Why I Am A Christian 2: The Person of Jesus

This follows on Why I Am A Christian Part 1.

As a child, the stories of Jesus’ life had already become monuments early on. These engraved stones stood arranged next to my life’s road, so that I would pass them by often. Sunday school, Church, School, home: the stories were relayed to us on a regular basis.

It is an odd quirk of humanity that the more we know something, the less we think about it. In time, the monuments because moss-covered and comforting. Each time I passed, I’d afford them less and less attention. After years of hearing the stories, there was nothing more to learn.

Years later, I found my conception of Jesus to be strangely bland, so, armed with some historical context, (aided by more learned men than I) I set out to rediscover Jesus.

This man from Galilee is the point around which all of Christianity turns. He is considered the full revelation of the Law of God, the one true man, the messiah who came to release all mankind from bondage. But who do we find in the gospels?

Jesus is an enigma. He confounded everyone in his time. The religious elite of his day was shocked by his wisdom and knowledge as much as by his lifestyle. He upended ingrained tradition and theology with a smile and a story. He challenged centuries-old Jewish legalism while exhorting his followers to “sin no more.” Faced with barbed theological questions, he would answer with seemingly nebulous stories which forced the questioner to re-evaluate everything about himself. He advocated a strict moral life, while discouraging judgement. And Jesus mixed with all types.

The apostles were an odd lot. Gleaned mostly from rough folk, his band included fishermen and a hated tax-collector. The very fact that a Rabbi would choose these unworthy people as his closest followers was controversial at best in the 1st century world. It defied centuries of status quo and and showed one of the greatest facets of Jesus’ life: The underside of power.

Jesus showed an intense passion for the marginalised and oppressed. He touched lepers, flouted society’s censure of prostitutes and ate with “unclean” non-jews. He advocated some of the most brilliant forms of non-violent resistance ever devised. When talking about him, the scandalised elite called Jesus a “Glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”.

Jesus urged the rich to care for the poor. He branded the haughty as hypocrites, and respected women in a time when misogyny wasn’t even considered as anything other than natural. At the time of the last supper, he even took on the lowliest task in a Jew’s eyes: washing the feet of his followers, entreating them to do the same.

Then there was the God-thing. Jesus lived with an unshakeable conviction that he was God incarnate. The statements he made were, to ancient Jewish ears, incontrovertible proof of this. Elders tore their clothes at the blasphemy, Theologians scoffed at the audacity, people bowed in worship, but all were sure what he implied.

Jesus is rough and dusty. He wields a whip like Indiana Jones and plays with children. He weeps often at the state of the world. He is passionate and eloquent and humble. Walter Wink said that if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.

I agree. If Jesus is a fiction, he’s the greatest character ever written.

P.S. Notes on historicity of accounts of Jesus’ life. This is full of links to articles which are by scholars who meticulously reference their academic sources. The articles in question are popularisations of their work, though. I would seriously encourage reading them.

There exists a problematic distance between professional historians and us laypeople. This renders debates between opposing sides of a historical figure like Jesus quite opaque to me. I have often listened to both sides being passionately defended and devolving into arguments about presupposed worldviews.

History is an inexact field. This is necessarily so. The intervening years strip us of detail, corroborating data and the writer’s worldview and identity.

In my exploration of the myriad views around the historicity of New Testament accounts, I have found that the writers’ worldviews are always reflected in the conclusions they reach. So what am I as layperson to do when confronted with two legitimate opposing viewpoints?

I think we need to exercise skepticism for both sides and accept that both sides may be true (insofar as they are plausible. The refutations of the historical data about the resurrection are quite weak).

So here follow some popularisations of the historical data:

If you accept the veracity of what we know about Plato, Julius Caesar and, Homer, you are forced to accept the truth of the New Testament accounts. The alternative is rejecting all ancient historical knowledge we have. The only way to keep one and reject the other is by being academically inconsistent.

Why should we trust the gospel accounts? While it is a game of “How far back can we postulate the Gospels’ origin” for many liberal and secular scholars, there are good historical and textual reasons for at least entertaining the possibility of them being written by people who were there.

Based on the veracity of Luke’s facts, Sir William Ramsay actually went so far as to say:  “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”[15]

This is from a skeptical scholar.

Professor of classics at Auckland University, E.M. Blaiklock, wrote: “For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides. The Acts of the Apostles is not shoddy product of pious imagining, but a trustworthy record… it was the spadework of archaeology which first revealed the truth.”

I doubt whether there will be a definitive answer from history, but rejecting the accounts of the New Testament out of hand only shows bias.

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Why I am a Christian: Starting from the whole.

I’ve been very quiet these last few months. It’s because I have been trying to understand how I’m to approach the title’s question. Why do I believe in Jesus Christ? It’s not a new question to me. Through the years I’ve become accustomed to periods of intense doubt and self-reflection.

But reflections are complete images. They are somehow hard to tease apart into structured arguments. Every smaller part of the whole is a place to start, with its own problems and defenses. In the last week or so I’ve gotten to a point where I think I have a place to start.

