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Who Was Jesus? – Part Two

New approach
Part One of our answer to the question of who Jesus was, was basically presented on a secular plane. That changes now, as much of what follows is presented as a statement of belief rather than history.

Nobody would be paying any attention to Jesus today had not a certain few been totally impacted by him 2000 years ago. But even in looking at his followers we need to differentiate between the very first disciples and those who came even a few years later, and so we limit ourselves to those who knew him personally in the flesh. The task is not simple. Even though the gospels seem to relate accounts from the life of Jesus, they were put in final form 40-80 years after Jesus was crucified, and so present us with documents that are a later combination of opinion and fact.

Of the perhaps thousands of people who met Jesus, only a very few were existentially changed. Many were challenged, but few responded. From an external perspective, many perhaps wondered “is he the messiah?” or “did he heal that person?”, and then went about their business, totally unaffected. But some were totally impacted and wound up following him. Why? What was it about his encounter with these people? How can we enter that relational event and discover the dynamic?

In trying to understand the human being, I have concluded that there are four characteristics that apply to all of us. There is no time here to fully go into that, and I refer you to my book, The Void and the Vision, but a short summary is in order. The first characteristic is that we all create our own world. As we are bombarded with experience throughout life, we develop a perspective, a filter through which we interpret new experience. We become confined in our particular interpretation of reality and lose touch with reality itself. No two of us see life the same. The basic problem that affects us all is that we tend to assume that our version of the world is the real thing, and that everyone else should see things the same way we do. The reasonable approach, of course, would be to assume that since we are limited in our experience, we should be open to learning from others with different experience. But we are not logical in this regard. We universalize our experience, not really able to fully appreciate those whose worlds are different. In this sense, we are egocentric.

The second element is that humans inherently search for meaning in life, and the creation of our private world creates a sense of emptiness due to our inability to appreciate reality, and so we seek to escape from the void we have created. The escapes are as varied as we are- incessant usage of cell phones, tv, shopping, work, ceaseless talking, extreme sports. But every so often reality breaks in, moments occur in which our world is overcome and opened up. Such moments are unpredictable, fleeting, and come to us in myriad ways, freeing us to experience the fullness of life. And lastly is the fact that we are communal, relational beings. We need other people to fulfill our potential.

The disciples were egocentric in the manner described, sought meaning, sought community, and had experienced moments. But what about Jesus? Was he different? I think so. Although his experience was limited in space and time, he did not create an egocentric world. He did not distort reality, and so was continually open to the world that surrounded him, including the men and women with whom he lived and traveled. Life for him was a constant moment in touch with reality. As a consequence, he did not experience the void with all its consequent escapes. And the family of disciples that he gathered was his community. Structurally, his life was just like ours, only without the distortions.

What he presented to those who would become his disciples was an incarnation of who they were created to be and could become. He showed them what it meant to be a fully human being. Because he was who he was, his followers could increasingly become as he was. He did not create believers by performing miracles, or because his teaching was original and powerful, or because he died a sacrificial death, or because a tomb was empty. People were impacted by Jesus because they saw in him whom they were meant to be and could become. Their worlds could open and they could become more open to and receptive of others. The void of their lives was in the process of being filled with meaning. Their escapes from their self-imposed isolation became unwanted and unneeded. And they, like Jesus, found community in their togetherness. Because of the true human being he was, he could help others change their life.

The sinlessness of Jesus historically has been part of Christian theology. Following Augustine, the church believed that original sin was a genetically inherited disease, and for Jesus to be free of it, he had not only to have the Holy Spirit for a father, but his mother, Mary, had to be “immaculately conceived”, ie, born without sin, without the bad gene. Quite to the contrary, what I am suggesting is that we create a distorted world and absolutize it, that in this sense we are egocentric, and Jesus did not do that. He was truly a fully human being.

Looking at Jesus relationally enables us to go beyond the impasse of the Chalcedonian creed. We don’t try to relate the abstract concepts of humanity and divinity. Traditionally, Christian theology has talked about Jesus in terms of his person and his work. As a consequence, talk of his person became wrapped up in relating his humanity and his divinity, and talk of his work became an analysis of his teaching and his sacrificial dying. When we look at Jesus in relation to his disciples, instead of looking at the “person and work” of Jesus, we look at who he was in relational encounter. We thereby avoid the Chalcedonian problems of trying to relate his divinity and his humanity. He was able to impact others because he was a true human being. It was the fulness of his humanity that enabled others to see in him what they also could become and were meant to be.

Not only so, but they were also enabled to experience God in and through him. He was the perfect window through which the divine cosmic thou could challenge their world. He was for them the continual possibility to be encountered by the One who stood behind all of creation. Jesus was the perfect human who was also the perfect window to God. It’s not as though there was a divine nature in him, but rather that his fully human nature was transparent to the God who inheres all reality.

Can we go one step further? What about Nicaea, the council that claimed that Jesus was of the same essence as the Father? Thinking relationally does not relieve us of the issue of Jesus’ origin. How was it possible that this perfect man walked the earth? Our human problem is that we universalize the world we have created, that we are egocentric. Jesus did not do that. Why not? By what power did he not try to impose his will on others? How did he resist that temptation? How was he sinless? I see no other answer than to say that Jesus got it from/as God. The power of Jesus to impact others was the truth of his humanity, and this truth was sent by God.

Further Questions

1 Probably the first question that occurs to us is whether or not there are other homo sapiens who, like Jesus, are not egocentric in the way we have described it, ie as creating a world and distorting one’s perception of reality. Based on my analysis in The Void and the Vision it seems to me that human egotism is so powerful that it precludes the possibility of our overcoming it totally.

2 A second question relates to whether there are others like Jesus who also are sent from God. Certainly there are billions on the face of the planet who believe that there are others also sent from God. In relating Jesus to these others, we begin by remembering that Jesus both taught and demonstrated in his life that love is the essence of who we are, and any who violate that standard in their teaching stand in contradiction to the God revealed in Jesus. Similarly, all who believe in that love are as one, regardless of differences.

3 Thirdly, is there a difference between the belief and experience of Q and that of the Jerusalem disciples? Are there two versions of the Christian faith that are found right in the Bible? After the crucifixion, the Jerusalem community experienced a risen Christ, a new reality, and were thus convinced that love ultimately overcomes evil and that we all return to God. These twin beliefs were basic to the community. But did Q experience this? Were they assured that love conquers evil? Were they assured that in some way we all return to God? On the first point, they could know in their life together that love wins. They didn’t need a cross and resurrection to show the power of love. They knew it in their being together. On the second point, on whether they believed that we all return to God, I see no reason not to assume that that was part of Jesus’ teaching. They could know from what Jesus said and did that we all return.

4 Lastly, most generally, and perhaps most importantly, people around the world work to overcome ego, they experience moments when ego is overcome, they experience community, and they love. They do not follow Jesus. How do they differ from one who does? They can know that love wins in the same way that Q learned that, in their life together. Probably the only differentiation between a secular humanist and a follower of Jesus is that the former has no belief in a return to God, inasmuch as God does not enter the secular worldview. What matters, however, is not what one believes, but whether one lives a life of compassion. That, no doubt, is the essence of who Jesus was, and ultimately, the answer to our question.

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