seem to speak of Jesus as a wise teacher, a mortal who proffered an excellent moral system. I find this completely at odds with the Gospel narratives. Often, it seems, as you quoted in the article, that they do so out of a real desire for inclusion of all, a noble impulse. Nobility of impulse aside, it is not what the Gospels or Paul say about the person of Christ. With the Borg, Crossan and their ilk teaching against the witness of Scripture, it is little wonder that many find support for this position.

No less than the PB has been quoted as saying, "Jesus is a way, a truth, a light." Reportedly she has said that she was misquoted, however, I have seen absolutely no evidence that she has asked for a retraction or correction. This is no little thing as your blog post points out.

One does have to wonder, if there is no particularity to Jesus, then why are we warned throughout the NT that the world's response to our message will be rejection? If simple virtue is enough for salvation, why would the world reject that? Does this mean there is no sin, only less virtuous lifestyles?

The rejection of the particularity of Christ is a rejection of the Gospels, and a rejection of who Jesus said he was through the Gospels. Perhaps their ARE other mechanisms for salvation, after all, God can choose to do whatever God chooses to do within his nature, but if this is true, it is not something we have evidence of in Scripture or the Tradition.

Perhaps it is time for the formal creation of a church for what I call "Christianists." A place for those who wish to live lives based on the moral teachings of a 1st Century man who's name was Jesus, but who was not divine, and who is not a path to salvation through his divinity. It actually might make everyone happy!

The Underground Pewster said...


Good suggestion Don