Thursday, August 04, 2011

Jesus, Christ?!

We've written many posts on the nature of the Absolute, on the Trinity, and about divinization and theosis from our side of the cosmic divide, but not so much about Jesus as a man.

After all, we are told that he is two natures in one person. It shouldn't be too difficult to understand the man per se, nor the divinity. But how do the two relate? In other words, it's one thing to say that he was a man, just like any other. Bueno. But when you throw in that he also happened to be God, doesn't this make the first statement a little problematical?

Well, doy!

By the way, before we proceed any further, I hope that what follows will be of interest to non-Christians. I should think that anyone interested in religion, or even just our humanness, or the foundations of western civilization, will find it provocative, even though I don't yet have any idea what I'm about to write.

At any rate, please bear in mind that this is from the perspective of an "outsider" -- or perhaps border-dweller at the edge of O -- or more to the point, an "explorer" who is surveying this intriguing landscape for the first time. Only an impertinent newcomer could ask such stupid questions. And whatever this post happens to be about, it feels important, and is eager to be written. So get on with it!

I also realize we're covering some very old ground here. But hey, it's new to me. In particular, the first few ecumenical councils between 325 and 680 were called in order to try to nail down this mystery, and to exclude various false formulations too numerous to mention. But few of the heresies that were repudiated along the way were exactly "stupid" or outright wrongheaded, let alone malicious. To this day, many Christians still embrace one or another, e.g., Assyrians and Coptics.

The majority of heresies were honest attempts to grapple with an issue that is not only difficult, but sui generis. In other words, there is nothing else to compare it to, plus, in reality, it's inconceivable anyway. This means that the early Fathers were essentially trying to achieve the impossible, to define with words what words cannot define.

In a very real sense, it was more of an apophatic than cataphatic endeavor, in the sense that the eventual formulation -- one person and two natures, without confusion and without division -- was designed so as to prevent traversing down certain fruitless avenues.

It reminds me of a map with clearly drawn boundaries around a completely mysterious center. Just because we know the boundaries, it doesn't mean we have any idea of what's going on within them. I know that Judaism has many similar boundaries that are designed not so much to disclose the mystery as to protect it.

But think for a moment how long it took to nail this bit of theological jello to the ecumenical wall. The first Council wasn't called for nearly 300 years after the death of Jesus. That's longer than the existence of the United States. It would be analogous to the Constitutional Convention still going on today, with different factions arguing over the meanings of "liberty" or "equality."

Which, of course, is still going on today, with the two factions as bitterly divided as ever. You might say that for constitutional conservatives, the left is a heresy. But for leftists who believe in a "living constitution," we are obviously the heretics and even terrorists.

In any event, the reason I've been thinking about this is because I've been reading Cardinal Schönborn's new work of Christology, God Sent His Son. This follows my usual highly disciplined pattern of reading whatever happens to fall into my hands, whether it is a cereal box or a work of metaphysical speculation.

Schönborn is apparently one of the cardinal's heavy hitters; among other things, he was editorial secretary of the catechism of the Catholic Church, and he obviously moves in the same theological circles as luminaries such as Balthasar and Ratzinger (although I don't find his writing to be nearly as exalted -- much more dry and scholarly).

Much of the book comes down to a somewhat tedious, if necessary, history lesson about this 2000 year long debate. Is there anything fresh that can be added to it? We have been given the fence. That's not going to change. But is there any new or better way to think about what's going on inside that fence?

In other words, I fully understand that certain things must be taken "on faith," not only because faith is a prelude to understanding, but also because minds much finer than ours have already thought this through, so that we don't have to reinvent the spiel each generation.

Nevertheless, I am not the sort of person who just wants to jettison everything we've learned about the world over the past two millennia. In fact, I don't happen to think that we should try to adapt our thought to premodern modes (nor could we anyway).

Rather -- and this is one of the mysteries and miracles of revelation -- I have discovered, to my surprise, that it is eminently possible to adapt revelation to whatever history happens to toss up, without in any way compromising the revelation.

This is indeed a mystery. Why should words uttered by some anonymous peasant 2000 years ago have any relevance whatsoever to contemporary human beings? No doubt most all of what was thought, said, and written back then is of no interest or relevance to us.

And yet, we have this fellow Jesus, whose words are still pored over for meaning which is too superabundant to be contained by any generation that has followed him. If nothing else, this argues for a very peculiar type of mentality. It's a little depressing when you think about it. Is anything you have said or written going to be debated in 2000 years? Will I still have cyberstalking trolls in 4011? I can only hope.

As Schönborn writes, "even if Jesus' period and his environment left their mark on him, it is still more true that he has left his mark on his, ours, and all other ages and on our whole world.... Only a unique and incomparable consciousness can be at the source of Christ's work of revelation and redemption" (emphasis mine).

What I would say is that there can be no effect without a cause. The effect of Jesus is clear enough. I don't think it can be gainsaid -- by believer and non-believer alike -- that he has been the most "efficacious" person in history, the most influential, impossible to ignore.

That being the case, what is the cause of this outrageous effect? Obviously the question is impossible to even approach in the absence of a framework that permits transnatural and nonlocal causation. The alternatives are just too banal to take seriously.

The most readily accessible information about Jesus is contained in the Gospels, but even -- or especially -- there, we are always confronted with a Mystery, which is again why it took hundreds of years to even place some kind of boundary around it. So let's dive into the Mystery, and see if we can't pull out a live one.

One of the purposes of theology is to facilitate thinking about -- or in -- God. Structurally speaking, this is no different than science or psychology, which provide us with models to think about what otherwise cannot be thought.

