by Ian McFadden
Today, the UN is going to dub some squirming infant “living human #7,000,000,000.” A) That’s a whole lot of people and, B) I can remember when Adnan Mevic was dubbed the 6 billionth just a few years ago. The world is changing. And one of the changes is the speed at which it is changing. Culture is shifting faster than it has before. One way to see that is to check out a history textbook that’s a couple decades old.
My great aunt is 89 and she’s more alert than I am. She told me last week that when she helps a granddaughter with history homework, she’s pleased to find that history textbooks no longer treat the barbaric displacement of Native Americans as unquestioned manifest destiny. Others are troubled to find that in religious textbooks Christianity no longer enjoys pride of place.
We live in a poly-religious society
Your kids will go to school alongside many friends of other religions; probably already they know more about Islam or Hinduism than you ever learned. And that’s great. It’s helpful and healthy that they develop an informed understanding of other religions. Hopefully they’ll develop friendships with kids of other religions and find some of their stereotypes challenged and their horizons broadened. It could be they’ll wonder or ask you whether Jesus is really that different. Does it really matter whom you launch your prayers toward? After all, the other kids might be better students, better behaved. That was my experience going to school in London where a high percentage of my friends were Muslim or Hindu or Jewish or Sikh. Where their lives looked different than mine, often it seemed for the better. Maybe it didn’t make any difference which god you worshiped so long as you played nicely.
That mindset–let’s call it theological pluralism—is the worldview du jour in the West. And Christians are increasingly enticed to it. Every dolt knows there are tons of smart phones out there. They all have the same basic functions, the same basic purpose. Some are flashier than others. Some cost more than others. Some can respond more thoroughly to verbal questions than most American males. But at the end of the day it is just another smart phone. No one other than a narrow-minded Steve Jobs acolyte is going to insist otherwise. Why should it be any different with religions, with the gods we worship?
Maybe it’s time we recognize that we live in a poly-religious world and stop being so insistent that Jesus is different. Times have changed and so should our theology. These are common thoughts to have in Baltimore today. Our times, though, are not quite as unique as we might think. Religious pluralism, to the extent that we now experience it in our urban centers, might be new in the West, but it isn’t new. Not by a long shot.
Religious pluralism is not new
In fact, religious pluralism is precisely the climate in which exclusive worship of Jesus was born. The first century Mediterranean world was just as poly-religious as we are today. And religious pluralism wasn’t confined to that time and place. The last two millennia of Christian history in the non-Western world have been lived in the context of multiple other—often more dominant—religions. We think because it’s new for us it must be new for the world and we need to lead the way in theological adaptation. But we’re behind the trend on this one. And, despite being constantly in the midst of religious pluralism for 2000 years, the consistent non-Western response has been to maintain that Jesus is different, unique, and the only way for humanity to have a functioning, healthy relationship with God.
Our sermon series in Acts called The Intentional Disciple has driven this home to me. When Peter told the Sanhedrin, “salvation is found in no one else [other than Jesus],” he was speaking to a group of educated monotheists who patently disagreed. When Paul insisted that all the world would be judged by a man whom God had appointed and raised from the dead, he was chatting with a bunch of philosophical polytheists. And when Barnabas declined to be worshiped as a god himself and preached the gospel in Lystra, it was to a bunch of pantheon worshippers. Not only did the first Christians of the church realize they were preaching Christ as the unique access to God in a poly-religious setting, they also understood that Christ meant they had to reinterpret their native Judaism.
Clearly the first Christians and non-Western Christians since them knew Jesus to be different enough, peerless enough, that it was worth beatings and stonings and even executions for him to be presented as more than just another option among many.
So what is so unique?
Jesus embodied a unique people
Jesus was neither the first nor the last person on earth to do strange, miraculous, kind and inimitable things. In fact, Gamaliel, who was part of a council trying some of the earliest followers of Jesus, argued that the Christian movement should be left alone on the grounds that previous movements begun by charismatic leader-figures had died out on their own. No, Jesus’ followers came to understand him in the way he understood himself, that is, as embodying the nation of Israel and fulfilling their God-given project. As early as the promise to Abraham, God’s policy for restoring his creation to a healthy relationship with himself, was to use Israel. As a nation they were to be like a prism, refracting God’s character out into intelligible patterns for ethics and worship, law and agriculture, economy and foreign-policy. In short, God’s unique presence among them was to result in blessing for all the world’s peoples.
