Dogma: Fully Human – and Fully Divine?

Christian dogma asserts both Jesus’ full humanity and his full divinity.  That presents a logical problem: the difficulty of being both limited and unlimited. The literalist or fundamentalist Christians attempts to use the paradox to prove that faith in Christ defies all human reasoning. It is quite one thing to understand that our understanding is limited, but to assert a paradox as proof of a matter that has no meaningful relationship to human understanding and healthful living, is quite another thing.  In this case, however, we do not need to rely upon a  assertion of disconnected faith.

According to the synoptic accounts, Jesus did not claim to be one with God.  To the contrary, when a certain ruler came to Jesus and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life.”  Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.”  Luke 18:18, 19.  And when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them, “Our father, . . . ”   It was to that same Father of all that Jesus prayed in his own hour of despair, “Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but Thine be done.”  Luke 22:42.

Both Matthew and Luke introduce Jesus’ public ministry with the Beatitudes.  This sermon summarizes his message: the least of us is loved by God and called to the Kingdom.   It is a message of a relational world:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me.

Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12.  That expresses the core of civil disobedience.  Indeed, Luke’s account of the Beatitudes is preceded by Jesus’ disobedience of pharisaic law in that he permitted his disciples to harvest grain to eat on the Sabbath and he healed on the Sabbath

In Matthew 12:10-13 the Pharisees ask Jesus in the presence of a man with a withered hand, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”  Jesus answers, not the specific question, but he responded with the principle which commanded the answer,

What man shall be among you who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out?  Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep!  So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

In Mark and Luke, Jesus merely asks the man, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”

In each of these accounts Jesus focuses on doing good.  Right personal relationships produces good results.  Jesus did good, even when it violated the law.

Jesus also had a reputation for associating with social outcasts.  Luke 5:30 reports that the Pharisees and the scribes complained to the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax gatherers and sinners?”  Later, Luke reports in Chapter 15 the same question by the Pharisees was put to Jesus, who responds, not directly, but with three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son.  Those are messages of inclusion.

Jesus’ first sermon speaks of blessed suffering.  His last sermon speaks of its rewards.

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before him; and he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and he will put the sheep on his right and the goats on the left.

Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.

Matthew 25:31-46.  The people (without regard to their belief or unbelief ) who were rewarded are genuinely surprised at their reward:

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothed you?  And when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?”

And the King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”

Then he will also say to those on his left, “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me.”

In turn, the people (again without regard to their belief or unbelief ) were surprised at their punishment:

Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Jesus’ civil disobedience threatened the religious order of his time.  Matthew reports that the chief priests and elders plotted to kill Jesus.  The Pharisees sought to justify their plot to kill Jesus.  They claimed Jesus gave false testimony.  Mark 14: 55-56.  And then they goaded Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”   Jesus answered, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  Mark 14:61-62.  The high priest then charged Jesus with blasphemy, punishable by death under Jewish law.

The Pharisees still needed civil authority to kill Jesus, so they took Jesus to Pilate.  Luke 23:1; Matt. 27:2.   Upon examining Jesus, Pilate announced “I find no guilt in this man.”  Luke 23:4.  But the Pharisees and the “crowd” persisted.  Luke 23:14; 23:22.  Pilate finally succumbed.  He “washed his hands” of the matter and turned Jesus over “to their will.”  Jesus thereby paid the price for his civil disobedience.  He did not run from its consequences.  Neither did he desire the consequences, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.”

Mark, recognized to be our oldest source material of the life of Jesus, and probably the most historically reliable, with fewer post-Jesus Christological statements, reports at 15:34 Jesus’ last words to be, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Matthew 27:46 reports the same.  Neither account gives more.  These words, Edward Schilebeekx believed, are shown likely to be authentic words because of the embarrassment that such words would have had for the early Christians.  Luke omits those embarrassing words altogether, and ends his account of the crucifixion with the words, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

Because the first Christians were Jews who had followed Jesus, it was natural that they would look to Jewish traditions and Scriptures to understand their tragedy.  Most helpfully, it might be explained by the great Jewish hope for the Messiah who would bring peace for them on earth. There was much of Jewish history and tradition that could support that hope. This new body of Jewish Christians attempted to show that Jesus did not conflict with their laws and traditions, but rather, fulfilled them.

