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Why Jesus of Nazareth?
C. Randolph Ross
Marathon, New York
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).
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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’
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
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
(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
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.
 See in particular Chapter 8 of Common Sense Christianity.
 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™