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Why Jesus of Nazareth?

C. Randolph Ross

Marathon, New York

 

Most of this article is adapted from C. Randolph Ross, Common Sense Christianity, Occam Publishers, ISBN 0-929368-00-2 (available at amazon.com and bn.com).

 

Introduction

Carl Scovel has written a thought-provoking analysis of the decline of the Christian segment of UU-ism. And his article, “Beyond Channing and Church,” is more than that. It also confronts non-Trinitarian Christians, both within and without the UU tradition, with a warning.

But it is a far different warning than I, a “small u” unitarian from outside the UU fold, would have expected. Scovel sees a cause-and-effect between Christian Unitarianism discarding the Trinitarian concept of God, and its devolution into a form of secular humanism. He argues that by excluding the divinity of Christ, Unitarians ended up with a Jesus who was just another teacher and prophet—one who became less relevant than other teachers and prophets. Many thoughtful people have struggled with this problem—if Jesus is not God, then who do we (as Christians) say that he is? How do we explain and justify his special status in our belief system and in our lives?

Scovel and I come from different places in confronting this question. As a UU, he is reacting to a gradual “progression” by a large segment of UU-ism from seeing Jesus as the great teacher, to seeing him as just another teacher among many.  In my own quest, I am reacting against the other end of the spectrum—those who insist that anyone who would be Christian must believe certain doctrines and concepts that, to me and others, are inescapably not believable, not biblical, and not implied by anything that Jesus taught or did.

But though we come at this question from different directions, I strongly agree with Scovel that Christians need a way of claiming Jesus as central to their faith, their beliefs, and way of life. Scovel is surely correct when he says that the task of a Christian “is to try to live as a disciple and live in fellowship with other would-be disciples,” and that this “is primarily not a matter of thinking right things about Jesus, or believing certain doctrines,” but “trying to be a disciple of Jesus” by “trying to live his teachings [and] love [one’s] fellows.” Certainly this is more important than how we explain why we do this, and how we explain who this Jesus is. But, as Scovel points out, such explanations are not unimportant, for they can affect the ability of our belief system to withstand change and challenge.

My claim is that thinking Christians can acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as the sacred source of our values without resorting to claims about his divine nature. In fact, I strongly believe that it is our obligation as 21st Century Christians not only to accomplish this, but to promote it—so as not to surrender the name and heritage and deep truths of Christianity to only those people who can continue to affirm a set of doctrines developed in the Roman Empire. 

Perhaps this makes me a neo-Channing, or perhaps it marks me as naïve. While I insist that we can do this without the doctrine of the Trinity or of Jesus’ divinity, Scovel is surely correct that it is easier to maintain Jesus’ centrality if we believe that he is divine, than if we believe that he is human the same as ourselves. The “burden of proof” is on those of us who would proclaim Jesus’ centrality in a way markedly different from the majority view of the last 15 or 20 centuries.

 

Why We Cannot Turn Back To The Trinity

But what if we simply cannot accept the notion of the Trinity, cannot believe that Jesus is divine? Although this is doubtless “old hat” to many Unitarians, I feel compelled to briefly state why I, at least, cannot—and why none of us need to, in order to consider ourselves Christians.

I have elsewhere confessed my admiration for the concepts of the Trinity and the Incarnation. These doctrines met the needs of early Christianity in the Greco-Roman world in an admirable way. A Jesus who is wholly human and wholly divine fits with: (1) the fact that parts of the New Testament refer to him as human, while other parts refer to him as divine (maybe not as the God, but at least as somehow divine); (2) the fact that Jesus was worshipped; (3) the views that our “salvation” was accomplished either by a “perfect” sacrifice or by the coming of the eternal into our world; (4) the need to maintain monotheism in the light of Christian worship of Jesus and “God the Father” and Christian experience of the “Holy Spirit”; and (5) the need to conform the Christian view of a God who interacted with humans with the immutable God of the reigning philosophical system.

But the fact that this may have been a marvelous solution for explaining Jesus in the days of the Roman Empire does not mean that it is the best way today. It is certainly no more biblical than a number of other alternatives, and it just doesn’t work for a lot of people. It doesn’t work for me, because I cannot escape the conclusion that it is impossible for anyone—including Jesus of Nazareth—to be both fully God and fully human. It is also unnecessary, and even unhelpful.

First, as noted, the traditional doctrine is not mandated by the Bible. Not only are there alternate ways of identifying Jesus in the New Testament itself, but the Trinity and Incarnation are not even to be found there, except in an incipient form in one or two places.

Second, we simply don’t believe anymore that God, or the universe, works this way. It violates our common sense. It may have been conceivable for Zeus or Apollo to assume a human form, but not for the one eternal and infinite God of the universe.

