Using Jesus

Jesus is pretty famous. There are very few places on earth where you can go today where people have not at least heard of him. And this should be no surprise, because he’s a very intriguing character - an enigma who continues to start conversations all over the world even to this day. So many questions still surround him, his life, and his teaching. Was he born miraculously of a virgin, or did his mother sleep around during her engagement to Joseph? Were his miracles real, or were they carefully crafted illusions? Did he actually rise from the dead, or did he just swoon on the cross and recover later … or was the whole thing simply made up by his disciples?

And what do we do with the things he taught? On the one hand, he said many wonderful and broadly accepted teachings like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Judge not or you too will be judged,” and, “Blessed are the poor.” Yet he also said things like, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” and “Before Abraham was born, I am,” and “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” These are all far more troubling.

And so Jesus, for the last 2,000 years, has been inspiring people and challenging them, comforting them and making them very uncomfortable, and the many miracles of his life continue to hang around, demanding attention because of their dramatic nature, yet remaining ultimately un-provable, and, in the end, perhaps not even relevant to our lives today.

So how do people respond to this man of mystery, Jesus of Nazareth? I think people have, essentially, 4 responses to him.

Some people love him. They believe in his miracles, they aspire to his teaching, they trust him, and they try to follow him. These people generally call themselves Christians.

Some people hate him - though not many. Few people actively hate Jesus - he’s too complicated a person, with too many redeeming qualities. Even if you don’t like his grandiose claims, you’re still stuck with images of this man welcoming little children to himself, healing the sick, and dying for people he loved. But still, Jesus does have many massive and jarring statements, particularly about himself, that inevitably lead some to hate him.

People are more likely to ignore him, however. For some, the life and death and even possible resurrection of a religious leader 2,000 years ago on the other side of the world simply cannot be relevant to the practical concerns of modern life. For others, the many questions surrounding him leave too much unresolved, and it’s just too exhausting to dwell on him.

But I think by far the most common human approach to Jesus is to use him. And we do this by taking the full picture of Jesus that we have, and then we strip out the things we don’t like, we focus on the things we do like, we reject the things we don’t believe, we accept the things we do believe, and in the end we say, “THIS is Jesus.” Then we take our newly formed Jesus - the one we redesigned to fit our desires perfectly - and we use him to give us a spiritual justification for the things we are already doing, believing, and valuing. Essentially, we form Jesus in our own image.

You can see this everywhere.

Christians who always think they’re right have refashioned Jesus from the God they claim him to be into their own personal cheerleader. We can be sure of this because, in the end, no one is always right.

Politicians who invoke the name of Jesus for their own political platform are using Jesus to achieve their own political goals. Jesus would, of course, vote for them.

People who build their own personal spirituality, splicing together pieces of different religions and including Jesus in the mix … are using Jesus. They are taking the whole person and using only the parts of him that fulfill their spiritual pursuits.

People inclined towards social revolution but rejecting on principle the idea of any kind of divine authority will typically turn Jesus into something of a Che Guevara character.

And the list goes on and on. In fact, any time we pick and choose with Jesus, we will always choose what we like and are comfortable with, and we will cast out or ignore whatever challenges us. This is just human nature.

But what if we simply let Jesus be - with all the things that comfort us and challenge us, that inspire us and rebuke us? We can love him, or we can hate him, or we can decide that he is not relevant to us and ignore him … but at least we’re doing all of these things with the real him. At least we’re respecting him enough not to change him into whatever we want him to be.

To take someone who is a separate, sovereign entity with his own identity, beliefs and opinions, and to bend and twist that person until he is forced into a position of subservience - a position where he is made to worship us, and forced to fulfill our desires … what word describes this better than rape? I know this is a jarring word, but is there a better description for what is going on here?

Jesus is an enigma. He’s uncomfortable, and challenging, and confusing - this is what he’s really like. But let’s have the courage to face him honestly. Perhaps, after confronting him, we’ll discover that we love him. Perhaps we’ll find that his teachings make us hate him. Perhaps we’ll come to believe, in the end, that he’s just not relevant to our lives. But at least with all these responses, we will be responding to the real him - at least we will not have done him the dishonor of contorting him and forcing him to submit to our own desires.

Faith and Reason

Faith and reason.  Both are ways that people evaluate and understand the world around them, though for a long time we have tended to view them as profoundly different and even antithetical approaches.  Some people reject faith entirely and rely purely on reason.  Some people reject reason and rely purely on faith.  I think most people, however, compartmentalize their lives, relying on reason for certain aspects and faith for others.  For these people, faith tends to govern the realm of the spiritual, the personal, the subjective, and the unprovable, while reason governs the world of the physical, the public, the objective, and the provable. In this sense, then, the experiences of life are interpreted and understood in profoundly different ways based on which realm they occupy.  For example, when we look at the question of the cure for cancer, reason governs our approach.  Because of this, we assume the solution to be physical and for the good of the public as a whole.  Furthermore, we treat proposed cures objectively, and accept or reject them based on how they stand up to ongoing scrutiny.  When we look at religion, however, faith tends to govern our approach.  We assume that religion concerns the spiritual/emotional world (and usually not the physical world).  We see religious belief not as something for the public as a whole but rather for individuals, based on their personal thoughts and needs.  Furthermore, we view religion as subjective and generally see little value in scrutinizing it.

In the end, then, there is a sense that reason concerns the concrete and the real, while religion concerns the subjective and the hazy.  Reason, therefore, tends to be viewed in the general public as the more necessary of the two approaches – and the more reliable.  In fact, when a society leaves behind its faith-based roots and starts to become more reason-driven, this is usually seen as sign of progress.

