Jesus or “Christ”
Was it necessary that Jesus become a Greek “god-man” to accomplish his mission? For those who feel it was important that, however stripped of the integrity of his vision, Jesus needed to be projected universally and transhistorically, then certainly, without the leverage of some supernatural illusion or another, he would have remained simply a Jewish visionary known only to his close circle of friends and those they may have been able to convince to follow his “way.” He might never have become the Pantocrator , the celestial model and guarantor of Roman Imperial power, and the “judge of the living and the dead.”
This is an argument used to justify the necessity of the “god-man” upgrade of Jesus in Paul. But, even in its best version, it rests on the conviction that Jesus was important for something other than his message and living example … something, we must realize, that he himself never wasted his breath on. The relegation of Jesus’ message and example to secondary importance has been the leitmotiv of Christianity since the letters of Paul. Jesus was significant, according to this view, not for what he said, how he lived or what he tried to accomplish in this world, but for what his death achieved in another world. The final step in the ladder of supernatural upgrades was the homoousion ofConstantine making Jesus God Almighty in person: the ultimate distortion. To Jesus it would have been blasphemy.
It seems to me this entire line of thought is suggesting that for the sake of institutional growth and influence, regardless of the human deformity it propagated, we have to respect these false supernatural mystifications. I reject that. I do not feel that illusion of any kind is ever advantageous much less necessary. It is not even morally acceptable … in fact I think those who promote such things are committing crimes against humanity. I give the actual perpetrators of these illusions the benefit of my doubt about their intentions: I assume they were mystified themselves and sincerely passed on to others what they had come to believe.
Someone may then ask how Jesus’ message could possibly have been transmitted without using such mechanisms … and I would answer: through the faithful repetition of his words and deeds in writing or by word of mouth, and by the example of those who follow his counsels … the same way the Buddha’s human message was transmitted for many centuries before his deification by Mahayanism. Jesus himself relied on nothing but his words and his example. The projection of Jesus as a transhistorical divine “personage” in support of an inhuman doctrine that deforms and subjugates human beings is of no value to anyone.
Who was Jesus?
Jesus was a human being. What was “divine” about him, metaphorically speaking, was the superlative development of the same humanity that each of us was born with. Jesus was not only a human being, he was a great human being … and by “great” I am not referring to the notoriety, popularity or influence he achieved. I mean he was a compassionate, loving, and courageous visionary whose simple wisdom, captured in his words and way-of-life, has inspired people for thousands of years to cherish their humanity and care for one another.
And Jesus was a Jew. He lived in an historical context in which the concept Messiah (Christ) was fully alive and heuristic. He may even have thought of himself in those terms, though most commentators say he did not. What exactly Messiah may have meant to Jesus, however, seems to be different from what it meant to many of his contemporaries. Paul’s interpretation, for one, was intentionally (and poetically) conflated with the Greek category of “divine-human hero” as exemplified in the Mystery religions. Some such category of “lesser divinity” in the Greek idiom is the only possible way that Paul could have conceived Jesus’ as “god.” For Paul was also a Jew, and placing any human on a par with “God” would have been an unthinkable blasphemy for him as it would have been for Jesus. Nevertheless, three hundred years later Paul’s “Christ” was in turn upgraded under pressure from the Roman Emperor to absolute equality with “God” — something Paul would not have countenanced. Arius – following Clement and Origen — correctly understood the Pauline concept of the Christ as creature, and so did many others. That was proven by the more than a century it required for the Emperor’s Legions to exterminate this “heresy” which was held by half the Christian world. Constantine’s Greco-Roman restatement of “Messiah” entirely eradicated the humanity of Jesus … and the mythopoeia of Paul’s “hero” became increasingly lost in a culture that saw literal, factual and rational truth to be the only “truth” there was. Jesus was no longer a “god,” he was God.
Very few Christians are happy discovering that to do what Jesus wanted would mean living a universalized and humanized Judaism. It might be a shock to learn that for Jewish Jesus, “Christianity” was not what he had in mind at all, and in fact there are some features in it that he would have found contrary to his vision and still others he would have called blasphemous and rejected outright. Few Christians would accept being Jews … never mind that Jesus was one.
Is Catholicism capable of lending and bending itself — its traditions, its liturgy, its magisterium — to the obvious ecumenical implications of a Jesus-based universalism inspired by Jewish tradition? Are we today, in other words, any more disposed to follow Jesus and not our own institutional interests than Constantine (or Paul)? Or are we ready, as so many have been throughout our history, to exploit rather than explore the human depth of a message and a life-style that continues to inspire awe across the globe?
There’s a reason for that universal appeal. Jesus’ utter simplicity and his loving acceptance of all may very well be exactly what we do not want — and therefore cannot permit ourselves to hear.