Jeanne asked me a question about my blog the other day that, after I stopped being defensive, got me to thinking carefully about what I actually believe concerning Jesus. I’ll save the specific question and my reaction for a later essay. Her question came on the same day that I had been trying to explain what “Freelance Christianity” is and how it might differ from traditional, mainline Christianity to a questioner on Facebook. My sense was that his question was not a bait-and-switch effort to get me to commit to something for which he wanted to condemn me to hell in his next comment (I get plenty of those). Rather, he was genuinely curious and actually wanted to know.
I told him that the Incarnation, God choosing out of love to become human, is the centerpiece of my faith; in fact, it was a fresh take on and approach to the Incarnation that, over a decade ago while on sabbatical, kept me within the Christian tent that I was at least subconsciously preparing to exit. And the Incarnation, of course, brings us to Jesus. God incarnated; God become human “meat.” It’s always good to return to the basics and ask, “What exactly do I believe?” In this case, who/what exactly was Jesus and what exactly was he up to?
I believe that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, as virtually all Christians claim. But that means little without digging deeper. My religious tradition focused almost exclusively on Jesus as God, the second member of the Trinity. Being a contrarian by nature, that immediately attracted me to Jesus the human being. In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous “Divinity School Address” at Harvard Divinity School’s commencement exercises, an address that caused such a stir and knotted so many people’s underwear uncomfortably that he was not invited back for decades. What did Ralph Waldo say in his address that was so problematic? He took the claim that Jesus was fully human seriously and drew some unorthodox conclusions.
Emerson begins with what he calls “the religious sentiment,” a recognition that the moral law is present equally in each individual and that I am, as are all human beings, a part of something greater and sublime. According to Emerson, “this sentiment is divine and deifying. showing the fountain of all good to be within . . . this sentiment is the essence of all religion.” The problem is that virtually every religion either ignores, dilutes, or denies that each person, through the natural religious sentiment, equally resonates with the divine. Christianity is no exception, Emerson claims, specifically because “it [Christianity] has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.”
Clearly Jesus is central to the Christian faith, so how could it be possible for the Christian religion to exaggerate anything about the person of Jesus? Emerson’s point is that to the extent that the divinity and “otherness” of Jesus is raised in importance compared to his humanity, Jesus becomes a “one-off” historical anomaly and the presence of the divine in each human being is ignored and ultimately denied.
So who was Jesus? Is Emerson one of those heretics who wants to sell Jesus to us as just another excellent teacher, a fine moral exemplar, an admirable human being but not divine? Hardly. Jesus’ greatness and uniqueness lie in recognizing who he truly was—and through this recognition each subsequent individual can find empowerment and inspiration.
Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think’ . . . He was the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of man.
Emerson does not deny the truth of the Incarnation, the seminal and central truth of Christianity. Jesus was truly both human and divine. But his greatness lies in his awareness that this was not unique to him. Humanity and divinity belong together and are fused in every human being. Jesus’ empowering gospel directive to his disciples was that they would do even greater works than his; his message to us is “Dare to love God without mediator or veil . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint man with Deity.” We would do well to remember Catherine of Genoa’s insight: “My deepest me is God.”
Heavy (and perhaps heretical?) stuff, to be sure. But “heretic” simply means “someone who lost a very important high-stakes argument” or, more typically, “someone with whom I strongly disagree on an issue of great importance.” Interestingly, the final pages of Barbara Brown Taylor’s New York Times bestselling 2006 memoir Leaving Church considers Jesus’ divine/human tension and fusion in a way reminiscent of Emerson’s address close to two centuries ago. Taylor describes Leaving Church as a “memoir of faith”—I highly recommend it, as I do all of her many books.
After twenty years as an ordained Episcopal priest, Taylor left the active priesthood in the wake of an intensifying faith change that was less a crisis and more a natural evolution. After six months or so away from celebrating Eucharist weekly and being a pastor daily, Taylor takes stock in the final pages of her book of in what ways her faith has changed since she stepped down from her “front and center expert” role as a priest. Some of these changes have to do with the nature and ministry of Jesus.
It remains possible to see Jesus not as the founder of a new religion but as the exemplar of a new way of being human—a new Adam, in the language of the apostle Paul—who lived and died with such authentic faith in God that he gave his followers the courage to try to do the same thing.
While still an active priest, Taylor once had a conversation with a former parishioner whom she had not seen for several years. When she asked him where he was going to church, he responded that he was not attending church, no longer believing that it was an essential part of practicing his faith in the real world. When she asked him skeptically to say more, he said that
After a lot of listening, I think I finally heard the gospel. The good news of God in Christ is, “You have everything you need to be human.” There is nothing outside of you that you still need . . . In your life right now God has given you everything that you need to be human.
Ralph Waldo Emerson would have loved this, and Barbara Brown Taylor came to embrace it as well.
Taylor illustrates with an interesting interpretation of one of Jesus’ typical “hard sayings” from the Gospel of Luke: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Taylor comments that
I think it was his way of telling them to go home. He did not need people to go to Jerusalem to die with him. He needed people to go back where they came from and live the kinds of lives that he had risked his own life to show them: Lives of resisting the powers of death, of standing up for the little and the least, of turning cheeks and washing feet, of praying for enemies and loving the unlovable.
On the next-to-last page of Leaving Church, Taylor observes that “All these years later, there are still a few who believe that becoming fully human is the highest honor they can pay to the incarnate one who showed them how.” Emerson would definitely agree, and so do I.
Before the heresy police accuses me of Arianism, the early Christian heresy that claimed Jesus was fully human but not fully divine (the flipside of Docetism which claimed that Jesus was fully divine but only “apparently” human), think again. I believe that Jesus was both human-infused divinity and divinely-infused humanity—that’s what “fully God and fully human” means. Perhaps the heresy part comes in when I also claim that because of the Incarnation, this is true of all of us.
Several years ago, my long dormant and atrophying faith awakened when I embraced the Incarnation story in a new way. God not only became human, but we human beings remain the way in which God gets into the world. Jesus told his critics that “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Barbara Brown Taylor suggest that each of us, once we embrace who we truly are, can say the same thing. And as Barbara Brown Taylor said on the “Bible for Normal People” podcast recently, this should not surprise Christians in the least.
God decided long ago in Christian understanding to trust human beings with the gospel message. God decided to risk trusting the humans. This is the central claim of the incarnation—that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth.