Saturday, May 12, 2007

Which Jesus Christ do you believe in?

Many a times, I have asked myself how I should live a life that is worthy to be called 'Christ-like'. I have gotten different answers over the past few years. When I attended a seminar on 'Teaching with Styles' by Walk Thru the Bible ministry, Jesus was cast in the light of a great teacher with many teaching styles to be emulated by us. When I had an evangelistic bible study on John 5 where Jesus had an encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus was cast in the light of a great apologist who not only understood the woman's deep spiritual needs but handled her question well. In some churches, there are sermons that encouraged Christians to own private properties and to generate higher incomes as such were the economic background of the early supporters of Jesus' ministry.

In books like In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon, readers are invited to ponder upon the question of what Jesus would do in a given situation and this gave rise to 'What would Jesus do?' movement. In the history of the church, Jesus had been used as a rally point for the crusaders to redeem the 'holy land' that Jesus stepped on. In the middle of 19th century China, Hong Xiu Quan claimed that he was the second son of God, the younger brother to Jesus, on earth with a mission to found a new kingdom. This gave him the divine basis to inspire the Taiping Revolution, which crumpled eventually. A century later, the idea of Jesus the liberator of the oppressed was used heavily in the liberation theology to support the establishment of base communities in Latin America. In the last century, Albert Schweitzer popularized the quest for the historical Jesus, followed by Rudolf Bultmann in the recent century and the Jesus Seminar in the last two decades who advocated a deconstructed Jesus. In short, I realized that Jesus could be cast in whatever light we desire, so long as we have sufficient verses from the Bible to support ourselves. How are we then to imitate Jesus Christ if we are not sure which Jesus is historical and depicted in the light of who He truly is? Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity concludes that God is nothing else than man: he is, so to speak, the outward projection of man's inward nature1.

What then bothers me is: Are we casting Jesus in our own image? Are we projecting Jesus from our social-economic and metaphysical background?

I have been able to take comfort in books for layman like The Jesus I never knew by Philip Yancey which emphasizes on the Jewishness of Jesus Christ, The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel which uncovers empirical evidences for the crucified and resurrected Christ. As I come in touch with more literature, it dawned upon me that history could never be written objectively. It is always written by the victors, by someone who wants the readers to believe in his cause. This explains why the history book in the secondary school of Japan is different from that of Singapore in talking about the same world war.

In John 20:31 "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." The gospels have been written to convince the readers of the life, deeds and claims of Jesus Christ as perceived by the witnesses and preachers in the 1st century. We who are living in the 21st century cannot relive the historical events and have to accept what is written at face value. But we can validate the claims from verifiable evidences that we could gather. Just like a person who has not seen Confucius can only ascertain what Confucius has said and done from what has been recorded in the past and other forms of evidences to affirm the validity of it.
However, this approach has its metaphysical assumption. How do we believe in the resurrection, the healing of the disabled, the walking on water, the feeding of thousands based on few pieces of breads and fishes and other types of miracles as recorded in the gospels? This will depend whether we adopt as closed-ended universe or open-ended universe. In a closed-ended universe, we do not accept the existence of a transcendent God who can act in our system, whereas it is the reverse for an open-ended universe. For more argument about this issue, one would benefit by referring to C.S. Lewis' Miracles.

Graudally, I discovered that even if one is intellectually convinced in what the gospels said about Jesus, one may not come to accept Jesus Christ as her savior. This made me appreciate what Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast." It is ultimately the faith from God which convinces a person of the reality of sin, of her need for Jesus Christ and for her to experience the authenticity of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible. It is then a myth that the Bible should be read objectively! The Bible is never meant to be read objectively, it is written that we may believe in Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing we may have life in his name (Jn 20:31) and for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2Ti 3:16-17).

Michael Polanyi, a physical chemist and a philosopher of science, wrote in his Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post Critical Philosophy that knowing is personal. He believes that all observation of the universe is personal, and is influenced by individual biases, human error, and the limits of the observer's knowledge. No human observer can remove humanity from the observation (and to formulate theories as though this were possible leads to conclusions that are absurd because they overlook the existence and influence of humanity and the scientist's biases)2. In John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, he affirmed that Scripture must be confirmed by the witness of the Spirit.
As such, I have reached the verdict that first and foremost, a person must possess faith (which is a gift from God) in order to believe in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible. This would then be the paradigm through which we interpret our empirical evidence to support the case for Christ and we continually affirm our faith by our experience in life and within the community (or the church and fellowship) that God has placed us in.

But if we were to accept that Jesus Christ is indeed the son of God and that we believe that it is through Him that we are reconciled back to God and have eternal life and it is in Him that we can grow fully in His image, how do we assess the validity of Jesus as being the liberator of the oppressed? Or Jesus as being the miracle worker?

