Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why I’m a Christian 5: Jesus is special

For the previous parts to this series see 1, 2, 3, & 4.


I think that Jesus is special. Not ‘short bus’ special, but ‘distinct in important ways’. Of course this can be said about anyone, and especially applied to any great leader, teacher, or religious prophet. When one uses the adjective “special” to describe a person, there is no numeric or standardized method for determining the validity of the designation. So I’m not here to say that Jesus was “more special” than Gautama or Muhammad, as though the comparison would mean anything. What I want to say is that Jesus displays characteristics that are important and meaningful to me. More important than the characteristics of the Buddha or Joseph Smith. This ought to be expected given my upbringing in a seriously Christian family and a post-Christian country spawned by a long lineage of Christian cultures. Western civilizations have been shaped by the ideas of Christianity for a long time, and as a product of that so-shaped culture, my preferences, assumptions, attitudes and moral foundations can all be traced in many important ways to an interpretation of who and what Jesus was.


What I’m establishing here is the point that I am biased. Deeply embedded cultural forms channel my thinking on the topic of Jesus, religion, philosophy and such. So when I’m making this determination about Jesus being my key for interpreting reality I do so as one who’s mind has been molded into a shape that is receptive to a Jesus-shaped key. Now, I don’t think I’m the only person who has biases, and I believe that every human mind has been shaped by their environment and upbringing so that certain truths are harder or easier to accept. And conversely certain untruths are harder or easier to accept.


To determine whether my interpretation of Jesus has more truth or falsehood in it, I have two options. I can “go with my gut”, and let “faith be my guide”. (In other words, just accept the way my mind has been molded and take it to be the best way for determining Truth.) The other option would be to seek the consensus of others. I would assume that the broader the consensus is, the less skewed the answers will be towards a particular bias.


An exception would be in the case of specialized knowledge, such as medical knowledge or astronomical knowledge. Polling everyone on earth and taking the most popular answer may not be the best way to determine what’s causing this rash or what the composition of Saturn is. For those kinds of answers I would want to consult a smaller pool of people, selected based on their expertise. But is religious knowledge (if such a thing exists) sufficiently like medical and astronomical knowledge, and thus warrant a limited pool of specialists? Or do the specialists just bring with them special pleading? This seems to be the case since there are many many more specialist opinions concerning Jesus than there are concerning the chemical composition of the planets in our solar system. You can get a group of astronomers together and the vast majority will agree on the vast majority of astronomical concepts. But get a group of religious experts together and the vast majority will disagree on the vast majority of religious concepts. (Unless you limit your pool to a very small one such as a denominational convention.)


So where does this leave you and I, the non-religious-specialist, seeking religious Truth? Well, as far as I can tell it leaves us in the consumerist position of simply choosing the religious specialist or group of specialists that appeals to us. Which just leads back to the first option I mentioned: of going with our gut and letting faith be our guide. If you are as unsatisfied with that answer as I am, let’s try to really find an alternative to this method. Back to the polling of all humans from all times. Let’s take a swim in the sea of general popular opinion and see if that’s a more promising place to find Truth.


In other words, I would trade in my own known bias (Christianity) for a general wash of biases that could average out the effects of individual biases. This is sort of a scientific approach. Peer review and such. My polling question would be whether those outside my tradition could recognize those same characteristics in Jesus that I see as special. Well, there is an immediate problem with this procedure. Unlike a scientific theorem, the evidence presented has huge emotional triggers embedded in it. I’m not pointing at ice core samples or blue shifts that don’t really make demands on us and our personal behavior and beliefs. Redwood growth charts don’t remind us of pushy door-to-door evangelists, hard pews, boring music, or hypocritical parents that we still resent (Not me personally.) the way certain religious concepts may. Hopefully we all understand that when the emotions are engaged in an intellectual assessment our bias is strongest. So while a numerical majority may find a certain interpretation of Jesus to be wrong or unconvincing, that can hardly be used as an objective measure with which to determine its validity.


