The Catholic Thing
The Other Jesus(es) Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 07 March 2011

Modern Scripture scholars agree that, historically, there was, at most, one Jesus. That would be the guy born in Bethlehem. Or maybe not (you know how scholars are). Anyway, there was one founder of what today we know as worldwide Christianity.

Different emphases have arisen within Christianity, of course, witness the careers of Peter, James, and Paul. Even at the very earliest councils, debates about dogmatic definitions could become quite heated. But all these differences stemmed from a profound desire to be as faithful to the Truth, Jesus, in all His depth and breadth as is humanly possible. Interpretations mattered not because disputants wanted them to go a certain way; they argued that their views really represented the case about the unique person we know as Jesus Christ.

Only with the advent of modern liberal Christianity did the view arise that the evidence about Jesus, complex as it sometimes is, simply doesn’t matter. The miracles went first, unbelievable to any sane adult. Then the metaphysics: what do Trinity and Persons, processions and hypostases, Incarnation and Atonement have to do with a simple Jewish carpenter. Finally, Heaven (Hell was already gone) became either a foregone conclusion or a distraction from Christianity’s true task: the building up of society on earth.

Some Protestants and evangelicals resisted. Catholics held out for a long time, but largely surrendered after the 1960s. Today, most Protestants and Catholics don’t even know enough about classic Christian truths to reject them. They’re either ignored or transformed.

I was reminded of all this reading an article called “Seeking the Other Jesus” in The Huffington Post (I confess to thinking with James Taranto that this publication, which has lately taken to instructing Catholics about Catholicism, would be better named The Puffington Host.) The author argues, as if it were a great discovery, that we are supposed to love God and neighbor – which for him means avoiding a Christianity “too narrowly focused on piety and individual salvation, too judgmental and homophobic, too directly identified with a particular far-right political agenda.”

A Catholic might agree, in a way, but only after warning that it also distorts Christianity to neglect the need for holiness and right personal behavior, clarity about sin and temptation, and the truth that Christianity has a public dimension quite different than modern individualism and empty tolerance.

Oh, and also, Christians are not like Stalin’s “useful idiots.” We’ve had enough experience of modern society and culture to know when otherwise laudable virtues like tolerance and forgiveness are being turned against Christianity, as if they are more Christian than the Faith itself.

Just one example: I have worked in institutions that promote social conservatism all of my adult life and I can say, categorically, I have never heard anyone in such institutions express hatred for homosexuals per se. Straight men feel an instinctive repugnance towards gay sex, which Aristotle – not exactly a Christian fundamentalist – described as unnatural, evoking the kind of feelings we have about someone who eats earth or ashes.

       Jesus and the Pharisees by Gustave Doré (1866)

I have heard, however, quite strong anger against gay activists seeking to ram homosexuality down our throats in the public square. And when the gay activist wraps himself in the mantle of Christianity and tries to make it seem that tolerance and non-judgmentalism trump all other Christian truth (i.e., anyone opposed to homosexuality is not really “Christian”) – well, you’ve probably felt that anger yourself.

I try every day to read a little bit of the New Testament in Greek. It’s good to be in contact first thing in the morning with those original words, as we have received them. For me, it’s a form of lectio divina because the Greek slows you down just enough to notice things.

Around the time I read The Huffington Post, I was picking my way through Luke 11, where Jesus denounces the Pharisees. A “lawyer” stands up and remarks, “Master. . .when you speak like this you insult (hubridzeis) us too.” At which Our Lord says explicitly what he had only implied: the lawyers put burdens on people, but don’t lift a finger to help them. They take away the key of knowledge, don’t enter into knowledge themselves, and will pay the price. Quite a tirade, and one of the reasons that, afterwards, they try to entrap Him.

There was a time when preachers reminded us of passages like this. Any portrait of Jesus that leaves them out is simply unfaithful to the Gospel. We have largely stopped paying attention to the passages where Jesus warns about eternal damnation. But something about Jesus’ human nature comes through here. Since His was the only perfect human nature, I find these perceived insults to be quite disturbing.

