It is always a pleasure to open good books after many years. I’ve recently been thumbing through Richard Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America and Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus, which appeared nearly in tandem nearly a decade ago. Both are incredibly helpful to understanding both the diversity of American religious experience and the centrality of Jesus (in Prothero’s case, even to many non-Christians).
I found this gem of a paragraph in Fox’s introduction, shared here without adornment, other than to say that many historians and other scholars of religion have this epiphany, either all at once or more gradually:
One Saturday afternoon a few years later, I was sitting alone at the back of the church after going to confession. Having done my penance of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, I was looking straight ahead at the crucifix, then looking sideways to the ninth Station of the Cross: Jesus Falls the Third Time. I suppose I was trying to pray, but mostly I was just looking at Jesus. Without warning two insights entered my mind, one on top of the other. I felt them rushing into my head and took them as real experiences of illumination. The first was direct: religion might be a completely human creation, God could be an invention of our minds, and Jesus could be a wonderful wise man, nothing more. All the practices and structures of faith, the prayers, the statues, the breast-beating, the windows, seemed human. The second insight amounted to a judgment on the first: the initial insight was too neat and too stark. It presumed knowledge about something we could not know. It arbitrarily limited the real to the visible or provable. And it took the mystery out of life. Human beings did invent religions, I told myself, but they did not invent God. They set up religions as a way of experiencing and re-experiencing their feeling that a God who lay beyond all human reckoning was somehow present in their midst. Jesus was a unique person with a double identity: a man whose teachings could be studied, and the mysterious emissary of an incomprehensibly grand divine power. Jesus was irresistibly elusive: available to be known yet always beyond knowing.