Whenever I hear someone, even someone I agree with theologically, start a sentence with, If Jesus were here today, he would…, I can fill in the rest myself: “… do what I would have him do in this situation.”
(Rod Dreher) Analogously, the “real Jesus” is … the guy who grinds the ax I want ground. But beware:
Part of the lure of the New Testament is the complexity of its central character — the mix of gentleness and zeal, strident moralism and extraordinary compassion, the down-to-earth and the supernatural.
Most “real Jesus” efforts, though, assume that these complexities are accretions, to be whittled away to reach the historical core. Thus instead of a Jesus who contains multitudes, we get Jesus the nationalist or Jesus the apocalyptic prophet or Jesus the sage or Jesus the philosopher and so on down the list.
There’s enough gospel material to make any of these portraits credible. But they also tend to be rather, well, boring, and to raise the question of how a pedestrian figure — one zealot among many, one mystic in a Mediterranean full of them — inspired a global faith.
That’s not a question such books are usually designed to answer. They’re better seen as laments for paths not taken, Christianities that might have been. The mystical Jesus is for readers who wish we had the parables without the creeds, the philosophical Jesus for readers who wish Christianity had developed like the Ethical Culture movement. And a political Jesus like Aslan’s is for readers who feel, as one of his reviewers put it, that “Jesus’ usefulness as a challenge to power was lost the moment Christians first believed he rose from the dead.”
(Ross Douthat, to whom Dreher was pointing)
I tend to avoid language of “war” or “battle” when thinking about our cultural moment. Genuine conservative thought, I take it, alternates between the irenic and the mirthful, the poetic and the tragic, but finds rationalistic demands for perfection and the various tactics and stratagems of “culture war” to be almost perfectly liberal in commitment. And yet, we are involved in a struggle which feels to be of cosmic dimensions. Just as John Paul II’s life involved direct encounters with the Nazis and Stalinists—here was a man who knew that the culture of death was tyrannical—and yet responded with discourses on married love and the self-donation of ourselves to others, so too the encroaching peddlers of utility (that is, the agents of death) steadily engulf our little homes and shires, and they would appear to have no plan other than total victory. We too are in a struggle, and one which is ultimate.
If it was a coincidence that the encyclical was promulgated on the Feast of Transfiguration, both West and East, it was a most happy one, and one that ties in with Dreher and Douthat’s observations. Consider the Orthodox hymns proper to the Feast:
You were Transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God,
Revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light shine upon us sinners!
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to You!
On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
(Orthodox Wiki) Not only is the Incarnate Son nuanced beyond the dreams of the “real Jesus” people, there is the little matter of divine glory – usually hidden, and never fully revealed because we simply could not bear it – in in the word become flesh.
Since the full reality is unbearable, I supposed that bowdlerized, fully-comprehensible, condensed and bearable versions are inevitable.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)