From Nate Wright.
"When I was 5 years old, I gave my life to Jesus. I then spent roughly ages 15 to 25 desperately trying to get it back.”
That’s a line I used to give Evangelical suburbanite youth groups on mission trips to Philly in order to get them to stop talking to me, but it also somehow triggered in my head when I was asked to share a “Jesus Story” with the congregation. About 8 years ago, in a similar summer series, I was asked to share “What I Believe” and I took it really seriously and crafted a short and pithy statement of faith, one that I still stand by and still sort of like. But Jesus was very notably absent from that statement. While I’ve found a way to build a bridge back to the faith tradition of my youth, I’ll readily confess that Jesus remains something of a stumbling block.
When asked to pick a passage of Scripture, I decided to go with one that directly states some of the claims Christianity has made about Jesus that I find most problematic. John 14 hits three of them: an emphasis on the afterlife, the connection to divinity, and most problematic of all for me, uniqueness. These three combined quite explicitly in the Evangelical doctrine of salvation that my 5 year-old self accepted unquestioningly: that Jesus was the only truth and way to an eternal heaven, and those who believed other truths were condemned to eternal damnation in Hell. I quickly rejected this most pernicious of doctrines by my late teens, but these three issues still do trip me up when it comes to talking about Jesus.
As someone who studies religious rituals, symbols, beliefs, and practices for a living, I eventually became comfortable with talking about divinity and the afterlife. As symbols, models of and for how we are part of something really real that is larger than ourselves, something external to us and coercive upon us, something that establishes moods and motivations within us that call us to work sacrificially toward relationships with others built on authentic connection and mutuality and justice and grace; I can get behind these concepts when not distorted by fundamentalist dogmas. So I have little difficulty remaining mostly agnostic, if not downright unbelieving, about God and the afterlife, while still seeing Jesus as a crucial symbol of absolutely true things that really matter.
However, a claim that Jesus as a historical figure is somehow unique is another matter entirely. Uniqueness is one of those concepts at which I always bristle. I’m constantly crossing out the word “unique” from my students’ papers. Nothing is unique, I tell them. It’s our job as Sociologists to say how things are like other things and how they are not (one of my all-time favorite Onion headlines remains “Professor Sees Parallels Between Things, Other Things”), but uniqueness itself never really exists.
To be honest, it’s also here where progressive Christianity among the Mennonites hasn’t necessarily helped me much. Mennonites talk about Jesus a lot. I hear folks say things like we should read the rest of the Bible through the central lens of Jesus. Why? What’s so special about Jesus, really? Sure, he seems to have taught things that I like and agree with. A path of radical egalitarianism, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes (by the way, in my view not nearly enough attention seems to be given to the very different types of professions those are, socially, politically, and otherwise), healing the sick, feeding the poor, promoting peace and justice as the defining virtues in the face of a violent state and dogmatic religious authorities: these are all exciting ideas and practices that I can get behind.
But if I’m honest with myself, I get behind them because they’re good ideas. They’re what I feel that something in the universe I referred to earlier calling me to. Not because Jesus says so. I’d like to think I’d feel that call and get behind these ideas had I been born Muslim, too. Or Hindu. Or Jewish. Or secular humanist atheist. Or whatever. Conversely, if some historic document seemed to indicate without a doubt that the historical Jesus was opposed to same-sex relationships, for instance, I wouldn’t change my view on the matter because of it. I’d be disappointed in Jesus, but it would be similar to how I became disappointed in Mother Teresa when I learned that she took ill-gotten gains from inside traders and hoarded wealth and collaborated with oppressive governments. Again, what’s so special and unique about this Jesus?
Yet here it is in this text plain as day. “I am the way and the truth and the life. Nobody comes to the Father but by me.” I spent some time with progressive Christian blogs looking at how other progressives who take the Bible seriously wrestle with this text. One of them pointed out two words that are typically overlooked in this oh-so-soundbite-y verse. It’s not just “Jesus said” but rather “Jesus said TO HIM.” He’s addressing a question from Thomas, someone with whom he had a close personal relationship. And as we know from our close personal relationships with our friends, our partners, our children, even our pets, we tend to talk about them in truly special and unique ways. I often joke that my cat Tiger is “the best animal that ever lived,” sometimes adding “even better than Aslan” as a sly mocking reference to the uniqueness of Jesus. I tell my daughters that they’re the best daughters in the universe when I say goodnight to them. My wife and I joke back and forth with a battle of “I love you/I love you more/I love you most/I love you mostest/I love you mostestest,” etc. These statements are absolutely true when it comes to how we understand our relationships with each other. So is it possible that that is what is going on here with Jesus and Thomas? Thomas is worried because Jesus seems to be talking about going away - Phillip, too - and their questions seem rooted in fears about what to do when he’s gone. Jesus appears intent on comforting them in his response. It’s worth remembering that the whole exchange begins with: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
I’m rather astonished to conclude this little exercise by talking about “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Yet here I am. Bishop John Shelby Spong once said, “I walk the Christ-path into the mystery of God, but I do not believe that God is a Christian.” John Dominic Crossan, in his book on the historical Jesus, makes a distinction between the Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith. If we choose to walk the Christ-path, then the Jesus of Faith, quite independent of the Jesus of History, does become quite unique and special to us. And he calls us to live according to his way, his truth, and ultimately his life.
I can live with that. Or at least, I aspire to.