Discussion following the Murphy report has widened interestingly. John Waters asked “where does Irish Catholicism stand with Christ?” (‘A Catholic rather than a Christian country’ in Irish Times, December 4th 2009). He wrote “Our fundamental – i.e. religious – relationships are not with priests, bishops, or even the pope, but with a person who happens to be God.”
Catholics and other Christians misunderstand and misrepresent Jesus, as will be explained, if they believe he “happens to be God” and to be literally human and divine. They should renounce such ideas, because only in a mythological story can Christ be presented as divine. Such myths are not factual or historical, but were written to express convictions about the commitment of a transcendent God.
The belief, whether literal or mythical, that Jesus was a divine deliverer / saviour arose from the claim that he was the Messiah. The Greek Christos (Jesus’ title) translates the Hebrew Messiah, which means the anointed one. The roots of the term lie in Israel’s evolving faith as follows:
(1) People believed long ago that each nation, including Israel, had its own protector god(s). Later Israel asserted faith in a single Creator, but unjustifiably declared that He still favoured them most.
(2) Israel held that this ‘biased Creator’ would send a Messiah to liberate them from foreign rule and restore their independence. They expected a judgement day for every nation, with a divinely appointed agent (the Son of Man) to oversee both the judgement and the new kingdom of Israel.
(3) John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples, and other Jewish groups expected God, literally, to intervene as in (2) in their lifetimes or shortly afterwards (see Matthew 10:23).
(4) The Messiah term now took a new twist. Following the disciples’ visions of Jesus after his death, they identified him with both the Messiah and the Son of Man. They interpreted his death as a sacrifice for the sins of the world – whereby he released us from divine punishment for sin. They proclaimed him to be God’s saving Son. If taken literally, this is an unfounded contention. Though questionable reasoning led to the myth of God’s saving Son, behind it lies belief in a gracious God committed to the ultimate welfare of His / Her creation.
Using the metaphor of a son being the image of his father, the author of John’s gospel put his theological understanding onto Jesus’ lips: “he who has seen me [the Son] has seen the Father”. It is often forgotten that Jesus’ goodness and love, shown in his relationships, teaching and actions, did not prove what the character of God is or literally make it visible. For God always remains hidden, unseen, unknowable, shrouded in mystery with His / Her ‘existence’ unprovable.
Furthermore this verse, despite what the churches taught for centuries, is not recording a historical fact, but expressing a belief. The churches must commit to explaining that theological language is metaphorical and uses symbols and myth in speaking about God, who transcends the human world out of which our language arises.
This means that both Christian theology and Christian ethics contain an inescapable dimension of uncertainty. This uncertainty is trust’s shadow. That’s essential to acknowledge and live with. Are there not two unprovable convictions central to the Christian tradition? (1) There is an ineffable reality at the heart of life whose essence is unconditional goodness and love and (2) the universe is part of a bigger purpose than just itself.
Alongside this dimension of uncertainty is another uncertainty involved in affirming the Christian ethical code’s unprovable values. This code is based on believing that God created human beings with an inalienable dignity – and so we should respect each other.
Though shrouded in mystery, do we not need to clothe the ineffable afresh using insights into goodness, compassion, and commitment to the muck and mess of life in our human world and its environment? We will benefit from both the wisdom of other religions and the essential contribution from feminism.
We impoverish ourselves by relying solely on the humanly created myth of God’s saving Son. Do we not need to be as aware as possible that portraits of Jesus always contain the colouring of the presuppositions of their creators? Every age has had its own ‘Jesus’.
On 2nd March 2010 in its Opinion column ‘Rite and Reason’, the Irish Times published a modified version of this article, which was an earlier draft lacking some of the qualifications made in ‘Uncertainty is Trust’s shadow’