Thomas Aquinas offers good arguments for why God cannot be angry or suffer any passion, but here, we see what, in His human nature, he sometimes thinks of us. Given human evil, it’s hard not to think it’s just.

A certain kind of religious person, however, believes such passages authorize us to behave likewise. Unless you’ve gotten the prophetic call, this is a very dangerous assumption.

Most of the time, it’s better to keep our own emotions out of it. It’s a tricky business to stand up for the truth that certain ways of acting merit eternal punishment and, at the same time, that God is forgiving beyond what we deserve.

We usually think that the problem is solely that most modern people don’t believe evil could be damning. But we also don’t much like the idea of having to be forgiven either because that is an insult to our self-regard. Oddly, to judge by the Scriptural evidence, God seems to love us both when he accuses (and insults) – and when he forgives. 

That, too, is part of the Real Jesus. The Other Jesuses cannot obscure the fact that, if you want to be a Christian in anything besides name, He’s the one you have to seek – and follow.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Bill, March 07, 2011
"...the guy born in Bethlehem."
written by Grump, March 07, 2011
Not to hijack this thread, but 60 Minutes had a segment on atheist Christopher Hitchens on Sunday wherein he talked about leaving open the possibility of "evidence" of God.

"I like surprises," is the way Hitchens put it at the end of the interview.

As an agnostic who, like the parable of the sower and the seed, has read and heard the Word, but in one in which it has not taken root (yet), I, too, have been searching for the "evidence" that Hitchens seeks.

I happened to tune in to an old Bishop Sheen telecast on EWTN (proof of my sincere searching) and heard him recite this poem from Joseph Mary Plunkett:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

For me, this captures the "real Jesus" Mr. Royal speaks of and the "evidence" that is all that one needs to know that he is the one true God.
written by Chris, March 07, 2011
It is indeed unfortunate for us that these words from Mr. Royal are all too true. When tolerance and diversity are treated as nouns instead of adjectives we have lost our focus. We would all do better to start with "the guy from Bethlehem" and then go from there.
written by Howard, March 07, 2011
Have no chagrin, Bill, 'the guy born in Bethlehem' is a figure of speech. I think You know that full well. Why get your hackles up?

Mr. Royal is merely using this rhetorical speech to characterize the 'modern' versus his (and our) traditional sensibilities. Sometimes, to speak effectivley (also well known by you), it is necessary to use the language of 'the other side', those one wishes to to reach...they hear it...such talk vibrates sympatheticaly with their way of thinking. I suspect the TCT is written often with the college crowd in mind. Don't you suppose 'the guy born in Bethlehem' will be better grasped by that audience than anything like "the Annointed One","the King of Kings","the Son Man", 'Immanuel',etc.,etc.

Peace, dude.
written by Louise, March 07, 2011
Dear Mr. Grump,

You have quoted one of my favorite poems. I wonder what Mr. Plunkett would have thought of the characterization of his Lord as "the real Jesus".

Mr. Plunkett was executed by the British at age 28 in 1918 for his part in the planning and execution of the "Easter Rising" against the British in Dublin. He was a faithful and devout Catholic and knew only one Jesus. He was also a staunch Irish nationalist. It is said (but I don't know of any confirmation) that he scratched the words of this poem on his prison cell wall and they were found after his death. He married his beloved two days before his execution, although he had not one moment alone with her. I think she was allowed 10 minutes with him before his execution in the presence of a guard. She was a Catholic convert who never married but continued her work for Irish independence until she died alone in her apartment years later.

I don't think that there was any confusion in Mr. Plunkett's heart about who Jesus is. His faithful witness to Christ is certainly worthy of emulation, and it is, therefore, necessary to embrace the words of the poem in the context of that witness. His love of Jesus and his identification with Jesus' Passion is evident in the first line of the poem, when the first metaphor refers to Jesus' blood.

