Beyond Mere Christianity


  • bookcover

  • Beyond Mere Christianity






  • Four:

    Jesus and the Magicians

     

    ‘It
    is not (possible) for any human being to whom God has given the Book and wisdom
    and prophethood to say to the people: ‘Be my worshippers rather than God’s.’ On
    the contrary (he would say): ‘Be devoted worshippers of your Lord, because you
    are teaching the Book, and you are studying it.’ Nor would he order you to take
    angels and Prophets for lords. Would he order you to disbelieve after you have
    submitted to God’s will?’
    (Qur’an 3:79-80)

    Who was Jesus? Orif
    we prefer the present tense, as many do
    who is he? What would Jesus have told us two
    millennia ago, what would he tell us today, about his ministry, his mission,
    his objectives, his identity? These are fateful questions, questions that
    challenge us.

    If the Christian writer C.S. Lewis and
    the other mainstream scholars and theologians of Christianity are correct,
    Jesus would say to us, ‘I am God Incarnate, the second person of the Trinity.’

    Lewis supports
    this view of Jesus with words to this effect: ‘Two thousand years ago, a man
    appeared among the Jews claiming to be God, a man whose words and deeds
    profoundly unsettled the religious authorities of his day, and whose mission
    continues to unsettle all of mankind. In evaluating this man’s career, there
    are only two possibilities for us. We may consider him a lunatic, or we may consider
    him the Son of God. There is no middle ground. And who will maintain that Jesus
    was a lunatic?’

    Now, I must be
    honest and admit that this line of argument has irritated me for many years …
    because it reminds me so much of a magician’s performance.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Magicians, when they wish to make it
    appear to a paying audience that they have supernatural powers, often employ a
    series of careful misdirections: an unexpected flare from some flash powder, a
    pretty lady in a revealing gown, a loud noise from offstage, even something as
    simple as a gesture or a word. Magicians employ these misdirections, not for
    the sake of simple showmanship, but with a purpose, and while holding a subtle
    goal in mind.

    Consider, for
    instance, the case of a card magician. The aim is to distract an audience member who has been called up onto the stage
    for just a moment, just long enough to manipulate the deck, and then to move
    quickly enough to convince her that she has freely chosen a card on her own. In
    fact, however, the magician has ‘forced’ a predetermined card on her.

    This is the magician’s principle of
    misdirection.

    Lewis engages
    in very similar sleight-of-hand with his ‘lunatic-or-Son-of-God’ argument, which
    appears in his book Mere Christianity.

    Of course, there is no thoughtful,
    spiritually aware person
    Christian or otherwisewho
    can read the Gospels with an open mind and an open heart, and come away from
    that experience convinced that Jesus was a lunatic. And so the believer finds
    herself holding a ‘card’ that she did not choose, a ‘card’ that has been forced
    upon her, a ‘card’ that informs her that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God,
    the human component of the Trinity
    as (she is assured) he
    himself claims to be.

    The thoughtful Christians, however, must be prepared to appeal to the
    most authentic words of the Gospels to determine the truth or falsehood of such
    matters.

    Once we resolve that much firmly in our
    hearts, we may find that we really are brave enough to pose the question for ourselves:
    Who is Jesus?

    Does he say, ‘I am the only begotten Son of
    God and the second person of the Trinity’?
    If we examine this
    fateful question carefully, we reach an extraordinary
    conclusion. We may look through the Gospels for as long as we please, but we
    will have a very difficult time indeed locating any verse in which Jesus says
    this.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Now, Islam teaches that Jesus Christ forcefully rejected claims that he was divine. Most
    mainstream Christians who disagree with the teachings of Islam do so because of
    its emphatic insistence on this point.

    We certainly
    have a right to be skeptical about Islam’s claims about this issue. It is only
    fair for us to demand evidence from the
    Gospels
    , and not from any other source,
    before we conclude that Jesus rejected
    the divine role that so many believe he was born to play in human affairs.

    So the question becomes: Can we find even
    one Gospel passage that plausibly
    suggests Jesus rejected today’s prevailing
    understanding of his mission? Can we find a verse that shows him denying that he was the divine
    incarnation of God, the second person of the Trinity?

    If we cannot find such a verse, then the
    discussion is over. Islam has failed to support its claims. If we can find such a verse, we are perhaps
    obliged to look a little more closely at what Islam has to say about Jesus.

    We have, I think, both the right and the duty to determine whether or not
    Lewis, as he spreads out his deck of cards for us, is trying to distract us
    with his lunacy-or-divinity argument
    and if he is, what he might be trying to distract us from. Misdirection
    is fine for entertainment, but it has, we must admit, no place when it comes to
    the important business of determining one’s own path to salvation.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Well. What could Lewis
    be eager to direct our attention away from?

    Perhaps from Gospel passages like this
    one … in which Jesus explicitly denies
    any claim on divinity:

    ‘And
    when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to
    him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal
    life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but
    one, that is, God.’
    (Mark 10:17-18)

    If Jesus was God, why in the world would
    he say something like this? Did he somehow forget that he himself was God when
    he uttered these words? (A side note
    I had a discussion with a woman who assured me
    that this passage in Mark was not really in the Gospels, and who refused to
    believe that it appeared there until I gave her the chapter and verse number
    and she looked it up for herself!)