Third, it is a logical impossibility. Simply put, to be human is to be finite and limited; to be God is to be the opposite. One cannot be both. I don’t mean only that you or I can’t understand it. I mean that it presents a logical impossibility. Like a “square circle,” it is an interesting image—but it is impossible. Either it is not square, or it is not a circle.

As for two personalities in Jesus or three persons in God—these may be interesting metaphors, but they make no sense. What, exactly, does it mean to say that there are three persons in one divine being? (Showing me a shamrock doesn’t provide an explanation.) Some respond, “Of course it doesn’t make sense—it is a mystery, beyond our human comprehension.” I readily accept that the nature of God is beyond our human comprehension. But it does not help our understanding to describe God with terminology that lacks meaning. If God’s nature is a mystery, we should confine ourselves to saying so, or use language that we acknowledge to be imagery and metaphor. Otherwise, we are just saying that “Jesus is X” or “God is X” —with “X” being unknown because it is beyond our comprehension. To claim that these are actual descriptions of the divine, and to insist that others believe them, strikes me as absurd in the extreme.

Fourth, we are asked to follow the example of Jesus. But it is not helpful if this example and teacher was divine. You and I don’t happen also to be God. For us to feel seriously called to live and love as Jesus did, we need to know that this was possible for a fallible, finite human being such as we are.

Finally, in a very important sense, it is not claiming “more” of Jesus to claim that he is God, if this is not something that we can believe or, even more, if it this does not have meaning for us because it cannot make sense.

 

Who Do We Say That Jesus Is?

If we do not identify Jesus as God, then what do we call him? Of course, the real question is not what title or name we assign to Jesus, but we have always used these “titles” to indicate who we believe Jesus is and what he means to us. I like the term “son of God,” but it has far too wide a range of meanings to be helpful. “Messiah,” of course, is the title that was settled upon by the earliest Christians. But there is real danger to us Christians if we primarily think of Jesus as “Messiah.” It is a title with a long history that we cannot ignore. The “Son of David” was to be a king, a warrior, and triumphant in worldly terms. Jesus of Nazareth was none of these. Whenever we identify him with the lordly and powerful of this world, whenever we think of him as king, we cloud our understanding of the man from Galilee whose greatness lay in his giving of himself and his being a servant to others.

I use another tradition title, but with a twist. I call Jesus the “functional” Christ.

Let me explain.

“Christ,” of course, is simply the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Nevertheless, it does not have the same connotations for us. We find the word “Christ” only in the New Testament, so we do not identify it with the Old Testament warrior-king. Perhaps more important, over the years “Christ” became so closely identified with Jesus of Nazareth that it effectively became part of his proper name. For most people it has no other meaning than to name this particular person (perhaps with a vague awareness that this part of his name means something special about him). It is also part of our name, as Christ-ians.

Because of this title’s unique associations with Jesus and with us who claim to follow him, and because of the fact that it is relatively free of traditional meaning, this is how I choose to identify Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Christ. But I do not mean by this that he has a special “nature,”  that he was somehow more “divine” than you and I are.

Let me explain further.

In calling Jesus “the Christ,” I recognize that I am taking what had become largely a name, and rehabilitating it as a title. I also freely admit that one of my reasons for doing this is that, because of a long lapse in its use as a title, “Christ” is more open than the others to being given new meaning.  But what meaning do I seek to give it?

By calling Jesus the Christ, I do not mean that I believe him to be divine, or that he was without sin, or even that he was necessarily the wisest and best of all people. Rather, I define “the Christ” in a functional manner. That is, I identify Jesus as the Christ by the function or role that he plays for me. As long as he fulfills this function I don’t need to claim that he was born of a virgin or was specially chosen by God, that he healed the sick or was raised from the dead.  I may believe one or more of these—and in fact I probably do—but they are not necessary in order to identify Jesus as the Christ.

By calling Jesus the Christ, what I mean to claim is that this person is the one through whom we as Christians focus our understanding and our faith. He is the one whose life and message are central to our understanding of God and reality, the one whose teaching gives direction to our lives, and the one whose example of love and right relation and concern for others informs our attitudes and actions. This is to put Jesus in the center of the “sacred.” Also, in the traditional sense of the term, this is to recognize his authority in our lives.

 

The Question of Authority

Jesus of Nazareth was neither a member of the high council, nor a local official, nor a recognized rabbi. Naturally, then, the people who heard him “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Two questions must be answered: first, what was the source of this authority? That is, how was he able to speak this way and be recognized this way in first century Palestine? And second, how does this translate into authority for us today?