But you could say that the vast majority of humans are pretty apathetic towards Jesus, so it would seem that they would be ideal candidates for getting an unbiased opinion. The big problem is that this group of people is also overwhelmingly ignorant of the pertinent data concerning Him. The only way to get a polling from informed people is to turn to the specialists, which again, leads back to option number 1: go with my gut and pick the specialists that seem best to me.


So those are the two poles of investigation that I know of. 1. Go with what I’m comfortable with, and 2. Go with a majority position on the issue. Frankly, both options suck. The first one suffers from a lack of universal applicability. For instance, if my spiritual leader says to me, “You were raised with the correct view of Jesus, so just believe it.” How can I justify this when a spiritual leader on the other side of the world says the exact same thing to someone who believes an opposing view is correct? Am I to assume that THEY are the one who have been mislead and must break through the blinders of THEIR tradition in order to find the Truth? How can I possibly know that I’M not the one who needs to do that? Because MY system makes such good sense? OF COURSE IT DOES! (to me.) I’ve been raised to ask certain questions in specific ways that my system has evolved to answer perfectly well. I’m sure they have the same dilemma. I doubt that they have some glaring contradiction in their worldview that they just choose to ignore. (At least no more than I have.) But again, I could be wrong about that. Perhaps my culture is the chosen one that has developed the right questions-and-answers format, and any person from another culture who steps into this system should slap their forehead and exclaim, “How could I have been so stupid?!” For some reason, I’m dubious of that. I’m not comfortable making that a basic assumption that my whole worldview is based on.


But option 2 also seems hopeless. How can I count on a majority of the world to be right about something that the majority of the world knows almost nothing about? And if I narrow the pool of consensus down to only those who know a lot about Jesus, haven’t I just selected a much more biased pool? Since a theory for any particular interpretation of Jesus is based on historical evidence, theological tradition and existential feelings, there’s not a lot of solid consensus to go by. Two people could look at exactly the same set of historical evidences. One person may interpret Jesus as a Jewish mystic who was executed, and nothing more. And the other may feel that they speak to Jesus daily and have enlightenment and salvation through Him. I think the Jesus Seminar does a pretty good job of determining the very minimum of what can be historically “known” about Him. I think they go too far when they proclaim that these bullet points are the only thing that CAN BE true about Him, excluding the miraculous on purely philosophical grounds. What their work tells me is that historical analysis can only take us so far. Those who are unwilling to proceed past the comfortable consensus of modern scholarship will have to be content to see Jesus as an interesting historical figure who probably did some stuff and might have said some things.


Having been raised in a fairly orthodox Christian family of intellectuals I’ve had my fill of Christian apologetics. I’m fairly confident that I’ve read every major argument for the Christian faith many times over. For those who want the best of this work see the following: G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Francis Scheaffer’s He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demand’s a Verdict.
All this reading has given me plenty of option-number-one: going with the faith that I received. There are plenty of bad arguments in the above works: special pleading, circular logic, and emotional pleas. But there are also a lot of really good points. As I’ve ventured in the wider world of thought, attempting option-number-2 more often, I’ve discovered that there really is something special about Jesus. I’ve looked into a bunch of those claims about how Jesus is just like various other deities, or his teachings are so similar to Buddha and other Eastern religions, and how he was simply one of many itinerant prophets operating during that time in that region. They are all very compelling as long as you stay at the bullet-point level. But once I started actually researching the claims they fall apart pretty quickly as evidences against a Christian interpretation of Him. As for the points that do stick, I honestly don’t see them as a challenge to the concept of Jesus as God-man.


I’m not going to get into all the arguments here. The point of these articles is not to advocate my particular beliefs, but just to explore them and my motivation behind adhering to them. Besides, there are plenty of resources out there for those who are interested.
But again, here I am examining arguments from one side, comparing them to arguments from another side, and agreeing with the side that sounds best to me. And as I’ve said, what sounds best has been programmed into me and my culture since before my birth. I’m hardly in a position to make such judgments. So where does that leave me? The easy answer is to throw my hands up in frustration and walk away from the whole issue.


