“Who do you say that I am?” Matthew 16:15 asks the question that every follower of Jesus has had to answer for two thousand years. In Catherine MacLean’s and John Young’s new book Preaching the Big Questions: Doctrine Isn’t Dusty the question of Jesus’ relationship to God is dealt with in their second chapter titled “Christology”. It was taken as doctrine for generations that Jesus was God and God was Jesus. Jesus came to be an incarnation of God’s presence in our world. In Christian art, theology and personal devotion the message was clear, Jesus was the Divine who dwelt among us. In stained glass depictions Jesus appears with a light around his head, he walks on water, there is a clear sense that Jesus is more than human.
But as MacLean and Young point out in their chapter the last half of the 20th century has leaned on the more human side of Jesus. There was a feeling in the western church that focusing so much on Jesus’ Divinity was making his wisdom, teachings and vulnerability inaccessible to those seeking relationship with Jesus. Books written from Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical Protestant perspectives have more recently been grounded in Jesus’ humanity.
There are many reasons for this shift. As humanity, especially in the west, became assertive of its influence on the world there was a hunger to know how the early Jesus would act and be. Thus the now well-known expression “What Would Jesus Do, WWJD”. More and more Christians would look at stories like the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan and the Woman at the Well and find Good News for their lives.
The shift did have its shortcomings and Young and MacLean suggest that the overemphasis on the humanity of Jesus, at the expense of this relationship to God, put more and more stock on what humanity can do and less on what God is doing. In world that badly needs Jesus’ justice this shift was a positive. But a by-product of this agency is sometimes a sense that we must make it all happen ourselves, that it is all on us. Such a theology leaves little room for God and makes those of us who cannot “do” seem “less than” in our eyes. Leaning on the Divine we are given Grace as a gift, that God loves us not for what we do but “just because”. Jesus as Divine illumines not only the call to reach out to others but also the sense that it is not what others do that merits our love, it is that like us they are children of God.
There is also the question of what we do with scriptures like John 14 where we read, “no one comes to the Father but by me”. In a world where we now know people who are Muslims, Hindus and Atheists who would be damned to Hell by a literal interpretation of such a text there is the basic question, if Jesus is the only way to God what do we make of people who reject or are unaware of this path? Historically there have been three Christian responses to this dilemma. 1) That while we may like people of other and no faith we must accept that only through Jesus does a connection to the Divine occur. 2) That it is not for us to judge, that this is in God’s hands and how this text is squared with our reality is a mystery only God can figure out. 3) The text is based on an intimate encounter between Jesus and his closest disciples. Jesus is telling them that after his death they will need to focus on him and only him. That the text is less a statement about “us and them” and more an affirmation that for this movement Jesus’ presence will be central. Those who lift up 3) would point to Romans 11:25-36 as an example of the Apostle Paul wrestling with a similar question, what to do with faithful Jews who do not accept Jesus as Christ. Paul’s conclusion, “All Israel will be saved”.
One thing I have learned. None of these questions have easy answers and to criticize another’s answer is to open one’s self to defend your own answer. In other words if you find 2) or 3) not sufficiently clear cut you will need to either find your own way with Jesus or defend the notion that our loving God would create humanity in such a fashion that only those who respond positively to Jesus will be saved. My prayer is that people with different answers to these questions will talk to each other. Too often those on the liberal and those on the conservative sides of this dialogue only speak to their life-minded friends. Talking with those who do not automatically agree with us stretches us and moves us to consider our faith in a deeper way.