The Other Jesus(es) Print
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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