This is why I totally understand the Materialist impulse to simply shut down investigation at the point it leaves the bedrock of current consensus. We find consensus in our sciences, and so it would be sort of nice if there were no unaccounted-for reality that intruded into our little sphere of “knowledge”. Once the head and legs have been fully retracted into the turtle shell of physical existence there is no need to bother with the messy theories about gods and origin and purpose. These are disturbing theories that demand we make intuitive leaps based on our biased proclivities, or force us to consider the cacophonous opinions of the spiritual seekers. Within the womblike comfort of their turtle shell the materialist comes up with a theory for reality that simply says nothing they can’t perceive exists, (or if it does it’s not important) so there is no need to investigate questions that have already been declared to be dead ends.


Comforting, and in some ways easy, but that’s a place I just can’t stay. Not because I know that they are wrong about the non-existence of spiritual worlds. (No one can possibly know that.) But because I’m too curious to swallow the materialist pill and shut down investigation of these issues that drive the vast majority of our lives. These issues of purpose and destiny are the only things that give meaning to our actions. And while it’s totally possible that we made these concepts up, I’m not going to assume that.


So again, I am stuck with two appalling, imperfect choices when it comes to interpreting Jesus. (Or any other historical/philosophical idea.) Go with my inherited tradition created by a culture of Jesus-lovers, or accept the general indifference of the world at large. My answer? An awkward, stilted In-Between. I’m striving to learn everything I can from as many sources as possible, attempting to ascertain their motives, biases, and wordviews; while still honoring an interpretation of Jesus that sees Him as Truth. I note that what this interpretation of Jesus actually means is very hard, if not impossible, to nail down in a few aphorisms. I can’t dogmatize the subject. I can’t make solid claims that every reasonable person would agree with. I’m going with my gut. But I’m trying to balance that with a realistic assessment of the historical and philosophical claims. I’m approaching Jesus in a mechanical, clinical, critical historical manner, but attempting to balance that with the existential dimension of life that refuses to sit silently while I carry on with this important business.


A materialist will say I’m trapped: unable to sever my emotional needs from a rational investigation. This critique sounds sensible. Until I realized that the idea of a totally detached rationality is impossible, and that the very impulse to take such an approach to life is predicated on an emotional preference. It seems to me an inescapable fact that we are emotional beings, operating in a world of experiences that play on those emotions. Some of us embrace the ride. Some of us hate it, and try everything we can to resist the experiences that tug our emotions this way and that. Most of us are in-between, recognizing the value of emotions in shaping our outlook, creating our values, and ordering our thoughts. But also attempting to make good decisions based on cool-headed reasoning. The problem comes for those who hate the emotional manipulation that their hearts perpetrate so much that they imagine a world where they can be only rational. But there is no “rational way” to interpret reality. Every interpretation takes place in time, which means that the aspects of reality we attend to first are decided based on values. And values are intrinsically emotional. This is not an attack on reason. Obviously there are more and less reasonable approaches to the interpretation of any particular aspect of life. I only wish to be honest about the context in which our reason operates. I won’t pretend that a human can shift into some sort of computer mode where no values guide their rational thoughts. But I also won’t fall into the existentialist dogma of individual realities and subjective truths. I simply see my reason as guided by certain ideas and the emotions they evoke. I recognize that I can cultivate certain emotions, and seek to purge myself of other emotions. But still, there is an underlying value system deep down, that guides my desire to do so. This inaccessible core of our being is the programming that truly makes us who we are. It may be the product of a strictly mechanical cause/effect chain, or a divinely implanted soul. I don’t know which, (I suspect it’s both) but my extended navel-gazing has led me to it. And I see this core emotional component as an inescapable element of our humanity. No thoughts, ideas, rationality, philosophies, religious concepts, morality or any other brain function we have can operate outside its purview or unguided by its dictates. And we can’t fight it. Why? Because we don’t WANT to. What we want is determined by it. Did I just blow your mind? Don’t worry. It’s only a theory.