Thank you for posting this lovely poem. It moves me deeply.
written by Bill, March 07, 2011
"At His name, every knee shall bend." "He shall come again in Glory to judge both the living and the dead." I am very sensitive to anything which even remotely seems blasphemous.
Luke 12:5 "Fear not he who can injure or kill you. I will tell you whom you should fear. Fear him, who once one is dead, can cast that person into Hell. He is the one you should fear."
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 07, 2011
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I must point out that this creation of a parallel, counterfeit chruch that would substitute the goal of social justice in this world for the goal of Salvation was the objective of the Marxist plan for infiltrating the Chruch beginning in the 1930s. Not only did some Commuist agents enter seminaries, but others cultivated relationships with Catholic scholars and college adminsitrators and convinced them that Communism and Christianity are compatiable. Banished were Divini Redemptoris and all truly Catholic satements on socialism and Communism; these were replaced with "dialouge" with the sworn enemies of Holy Mother Church. These phenomena did not arise spontaneously. We are powerless against these forces if we refuse to name them.
written by Lee Gilbert, March 07, 2011
I have been convinced for years now that many people are losing their faith over these issues, and in a very insidious way. Christmas after Christmas, Easter after Easter, family holiday after family holiday co-habiting couples, atheistic uncles, lesbian aunts and apostate nephews are perfectly welcome to share in the feast. And it is killing us.

As pleasant as it might be, familiar and easy fraternization with people who have left the faith or live in open sin is a betrayal of the faith. On this issue, many Catholic families have a controversy with God, for as convenient as it would be for there to be only a few verses in the Bible, the fact that Jesus ate and drank with sinners is nothing pertinent to this situation. He came as a physician to heal the sick, meaning in context people who were spiritually sick, that is, sinners. And though he “ate and drank with sinners” he was often very discourteous so far as the world views courtesy. He rebukes his host, “You gave me no kiss, you did not wash my feet, etc.” He was not afraid to set the Pharisees teeth on edge. He spoke of Heaven and of Hell with great force. He was not the ideal guest, you could say. I doubt very much that anyone would be welcome in our homes in that character. That is to say Christ and His teaching are increasingly unwelcome in our homes, and for decades it has been scandalous to bring children to many family gatherings.

The focal point of our decision making is always on “the lost.” How unchristian, unloving, judgmental not to invite them. “You catch more flies with honey, etc” “How will they ever come back to the faith if we cut them off, etc.” Yet, they are not coming back to us, we are going over to them. “Your eyes have only to look…” That is what is happening. We are not concerned about the innocent being scandalized, but about the guilty being offended. We prefer to pretend that they have not left us in every important way. We prefer to keep up appearances rather than face reality. Somewhere in Newman’s vast Parochial and Plain Sermons he addresses this painful situation, and he says scripture is very much on the side of separating ourselves from such people. The reality is very different, of course. They have separated themselves from us. When are we going to stop pretending that nothing happened? When are we going to stop tolerating the intolerable?

written by Grump, March 07, 2011
Louise, thanks for the "back story." I find the poem very moving as well. For such tender words to penetrate this old crusty curmudgeon's heart must be a sign that there's a sliver of hope for me yet.
written by Louise, March 07, 2011
"At the risk of sounding like a broken record,"

Sound it often, Mr. Coleman, Jr,, as often and in as many places as possible. Might I recommend, once again, Hilaire Belloc's 1938 "The Great Heresies", especially chapter 7, 'The Modern Phase' (the text is available on line). He says exactly what you are saying, giving originas and carries it forward. I recommend that book as often and in as many places as possible.

written by Ray Hunkins, March 07, 2011
Thank you Dr. Royal for a most interesting piece. And thank you to those commenting on Dr. Royal's column. All of the comments are thoughtful and illuminating. It is a pleasure to be far from home, as I am today, and find an old friend, The Catholic Thing, and familiar names, sharing heartfelt comments to ponder - a worthwhile respite.

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