Who Do People Say That I Am? And Where Do They Think I'm From?
In doing this I would like to preserve a kind of stereoscopic sensibility, in that I want to start from ground zero, or utter cluelessness, without too many assumptions about Who This Guy Is, even while bearing in mind that he is -- irrespective of whether or not one is a believer -- the most consequential person who has ever lived.
Now, "consequential," in the sense I am using it, means "laden with causation," so to speak. Again, irrespective of one's perspective, it is just an empirical fact that Jesus continues to cause an incalculable number of things to happen -- this post, for example. Obviously, I wouldn't be writing it if he hadn't existed (and this is leaving aside the question of whether Jesus is actively causing things in the vertical sense).
Take a contemporaneous historical figure, say, Tiberius, who was emperor of Rome during Jesus' ministry. Clearly, Tiberius was far more consequential at the time, as he had the power to make most anything happen, whereas Jesus had only the power of an anonymous peasant, which would have been a scintilla more than zero. His criminal's death on the cross would only seem to emphasize the point. Ultimately we would say that man himself had the power of life and death over God -- or at least so it would seem.
Fast forward 2000 years, and we see that Tiberius is essentially inconsequential -- whatever causes he initiated have eventually dissipated -- whereas Jesus' consequentiality only grows over the centuries, like some kind of mustard seed or something.
Again I want to remind the reader that I am attempting to begin this analysis from a standpoint of ignorance which may at times resemble blasphemy. But based upon what we have thus far said, it seems to me that even the most intellectually uncurious and even tenured person would find this rather puzzling: how does the most consequential man on earth become so inconsequential (hey, ask Obama!), whereas how does a common criminal -- whom contemporary psychiatry would frankly regard as delusional -- become the most consequential? (Enough about Obama!) You have to admit that this is odd, odder still if a lunatic is the most consequential man in history.
But let's not prejudge the case: it's not as if other lunatics, or knaves, or criminally insane, have not turned out to be quite consequential. I know, for example, of a religious founder who took pleasure in marrying underage girls and decapitating those who resisted his message of peace. And it is arguable that the second most consequential man in all of history has been none other than Karl Marx. He too continues to reach from the grave and cause any number of things to occur, for example, Obama (and everything Obama causes in return).
Where to begin, with theology, or metaphysics, or history? In a way, this goes directly to the infancy narratives, for what are they actually? Are they really just banal "history" as understood by the modern mind? Or are they theology presented in the form of historical narrative? Or are they, like Genesis, more like lessons in metaphysics and ontology, in this case revealed via biography (or word in flesh)?
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but we do have to begin somewhere. For the Jewish mind, one operating assumption was that man is already in the image of God. Boiled down to an abstract principle, it means that man and God are complementary, even if God necessarily takes priority: man illuminates God because God has first illuminated man.
So, one of our assumptions is that there is both horizontal and vertical causation. Frankly, if there were only the former, then man could never know it. Rather, to know of the horizontal is to be in the vertical; and to be in the vertical is to live in this mysterious space between matter and God; or relative and absolute, if you nonbelievers prefer.
Now, even the most thoroughly secular person is still trying to "ascend" (in the vertical). How? Well, science, for example, is, in its very essence, the reduction of multiplicity to unity. Note, however, that there is a kind of unity in both (vertical) directions. We can descend all the way down into a dark monistic materialism; or, we can ascend into an differentiated but integrated synthesis, which is the luminous way of genuine science (or at least philosophy of science).
But the Christian story -- or the infancy narratives -- begins at the other end of the vertical, with "a man on a mission," so to speak. In other words, this is a hypothetical descent from the most-high to the most-low (in human form).
Thus, on the one hand people knew exactly where Jesus was "from": he's that guy from Nazareth. But at the same time, the Gospels record consternation about how this guy from Nazareth could presume to know all that. When Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?," he's also posing the question, Where do you think I am from?, and even Why do you think I am here?, or What is my vertical message?
For Benedict, the Gospels, each in their own way, "set out to answer these questions." In short: Who? Where? Why? and, How can we participate? Each of these is inextricably intertwined with the others, and I would say goes to the question of how Jesus can be so consequential and continue to cause things like this post to happen today.
Benedict points out that Matthew and Luke present two very different genealogies, one essentially extending from the origin to the now, the other from the now to the origin. As Abraham's life "points forward" to his multitude of progeny (both horizontal and vertical), Matthew wants to say that this stream reaches a kind of focused intensity in the person of Jesus -- or Mary, rather.
If the genealogical stream suggests horizontal continuity from Abraham to Mary, then the vertical ingression into Mary implies discontinuity: "Mary is a new beginning. Her child does not originate from any man, but is a new creation, conceived [vertically] through the Holy Spirit."
At this point -- if not sooner -- non-believers will have already manifested the Jesus Willies, meaning that something in them recoils from all this sappy Jesus talk. Again, I am attempting to avoid this, to the extent that it is possible. Rather, I am trying to open up a space for understanding, even if one ultimately rejects what one has understood.
You might say I am trying to provide some cognitive "hooks" for the modern mind, which will otherwise reject the whole thing out of head.
In this case, I am simply positing the idea that man self-evidently has access to the vertical; that this vertical is either hierarchical (conditioned from top to bottom) or an unintelligible absurdity; and if the former, then the possibility that the top of the hierarchy may manifest in the bottom. This latter would represent "Incarnation," but let's not get ahead of ourselves. At this point we are simply affirming the possibility. And if it is possible for dead matter to come to life, we should keep an open mind as to other possible secrets matter has in store for us.
So, the gospels imply that "Jesus belongs by law, 'legally,' to the house of David. And yet he comes from elsewhere, 'from above' -- from God himself." The point is that this man has a mysterious "dual origin"; he is both one of us and not like any of us: brother and stranger, friend and superior, Jesus and freak.
To be continued... assuming interest.