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The TRUE VALUE of the HISTORIC JESUS and the CROSS
Perhaps no personality in history figures more prominently in Western civilization than does Jesus of Nazareth. It is remarkable how a man who left no personal writings, was never a military or political leader, knew no wealth, held no temporal power, died a martyr's death, and had only the briefest of ministries in a backwater province of the Roman Empire should rise to a higher level of prominence than the greatest leaders in history, but he did. Even to this day, while historians may study figures like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte, it is the apparently "insignificant" itinerant preacher from Galilee that over a billion people on this planet still venerate, love, and worship as God.
For most of my life I never imagined anyone really seriously challenged the notion that there was such a man as Jesus of Nazareth, yet there are those who suggest precisely that. A few scholars have suggested that the man history knows as Jesus of Nazareth was in fact a mythological godman figure akin to Dionysus, Osiris, Mithra or Bacchus of ancient Pagan mythology, but that never made sense to me. No religion is formed in a vacuum. There has to be someonea real flesh-and-blood personupon whom to base a faith on. Islam had the Prophet Mohammed. The Jews had Moses. Hindus have Krishna and the Buddhists Buddha, and Christianity had Jesus. It seemed absurdly obvious.
Whether this man actually did and said all the things attributed to him in the gospels might be debated, of course, but that he actually existed hardly seems a worthy point of debate. Even many hard-core atheists, from what I can tell, seem willing to accept the historicity of the man. Many are even willing to admit he may well have taught parables and moral lessons as he was recorded to have done in the Gospels (though there was no room for miracles or a sense of the Divine in their world view). In essence, atheists and Christians may battle over the reality of the resurrection and such things, but a serious debate as to whether such a man actually existed seemed an argument with nowhere to go.
Yet even in the heyday of my most fundamentalist, evangelical Christian phase, I had one problem with the idea of a historic Jesus. It's not that I doubted his existence; it was simply that I could never seem to perceive him as a real person. Others talked about him like he was their next door neighbor or closest friend and would describe him in glowing terms as though he had just spent a weekend at their cabin. My dear late grandmother even claimed to have seen him once in her yard, smiling at her from a bush. When I inquired how she knew it was Jesusa man I assume she had never metshe told me she knew it was him because he looked like the "pictures" she'd seen of him. By this, I assumed she meant he appeared as the blue eyed, blond-haired Nordic of Victorian paintingsprints of which my grandmother kept around the house.
In any case, it appeared that everyone knew Jesus pretty well, but it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I could never make Jesus "real" to me. He always remained a conglomerate of loosely fitting images I had gleaned from movies and books, along with a few details I added from my own imagination. While I could get a mental image of Jesus when I closed my eyesthe Scandinavian Jesus I'm afraida part of me always knew he was make believe much like a child's image of Santa Claus. As such, though I frequently invoked his name like some magic incantation when addressing God (whom, curiously, I had less trouble getting a "feel" for), I rarely prayed to Jesus. It was almost as if Jesus' historicity served as an impediment to me getting to "know" him.
Eventually I realized what the problem was. If Jesus was a historical figure, then, like any historical figure, he had to have been a certain "way." In other words, the historical Jesus would have possessed certain mannerisms, had a specific vocabulary, and probably spoke with a dialect and accent. He would also have displayed a specific personality which, ironically, never came across to me in the Gospels. I knew he seemed to have a certain affection for childrenbut then so did Hitler (at least the Aryan kind)and that he had a temper. He was also at times clever and wise and vague and obtuse the next. He was cunning and bold, and diminutive and quiet. In effect, there we so many elements to his personality that it was difficult to picture him as being any particular way at all.
In this he was like any other historical figure. No matter how much one studies a person's biography and personal life they can never really know the man or woman as he or she actually was. Even the most exhaustive and careful research will reveal only, at best, an approximation of what the person was like, and even then that will be highly subjective. To see what I mean, compare all the actors who have ever portrayed Abraham Lincoln on the silver screen and see if any two of them agree in their portrayal. I've enjoyed certain portrayals more than others and considered some more authentic than others, but none of them seemed to bring the man to life. There is too much of the actor's own personality in their portrayal to convince me that I'm really looking at a legitimate facsimile of the real Abraham Lincoln. They were all just illusions; make-believe Lincolns that survive while the real man we call the 16th president of the United States lies dead and buried in a Springfield, Illinois cemetery.
