Looking for God in All the Wrong Places
Every year, it seems that we hear more and more about modern historians’ speculations about Jesus’ wife (or wives) and children. Every year, we hear more about modern scientists’ theories about the "swoon" theory, apostolic bodysnatching, or other explanations for Jesus’ apparent "resurrection." And every year, the Bible is reduced more and more to an increasingly dubious historical document, its inconsistencies making its spiritual value more and more questionable.
Nothing interferes with the understanding of the actual Jesus more than rigid examination of the "historical Jesus," particularly in today’s scientific-intellectual environment where nothing immaterial is even permitted to enter the discourse. C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully about the subject in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis' insights in the 1940s are frighteningly prophetic when read in 2007. Letter XXIII reads, in part: "Their 'historical Jesus'... has to be a 'great man' in the modern sense of the word--one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought--a crank vending a panacea. We [devils] thus distract men's minds from Who He is and what He did." Materialist thinkers who deny the resurrection because it has no verifiable, repeatable, scientific explanation are considered to trump theologians who argue that the verifiable, repeatable and scientific seldom has any transcendent value in actual human experience. Intellectual discussion is restricted to things material, with all things of a spiritual nature placed in a remote location and bound inside a box labeled "irrelevant."
I suppose I shouldn’t complain about this as if it’s some kind of a new phenomenon. Paul, Peter and the first Christians faced skepticism of all kinds in the early days of the church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote: "Jews demanded miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." (1 Corinthians 1:22-25, NIV)
The apostles' inability to "prove" the facts of Jesus’ transcendent sacrificial death and resurrection was the least of their problems. It simultaneously amuses and infuriates me when modern thinkers dismiss the early church founders as having established Christianity in order to gain power for themselves and their heirs. It's amazing to me how often I hear this argument. Assigning later abuses of individuals and eras to the institution of "church," these high-minded "progressives" conveniently ignore the facts that the earliest believers were one of the most persecuted minorities in world history, that every apostle (save John, who was exiled) died a horrible, tormented death, and that people simply do not allow themselves to be tortured and killed for something they know to be a lie if denying it will save their skins. The fact is, Christians had no political power whatsoever for the first several centuries of the church's existence. The people founding this faith had absolutely nothing to gain in establishing a church based on a lie.
So it’s Good Friday as I write this, perhaps the first directly theological piece I’ve ever posted to this blog. I have avoided writing about faith for the same reasons I avoided politics for so long: because discussions of politics and faith seem to drive friends apart much more often than they bring them together. But the discussions of politics here have really opened my eyes, so I’m less afraid to bring the subject to faith than I used to be. If I profess to believe we can all gain from an open, respectful discussion of our disagreements, I should absolutely be open to talking about the central fact of my life: my belief in Jesus Christ.
But the defining moment was actually a silly little MySpace bulletin from Scott Wichmann entitled "And knowing is half the battle." The point was to ask your friends to answer questions about you, ranging from "What is my middle name?" to "What is your favorite memory of me?" and so on. What moved me was Scott’s answer to my question: "Who is my best friend?" Scott wrote about me: "Jesus (I'm not being sarcastic--I think your faith runs that deep)."
When I read that, I started to cry.
I think this is the best thing anyone has ever said to me ever.
One of the central prayers of my life is "St. Patrick’s Breastplate," a prayer-poem attributed to the famous Irish evangelist. It reads, in part: "Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me." The fact that Jesus was in the eyes of someone who saw me, someone who has not heard me talk much about the details of my faith, was absolutely one of the defining moments of my life.
Having come out of the closet as a conservative (albeit an atypical, occasionally liberal one), it’s time to be a whole lot freer about my Christianity.
So back where I started: It’s Good Friday, and the news networks are flooding the airwaves with the story of Jesus as they see it (and as they are permitted by their paymasters to present it). It’s the story of a social revolutionary who spoke amazing words, who challenged long-standing beliefs about how people should behave toward each other, and whose charisma founded one of the world’s great religions. (He just may have performed some amazing works along the way, but science has explanations for pretty much all of them by now.) Having aroused the ire of the local government, Jesus’ movement was brutally suppressed and its charismatic leader was tried, convicted, tortured, and then executed by crucifixion. (Legend has it that his body disappeared three days later, but this has been widely discredited by modern scholars, doctors and historians.)
The thing is, there’s no way to tell the story without some element of ridiculousness. If we Christians really look in the mirror and honestly evaluate the foundations of our faith, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that it’s awfully hard to swallow. There is, in fact, a segment of theologians who profess that the very act of believing in the extremely improbable facts of the Gospel is in itself a miracle. It’s a kind of divine circle wherein we believe enough to pray for the belief to believe in more.
And that’s where the study of the "historical Jesus" must always fail. If Jesus was the Son of God, as Christians profess, then restricting investigation of Him to only the material and the historically verifiable is a fruitless endeavor. Of course, God is God of the material and historical as well as the spiritual, and examination of the material world is very instructive in learning about the nature of God. But omitting the spiritual from investigation of the nature of Jesus is like omitting physical sensation from investigation of the nature of the Sun. You can learn a lot about the Sun from looking at it and by reading thermometers, but if you don’t feel the warmth of sunlight on your face, you’re missing out on perhaps the most sublime detail. In short, you can’t learn jack about a spiritual figure while omitting the spiritual from the investigation.
Not that there isn’t a lot of history backing the Christian tradition up. There are simply no ancient texts with as many consistent copies as the books of the New Testament, and none for which we have copies as close to the date of original writing. And it’s not that I don’t care about that stuff; my faith is strengthened by works of historical Christian apologists, like Lewis' works and Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (a highly recommended read for anyone who wants to know more about the foundations of Christianity). But the foundation of faith is belief, not history.
Faith is a spiritual suspension of disbelief, and like theatre your spiritual life can only have any depth when you allow yourself to believe in something beyond what you can wrap your senses around. Faith doesn’t just happen; you have to decide to have it, work at it, exercise it, and pray for it. In the words of Firefly's Shepherd Book: "You don't 'fix' the Bible.... It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It's about faith. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you."
I’m going to be talking about spiritual matters around here much more from now on.
So this Easter, I invite you to remember that the story of Jesus is more than the story of a man who was killed for his radical beliefs. I invite you to remember that the totality of the story of God’s plan for our salvation, your personal salvation and mine, is so very much more than the sum of its parts. And I invite you to join me in a prayer for the faith to believe in greater, deeper, and more improbable things. The stuff on the surface can only take you so deep.