This is a very understandable view of things, but it has a fundamental flaw.  The flaw is that reason is actually just another form of faith.  Reason does not reflect a different approach to understanding the world around us – rather, it represents trust in a different authority.  Whereas “faith” as we generally use the word refers to trust in things like religious texts, the testimony of others, or personal experience, “reason” refers to an ultimate trust in the logic of the human mind.  Reason and faith are both faith-based approaches to understanding life.

And both are unprovable.  People tend to see reason as the more reliable approach because it can be proven, whereas faith cannot.  But in actuality, reason cannot be proven either.  The only way to prove reason/logic is to use logic, which is itself the thing you are trying to prove.  If we were able to prove the trustworthiness of human logic, we would have to use some higher authority for evaluating it – but then what could prove the trustworthiness of that authority?

What we are getting at here is a fundamental characteristic of ultimate authority.  If it is ultimate, it can never be proven, but must always be trusted – on faith.  Reason, then, is not a proven approach to interpreting the world, but an assumed one.  The assumption is that human logic is ultimately cohesive, objective, and essentially unflawed.  While individuals may twist or misuse the logic of the human brain, in principle reason cannot fail.  This is a religious belief, and as far as the physical, political, tangible, on-the-ground problems of the world are concerned, most of the American public puts its hope in it.

Take, for example, how this faith interacts with human testimony to the supernatural.  If someone claims to have witnessed something supernatural in the tangible world which does not fit within the framework of human logic – such as a man coming back from the dead, the reasonable mind must dismiss it as impossible and come up with another explanation.  In fact, it cannot even consider the testimony.  If the soundness of human logic is the ultimate authority for the tangible world, and all scientific study negates the possibility of resurrection, then the supernatural cannot be accepted – because it is already excluded.

The reasonable mind will say that resurrection must be rejected because it is illogical.  But because reason is faith in human logic as the ultimate authority, “illogical” simply means that a certain phenomenon doesn’t bow to the authority of the human mind.  But this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  It only means it isn’t true if you believe that logic is the ultimate authority.  To say something isn’t true because it isn’t logical is actually a religious statement – it’s a faith in the human mind over all other authorities.  But there are other authorities that people trust in.

My point, then, is that all people are people of faith.  Every decision anyone makes is based, ultimately, on faith in unprovable authorities.  Reason-driven decisions are just as faith-based as are religious ones.  This isn’t a problem – it’s just the way things are.

The ensuing question, then, is why do we trust what we trust?  If I assume human reason holds authority over a given religious text which makes claims contradictory to reason, why have I chosen to put my faith in one authority over the other?  That, in my opinion, is the most interesting question – and one that I think usually has little to do with reason.

Disagreeing with Respect

Given that this blog is designed to be a forum where people who believe different things can exchange ideas, it seemed wise to have the first post focus on disagreement. If we are to have a discussion that is healthy and helpful for all involved, it is crucial that we be able to disagree – especially over fundamental issues – with respect. Unfortunately, I feel that in many ways our country has been losing its ability to disagree fruitfully over questions of faith, religion, meaning, and ethics.  While we have little problem confronting one another publically over topics such as politics or the natural sciences, faith seems to fall into a separate category.  We are generally not comfortable with challenging each other’s core beliefs in any type of public forum.  In fact, we tend to equate such challenge with ignorance, insensitivity, and even downright bigotry.  A person’s beliefs about God and the meaning of life are his or her own choice – indeed, freedom to believe as one sees fit is one of our country’s most basic human rights.  And it should be.  However, in our zeal to protect an individual’s right to believe whatever he or she wants to believe, it seems as though we have come to view any challenge to a person’s faith assumptions as an inherent infringement on this right – and therefore something that is ultimately disrespectful and even hateful.

But must we equate challenge with disrespect and hatred?  It is clear that challenging someone’s core beliefs can be done in remarkably unthoughtful, arrogant, and hateful ways. Challenge can often be used as a tool of alienation and exclusion.  But are hatred and disrespect intrinsic elements of every challenge to a person’s worldview?  Must it be totally off limits to question another person’s fundamental assumptions about God, life, and meaning?

In my mind, if this is the case, we must resolve ourselves to having meaning-of-life conversations that remain, essentially, fluff.  We cannot afford to do this.  The questions of God, life, and meaning are the most fundamental ones we have – and the world is splintered over what many of the answers are.  If we are really concerned with finding these answers, then it is crucial that we engage in real dialogue where we are honest about our differences.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that we owe it to one another. If we just write our beliefs off as individual rights and preferences, we will coexist and smile at each other’s differing opinions – but we will not move forward.  We will not have the benefit of having our core assumptions questioned by someone who believes something completely different from us.

Opening ourselves up to this type of dialogue can be a scary process.  But in the end, there is no need to fear truth.  If I am challenged and freed from a life assumption that is in fact false, it may take a while for me to recalibrate, but I will only have gained from the discovery.

Knowledge is empowering.  Still, many of us are afraid of knowledge that asks for change.  Many of us will choose to stick with something we know to be false (or think will be found false if we question it too much) rather than walk through the uncertainty of a revolution or reorientation of self.  Change is indeed scary.

But let’s brave this together.  My hope is this: I want this site to be a place where people can honestly and openly seek the truth together.  I want it to be a place where respect for one another is assumed, especially in the context of passionate disagreement.  I want everyone involved to listen to one another, to avoid making quick assumptions, and to be gracious with one another.  I want The Public Square to be a venue where we can dare to wrestle with real questions, and where we don’t have to be afraid to say what we really believe.  If we approach one another humbly, thoughtfully, and honestly, this site has real potential to be a place of fruitful interaction and discovery.