This is true of Jesus of Nazareth as well. How could we really know a man who lived and died two thousand years ago? With Lincoln we at least have photographs to see what he looked like and his personal correspondence to get some idea of how his mind worked, but with Jesus we haven't even that; just some quotes and teachingsassumedly genuineand a very brief synopsis of a short public ministry. There is nothing about what made the man "tick,"so to speak; no colorful anecdotes that might give us a clue about Jesus the person. Did he have a sense of humor or was he a rigidly serious man? Did he like to cook? Did he enjoy athletic events? Was he strong and callused, or slender and waif-like as portrayed in many paintings? Finally I decided it was pointless to try to have a relationship with a man one can't even begin to "know" in any real sense of the word. Jesus would always remain hypothetical to me; a historical figure who said wonderfuland sometimes strangethings and performed incredible miracles a very long time ago. Fortunately, at the time, that was enough. It was all the Jesus I "needed."
Eventually I became conscious of how others interpreted this man from Galilee, however, and it quickly became apparent to me that Jesus meant different things to different people. There was the conservative Republican Jesus and the liberal Democrat Jesus; the environmentally conscious Jesus and the social activist Jesus, the proto-feminist Jesus and the gay rights Jesus, the judgmental Jesus of outer darkness fame and the compassionate, good shepherd Jesus.
This suggested to me that Jesus is able to reflect whatever it is we needed in a Savior at any given moment. To those who need forgiveness, he is the Savior of reconciliation who intercedes with the Father on our behalf. To those who are starved for companionship, he is the Jesus who walks with them and helps them pick out their wardrobe. To the sickly, he is the great physician. To the self-righteous, he was the one who separates the sheep from the goats, casting the latter into outer darkness and blessing the former. Like I said, Jesus was a man of a thousand faces, each of which could be made to fit any temperament, need, or desire. It was quite a revelation.
But this proved to be helpful as well, for it eventually helped me come to see that Jesus needn't be a real person at all. He works just as welland, in some ways, even betteras a mythological character who simply serves to reflect our preconceived ideas and biases about him. I was seeing before my eyes all sorts of Jesuses and Christianity appeared all the stronger for it. What, then, did Christianity even need with a historical Jesus? It seemed quite capable of getting along fine without him.
I don't know if there was a real, literal person named Jesus of Nazareth. It may be that beneath all the layers of mythology and legend building there is a real man buried there, but I am convinced now it hardly matters. It is not the historical Jesus that we need. That Jesus, if he existed at all, was but a flesh and blood man like ourselves, prone to the vagaries and cruelties of life, with little to offer us today. It is instead the mythological Jesus that gives us the strength to carry on. That is the Jesus that supposedly intercedes on our behalf to an angry God. That is the Jesus that saves, heals, prophesies, enrages, teaches, bewilders, and cares about our most intimate pains and sorrows. The historical Jesus has nothing to offer us; it is the mythological Jesus that gives us what we need. In a curious twist of irony, it is the mythological Jesus that is real and the literal one that is the illusion.
That is the Jesus that spirituality pursues. Like the Buddha and Krishna and a whole host of real or imagined figures in history, they all give life for they are a part of ourselves. We create them from our own needs-not as illusions or unreal things-but as mythological allegories who serve a very real purpose; a purpose far beyond that that would be possible were these men reduced to mere historical figures. So, yes, we can say there is a real Jesus because he lives within our mythologies. Whether he also lives in our history is of only secondary importance, and then only as far as he points us back to the mythological character the literal man gave birth to. That is where we will find the literal Jesus-living in our literal hearts, for that's where we find ourselves.
But if Jesus is not a literal person, what becomes of Christianity? More importantly, what does the cross mean, if there was no flesh and blood man to die upon it? It seems a horrible, sick joke if it did not happen in reality; a terrible lie that billions of people around the world accept as truth. Yet is a literal cross really necessary to achieve its purpose of reconciling a "fallen" humanity with its Creator? Surely it must have some value. To jettison it is to eviscerate the very heart of Christianity and, I believe, eliminate something important that speaks to the deepest part of the human soul.
Whether one believes in a literal Jesus or not, I submit that his death on the crossbe it metaphorical or historicalstill serves an important function, though not one traditionally taught by orthodox Christianity. I submit that just as the mythological Jesus serves a purpose in drawing us nearer the divine, so too does a mythological cross and with it its image of a suffering and dying servant. In fact, it is the one element of a passion play that can bring grown men to tears and turn the most hardened hearts to God.
But why should that be? How can something that may or may not have even happened still possess the power to bring men to their knees?
It wasn't to pay for the sins of mankind or to appease the anger of a holy and righteous God as though the Father was a type of Olympian deity demanding His ounce of flesh, as traditional Christianity teaches. That's an anachronism from the age of tribal religion, when appeasing the gods was necessary to guarantee their cooperation in the harvest or bring rains to the fields. We live in a more sophisticated age now, one would like to believe, in which such concepts are seen as evidence of a primitive, fear-based mindset.
Clearly, the death of even the most perfect man that ever lived could never undo the cumulative selfishness and wickedness of humanity. It could not erase the wrongs that have been done, nor could it restore that which has been thoughtlessly destroyed. Finally, it has no ability to resurrect the countless millions of slaughtered innocents throughout history, so as a mechanism of setting things right, it has no apparent intrinsic value in itself.
