October 22, 2017

Rob Grayson: Metaphysical Jesus

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Note from CM: In the light of some of the excellent discussions we’ve had this week, I thought this piece from our friend across the pond, Rob Grayson, would fit in nicely. Here are some good thoughts to encourage a Jesus-shaped spirituality. Rob blogs at Faith Meets World.

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Metaphysical Jesus
by Rob Grayson

The farther I proceed on my theological and experiential journey, the more convinced I am that one of the most fundamental mistakes many churches and believers have made is to turn the Jesus of the Gospels into a kind of abstract spiritual persona.

Let me explain.

For many evangelicals in particular, the important thing is to have a “relationship with Jesus”. That might sound very earthy and real, but in practice what it usually amounts to is believing that Jesus somehow lives inside you, having conversations with him, either out loud or in your head, singing to and/or about him with other believers at church and, most importantly of all, believing that he is the Son of God who died to free you from the curse of sin, death and hell. Do all this and you can be assured of your ticket to heaven.

I realise that one might easily conclude from the above paragraph that I am deriding huge and important aspects of Christian practice, namely faith, prayer and worship. However, that’s not my purpose. I’d simply like to ask one question about this approach to Christianity: just who or what is this Jesus with whom one has a relationship?

It seems to me that in this paradigm, Jesus basically functions as the recipient of one’s prayers and worship and the invisible object of one’s faith in a theological mechanism that is believed to procure post-mortem salvation for the believer. That, in a nutshell, is all Jesus needs to be. Anything else about his actual, embodied existence in time and space – in particular the circumstances and manner of his living, teaching, dying and resurrection – is largely relegated to the realm of background information, if not total irrelevance. Jesus’ ethical teaching, his radical inclusion of social and religious untouchables, his dangerously subversive take on scripture, his outrageous flouting of established religious practice and expectations… as long as your “relationship with Jesus” is intact, none of this is of more than passing interest. The only thing that really matters in your reading of the Gospels is that Jesus is “God with a flesh suit on” and the perfect, spotless sacrifice; everything else is moot.

In approaching Jesus this way, we have essentially turned the fleshy, down-to-earth and very human Jesus we read about in the synoptic Gospels into an abstract entity of purely theological value. According to one definition (found at dictionary.com), metaphysical means “concerned with abstract thought or subjects, as existence, causality, or truth” or “highly abstract, subtle or abstruse”. One might say, then, that we have metaphysicalised Jesus.

This kind of metaphysical approach to Jesus admittedly does a decent job of honouring his divinity. But it also has a powerful side-benefit which, in my opinion, explains its longstanding and widespread popularity: it purports to confer upon us great benefits in terms of the assurance of our eternal security, while at the same time allowing us to continue with our comfortable, self-oriented, exploitative lives more or less unhindered. To put it bluntly, if salvation is all about going to heaven when you die, then Jesus needn’t be anything more than a Golden Ticket dispenser, and how we live here below has little or no bearing on our ultimate future.

So how do we untangle this problem and put Jesus back in his proper place? Well, just as we have so often metaphysicalised Jesus, so now we need to demetaphysicalise him.

Put simply, I think we need to start deliberately paying a lot more attention to Jesus’ life and teaching, rather than focusing almost exclusively on his assumed divinity and the role he plays in our theological system. Yes, Jesus was and is fully divine. We can take that as a given. But as long as that’s all he is, the only kind of relationship we’re ever going to have with him is the kind I described earlier – one where he is, in effect, little more than our invisible friend and divine sponsor.

What we need to get back to, I would suggest, is examining how Jesus lived and what he taught. And, in light of how he lived and what he taught, we need to consider what it might mean to be one of those to whom he says, “Come, follow me”. This is not – and never was – an invitation to believe in a set of abstract theological formulae and to have a metaphysical relationship with an invisible deity. Jesus didn’t teach much about abstract things that you must believe, or about what happens to you after you die. Instead, he was pretty relentlessly focused on how you live in the here in the now, how you treat other people, where you stand in relation to questions of social justice and violence, how generous you are with what you have, and so forth. If you try to read the synoptic Gospels with your head in the metaphysical clouds, Jesus will drag you back down to earth time and time again, and he’ll challenge your motivations and lifestyle to the core at every turn. That’s the kind of guy he was in first century Palestine, and I really don’t see why his focus and his message would have changed for today.