 

Jesus’ Authority in First Century Palestine

Jesus spoke as one who had authority. He did not just repeat the traditions of the elders or justify what he said by the teachings of others. How was he able to do this? Because he was sure of himself. He knew he could sense the pull of God who spoke through the law and the prophets, and through the universe itself, and knew that he had to point the way to others. So he did.

He saw that some were perverting justice and that others were trapped in their own greed. He saw that some tried to be faithful but couldn’t get past their lists of rules and that others stood in the need of the freeing word of God’s love. So he acted accordingly, and he did so with self-assurance.

This sort of moral certainty is much out of favor today. Too often we have heard the narrow-minded offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. We have, rightly, rejected these so-called “solutions” and recognized that there are no easy answers.

But it seems that we have often gone one step further: we justify our own confusion by being suspicious of any certainty, and we interpret the lack of easy answers to mean that any answer is as good as another, that we cannot be sure about right and wrong.

This last step is a tragic and inexcusable surrender of human moral responsibility. Even if we cannot know the answer to all of society’s ills, even if we cannot pretend to know how to solve the problems of crime and drugs, poverty and illness, war and peace, we can still proclaim that it is obviously and unquestionably a moral wrong to maintain a penal system based on vengeance instead of rehabilitation; to allow human rights violations to go unchallenged; to waste vast quantities of food and resources while others are malnourished and sick and poor; or to allow so many children in our own midst to go through childhood unwanted and unloved and even abused. The lack of easy solutions cannot be used as an excuse to cease recognizing and proclaiming right and wrong.

Jesus of Nazareth did not surrender this responsibility. He proclaimed right and wrong. He spoke with the authority of one who saw clearly, and one who was not distracted or blinded by self-interest, not a prisoner to societal conventions. But most simply, he spoke with authority because he spoke from his own deep convictions, from his own strong sense of the pull of God.

So he preached his call to God, his call to love and repentance and reconciliation, with courage and conviction and charisma. And he preached it in such a way that his listeners were presented with a choice. They felt compelled to either accept or reject his message. Indeed, this is not an unusual reaction to someone who is secure in who they are and sure of their vision.

Those who responded positively to his message recognized him as having authority as teacher, example, and leader. Those who responded negatively also recognized his claim of authority, in the way he taught and acted—but they rejected this claim. But if we can explain a claim to authority in first century Palestine in terms of conviction and charisma and a demand for decision, how do we address the question of the authority of Jesus of Nazareth today?

The Question of Jesus’ Authority Today

The question of Jesus’ authority today cannot be answered by an appeal to his compelling presence or to ancient Near Eastern understandings. Rather we must look at our own response to his life and teachings. And we need to address three different questions here: (1) What is involved in recognizing Jesus’ authority? (2) How do we justify this in terms of our modern common sense? (3) Why recognize authority in this person rather than in someone else or in no one at all?

 

1. What Does It Mean to Recognize Jesus’ Authority?

There are three steps involved in recognizing the authority of Jesus of Nazareth for oneself. The first step is a real awareness of who he is. This does not mean the vague and comfortable awareness that we get from our culture—and all too often from our churches and church schools—that Jesus was a good guy who talked about love. Neither does this mean an awareness of creeds, or an ability to say that Jesus Christ is Lord or Savior or “X”. To begin with, we need to seriously confront the life and teachings of Jesus himself. If this is done earnestly and sincerely we will be forced to ask ourselves whether indeed he may have been right, whether he knew what he was about, whether he did in fact correctly perceive God and truth, value and meaning.

The second step in recognizing Jesus’ authority is an affirmative answer—a recognition by us that, yes indeed, this guy was right in his central message. He had the key: service of others and of God is our greatest purpose; love in return for hate is the greatest triumph; there is something in life more important than our own selfish fears and desires. Step two is thus the recognition that Jesus of Nazareth points to the truth, that here we have an accurate compass to God and to the deepest nature of reality.

To recognize that Jesus points the way to ultimate truth and meaning identifies him, for us, with the sacred. This in itself would be to recognize a certain authority in this person. But it remains only an abstract authority, an authority for others but not ourselves, unless we move on to step three. The third step is the decision that, since Jesus was right, we will try to follow his example, live by his teachings, and adopt his understanding of God and reality. Because in his own life he showed how to live in accordance with truth and meaning, we will follow his lead in orienting our own lives. Or, to follow the metaphor, after deciding that here we have an accurate compass (step two), we now decide to follow where it points (step three). This is what makes us Christians; this is what it means to confess, in a meaningful way, that Jesus is the Christ.