So what am I suggesting here? That we should abandon the symbol of the cross if we are to truly perceive the God of unconditional love that is at the heart of spirituality? Not at all. It is not my intention here to dash the symbols of Christianity upon the rocks of modernism, for the symbol of the atonement is an important one for over a billion people on this planet. The cross is a potent symbol that must be accepted as a valid expression of the divine in all men. We would make a mistake to simply abandon it for in so doing we would miss out on the deeper spiritual meaning for which it serves as a symbol. In fact, its meaning and value as a metaphor transcends even its historicity, making it more than a mere event in human history. It serves best not as a means of undoing the mistakes and brutality of humanity, but as a mechanism for healing humanity, and in this it must be honored and adored.
But how does it do this? How can believing that a man's ignoble death by crucifixion over two thousand years ago help heal humanity?
Consider what the greatest impediment to having a close relationship to God is. The usual answer is our sinfulness, perhaps followed by apathy, is what keeps us at arm's length from the Almighty, but I don't believe either is correct. Instead, I submit it is the sense of guilt and recrimination many of us constantly carry around that really keeps us apart from God. It is the overwhelming sense of "unworthiness" when it comes to God that prevents us from having a close, personal relationship with the Divine and so retards spiritual growth in the process.
We know what we have done to one anotherthe scorn, contempt, pettiness, and cruelty we have inflicted upon one anotheryet we cannot seem to find a way to "repair" the damage. So much of what we have done in our lives is not "fixable." It may have happened years ago, or to people who are no longer even alive and, as such, there is no way to set things right even if we wanted to. And often, even if we do have the opportunity to undo a past wrong, those we have victimized may not grant us the absolution we so crave; the scars may be too deep to be healed so easily if, indeed, they can be healed at all. And so we carry a load of guilt over things that cannot be undone and words that cannot be unsaid, often for years. We yearn for an absolution humanity cannot or will not grant us, and so we attempt to perform our own personal penance as a means of obtaining some peace. This may help for a time, but eventually the old feeling of unworthiness returns and we are left once more feeling hollow and unforgiven. Trapped in a world of our own creation, we recriminate against ourselves, deciding we are wicked sinners incapable of good and, as such, a hideous disappointment to the very Creator who wrought us from the dust of the Earth. Some of us even become depressed and, in extreme cases, convince ourselves we are not worthy of being loved at all. No matter how hard we try, we just aren't capable of being what we believe we must be to find acceptance in God's eyes. Yes, He may love usat least in theorybut we know He's actually disappointed with us, just as we are in ourselves.
That's where the value of the cross lies. If we imagine that Jesus, in "taking our sins upon himself," permits us to believe we are forgiven, we free ourselves from the self-imposed bondage of guilt and self-condemnation that drives a wedge between Him and us. In doing so, we finally have a "remedy" to take the guilt away. We may not be able to forgive ourselves for what we have done, but if we convince ourselves God forgives us through the atonement, we can begin to do just that. It's an old teaching within the church that once a person confesses their sins and asks for forgiveness, it's important they move on and not dwell on those confessed wrongs anymore. The Bible even refers to this as "forgetting" our sins or "casting them away," and this is precisely what the atonement is supposed to do: get you to put your sordid past behind you so you can move on. Since people can't accept the idea that God doesn't judge and that He isn't angry, they must have some "mechanism" outside themselves to achieve this same effect, and a perfect, righteous sacrifice does exactly that. The "cure" then, is purely on an emotional and psychological level and, since the emotions effect our spiritual well being, it impacts us to the very core of who we are. It is the only means by which we might healed emotionally so we can move on.
In the same way, the resurrection serves much the same purpose. Just as the cross stands as a symbol of God's forgiveness, the resurrection demonstrates that forgiveness. It is symbol that all is well and will be forever. It is the metaphor for hope that we all need to continue on the journey; God's assurance that everything is going to be okay.
That is the value of myth. It works in whichever context it is needed and is God's mechanism by which He reveals the deeper truths about Himself. It is a tool that is far more persuasive and effective than any other. It provides us with a means of reconciliation with God, not just through the context of Christianity, but through many traditions and faiths. It permeates human thought throughout all cultures and societies, manifesting itself in different ways as it sees fit, but always managing to achieve its purpose of making itself known.
The cross still
stands. Not as a symbol of God's forgiveness of a fallen humanity, but as a
symbol of fallen humanities' forgiveness of itself. It is the only way to God
as long as one believes it is, and once that need is met or no longer required,
it still stands as a symbol of love. It could not be otherwise for it is a symbol
of God, and God is love; a love made manifest through the symbols of our culture
by a God that understands our need for such euphemisms. That is the nature of
love. That is the nature of God.
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