We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Revisiting Jesus & Dualism

A week or so ago, the Presbyterian news website, Church and World, picked up on a Rom Phra Khun posting entitled, "Jesus & Dualism," which generated  a spike in visits to this usually quiet, backwater blog.  Among the visitors was a sister Presbyterian blogger of a different theological persuasion, Viola Larson.  She did not like what she read and has posted a scathing critique of my blog entry (here).  She labels me, among other things, a heretic.  It's pretty blunt stuff.  One of her commenters even linked me to the notorious (on the Right) John Shuck of Shuck & Jive fame.

I only mention this because Viola's posting raises the important and fascinating question of the two natures of Christ, his humanity and divinity.  She accuses me of "rending" them apart.  This is an issue that has been debated intensely in Christian circles since the earliest days of the Jesus Movement.  Fairly early on, we settled on the formula "fully God, fully human" to express that affirmation.  But what does that mean?  Specifically, does it mean that the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth was all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful in a divine sense, which seems to deny his humanity?  Humans are by definition limited, creaturely beings.  Does it mean that God somehow became limited, which seems to be a fundamental denial of divine nature?  God by definition is Beyond human or even cosmic limitations.  How do we put these two natures together in one physical body?

The truth is that faithful Christians frequently tend to lean one way or the other in their view of Christ.  Those on the "high Christology" side emphasize his divinity while struggling to contain that divinity in his humanity.  Those on the "low Christology" side are big on Christ's humanity while struggling to fit his divine nature into his humanity.  Viola holds to a high Christology, while I hold to a low one.  Were I so inclined, I suppose, I could accuse her of rending apart Jesus' two natures, too.  To do so would be to miss the point that the person of Jesus, human and divine, is important to both of us—profoundly meaningful and worthy of our life's commitment.

I accept the two natures of Christ formula, which for me means that God the Beyond was incredibly present in Jesus of Nazareth, but not in a way that was immediately obvious to those around him.  The gospels, particularly Mark, portray Jesus as a man who could grow tired, didn't know everything, could lose his cool, and shared some of the prejudices of his age.  The gospels clearly associate Jesus with God to such an extent that the early church soon enough worked out the two natures doctrine to explain that association, but it is worth noting that the struggle was not with Jesus' human nature.  That was always the easy part.  It was with figuring out how one man could also be God incarnate.

For myself, it makes most sense to see Jesus as being a real-time, actual human being with the full set of human qualities.  In fact, the point of the incarnation is that God humbled God's self, stooped down to our level, and became one of us.  "One of us" is not all-knowing and all-powerful.  "One of us" feels pain, grief, and struggles with human limitations.  If God the Beyond did not shed such divine attributes, the incarnation was not a risk and not truly a sacrifice.  Jesus was God With Us in his intense compassion and courage, a spiritual and moral Presence that I associate with the Holy Spirit.  The gospels seem to me to make that same association in their descriptions of Jesus' baptism.

It is helpful to remember the fact that those who knew Jesus the best in his own time did not come up with any clear formulation of his two natures.  Indeed, apparently, they seem to have thought of him primarily (again, esp. according to the oldest gospel, Mark) as the Messiah, which didn't at first mean he was divine.  Then, the dominant wing of the early church came to think of Jesus as a "super" Messiah, which belief eventually evolved into the two natures doctrine.  We should not forget that important segments of the early church saw Jesus either as "just" a man or as God who only appeared to be a man.  Both of these views were eventually deemed heretical.

So, I am in Viola's debt.  She has brought Rom Phra Khun increased attention, which can't be all bad.  She has taken my own thoughts on the person of Jesus very seriously, which also can't be all bad.  And she has afforded me the opportunity to slow down and think again about Jesus and our shared faith in him as Lord and Saviour, which is all to the good.