Dialogue on Jesus

Gordon Carkner / Monday, June 27, 2016

Dialogue About Jesus of Nazareth

Few people doubt any more that Jesus actually existed historically (N.T. Wright among many of the greatest world scholars on the ancient world). Most people also agree that he was indeed a great moral teacher and miracle worker. Religious and political leaders throughout the world, including many of the great opponents of Christianity, hail the moral superiority of his life. Mohandas Gandhi the Indian reformer aspired to the ideals of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, a monument of justice combined with mercy, a trajectory of peace and nonviolence. The philosopher John Stuart Mill thought Jesus a genius and probably the greatest moral reformer who ever existed. Even Napoleon Bonaparte considered him a superior leader (although these two men were very different in character and ambition). Islam heralds him as a prophet. American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. saw Jesus as someone who could end segregation and bring equality of opportunity between blacks and whites. He could produce the beloved community from all nations and tribes of the world. Bishop Desmond Tutu was assured that Jesus teaching could end the injustice of Apartheid in South Africa and bring reconciliation and healing to a nation torn apart.

There exist today in the minds of people many different versions of Jesus. Cultural interpretation is a key factor in this dialogue. Few would dispute that Jesus is a historical figure, that he is public truth. He is a major culture driver all around the world; his life has had huge impact. But so often, it depends on which version makes a person or group comfortable, which form of Jesus resonates with the cause. Which version do we want to believe? There is the blond-haired, blued-eyed Jesus that Malcolm X despised; to him, this Jesus is a white racist. Others prefer the revolutionary Jesus who looks more like Che Guavera of Liberation Theology, a freedom fighter  keen to overthrow an oppressive government. There is the Jesus who justifies the wealth and hoarding of the privileged classes. Yet others want a Jesus who fits the children’s story book genre: gentle, sweet and loving. Many Global North skeptics, agnostics and atheists are happy with a good moral teacher, a Jesus who is safe and innocuous; this group usually has little concern for the actual content of what he taught (that might clash with their values) or who he actually claimed to be. Let’s not forget the feel good Jesus of the Moral Therapeutic Deism crowd (Christian Smith) who is my Facebook friend, there to make me feel alright, to bless all my desires and gaols and to give me just what I want.  Or worse, there is the Jesus of the health and wealth gospel who will make me rich, if I play my cards right. There seems to be a different Jesus of the political right and left? He is depicted in a variety of motifs in films and plays: Jesus of Montreal, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Passion, The Gospel of John.

There is a tendency for these groups to dress Jesus in their own ideological style, to create a Jesus who works for them. There exist in circulation today various reducedinterpretations of Jesus of Nazareth, made in the image of these various tribes, complete with their own interests and agenda. Some are a horribly distorted caricature. So for a start, we need to begin our dialogue finding out which version of Jesus our interlocutor friend perceives to be most true for them and how they came to that conclusion. What questions do they have about the man from Galilee? Are they willing to hear what he claims as identity for himself, to reckon with the whole Jesus whatever the implications?

The New Testament documents record the radical servant-like attitude which lent power and credibility to Jesus’ teachings. He has truly led humanity in the expression of compassion and humility , as well as in anger against evil, corruption and hypocrisy. Jesus combined a realistic understanding of human nature with a robust vision for what human beings could become by following him. His basic message offers identity and belonging to many who would be otherwise alone and marginalized. There is much promise of his engagement with fundamental human problems and concerns, such as craving for wholeness, dealing with fear and shame. His words have tested and challenged the minds and hearts of millions for twenty centuries. He is today an international hero, a lighthouse for  goodness and integrity.

Put yourself in harm’s way and be the vulnerable one. Integrate your story and the Jesus story with existential, philosophical and historical insights (e.g. Joseph Loconte, The Searchers). How does Jesus respond to the questions and issues of our day, to your questions and those of your friend? He combined feeding of 5000 with the discourse of the bread of life, raising Lazarus with the claim “I am the resurrection and the life.” What would God be like if he were a human? What is the God of Christianity like, and what do we learn about him through the life and record of Jesus of Nazareth? This is a search which both dialogue partners can examine from their own perspective. How does Jesus offer hope and communion in today’s fragmented world? What are the points of contact between the values of your friend and the convictions of Jesus? This may be surprising.

A further point of discussion is the combination of Jesus’ radical claim to be God in the flesh and his acclaimed resurrection by eye witnesses. When we begin to consider Jesus’ claims about his identity, the controversy opens up. This is where people (including the world’s religious leaders) have problems and begin to back off, or even become aggressive and violent. This is where the label “moral teacher” is put to the test. It begins to sound inadequate and shrill, if not naive. Important things emerge from his explicit statements and the very way he lived. His self-disclosed identity is interwoven in the very fabric of the New Testament. He claimed equality and a unique intimacy with God. He said he had lived before Abraham. He assumed the right to forgive sins. He accepted worship. There seems to be no escaping the controversial side of Jesus. His claims and his life are of one fabric. Encourage your friend to join you in a thought experiment: What if Jesus’ claims about himself were true? What difference would it make? Resources to investigate: John Dickson’s DVD series “The Life of Jesus”; Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way; N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus; Darrell Johnson, Who is Jesus?; Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew. Peterson and Jonson offer a deep connection to the Old Testament religion of the Hebrews.