When we look at Jesus from this much more practical perspective, we find that he begins to come alive and affect our thinking and living in myriad ways. He is no longer safely contained in the pages of a holy book; instead, he messes with our comfortable and unjust world. And he does so in ways that bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to captives and announce God’s favour – not in some invisible heavenly realm or some distant, disembodied future, but right here, right now.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s the kind of salvation Jesus really offers. I think the world could use some of that kind of salvation, don’t you?

Comments

  1. You mean I should let Him out of that box in which He was delivered to me? How can I control Him then?

  2. Gee, this Jesus you’re describing seems to call people into a kind of life that would inevitably have, uh….political and social implications! We can’t have any of that! That might put our nice middle-class lives in jeopardy. Or we might be accused of being culture warriors. Or we might be accused of being radicals. Or we might lose our tax-exempt status. Or we might get crucified.

    • Perish the thought, eh? That surely won’t sell.

        • Ha ha! 🙂

          • Btw, that’s Father Daniel Berrigan, being arrested for burning information used for the draft during the Vietnam war in the late sixties. Notice the big smile on his face.

        • Buddhist monks in some traditions are said to possess nothing but their begging bowl, and the saffron colored robe on their back. But the communities to which they belong own buildings, and land, and books, and other things. To the degree that they belong to these monastic communities, the monks also own the things the communities own.

          No sustainable community can give away everything it owns, not monks, not nuns in monastic enclosures, not families; nor can individuals sustain themselves if they give away all they own. Even Jesus’ group of disciples had a common purse, from which all were sustained Jesus’ teaching about giving to all who ask should not be approached with a fundamentalist attitude; I don’t believe that his other teachings should be, either. I don’t think that’s what he had in mind.

          It’s a matter of balance, and the careful and prayerful consideration of what each individual and community is called to do. I think it’s true that much of the American church focuses too much, and unhealthily, on personal piety and belief, and not enough on following the teachings of Jesus; but it would be wrong to oppose one kind of fundamentalism with another.

      • Having said all that, Rob, don’t you think that some of this is a matter of balance? If I followed Jesus teaching to give whatever I have to anyone who asks literally, and if I had children (which I don’t) or an ill wife (which I do), I would soon have no resources with which to take care of my children or my wife (or myself, for that matter).

        I’m not even sure that Jesus and the disciples followed this teaching literally, since if they had, given the degree of need and poverty in their time and place, they would have had no need for a treasurer (Judas) to keep the common purse, because they would not have had any money long enough to put it in the purse. Even if they did follow it literally, they, like the begging monks of Buddhism, would have depended on the generosity of householders who did keep such a purse to provide for their livelihood (as according to the Gospels the disciples did, at least for a time).

        So it must be, and must have been, a matter of balance. Trying to live the teaching in a non-literal, non-absolutist way (which as far as I can see is the only way to live it) means that I apply it in my life in a balanced way that depends on decisions and discernment that will inevitably be different from person to person, and from family to family (let’s remember that for many, or most, this is a choice not made in splendid isolation, but involving others, family members, who may draw the line in a different place: it’s a communal choice).

        That means that, while I may be following the teaching to one degree, my fellow Christian may be following to another. From the outside, I may look at his degree of observance and think it is paltry, or negligible, focused on personal piety (relationship to Jesus, personal prayer, religious rituals, etc.) rather than discipleship. On the other hand, other fellow Christians may look at my degree of observance of the teaching and think the same thing about me. I think that since it’s impossible to follow some of the teachings of Jesus in an absolutist way; and since it’s often impossible to judge other Christians discipleship on the basis of the extent to which we see them implementing the teachings (since they may draw the line in a different place from us), we will often be on unsteady ground if we say that their (whether they are an individual, a family, or a local church) practice of Christianity is too pietistic and personal, and should involve more implementation of the Jesus’ teaching. The fact is, we just don’t know in many cases, and are not in a position to judge. No one follows the teaching in an absolute way, even monks and nuns; everyone chooses degree and manner; not everyone will, or should, draw lines in the same place.

        • Yes, I agree that it’s a matter of balance. And I see no such balance in the way the “gospel” (small g and quote marks deliberate) is so often taught.

        • I don’t know…I don’t think Jesus said “give WHATEVER someone asks of you…” Just “give to whomever asks.” I could be missing a verse somewhere.