When St. Paul brought the gospel to the Gentiles, i.e. those outside Judaism who were steeped in Greco-Roman culture, it is also natural that the history, myths, traditions, and logical skills with which they were familiar could help him, in a pagan world, to show that Jesus was also the fulfillment of their dreams as expressed in their myths.  The rite of Dionysus, of his death and resurrection, may have provided some support to Gentile Christians among Jewish Christians, connecting the Jewish traditions of the sacrificial lamb and the hope of the Messiah, a time of peace, with the pagan rituals relating to the death and resurrection of Dionysus, and participation of those devotees in a communal meal in which they participated in his death and resurrection by eating a feast of wine and the meat of a sacrificed animal representing his blood and body.

Again, I do not intend to disprove the creed.  I intend to cause no offense to the faith of any reader, Christian, Jew, or Muslim.  However, I cannot ignore my life experience that a human body, already decomposing, cannot be resuscitated because of the damage to vital organs necessary for human life. I also know that if it were a body that was resurrected, physical bodies do not walk through walls and locked doors as is reported when “the risen Christ” suddenly appeared among the disciples meeting in that upper room; nor does the body simply disappear as is reported concerning the walk to Emmaus and the following meal.  I don’t seek to explain either event, but I cannot suspend some basic principles of what I know, in this life, to be true for the sake of a belief that is thrust upon me that is common to my experience and the science of life in order to prove that God’s ways are greater than man’s ways.  That certainly is true, but in no way does it support a notion that God suspended the laws of nature in this or any other single case.  I believe in the same resurrection which sensitive people of all faiths and convictions experience; but, that experience of resurrection is much deeper than a magical trick.

The answer of many Christians is that although Jesus was fully man, Jesus was fully God, and with God all things are possible. Additionally, we have been told by Paul that if the death and resurrection of Jesus is not true, then Christianity has no meaning at all. I have many times been told that this reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a matter of faith that defies all human reason. I simply cannot reject my education and experience in life.  That, also, was not possible for the devout Christian priest and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin who wrote:

If, as the result of some interior revolution, I were to lose by succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe in the world. The world, (its value, yes its value and its goodness) – that, when all is said and done, is the first, the last, and the only thing in which I believe. It is by this faith that I live.

So what is the role of faith?   Friedrich Nietzsche, the well-known Nihilist, said of it, “‘Faith means not wanting to know what is true.”  Because their perception of truth is absolute, they are intolerant of people with other experiences and views.  In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, she has Rev. John Ames say at page 146, “It seems to me there is less meanness in atheism, by a good measure.” In that such fundamentalism is exclusive and intolerant of other views, it threatens peace and justice.  In a more positive manner, the great Seventeenth Century mathematician, scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, writes, “Faith declares what the senses do not see, but not the contrary of what they see.” That is meaningful to me.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan note that many of the terms that Christians used to describe Jesus were titles already attributed to Augustus Caesar as they appear on the Palatine hill:  Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World.  We miss the connection of these original titles to Augustus Caesar and their intended meaning concerning him.  The have been used to support a dualistic view of Jesus and of “the Kingdom of Heaven.  Duality masks the historical Jesus and his teaching.   If we see Jesus’ full humanity, then Jesus’ call to follow him must be taken seriously.

Edward Schillebeeckx, the Catholic priest and theologian who wrote Jesus: an Experiment in Christology, asserts that the historical study of Jesus is vitally important because it gives “a concrete content to faith.” Without that concrete foundation, faith degenerates into mere ideology and risks becoming ephemeral and irrelevant. Further, he writes,

The fundamental issue is what are the evangelists really getting at when reporting the wonders performed by Jesus?

Schillebeeckx then asks,

Even if Jesus had done all this in a historical and literal sense, what would that signify for us here and now?



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