We must be faithful to the testimony of the Scripture and the history of the Church in our proclamation of Jesus Christ. A faithful hermeneutics calls for the Scripture as illumined by the Holy Spirit to be the guide to lead us to an understanding of Jesus Christ. It is foolish if one was to ignore the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedon Creed which form the basis for us to comprehend Jesus Christ as both fully man and fully God, as one of the Trinity and in the encountering of the different heresies in the 1st few centuries. Yet the application of the Scripture may yield different outcome in different context and in different community but all these demand that one should be trained in the exegesis of the text before one should commence teaching others about the same text.

In trying to concretize how I can imitate Jesus Christ, I would want to follow in His footsteps in identifying with the needs of others. To use Paul Tillich's term, Jesus Christ was able to participate in the existence of other beings. To further expand on this point, I shall extract from Paul Tillich's Communicating the Christian Message: A Question to Christian Ministers and Teachers.
But the Divine Being is not a being beside others. It is the power of being conquering non-being. It is eternity conquering temporality. It is grace conquering sin. It is ultimate reality conquering doubt. From the point of view of the New Being it is the ground of being, and therefore the creator of the New Being. And out of this ground we can get the courage to affirm being, even in a state of doubt, even in anxiety and despair. The New Being includes a new approach to God which is possible even to those who are under the despair of doubt and don't know the way out.
Not only is Jesus Christ the New Being, he identifies with the whole of the fallen humankind. In another extract, this time by
Huston Smith's The World's Religions:

How is the boundary of the self to be defined? Not, certainly, by the amount of physical space our bodies occupy, the amount of water we displace in the bathtub. It makes more sense to gauge our being by the size of our spirits, the range of reality with which they identify. A man who identifies with his family, finding his joys in theirs, would have that much reality; a woman who could identify with humankind would be that much, greater. By this criterion people who could identify with being as a whole would be unlimited.
By this measure, Jesus Christ has no boundary of the self and he has sacrificed Himself for the whole of humankind. This is a strong reminder for me to learn how to empathize with others and for me to learn to participate in the existence of other beings.

1 comment:

Clement said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful reflection on this crucial issue of Christian faith. I share with you the core of the issue: Who was the Jew Jesus? Many confessors of the Gospel are undermining or overlooking the significance of this question that lead them to subjectivise the Peson of Jesus each to their inward natures or desires, as Feuerbach aptly points out. That is why I embrace a certain kind of religious criticism. In the first place, it is the way to clear away the anthropocentric theology (or Christology) and to facilitate a genuine perception of Jesus through the self-revelation of God in history. Of course we cannot take any texts (including the Bible) as they are any more after the Cartesian criticism of the external authorities that curb human autonomy of thinking, discerning and judging for oneself. We are obliged to assess any truth-claims, neither based on the face value, nor the axiomatic belief of the texts we read, but based on the substance we have in hand 'naturally', through any means that are available to us.

Theological studies, as other human sciences, thus face a difficult task to attain the universality of truth-claims with a detached and objective reasoning. Michael Polanyi's 'Personal Knowledge' gives us a possibility to argue for the case of context-bound yet cognitive-orientated knowlege, including both natural and human sciences. Some theologians echo this approach to claim for theological truth, for instance, Thomas F. Torrance ('Theological Science'), Trevor Hart ('Thinking Faith'), and Alister McGrath ('The Science of God'). In this sense, you are on the right track to think along the line, my brother!

However, we must be sober and vigilant, not to succumb to the post-modern fallacy of claiming truth in a solipsist term: Truth is necessary personal, subjective and thus relative (noted that I have much to say about postmodernism, which to me, is not all negative and destructive to the Christian faith as some evangelicals perceive). Though I refute any attempt to promote any kind of absolutism as defined in a 'naive' realist term, I nevertheless like to propose a kind of critical realism, that is to say, we are perceiving and making truth-claims in a tentative and critical manner with a hope that our endeavor is getting closer to the reality of the subject matter. T. F. Torrance argues this sort of critical realism in his Theological Science, that theological study is a discipline that commits to rigorous reflections on the subject matter, and allows the subject to reveal its true nature which demands critical formulation of the findings in the process of inquiry of truth. With this objectivity in view, he rejects any forms of de-judaization of Jesus. In a lecture given at Summer Schools of Theology in St. Andrews, Scotland, Torrance says,

"The time has surely come for us to enlist the aid of the Jews in helping us to interpret Jesus as he is actually presented to us in the Jewish Scriptures. We desperately need Jewish eyes to help us see what we cannot see because of our gentile lenses, that is, the culture-conditioned habits of thought and interpretation which we bring to Jesus and which have played such a dominant role in our literary culture and, until recent decades, in our scientific culture as well." (in Christ as Mediator)

I hope you will be excited to see that you are not alone, thus not lonely, in the path of seeking for a Jesus who was born a Jew, who walked on the earth as a Jewish Messiah, and who gave his life to the lost as the Savior and the Lord of all.

In Christ We Serve,
Clement Chia