          I balk at the notion of “non-literal.” I get there’s nuance to Jesus’ words that we often miss, and we probably need to think harder about them, but I don’t think it’s a matter of literalism. I tend to think that the massive discrepancies between the way our lives function and Jesus’ vision and commands, exists largely because of our failures, not because his language was meant as hyperbole or non-literalism. We just actually suck that bad. The solution may not be to just totally reduce the current social order to rubble and hope we can be holier next time around; but to thoughtfully begin chiseling away at the bad priorities that cause our failures of obedience. The Gospel can do this. And it’s a community process, not an individual one.

          I understand that there’s a matter of balance though- one priority of Jesus may be more or less apparent at a given time, depending on the situation. As it was in his own ministry.

          • I understand what you’re saying, but when you combine “give to whomever asks” with “if anyone asks for your shirt, give them your cloak as well” the implication is that the giving should be limitless, both with regard to the identity of the person asking and the amount given. It’s like “forgive them seventy times”, meaning without limit.

            Yes, I agree, it’s a community process; but we start and end with defeat if we apply a fundamentalist attitude to these difficult teachings. The questions are: How do we as individuals start to exert influence to move our communities in this direction, recognizing that if we don’t do it nobody else is likely to; are we in fact willing to exert such influence?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      “uh….political and social implications! We can’t have any of that! ” Pretty much some it up. A pastor I was friends with used to say “People want a life-changing experience, so long as it doesn’t change their lives.”. He was speaking about his/our experience in a congregation where most people’s lives were extremely comfortable.

      While I agree, I have little to no hope that ‘the church’ to any significant degree has much interest in this issue. It is has built up so many layers of defensive obfuscation…

      In a recent podcast Skye Jethani was talking about how he travels to churches and hears the same thing from congregants of all ages – they want real community, etc.. – but the professional clergy just don’t/can’t hear it. That describes it well, IMO.

      • “… they want real community, etc.. – but the professional clergy just don’t/can’t hear it.”

        There’s a conflict of interests that goes all the way back to the mid-to-late First Century AD. Is it possible that Jesus is still the living head of the church, and is it possible that He can function in the that role in the present tense through the activity of the Holy Spirit? Or, while we may give lip service to Christ’s headship, do practical realities mandate that we set something more visible, predictable, and controllable at the head of the church? Can those two realities be balanced out in a functional way? Have the motivators of job security and preservation of institutions re-assigned Jesus to the jobs of figurehead and product endorsement?
        Just a few questions running through my head.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > do practical realities mandate that we set something more visible,
          > predictable, and controllable at the head of the church?

          Yes. Humans **REQUIRE** institutions, so all anti-institutional nonsense needs to be swept off the table, shredded, burned, and the ashes buried.

          > Can those two realities be balanced out in a functional way?

          Yes. We know how to make great institutions that reflect the values we want to see reflected. The hard slog is getting for where we are – which is a mess – to where we want to be. Thousands of years into the game there can be no illusions that we have a green field opportunity [starting from scratch]. We have to work forward from within the mess we are in. That is going to be slow, ugly, and at times perhaps even violent.

          > Have the motivators of job security and preservation of institutions re-assigned Jesus …

          They always do. That is a reality we always need to deal with – from which there is no/nada/zilch/zero escape – not ever never, and there never was. It will serve us well to always be mindful of that reality and *forcefully* reject any all all kinds of pietism, utopianism, and spiritual hand waving [which constantly seeks to play as a trump card against sociological and organizational-behavior *FACTS*].

          I am not Optimistic in the short term. Many of our societal values are biased against community, and those same values have been fully absorbed by American Christendom. My Optimism, such that it is, is that there is a growing explicit push-back against those values. That same stream may help the church, regardless of the fact that the majority of the Church is currently oppositional to that movement.

          > Just a few questions running through my head.

          Yep.

  3. Great post and completely agree! A question I have is, how do we avoid moralizing scripture? I ask this because my daughter is 7 and every time we read a piece of scripture together and she asks what it means, that is what I usually end up doing. How do we teach Jesus in a more robust way?

    • Perhaps in order to avoid moralising scripture we need to first train ourselves not to constantly moralise life – that is, to break the habit of constantly filtering everything through a moral lens before anything else. This is not easy to do, but awareness that we do it is a huge first step.

  4. Honor Our Lady. Everything He shares with us, He got from her. It isn’t idolatry, nor does Jesus get “jealous”. A Man with typeable blood shed it on the Cross. He got that blood from the most holy Theotokos.