 

2. How Do We Justify This Authority?

Can we justify this approach, this recognition of “authority” for Jesus of Nazareth, in a way consistent with our modern common sense? Yes. It fits with our understanding of the Christ, with our conception of God, and with our common sense to claim that Jesus of Nazareth was particularly sensitive to the presence of God as the context for our lives and to the possibilities and demands that this creates for us. There is no need to claim a special nature for Jesus—a compass comes from nothing more than pieces of earthly mineral, but can align itself with the magnetic field that flows around our planet. Pigeons are able to do the same. Similarly, we recognize that some people are more sensitive than others to the spiritual dimensions of human existence and that some are particularly sensitive. And this is the claim that we make of Jesus of Nazareth—that he was particularly aware of and in tune with God, that he was aware of and in tune with the ultimate truths and values and meaning.

We do not have to claim that he is the only person who was ever this sensitive to God, that he was in tune with God in an absolutely unique way. Rather, our claim is that Jesus was particularly sensitive to God. We claim that he was right, that he is an accurate compass. This is sufficient for our faith—that we have a trustworthy guide—and this fits with our common sense in a way that other kinds of claims about Jesus do not.

 

3. Why Jesus of Nazareth?

If we do not claim that Jesus had a unique relationship with God, then how do we justify recognizing Jesus’ authority? Even if it fits with our common sense, how can we justify choosing this person as our compass when there may be others just as accurate?

This is a legitimate and important question. But we need to remember that we do not need to claim that Jesus is the only trustworthy guide to God. I hope we are not so insecure that we need to claim that everyone else in all other religious traditions is hopelessly misguided. Surely we can consider each other to be wrong, without necessarily impugning the validity of the other’s religious beliefs, if their beliefs lead to right relation with God and people. [fn 1] And indeed, should we not rejoice if others find themselves directed to truth and to God, even if it is by a path other than our own?

Well, if we don’t claim (and so don’t need to try to prove) uniqueness for Jesus of Nazareth, how then do we justify giving him the role and authority of the central source of our meaning, how do we justify making him, as I am calling it, “compass”? There are four parts to our answer: (1) We are not aware of any equally good alternatives; (2) Jesus has been confirmed in this role by many faithful lives; (3) Our interpretation of Jesus’ role is subject to the correction of tradition and ongoing public discussion; and (4) In the end, it depends on the response of our hearts. These are mostly reasons of historical accident, dependent on our own historical situation. We are historical creatures, influenced greatly by our circumstances. Our claim is that, partly because of these circumstances, Jesus can function as the Christ for us, as I have defined this, and does function this way for those who choose him.

(1) Why choose Jesus of Nazareth when there may be others who were as sensitive to God? The plain fact is that we don’t know of any others who would fill the bill for us. For most of us, the other people we know who show in their lives this same sensitivity and devotion to the cause of God and rightness are themselves acknowledged followers of Jesus. If we were to choose one of them as a guide we would find ourselves directed right back to Jesus as compass. [fn 2]

Now I freely admit that my not being aware of good alternatives to Jesus of Nazareth may be due to simple ignorance on my part and is no doubt culturally conditioned. Nevertheless, it makes no sense to withhold our allegiance from Jesus merely because it is possible that there may be other options, if in fact there are no actual viable alternatives in sight—or at least none that could serve as compass for us.

(2) If we were to become aware of another individual, or even several people, who seem to point to God and to the deepest truths as consistently and accurately as Jesus of Nazareth, we would still have another question. What kind of confirmation is there for the ability of these individuals to serve as accurate guides in aligning our lives with God?

The fact is that the teachings and example of Jesus have been tested out in many lives over many years. It is painfully true that his principles have been tested out by only a small fraction of those who have called themselves Christians through the centuries, and that the Church has too often been caught up in the pettiness and power struggles that affect all human institutions. But we do have numerous examples of individuals who, orienting their lives by the Christ, have lived in right relation with their neighbors and God, displaying unselfish caring for the hurts and needs of others.

This is very mundane historical fact. But the fact of the matter is that Jesus’ ability to function as a compass has been tested and confirmed over many generations. It is unlikely that we will find an alternative with this kind of confirmation, in whom we can have the same level of confidence.

(3) We need also to consider the fact that the content and implications of Jesus’ message are the subject of ongoing public discussion and debate. The importance of this must not be underestimated. When someone chooses to follow this particular compass they have as a resource an existing institution—the Church—to provide support. Again, the manifold failings and at times the downright sinfulness of this institution must be acknowledged. But somehow, at least at times, it continues to provide encouragement and challenge and a reminder of what it means to live in this direction. Who among us does not need this from time to time?

