In a recent op-ed piece (“Jesus and the Modern Man,” New York Times, Nov 9, 2014) the writer James Carroll takes on not only the conservative backlash by apoplectic bishops and vocal lay pundits discounting Pope Francis’ unwieldy leadership, but also the deeper question lingering beneath this ecclesiastical donnybrook: why the church at all? Carroll deftly detects a common ground for both aspects. Catholics habitually have focused their religious lives on the community of belief rather than on the historical basis of their “smells, bells, rules and dogma.” Pope Francis’ astonishing behavior has forced them to glimpse the figure of Jesus whose kindness and actions transgressed the power plays of his day. For Carroll and, he believes, for Pope Francis, the church exists to continue to tell this liberating story.
But Carroll does not leave the matter there. He is quite aware that the tsunami of modernity has ripped open the barque of Peter. The telescopes of Galileo recast the eternal lights of heaven into aging satellites that now crash and burn. The Holocaust has forced a long overdue recognition of the Jewish Jesus. If Jesus is the basis of this ancient tradition, then, under the press of such shocks, Carroll asks: what can a modern person believe about Jesus? He adds, “Can Jesus be said to be divine?” If Jesus is not regarded as “somehow divine” then, Carroll argues, he will ultimately be forgotten.
Carroll wisely advocates that any ecclesial reform must be centered on a critical reading of the gospels. He contends that the centrality of Jesus can restore not just Catholic identity, not only other churches, but even the conversation with everyone on this planet. All dogma and tradition must be “measured against the example” of this son of Israel, who pointed to the holy One and invited the marginal to his table.
While I am very sympathetic to Carroll’s position, I must confess that it falls somewhat short and it is rather predictable. Indeed, Carroll’s argument comes from the complexity and confinement of Catholicism. He returns to what is traditionally known as the Imitatio Christi, a paradigm for Christian ideals in which to follow Jesus means just that: to follow in his footsteps, to live as he lived. What one does, not what one believes, holds sway. There is much to commend in this choice. The biblical basis very much is derived from the Gospel of Luke, whose author presented Jesus as a teacher and martyr who could be imitated all the way to death. The developing monastic movement, along with various religious orders, continued in this vein. It is not surprising then that Carroll, a novelist and a writer who tends to couch things from his autobiographical perspective, would go in such a direction. Ironically, his argument is still an argument from authority. While the conservatives demand fidelity to authoritative declarations, Carroll counters with the emotive authority of the figure of Jesus. Carroll replaces power games with the power of personality.
What happens when we turn to the fragments from the historical Jesus? Can they contribute to this discussion? Can we get beyond a miming of this compelling character? I would suggest that the critical question is not who Jesus was, but rather, what was he up to? It is certainly not a question of later Christological debates and formulations. Nor is it a matter of needing to assert a divine pedigree; that was a power concern of subsequent communities. But it is a matter of wisdom, of coming to grips with the words and vision of that troubling artisan.
From a critical study of his sayings, from his aphorisms, stories, and parables, we can say that Jesus did not focus on himself. Instead, he challenged his listeners to figure out how God was effectively present in their midst. Coming out of the Jewish wisdom tradition, Jesus offered his audience sayings that they needed to test in their own experience. He experimented with others in the getting of wisdom. Because they found that his words deepened their lives, they kept them going. His stories begot more stories. The developing gospel traditions bear witness to this creative surge.
By catching a sense of how Jesus’ language worked we can detect what he was up to. His words gave an edge and direction to his actions. In declaring that God indiscriminately provided benefits to bad and good, just and unjust, Jesus transgressed the usual understanding of God. Could his audience imagine such a surprising reach? Could they tolerate hearing that a loathsome Samaritan could act compassionately? Did that scenario have anything to do with the nonsensical remark about loving the enemy?
If Jesus is remembered it will no longer be because people give him divine titles. Nor will people be satisfied with the imitation of a mime show. Rather, Jesus will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. perceived and took up that challenge. Do we see any sense in continuing to play along with them? Do we recognize what loving our enemies means to our planet? Can we get beyond asserting our “divine rights,” beyond continuing to play the artificial game of survivor? When shall we finally grow up? When are we going to imagine an atmosphere where we can all breathe deeply and confidently?
Arthur J. Dewey, Th.D., Harvard University, is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. A regular on PBS's Saturday Morning Edition (WVXU, 91.7 in Cincinnati), he is the editor of The Gospel of Jesus (2014) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (2012) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (2010). This editorial, "Testing the Atmosphere of God," originally appeared in The Fourth R magazine, Issue 28-1 (Jan-Feb 2014).[button url="https://westarinstitute.org/resources/the-fourth-r/fourth-r-subscription/" size="large" color="golden" target="_self" lightbox_content="" lightbox_description=""] Subscribe to The Fourth R [/button]
Also In This Issue
Mother of Us All: Promethean Eve (Richard Trudeau)
Theology before and after Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God (Lloyd Geering)
Be Born Again? (aka: “Get a Life!”) …and Jesus said, The hidden will be revealed(Gordon W. G. Raynal)
Born Again? Think Again. (Robert J. Miller)
The Gift of Different Vantage Points: A Response to Robert Miller (Gordon Raynal)
The Basic Problem of Historical Jesus Studies: Criticism is to make judgments in light of evidence (Charles W. Hedrick)
A Letter to Jesus: A Confession (Gerd Lüdemann)
Book Review: Questioning Assumptions: Rethinking the Philosophy of Religion by Tom Christenson (Robert J. Miller)