    Father Jacob of blessed memory was a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy. He was known for his devotion to the most holy Theotokos. He replaced the mezzuah on his doorpost with an icon of the Mother of God. His devotion to the Mother of God came alive for me when he described our Lady as “A good Jewish girl. The best who ever lived.”

    Separate Jesus from His mother, and you separate Him from us. No wonder we’ve changed Him into a comic book character.

    • Whoa! Seriously? Do you mean to tell this vast post-evangelical, mostly Protestant audience that when Jesus said from the cross, “Woman, behold your son” and then said “Son, behold your mother” he wasn’t speaking only to John but to all of us down through the centuries???

      Thank you.

      I expect you’ll get some flak over this.

    • Yes, by all means: Honor our (why is it traditional to capitalize the o in our Lady?). You honor her in your way, and I’ll honor her in mine. My way is to follow her example: she looked to and followed and trusted her son. I’ll emulate her by trying to do the same.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Agree. Some of this is the potency of our gender stereotypes – deliberately considering things from a ‘female’ perspective helps [at least some of] us overcome some of our own stupidity/biases/habituation.

      • Finn –

        As an inveterate lifelong misogynist, I am finding that prayer to Our Lady is slowly healing me of some of my more malignant symptoms.

    • This helps, significantly, but the same human impulses that turn Jesus into a metaphysical genie in the way people think about Him are sometimes also turned upon the Theotokos. The theotokion at the end of every set of troparia is there specifically to root us in the human and physical reality of all we’ve said, but we have to let it.

  5. Christiane says:

    ” . . . in this paradigm, Jesus basically functions as the recipient of one’s prayers and worship and the invisible object of one’s faith in a theological mechanism that is believed to procure post-mortem salvation for the believer. That, in a nutshell, is all Jesus needs to be. Anything else about his actual, embodied existence in time and space – in particular the circumstances and manner of his living, teaching, dying and resurrection – is largely relegated to the realm of background information, if not total irrelevance.”

    we see this a lot in the US, Rob . . . an emphasis on ‘getting people saved’ (whatever that means) and then making sure they know who to vote for and who to hate, if they want to ‘join’ the local social club that calls itself a ‘church’.

    People are beginning to recognize the hypocrisy of this and are leaving this strange ‘religion’ with its prejudices and demands for loyalty to a small god, a very small god indeed, who demands the practice of misogyny, racism, phariseeism, and something called ‘conservative family values’, code for a lot of the anti- LGBT rhetoric floated as ‘Christian’. (sigh)

  6. Your own…metaphysical…Jesus…

  7. A mystical Jesus (I prefer the term mystical over metaphysical because metaphysical has a different philosophical connotation to me than how he is using it here) is soft, pliable and easier to conform into the shape that best meets my narcissistic needs. A Jesus with material cells, who lived and spoke in history is rigid and either requires me to conform to him, or to rewrite history through some self-deception.

    • I prefer metaphysical over mystical, because I tend to think Jesus was more of a mystic than is recognised in the West. but I hear you.

      • If you use the most simple Webster definition for mystical ” having a spiritual meaning that is difficult to see or understand” certainly Jesus was as mystical as they come. However, the way I near “Mystic” used in the west in the 21st century, I hear hologram without (ever) substances. A term I think is being borrowed from eastern (not near eastern but eastern-eastern) mysticism, so in my opinion (my humble opinion, not to be argumentative) is that the Jesus of the west is now defined too mystical and that is how I used the term. The point, before getting swept up in semantics, is that Jesus was real. He walked in Galilee. He therefore cannot be recreated according to my wishes, hopes culture . . . but defined by who he really was/is, no matter how little I can understand of him or how uncomfortable he can make me feel. That’s all I’m saying.

  8. Rob, I agree with Michael Jones that your use of the technical philosophical term “metaphysical” is problematic, unless you want to be involved in discussions about first causes, ontology, and other matters I would find myself in over my head with. At the same time I find Michael’s use of the term “mystical” to be even more problematic. Why not just refer to the perspective you are objecting to as philosophical or abstract, both of which can be understood in the general sense you intend without confusion?

    • Charles, I hear you, but at the same time I did make an effort in the post to explain how I was using the term “metaphysical”. I think it’s clear from that that I’m not using it in any kind of technical philosophical sense.

  9. Fascinating post and discussion.

    I’ve been leading two groups – a men’s group and an adult Sunday school class – through two different studies. One, the men’s group one, is what I call “All the questions Jesus was asked and how he answered them.” The other is a rather detailed walk through the gospel of Luke.