But it’s an important element in my larger theory of my motives and my Christianity. My investigation has lead me to this internal organizer. This programming. This soul. My “heart” as it turns out, seeks to be obedient. Such a word is obviously very loaded with concepts and emotionally charged. After all, to be obedient one has to have a master or authority. In today’s philosophical climate of self-empowerment and making one’s own destiny, this idea shrieks out of tune. Perhaps this is because obedience can have two different motives. Someone can obey for their own self-interest: either to avoid punishment, or to receive rewards. This form of obedience evokes the image of the weak minded-fool or pathetic, scraping servant appeasing a loathsome master or a big-hatted religious leader. That, or a conniving butt-kisser, only in it for themselves. This is not the kind of obedience I feel drawn to. My obedience is motivated by love. Love of the good and the right and the just. I’m sure that a lot of non-Christians share this motivated obedience for the good and the right and the just. From my perspective, it is quite accidental that my obedience-based-in-love should find its instantiation in Christ. Had I been born in another place or time I may have placed that obedience in Ra or the Rain Spirits or my emperor-god. But as it happens, I wasn’t called by them. I was called by Jesus.


In the canonized stories of Jesus, the reports about the way he gathered His disciples all feature a simple calling. Jesus says: “Follow me”, and they follow Him. But it’s more than just a few words. Here’s a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, that sums up, encapsulates, and supersedes all the other reasons listed in this series of articles about why I’m a Christian.

And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he rose and followed him.–Mark 2:14


The call goes forth. And is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events. By hook or by crook a bridge must be found between them. Something must have happened in between. Some psychological or historical event. Thus we get the stupid question: “Surely the publican must have known Jesus before and that previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call.” Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent on this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call-and-response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the call is behind the immediate following of call by response, is Jesus Christ Himself. It is Jesus who calls. And because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. The encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries. And no other consequence but obedience to the call. Because Jesus is the Christ He has the authority to call and to demand obedience to His word. Jesus summons men to follow Him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short text Jesus Christ and His claim are proclaimed to men. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple. But only Him who calls, and His absolute authority. According to our text there is no “road to faith” or discipleship. No other road. Only obedience to the call of Jesus.


I feel like Levi. I feel like I was called, and I obeyed. Not because I’m great, clever, mature or in any way better than anyone else. (The scheming, lying, cowardly Disciples of the Gospels should dispel the idea that being called is based on merit.) I can analyze my feelings and break down “the calling” into all sorts of little psychological bits n’ pieces. I can get all Freudian, isolate felt needs, develop theories as to how my religious ideas meet those needs and conclude that the whole thing is a sham. I can get Jungian and say my primordial brain is simply responding to archetypes that dominate my thought. Being agnostic, I’m open to these theories and understand their merits. In fact, I believe them to be true to a certain extent. But having answered the call, and attempting to walk in obedience to Christ, means that I choose a unifying and transcending interpretation. As John 12:32 says, Christ draws (drags is a better rendering of the Greek here: as a fisherman drags a net of fish) me unto Him. The “net” I’m caught in is woven from various strands in my life. The way my parents raised me, the experiences I’ve had, my emotional and intellectual proclivities, etc. I will be considered a fatalist by most, but I believe I simply don’t have a choice in the matter.

If life was a laboratory, I suppose I could test this hypothesis by purposely resisting the net that drags me to Christ. I could try to cultivate a dislike for all things Christian, purposely sever relationships with Christians, and hang out only with smart attractive people who despise Christianity. But the fact is that I simply don’t want to. I may be completely deluded by my current worldview. But who knows, I could also run away from Truth into an opposing worldview that would delude me. All I’ve got to guide me here is experience, reason, logic, intuition and a few other tools that have proven to be miserably inadequate by thousands of years of recorded history. Like most people I pay lip service to logic and reason as the best way for finding Truth. And like most people I often forget that my logic and reason are directed and motivated by my emotional desires which spring from my soul. And my soul is owned by Christ.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Shelley said...

I really appreciate this post Joshua. Most of it went over my head (even with a christian college liberal arts education... :)! But as I am evaluating the things I believe, I found your thoughts most helpful. Sometimes I just want to chuck the baby out with the bathwater...but I feel in my gut there is something special about Jesus too.

3:15 AM  

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