Its all about us isn’t it?
At least one source of our Christian arrogance comes from construing Christianity as the union of a particular revelation and a particular human need, or as a divine answer to a particular human question. The very historical/cultural particularity of the revelation of God’s love for all humanity in Jesus Christ appears to affirm the importance and universality of a particular historical/cultural formulation of the human need for that love.
Christians depict that “salvation history” as part of a plan in which God affirms a certain stream of human history to be the normative location for understanding who God is for humanity as a whole.
Put another way, the fact that we in particular were called by God validates and normalizes our particular need for a savior. Our particular form of longing for salvation becomes the universal definition of human longing.
The difficult relationship between Christianity and Judaism helps illustrate what I mean. As depicted in the gospels, Jesus comes first preaching to his fellow Jews, entering into their historical longing for a Messiah. But regardless of his miracles and his authoritative teaching the gospels tell us that he is rejected by some Jews and is ignored by the vast majority of Jews. Only a small number understand and accept both him and what he represents.
Why? Christians usually interpret the gospels to say that the rejection by the Jews is a matter of jealousy or blindness, a refusal to recognize the promised Messiah. But let’s look at it from a Jewish perspective. In the Rabbinic tradition that was already dominant at the time of Jesus righteousness is the key to a relationship with the God of Israel. That righteousness is inculcated by following the law given by Moses and participating in the great communal rituals Moses commanded. Why would God give the law and then send the prophets to hold Israel into account for it if it wasn’t an effective means for Israel to fully realize its relationship with its creator? And the task of the Messiah? He was to liberate Israel from its oppressors and thus create the conditions and inspiration for Jews to realize the righteousness that was and is their birthright.
To Jews then, as to Jews now, Jesus simply didn’t look anything like the Messiah they expected, and he offered a form of salvation that most were not seeking.
When we read the gospels, with their multiple references to Jewish scripture as a prophetic foretelling of the coming of Jesus, his ministry, and his death and resurrection we need to realize that the gospel writers are pioneering a new, and particularly Christian, interpretation of Jewish scripture. They are interpreting Jewish scripture to highlight a single thematic line. That line portrays the Jews, and indeed humanity, as enslaved by sin as a metaphysical force that can only be overcome by a Messiah who defeats it on a metaphysical plain on behalf of all humanity. In short it provides the genealogy of the distinctly Christian experience of sin and of Jesus as the Savior. Given the emerging self-understanding of the disciples of Jesus, Jesus was the most critical figure in the history of the world, the sole source of salvation.
But most Jews read an almost completely different genealogy of human experience out of their scripture. Human unrighteousness, human injustice, and human oppression were the thoroughly earthy problems that kept Israel out of relationship with its God. In that light Jesus appeared to be a rather flashy and unoriginal teacher who didn’t accomplish what the Messiah was expected to accomplish. Such men came and went and were easily forgotten, as he was.
(I note, as an aside, that neither Jews then nor Jews now would accept Paul’s caricature of Jewish belief. His polemic in the Letter to the Romans isn’t a representation of what Jews in general believed, but of the way he interpreted the beliefs of his particular Jewish opponents.)
So the eventual split between Christianity and Judaism over Jesus was rooted in a disagreement over the human problem with God.
This Christian understanding of both what it means to be human, and what it means to be saved, turned out to resonate with very large numbers of people outside the Jewish community. It eventually garnered imperial patronage, which in the 4rd century was a lot like getting both the best possible celebrity endorsement and being the only account of every major advertising agency. The Jews, with their very different theological anthropology slipped into being a minority voice, as did other varying views of the human condition also present in the Roman world.
(Another note for students of the Bible. Look at the differences and similarities in the use of the term “Greek” and “Gentile” in the New Testament. You will see that the two terms, one referring to a specific ethnic culture gets conflated with the general idea of all the non-Jewish nations. The result makes it hard for Christians to see cultural differences among the many and varied nations with any real clarity.)
And this is where the arrogance comes in. The Christian witness has been more than Christians telling people who Jesus is. It has also been telling people who they are. It was the followers of Christ imposing their particular self-understanding on others.
DT Niles, famously concerned with missionary arrogance, once said that evangelism is “one beggar telling another where to find bread.” But even this has an arrogant tinge. Who am I to say to my fellow human, “you are, like me hungry. You are also a beggar for food?” It isn’t humble to say “I’m a sinner saved by grace” and then insist that everyone else has to be a sinner in order to know God’s love.
And the fact is that our fellow humans, hearing this apparently humble offer from one beggar to another, increasingly say, “you’ve got it wrong, I’m not hungry and I’m not begging.” And our response, far from listening to them say who they are and what they feel, is to try to persuade them ever more forcefully to see themselves through the lens of our experience. It isn’t working.
It became common, indeed almost universal, for the Christian message to contain both the story of Jesus and a normalizing account of the human condition. Yet both the New Testament and Christian history show us other possibilities.
One thing we find throughout the gospels, so it presumably represents a lesson the apostles learned, is that Jesus does not impose a particular understanding of the human condition on those who hear him speak. The apostles recount their own continued surprise at just how broad minded Jesus is about human need and the power he possesses to meet that need. It is true that on one occasion he is confronted with disability and offers forgiveness of sins, but that is simply to show the breadth of his power to confront human need. He never tells those who seek him for food, or healing, or teaching, or exorcism that he’s really only in the business of forgiving sins. Nor does he demand that they need to take care of their relationship with God in those particular terms before they can experience the power of the Christ to heal their particular needs.
Modern Christian scholars talk about how Jesus as depicted in the gospels “hides” his identity as the Christ until the end. One accepted reason is that Jesus doesn’t want people to judge too quickly what the claim that he is the messiah, or Christ, means. Perhaps it is because Jesus doesn’t want the apostles to make their experience normative, and lock others into framework that might marginalize their own needs and experience. Maybe we too, like the first apostles, should heed Jesus warning and just tell about Jesus. Let others discover who he is instead of making claims on his behalf.
In any case we can see the dilemma. A revelation in a specific time and place, a particular location with particular people, will always seem to normalize that particular experience, asserting it universality. I will suggest in the next blog that this isn’t necessary, and isn’t true to the gospel.