    I tell you what…if you want to know Jesus better – who he SAYS he is and how he interacts with the world – just leaf through all four gospel accounts and look for all the different questions he’s asked and how he RESPONDS to them, then take some time reading the book of Luke.

    The man appears to be unafraid of nothing. No question is too difficult, no encounter too scary. He constantly puts himself in situations and encounters NONE of us would DREAM of entering. He’s not afraid of the sick, he’s not afraid of demons. He doesn’t worry about becoming unclean, he doesn’t worry if going to meals with low-life scum will create a bad image. He appears to be full-on compassionate, 24/7.

    He also clearly states his divinity (at first, with hints, then later in his ministry, more directly).

    Through it all, he had to trudge his way from place to place like his followers. They even went through SAMARIA, of all places! He had to touch LEPERS, of all people!

    So Rob, when you close with this thought…

    “When we look at Jesus from this much more practical perspective, we find that he begins to come alive and affect our thinking and living in myriad ways. He is no longer safely contained in the pages of a holy book; instead, he messes with our comfortable and unjust world. And he does so in ways that bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to captives and announce God’s favour – not in some invisible heavenly realm or some distant, disembodied future, but right here, right now.”

    …well, I couldn’t agree more!

  10. I think I’ve shared this poem with iMonkers before, but it seems to maybe fit with your post, Rob.

    I Want a Magic Wand God
    (R. Rosenkranz, 2014)

    My body’s bloated because my heart is weak,
    my cancer’s spreading and all I seek
    is a job that pays enough to pay the bills
    while dark rains lash at my window sill.

    I can’t breathe for my lungs are filled
    with infections, and a driving texter just killed
    my son, and on a cross was hung
    a friend who told me the victory’s been won.

    I want a Magic Wand God who’ll take away the pain,
    I want a Genie-in-a-Bottle God who’ll stop the rain,
    I want a Vending Machine God where all I need are two thin dimes
    to end the suffering, the sadness, the sun-less times.

    But I don’t believe in the God that I want.
    No, I don’t believe in the God that I want.
    There is no God like the God that I want.
    I’ve learned there is no God like the God that I want.

    So what do I do with all life’s misery,
    the hurts I see that can’t be fixed for free?
    What do I believe when there’s no magic wand,
    no Genie-in-a-Bottle, no vending machine from beyond?

    Can I believe in a God that’s not one I want to believe?
    Can I believe in One who doesn’t, at snap of finger, bring relief?
    Is it okay to feel forsaken as Christ felt on the cross,
    when there’s no healing, no light, and all appears lost,

    when bodies are bloated and cancer spreads,
    when death is in a text and life’s hanging by a thread?
    Can I believe there’s a God who’s with me in the weather,
    when He doesn’t magically appear to make things better?

    So, no, I don’t believe in the God that I want,
    a void that leads me to a place hollow and gaunt,
    haunted by a cold emptiness, which leaves me with one
    choice: believing in a God who didn’t save His own son.

  11. Brilliant opening sentence. Pulled me right in. Something I’ve struggled against for a long time. Left a church over it.

    When I discovered what Nestorianism was (is), so much came together for me. I realized why the airy-fairy version of Jesus I kept hearing about among Christians didn’t seem to be “working.” There was very little humanity to him. He didn’t have much in common with me. People would attribute certain actions to his divinity but others to his humanity, highlighting a subtle spiritual/unspiritual divide. They would say “Jesus is God” readily, but fail to recognize that it’s at least as important to say “God is Jesus” and know what the difference is (thank you Michael Spencer). I recently learned that RC Sproul actually explicitly says in one of his books that on the cross, God did not die.

    This stuff is in the water in evangelicalism, and few people even know it. That Jesus is a Man is highly controversial, and for some reason people who think they are evangelical sometimes have a hard time swallowing it.

    • *That Jesus is a Man, and that in Jesus, God is a Man….

    • Thanks for your kind and encouraging words, Nate.

      One of the things I’ve found helpful in recent years is Walter Wink’s paraphrase of Jesus’ favourite self-descriptive epithet “Son of Man” as “The Human One”, which could also be rendered “The True Human”. How easily we think of Jesus as fully God, but how seldom we think of him as the model of a fully developed, emotionally and spiritually mature human being, fully bearing the glorious image of God. In this he is (or at least should be) our model and inspiration.