Thus, the question is not necessarily whether this or that scientific theory is "true" in the ultimate sense -- indeed, we know going in that no relativity can be absolute -- but whether it is fruitful, whether it answers questions, whether it pulls together diverse phenomena, and whether it generates new and deeper questions. This is how we should think about theology, not as absolute truth, but as a way to think about the Absolute in our relative sphere.

To be continued....

15 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

I have discovered, to my surprise, that it is eminently possible to adapt revelation to whatever history happens to toss up, without in any way compromising the revelation.

I'm reminded of something Sipp wrote, about how on a farm every year there's a fresh crop of rocks. Of course, this is a whole different context from what his farmer meant, but it's an illustrative truth nonetheless: the field will be there for generations, but no matter how many times the soil is tilled, it will always yield something new that must be harvested before the planting can begin.

As to the singularity of Christ, I'm reminded of how I got here, in a way. That is, after I started listening to Prager and asking myself "what if...," I had to wonder what sort of God would allow for something as World-changing as Christ if the whole thing was a fake. If the "historical" shows on the Discovery Channels were true, and Jesus had actually been just some sort of charismatic Jewish terrorist (or "freedom fighter") whose mythos grew bigger than the man ever really was. In other words, what sort of god would allow himself to be known through a big fat lie (even if it contained some useful elements of truth in the form of "nice" moral instructions), for over 2000 years?

I had to conclude that buying that idea was just as ridiculous as believing that the world was literally brought into being 6000 years ago, in toto, complete with dinosaur skeletons and fossil records showing that the world has existed far longer than that. In other words, to believe that Christ was anything less than god and man in wholeness is to believe that god is a liar, the ramifications of which are simply unsupportive of life as we know it.

It is a Mystery, and yet it is the Mystery whose Truth literally illuminates and defines existence.

8/04/2011 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger Jewel said...

Julie, aren't they full of themselves, these modern forensic units. They appear to be more omniscient than the Omniscient One. Which just proves that the Foolishness of God is higher than the wisdom of men.

8/04/2011 09:29:00 AM  
Blogger robinstarfish said...

So let's dive into the Mystery, and see if we can't pull out a live one.

I love a good fishing trip. Especially one in which we're the bait.

8/04/2011 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Schönborn is apparently one of the cardinal's heavy hitters;...

Sort of like Joe Medwick: Upon being asked by the Pope what his vocation was, Medwick replied, "Your Holiness, I'm Joe Medwick. I, too, used to be a Cardinal."

8/04/2011 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Speaking of Mushroom, his post today is a nice complement to this one...

***

Jewel - indeed. They look for answers, not in order to deepen their understanding, but in order to drive a stake through the very heart of the Mystery.

8/04/2011 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

As Schönborn writes, "even if Jesus' period and his environment left their mark on him..."

A lot of what the New Testament writers are doing is a kind of positive revisionist history. In light of Jesus, Moses and the Prophets take on a whole new meaning. The out-of-time rhythms and discordant notes become syncopation and harmonize in a higher theme. The Evangelists, Paul, and John the Revelator would acknowledge that His times and environment marked Jesus, but they would add that the Incarnation could have taken place only within those specific and unique parameters of time and place.

8/04/2011 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Thanks, Julie.

When I read: And whatever this post happens to be about, it feels important, and is eager to be written, I thought, I guess so.

8/04/2011 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, he is not only the cause of what comes after, but more oddly, of what came before...

8/04/2011 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

In light of Jesus, Moses and the Prophets take on a whole new meaning.

Yes, what a good way to picture it: prior to Christ, their understanding was like that of people trying to view a detailed landscape with only one light source, low to the ground (like illuminating a dark scene with just the flash attached to a camera). After Christ, it was like seeing the same scene in full sonlight.

8/04/2011 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Magnus Itland said...

Jesus the man "of his time" is obviously more distant to us, and Jesus the Son of God is obviously the same. So does that mean we have drawn to short straw to live in this age? Some may think so, but I not. There is also Jesus "the mission", so to speak, which we know and they did not. There is no way they could have foreseen fully the change this leavening would bring about to billions of people over thousands of years. A river, after all, is greater the further we come from its source, and this compensation is ours. So I believe.

8/04/2011 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Completely off topic, but I'm pretty sure this is a sign of the coming apocalypse. Notably, it is in part a response to socialized medicine. If doctors are financially and temporally (in time taken to fill out forms for each patient) punished for practicing proper medicine, they'll use their training for more questionable practices instead.

8/04/2011 01:27:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Rather -- and this is one of the mysteries and miracles of revelation -- I have discovered, to my surprise, that it is eminently possible to adapt revelation to whatever history
happens to toss up, without in any way compromising the revelation."

Interesting. Think inside the fence.

Of course that's further than the aye can see but it's better than daring each other to pee on the fence to see if we get the shock of our lives (and to see if anyone is stupid enough to try it. But we already know the answer to that is: sho' 'nuff!).

But I digress.

Oustanding post, Bob!

8/05/2011 02:49:00 AM  
OpenID kaffepaus said...

Jesus as a human is quite explicitly pictured at the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, where the genealogy of Jesus is outlined for us. Fd Robert Barron has a short (8 min) clip where he discusses this at Word on Fire that is very worth watching:

Looking forward to the follow ups on this post!

8/05/2011 04:56:00 AM  
OpenID kaffepaus said...

"very much worth"

8/05/2011 05:33:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"Rather -- and this is one of the mysteries and miracles of revelation -- I have discovered, to my surprise, that it is eminently possible to adapt revelation to whatever history happens to toss up, without in any way compromising the revelation."

Or the reality and truth of the history and the present moment. That was the shocker for me. Still Hanging Ten on the waves from that depth charge....

8/05/2011 08:00:00 AM  

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