    Have we ever gone to
    church and heard a homily
    or sermon exclusively devoted to Mark
    10:18?

    If our answer is ‘no,’ perhaps it is fair to ask why that is so … and to ask what other Gospel passages
    our magician may be attempting to distract our attention from.

    Perhaps the magician
    would prefer to distract us from the italicized words that appear in the following

    Gospel passage … words with which Jesus makes clear that all of the truly
    faithful are (metaphorically speaking)
    Children of God:

    ‘But
    I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them
    that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,
    that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh
    his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and
    on the unjust.’
    (Matthew 5:44-45)

    Or perhaps the magician is eager to
    distract us from Gospel passages like this one … in which Jesus draws our
    attention away from reverence of
    him, and towards obedience to God
    Alone:

    ‘And
    it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company
    lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and
    the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that
    hear the word of God, and keep it.’
    (Luke 11:27-28)

    Or perhaps we are meant to be distracted
    from this Gospel passage … in which Jesus reminds us that it is God Alone who
    forgives sinners:

    ‘Then
    his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I
    forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me. Shouldest not thou also
    have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his
    lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all
    that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you,
    if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.’
    (Matthew 18:32-35)

    In this
    parable, does Jesus say that he himself will
    deliver us over to the torturers if we do not forgive those who wrong us, after
    we ourselves have been forgiven?

    Or does he say that his heavenly
    Father
    our heavenly Father!will deliver us over to the torturers if we choose
    to persist in this hypocrisy?

    We are entitled
    to ask: Is this heavenly Father he speaks of the same as, or different than,
    the Father referenced elsewhere as the Father of all the faithful, the One who causes the sun to rise and the rain
    to fall on all of us?

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    To be sure, all these passages appear in
    the New Tes
    tament, and they are all
    easy enough to look up and consult. But if you have ever tried to engage
    members
    of the clergy in a discussion of these passages (as I have), you will find that
    a very interesting thing takes
    place
    when you try to talk about these passages. St. Paul keeps popping up.

    You may begin
    by talking about the words of Jesus, but somehow you will always end up talking
    about the words of St. Paul. And this, I submit, is misdirection.

    The
    faith Jesus preached was not Paulism, and no amount of legerdemain can possibly
    alter this fact.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    We should not have to ask for any
    special
    permission to focus on the authentic words of
    Jesus, and only on the authentic
    words of Jesus. And if we are willing
    to focus only on the authentic words
    of Jesus, we may eventually conclude that they paint a picture of Jesus as a
    human Prophet, a picture that is startlingly similar to the picture offered in
    the Qur’an.

    Christians
    around the world repeat the Lord’s Prayer faithfully every day, attributing its
    exquisite words to Jesus himself. We are entitled to ask: Does this prayer
    require the faithful to appeal to Jesus himself? To the Trinity? To the Holy
    Spirit? Or does it require the faithful to appeal to ‘our Father’?

    We are entitled
    to ask: To whom was Jesus praying when he spoke these words? Himself? Certainly
    not! And it is not ‘my Father’ that Jesus appeals to … but ‘our Father.’

    And we are entitled to ask: Why was he even speaking these words, if
    he himself was God?

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    In the end, our own honest answer to the question ‘Who is
    Jesus?’ need not be much more elaborate or sophisticated than a simple ‘I don’t
    know.’ That may very well be the best answer as we make our way through the
    Gospels. It’s certainly not an answer to be ashamed of: ‘I don’t know.’ And it
    is far better than answering as though the question we were facing were actually
    ‘Who does St. Paul say Jesus is?’

    The only answer
    that is worthy of shame, when we are
    asked ‘Who is Jesus?’ is the one that elevates the force of our own habit over the actual words of the Gospel. We
    may well face grave difficulties if we consciously choose to answer this
    question out of force of habit when we know better.

    C.S. Lewis and the theologians of what is
    today known as mainstream Christianity may want us to answer that question
    out of force of habit, of course. They have their reasons. They have made their
    own choices. And they have arranged the deck as they see fit.

    Whether we
    accept the card that has been extended, and then tell ourselves that we have
    chosen it freely, however, is up to us.

     

    At eighteen,
    I headed East for college and entered
    the Roman Catholic Church. In college, I met a beautiful and compassionate
    Catholic girl who was
    to become the great love and support of my life;
    she was not particularly religious, but she appreciated how important these
    matters were to me, and so she supported me in my beliefs. I do a great
    injustice
    to her seemingly limitless resources of strength, support, and love by
    compressing the beginning of
    our relationship into a few sentences here.

    Ó Ó Ó

    I asked the campus priesta sweet and pious manabout some of the Gospel material that had given me trouble, but he
    became uncomfortable and changed
    the subject. On another occasion, I remember telling him that I was focusing
    closely on the Gospel of John because that Gospel was (as I thought then) a
    first-person account of the events in question.

    Again, he stammered and changed the subject and
    did not want to discuss the merits of one Gospel
    over another; he simply insisted that all four were important and that I should
    study all of them.
    This was a telling conversation, and a fateful one,
     as it turned out.

     

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