The place is this: I hypothesise the existence of God because, in the words of Allister McGrath, “It is a hypothesis, but it is one that resonates with everything I know to be true.”

It’s an assertion that encompasses all my life. And this is what I have found in the last couple of months: We almost never start from first priciples and work our way up. We believe large statements, which are then made more sophisticated as we delve into them. The better we understand the whole, the better we can understand the part, and vice versa. Our beliefs whirl in this circle, becoming stronger or weaker as we explore their implications.

So I have tried and found it impossible to build this from its parts. I will rather start from the whole and work inwards.

I believe in Truth and Love. I believe in Beauty, Goodness, Evil and Freedom. These are not things I have reasoned my way to. They seem to be carved into my bones. I can build rational frameworks within which they function and are explained, but that is not how I came to believe in them. I believe in Evil, because I know it when I see it.

I have also followed my atheist leanings to what I believe is their logical conclusion: Determinism and Nihilism tempered by a kind of selfish altruism. Within this structure there is no place for the things I now believe in my deepest core.

Christianity makes sense of the world to me. Its portrayal of humanity is the closest to what I see every day around me. Its philosophy fits with reality as I perceive it. I believe it offers the most reasonable answers to the ills of the world. And most importantly, it has Jesus – the most influential person in all of history.

This strange man so confounded all the expecation that first century Jews had about the coming messiah, that one would be hard pressed to think up a stranger saviour for those people. And yet, they ended up believing in him with a fervour that cost many their lives. The teachings coming from this man who claimed divinity were often willfully nebulous and seemingly obtuse. He championed the powerless and stood up those who abused the might they had. And just to prove that he really was special, he died.

The land around Jerusalem is littered with the corpses of upstart messiahs. They had conformed to the cultural beliefs of what the savior of the world should do. They had challenged the Roman Empire; swept up their followers with mighty speeches and died ignominiously, leaving their movements to fizzle out.

So why did this crazy guy succeed? The man who confused and angered everyone with his speeches; who called for nonviolent protest; who seemed to do everything wrong when it came to creating a revolution?

In his death, Jesus embodied all that he taught. He went to his execution with humility, discouraging violence, and showing love even to those dividing his clothes among themselves. He died a pathetic death: a beaten, naked wretch. Mocked, deserted, on the bleeding edge of powerlessness.

And then he rose again. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told. The accounts and actions of the apostles at least tell us that they really believed it. The fact that his movement didn’t fizzle like so many others tells its own story.

Yes, Jesus is the greatest story ever told. And it might just be true. The naturalistic explanations (that I have heard) for the historical data are laughably improbable. Almost nothing about the story of Jesus would suggest that he was invented by a couple of apostles to start a religion. Their own lives and deaths spoke of their faith in the risen Christ.

Jesus is the center around which all arguments for belief in Christianity turn, and rightly so. He is exceptional. He forces a reinterpretation of all that had come before and after him.

I want to paraphrase C.S. Lewis when I say that I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not because I see it, but because, by it, I see everything.

If the Word ever became man, would you expect anything less?

The Agnostic’s Prayer

Pre-script: I realise that I have left my friend’s question very much unanswered, so I am thinking about how to approach the telling of that tale, but that will only happen in another post.

 

 

The other day, a close friend of mine asked me why I believed in Christ. After dithering for a moment, I launched into the beginning of a philosophical case for Christianity before hitting a wall. I was trying to describe a philosophical argument that I didn’t know by heart any more.

I have spent a large part of my life playing hopscotch over the line of Orthodox Christianity, my feet falling one side, then the other, but always moving. The thing is- I’ve always struggled with doubt because there is one thing that I am absolutely certain of: I may be very wrong. 

Back to the reasons for my faith: it all used to be so simple. I had ready answers to thorny questions. I used to be able to lay it out like a road map, but it’s harder these days. You see, as I get older, I recognise a growing complexity both within myself and the world around me. Nothing is ever really as simple as we believe them to be in the zeal of our intellectual awakening.

My journey of faith reflects that. In my few years as a thinking being, I have gone from ardent Christian through serious doubt, full agnosticism to semi-atheism and back with seeming regularity. As I’m confronted with new ideas, I force myself to re-evaluate what I previously took as gospel, all in search of the Truth. 

Yes, with a capital T. Because I care deeply about it. I am in a continuous struggle to find it in all its elusive complexity. I want my worldview and beliefs to cling to it like bark to a tree.

I believe the truth is knowable. I can hold beliefs that conform to the Truth, but I will never be certain when that moment comes, if it ever does. I will continue to doubt, because it’s the only way that I’ll ever get anywhere near that capital T.

I would like to call myself agnostic. It sounds so much better than Ignoramus, but I don’t affirm the unknowability of the unknown. That would imply more certainty than I’m comfortable with.

No, I pray my soft agnostic’s prayer, which goes something like this: God, (if you exist) lead me to the truth, whatever that may be. 

Amen.