This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

If Jesus is God, and God is God….


“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to. ...  Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
            –C. S. Lewis

            That is one of the more famous quotes from C.S. Lewis.  It is still routinely used by Christians to talk about Jesus’ divinity.  Either Jesus is who he says he is in the gospels, the living God, or he is mentally ill, a lying, deluded lunatic unworthy of our attention, let alone our worship.  There is no middle ground.  To many of those of us who follow Jesus, this seems pretty airtight. 
            But we do not live in C.S. Lewis’ society, where it seemed to everyone “obvious that He was neither lunatic nor a fiend.”  In the Britain of the 1940’s, the idea that Jesus was psychotic was probably considered pretty impolite, gauche, and out of the question.
            Unfortunately, that is not out of the question for everyone today.  Too many these days would have no problem saying that Jesus was insane and all his followers, no matter how intelligent, were and are deluded.  In fact, if measured by people’s actual behavior, this is actually the dominant view in the Western world, though most remain well-mannered enough not to actually say this in so many words.  We won’t admit that Jesus was crazy, but even most of those who call themselves “Christians” know it would  be crazy to actually follow him.  We have figured out how to mouth the doctrine about how “he is God,” while at the same time conveniently treating him like an eccentric, naïve, idealistic do-gooder whose teachings and actions were commendable but are certainly not to be imitated. 
            Some have taken a different approach. They try to “save Jesus” from this dichotomy by deciding that Jesus “didn’t really say” what the New Testament says he said.  This mainly applies to Jesus’ claims to be God, but also to his miracles and even to his resurrection.  Once they have extracted from the gospels this purported “historical Jesus” who really didn’t claim to be God, they allow people to avoid Lewis’ harsh choice (he’s either God or he’s nuts) and simply receive Jesus as a great moral teacher.
            I think they think that the claim that Jesus is God resulted in superior, exclusive, and violent approaches to other religions, and that this is not a good thing in our more pluralistic world.  I think they think that this claim is somehow an imperialistic and unnecessary embellishment of an essentially simple story.  Perhaps.  But that is not the intention. 
            Unmolested by such arbitrarily selective and self-serving interpretations, however, there is no question that the Jesus depicted in the gospels does indeed claim to be, in some sense, God.  He clearly and repeatedly says of himself, and allows others to say of him, that he is God’s Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, one with the Father, “I Am,” and so forth.  Sorting that all out is one of the main theological tasks of his subsequent followers.  But the texts say what they say and we have no legitimate basis for editing out the parts that make us uncomfortable.  To do that is an expression of self-righteous hubris and arrogance.  Not only that, it is to apply violence to the text itself.  Approaching Jesus with this kind of patronizing attitude separates one from the circle of those who trust and obey him.
            The Theological Declaration of Barmen, the courageous statement by a small minority in the German church against Nazism in 1934, contains the words: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God, which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”  Any theology that doesn’t begin here,  capitulates to the principalities and powers, the empires (manifested in that time by no less than Hitler) that dominate human existence. 
            By giving up the claim that Jesus is God, some are unwittingly and necessarily asserting the opposite claim, that the Empire is the ultimate authority from whom all blessings flow.  One of the original confessions made by Jesus’ followers was that “Jesus is Lord!”   If we render that confession inert by asserting that Jesus himself made no such claim, we are left with the ideology it was meant to oppose, that only Caesar is Lord.  Every quest for a “historical Jesus” different from the Jesus Christ presented in the New Testament is therefore inherently imperialistic.  It is to give no counter-claim in answer to the raw assertion of the Empire that might-makes-right.
            But this basic Christian affirmation that Jesus is God is an important and indispensible claim not because it asserts domination or superiority over other religions, but because it unites us to them through him.
            The God of the Bible, the sovereign Lord and Creator of the universe, is not a local, tribal deity tethered to a particular piece of real estate, expressed in only one culture.  This God does not belong to a particular tribe or nation.  God is not in “competition” with other deities and religions.  There are no other deities.  If God is God of all creation and humanity then all religions are, in some sense and to some degree, authentic responses to the one God in different times and places.  The same God reigns in India, China, America, Europe, and Africa, as was worshipped by Israel.  (See Amos 9:5-7.)   To argue otherwise would imply that God is not Lord everywhere for everyone. 
            This turns C. S. Lewis’ famous argument on its head.  Either the claims, accomplishments, and promise of other faiths have some truth in them as well, or we have to decide that an awful lot of people, including some of the wisest, most spiritually adept, and best people who ever lived, are deluded fools in the grip of superstition.  To do so would be to limit God to being merely the private deity of Europeans, who depends on us to carry him around and impose him by force on these other cultures.
            Lewis assumed it would be repugnant to say Jesus was a lying fool.  As wise and good a man as he was, I believe he would think it equally repugnant to infer that the followers of every other religion were necessarily lying fools.  It is precisely Jesus’ claim to be God that makes it necessary for us to be open to others’ experiences of the one God, in and through him.  For if Jesus is God, it means he does not belong to us.  Rather, we and all people, and the whole creation, belong to him.
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