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Why Jesus’ identity doesn’t matter much anymore

JesusThe gospel text for this Sunday doesn’t directly address the Incarnation issue: (the divinity of Christ). So I admit it is probably not fair exegetical/homiletical practice to hang the weight of that theology on it. On the other hand it does ask the question that the whole rest of the New Testament seems concerned to answer.  At least the responses to Jesus’ question “Who do people say that I am?” illustrates that there were, and probably always will be, different ideas about who Jesus is or was.

It seems to me that the question of who Jesus is, is not as relevant  as it once was.  When I was engaged in street evangelism in the early 1970’s the question of Jesus’ identity (especially his divinity) was still a critical question in the process of coming to Christian faith. It seems this is no longer the case. Increasingly popular notions of human identity, and the divine-human relationship have radically altered the significance of our answers to Jesus’ question about who we think he is.

My thinking has been stimulated by reading The Pagan Temptation, by Thomas Molnar. It is not yet common to refer to the popular spiritualities as pagan, but some are bold enough to promote themselves as such.

Once human identity was centered in the intellect (Descartes) or in the psyche (Freud) seeing the body as merely a container was an old idea easily revived. The pre-existence of immortal souls (Plato) and the desire for those souls to become free from their material bodily entrapment (Orphic and Gnostic) is not so different from the Hindu notion that Atman is Bahaman: that the individual soul is part of the Universal Soul. It is through enlightenment and/or reincarnation that such souls achieve liberation: (Not by forgiveness by a transcendent personal creator/redeemer.)

Without appealing to anything spiritual or supernatural, Humanism and Atheism have accomplished much the same effect: placing the human into the divine role of being ultimate arbiter of morality and progress.

What does all this have to do with who we say Jesus is? Well, to say that Jesus is divine is not saying much if everyone is or has a “spark of the divine”. The purported divinity of Christ is nothing special if all nature is sacred (pantheism) or is animated by many divine/sacred beings (polytheism).

Our justified horror at the religious wars in Europe during the reformation, and the more recent violence motivated by religious fundamentalism is a strong motivation to flee the oft cited cause of such intolerance: “dogmatism”. Rather than struggle with questions about whether Jesus’ teaching ever justifies violence or any type or exclusion, an easier way to be free of dogmatism has been to become pluralists.

Although there is some obvious irony in how dogmatically many new-age gnostic, neopagan voices claim to be not dogmatic, we will seem awfully stuffy or even arrogant if we don’t affirm with so called “Progressive Christianity”: “…that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey…

Sorry Jesus, if you are not a messiah, don’t worry, we have plenty of others to choose from. Sorry Jesus, but it doesn’t really matter who people think you are any more,  we are busy finding the divine within ourselves and the rest of the “sacred” cosmos.

But is the most authentic path for Christians to embrace this kinder and gentler, albeit pagan, cosmology and then just try to fit Jesus into it?  Isn’t it enough to claim that the pagan/pantheist aspiration to “experience the Oneness of life” is facilitated by Jesus’ teachings?  Molnar notes that ever since there was Christianity,  paganism has endeavoured to revive itself and one tactic is to claim Jesus as its own. The web is full of  discussions of whether Jesus can be understood as one of the Avatars of Vishnu or a reincarnation of Krishna, or one of the “ascended masters”.

The critical question is not whether “we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom”. Of course we can. The critical questions include whether or not God is a person as opposed to just a “life-force” or power, whether or not there is difference between an uncreated creator and creation, and how Jesus fits in to all that.

It is the Hebrew rather than the Hindu answers to these questions that lend uniqueness to the orthodox Christian understanding of Incarnation.  Many are so disconnected from the Hebrew/Jewish roots of the Christian faith that Peter’s response that Jesus is the Messiah is largely obscure. Preachers can speak about Jesus’ identity, but the assumptions of popular spirituality have made it largely irrelevant.  Should we even bother?

But just suppose God is an uncreated creator Person capable of love (it is hard to imagine being loved by a force) and just suppose Jesus is the unique Incarnation of that Person. Then, the question of Jesus’ identity might be one of the most important considerations in Christian preaching.

About Dell Bornowsky

I have been a farm boy, woodworker, and building maintenance consultant. Prior to Anglican, my formation was in Roman Catholic, Jesus People, Baptist and Pentecostal tribes. I am interested in cultures, philosophy, mysticism, and wilderness travel. I am a husband and father. I believe creation is good, that God acts in material history, and that ancient wisdom may be more relevant than we realize. Presently Rector of St Philip in Regina.
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