So when Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms and attributed to him the role meant for the nation of Israel–the role of light to the nations–he was pointing to Jesus’ unique identity. When Jesus cursed the temple and indicated himself as its replacement, he was positioning himself as the locus of God’s unique presence in the world. When Jesus was baptized and God identified him proudly as “my son,” he was stepping into the filial relationship that belonged to all of Israel and to the kings of Israel as singular representatives of the whole people. Tellingly, one of Jesus’ favorite self-designations, “Son of Man,” was that of the corporate representative of the faithful kingdom of Israel. Jesus was more than a faithful individual Israelite. He was an embodiment of the entire people with whom God had a unique relationship.
Jesus incarnated a unique God
It wasn’t fulfilling God’s destiny for Israel that got Jesus in trouble with the establishment, though. It was claiming to be, and acting as if he were, God himself.
I remember being taught in religious studies class in high school that Jesus never claimed to be God. Divine status was an interpolation of several centuries later, it was said. And this thinking is still prevalent today. Quite how this fallacy is huckstered in educated circles I don’t understand. Not only did Jesus perform mighty acts that were exclusively associated with the God of the Hebrew bible, not only did he accept worship (which rigid monotheists direct to a being other than God at perilous risk to their lives), but he also reflexively invoked a series of names and characteristics reserved for the Old Testament God. He used God’s personal name to talk about himself.
Jesus’ and the early church’s associating of Jesus with Yahweh of the Hebrew bible is important for this discussion because it couldn’t be clearer that Yahweh declared himself to be the only real God in existence. As the only real God, he was the only one capable of saving his creatures. God was Israel’s and the world’s only hope. And the early church understood Jesus to be this God in the flesh.
Jesus defeated death
The previous two points might seem rather theological. And my contention is not that Jesus’ friends all instantly understood every way Jesus embodied Israel or incarnated God with the sort of handy labels we have for them after years of reflection. But they did grasp his utter uniqueness when they saw him walk out the backside of death never to die again. So important was his resurrection that it was the impetus for and centerpiece of the message they took to the world.
Some of them had seen people rise from the dead before. Heck, it was maybe almost getting to be old-hat. They’d seen Lazarus raised, maybe Jairus’ daughter and the young man from Nain too. But Jesus came back to life with a different body, a spiritual one, one that shrugged off decay and disease like water off gore-tex, one that craved God and saw no appeal in sin, one that would never be dead again. With Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples understood death to have lost its first match. With Jesus’ resurrection, they knew that the undoing of sin’s infectious clutch upon creation had begun. Death was an inevitable physical dramatization of humanity’s separation from life in God as a result of sin. When the effects of death in Jesus were erased, they understood that he had taken care of sin too. Since the world’s beginning, sin’s ledger sheet had required sacrificial death in order to be balanced. Once Jesus had paid the debt, terminal death was no longer required.
When Jesus’ friends and family saw him rise from the dead, appear to hundreds of them and then ascend to heaven without dying again, they knew they had to tell the world. The disjuncture with their native religion did not stop them. The incompatibility with the religions of their neighbors and authorities did not stop them. They tempered their words with gentleness and respect; they weren’t motivated by arrogance or imperialism. But they knew that what they had seen simply did not brook compromise. Either Jesus was who he claimed to be and had done what they saw him do, or he had odiously misled them. Either he was the incarnation of the only God who could save, or he was a villain to be despised not worshiped. To lay him alongside other gods, or other mediators of ultimate reality, to call him a savior but not the savior was not a logical option.
Christians who live today did not see Jesus in the flesh, alive and well, several days after he should have been a rotting corpse. But we place our trust in the testimony of those who did and consequently we find ourselves similarly constrained in the way we handle Jesus. Either the biblical narrative is reliable when it relates Jesus’ nature and accomplishments or it isn’t. If it isn’t, that is, if he was not God incarnate and didn’t defeat death and pay for sin, then I’m not remotely interested in worshipping him. There’s as much sense in stripping Jesus of his claims to uniqueness but still considering him to be a viable candidate for religious devotion as there is in worshipping the flying spaghetti monster. There’s more cultural imperialism in redefining Jesus so that he suits our relativist sensibilities than there is in admitting that if he was right, we all should walk away from anything else that requests our attention and follow him.