Furthermore, the existence of a public institution with an established tradition tends to restrain personal extremes and idiosyncrasies. Within this context our beliefs and actions are subject to the correction of public scrutiny. The mass suicide of Jonesville, for instance, was only possible in the isolation of the Guyanese jungle. And while it is also true that tradition can petrify into inflexibility, and can even at times inhibit the correct understanding of the original message, it contains within it the kernel of its own renewal. Given a free exchange of ideas, untraditional points of view are free to test themselves against accepted beliefs and a new and stronger synthesis may emerge.

(4) Points 1, 2, and 3 address the intellect. However, we cannot answer the question “Why Jesus of Nazareth?” by appealing to reason alone. It is a question of value and meaning, and as such is a question that addresses the heart. The first three points show that the choice of Jesus of Nazareth as compass makes some sense and has certain arguments on its side. But the choice itself must be made with our hearts. In the first place, and in the final analysis as well, the question “Why Jesus of Nazareth?” must be answered by each of us individually—and the only adequate answer is a strong conviction in our deepest being that Jesus’ message is indeed the wonderful and powerful Truth. Why Jesus? Because the message that he preached and lived grabs us, permeates our values and gives our lives meaning. People other than Jesus, for reasons both circumstantial and substantial, do not grab us as profoundly.

Does it all boil down to a subjective response, then? Has Jesus of Nazareth no more of an objective claim on our loyalty than any other religious teacher, or the latest self-proclaimed messiah?

In one sense, he has not. Jesus has no authority for us unless we choose him as compass. Democratic symbolism is appropriate here (as opposed to the image of Lord and Master). Jesus has authority for us only as we “elect” him or choose him; his message is authoritative for us only as we recognize its truth.

In another sense, as we pointed out above, there are some objective reasons which support this subjective choice. It can further be pointed out that there are some very real and important differences between Jesus and the others who have been put forth as authoritative guides, both in their messages and in the fruit that is born in the lives of their disciples.

Those who fully appropriate the central message of Jesus into their lives, whatever portion of “Christians” this may be, evidence a combination of freedom, moral concern, inner peace and good works of love that often bear fruit in the lives of others. In contrast, the brainwashed disciples of at least some “gurus” may have inner peace, but they have attained this through the loss of their freedom and their ability to think, and their goal seems to be not to help others but to entrap more disciples. The pleasure-seekers in our society may seem free in comparison, but they lack inner meaning and bear no good fruit. Seeking to be free from responsibility, they all too often lack a responsible self to be free, and end up in bondage to the frenetic activity in which they hide from their own emptiness. Our solid burghers seem responsible: good parents and good citizens, active in civic endeavors, enjoying the peace and the satisfaction of respect and status and social conformity. Too often, though, these solid citizens cannot break through the walls of prejudice and habit, economic security and “what will the neighbors think,” to reach the possibilities of love and freedom and justice to which God calls us.

I claim, and I hope you claim, that the life lived in love and right relation, and the character of one who lives in such a way, are, in the most important sense, better. If someone were to produce as gripping an example of this, and as sure a guide to this, as Jesus of Nazareth, then there might not be grounds for choosing one over the other. (And certainly this poor world of ours can make use of more good compasses!) However, for whatever reasons, I do not see this other someone.

So why Jesus of Nazareth? Because we find in him a key that yields meaning, a guide to value and truth that is confirmed as we live out our lives. Because his example and his teachings first grab us and then prove themselves over time. Because we find that the attitude, the faith, embodied in him leads to right relationship. And because we know, in our deepest heart of hearts, that his call to love and service is the call to that which is right and true in a way that transcends all other rights and all other truths. This is why we confess Jesus as the Christ.

Scovel states that “the Unitarian error” was to exclude Jesus’ divinity. I hope that the results he describes in UU-ism are the consequence of particular historical forces, and that this need not repeat itself for all attempts at non-Trinitarian Christianity. I also hope that others will join the discussion and improve on the way that we identify Jesus of Nazareth, and help us to live out his teachings in our individual lives and in our communities. If we cannot make Jesus central to our lives in this way, without calling him divine, without identifying him as the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son—then Scovel is right. It is up to us to show that we non-Trinitarians can continue to follow Jesus, as our compass, as the Christ.

Footnotes:

[1] See in particular Chapter 8 of Common Sense Christianity.

[2] This may be less the case than formerly, with globalization. However, the one example with which I was familiar was Mahatma Gandhi. As much as I admire him, I find myself unable to bridge the cultural gap, to choose as “compass” someone from the ancient but very different Hindu tradition, who was also (for example) an ascetic who promoted celibacy even in marriage for the sake of spiritual growth.


© 2004 American Unitarian Conference