From a worldview perspective (Building Bridges…3), compared with Naturalism or Pantheism, Christianity offers more. It encompasses a fuller, richer, more open and challenging worldview, which meets our highest human aspirations and offers something special for human flourishing. It affirms both spiritual and physical dimensions of reality and provides a more ecological and holistic perspective with a trajectory towards human wholeness, human flourishing and also a transformation of society, shalom. It offers us a sound philosophical and spiritual home. Do you believe that all the longings of all the religions through all the centuries of mankind’s history find their fulfillment in Christ? Philosopher Peter Kreeft does:

Our destiny is to be in Christ, with two natures, not Brahma with only one. Eastern mysticism sees our identity as merely divine and eternal. Western secularism sees it as merely human and temporal, and Christianity insists on the paradox of the two natures in one person. (Peter Kreeft, Heaven: the Heart’s Deepest Longing, p. 84.)

Jesus offers a whole new human narrative. Belief in the God of Jesus of Nazareth is animating cultures and peoples in the millions, yes billions—food for the poor, hospitals, fresh water, mosquito nets, medical help, homes for the homeless, schools, orphanages, environmental concern (Rodney Stark, The Rise of ChristianityOne True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism; David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its fashionable Enemies). We could also compare the cultural impact of Jesus versus that of Friedrich Nietzsche in the twentieth century; it is immensely revealing.

Enjoy your creative and enlightening dialogue.

~Gord Carkner


Jesus and Nietzsche: a Comparison


In an age of cynicism and nihilsitic despair, hope can seem in short supply, and for some it sounds like an absurd suggestion. But we want to engage this culture of despair with a Christian culture of hope. Many people are shrinking back from hope today with a fear of disappointment, or maybe just because it is safe and cool to be cynical. This is to let fear of failure rule one’s position in the world, to allow self and identity to be shaped by a negative rather than a positive vision. We know what we are against, but what are we for? Perhaps this is one of the roots of our current crisis of the self in late modernity. Have we lost hope in hope itself as leisure specialist Joseph Pieper warned us years ago at University of Waterloo Pascal Lectures? See also Glenn Tinder (The Fabric of Hope).

The postmodern self is nihilistic in the final analysis because no stable meaning is really on offer; the self is humiliated; reality is breaking up (dissolution). Best and Kellner say regarding Baudrillard, “The Postmodern world is devoid of meaning, it is a universe of nihilism where theories float in a void, unanchoured in any secure harbour” (Postmodern Theory, 127). All meaning is self-created and changing, constructed and reconstructed including my identity. We make the game and the game makes us–the self is ephemeral, thin, protean, ever changing. We are in a state of perpetual ‘dialectical self-contradiction’, populated by multiple selves, self-parodying, robbed of historical power and agency, left with a sense of hollowness of being. The postmodern self is lost at sea on a vulnerable raft of its own creation with little hope for the future (Middleton and Walsh, Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be, p. 62). It also is cut off from the past; everything is lived in the present; its narrative is broken. There is a loss of narrative continuity and unity–life appears as one disconnected thing after another. We no longer know who we are or what we may legitimately hope for.

Perhaps we can stage this engagement as a contrast or debate between Nietzsche and Jesus (Dionysus versus the Crucified). British intellectual John Milbank (Theology and Social Theory) says that the only two choices for Westerners is religion or nihilism. If we give up on religion, we are not left with science or humanism. Science offers no ultimate meaning at the end of the debate; Neo-Atheists are trying to make it do far too much. We need both nature and culture. Nature is necessary but not sufficient. Milbank sees Postmodernism as a “lengthy footnote on Nietzsche”. If we give up on the metaphysical, we give up more than we can imagine, perhaps a major source of imagination itself (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God:being, consciousness, bliss).

With which of these voices and lives do we most identify? It seems to us that the twentieth century moods, attitudes, and activities, political and cultural, have been deeply influenced by both Jesus and Nietzsche and their attendant ideas and vision for life. Both have been major cultural drivers in our world. Nietzsche himself was quite aware of the magnitude of the spirit of Christ that he was against. He also knew the “cultural crisis that the fading of Christian faith would bring us culturally and socially. Moreover, he had the manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was–above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion …. He hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased. ” (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions 2009, p. 6).

So where is our Western heritage to be found? Who are we moderns really? Some reputable scholars claim that Christianity is the source of Western civilization, the very seedbed of our social and scientific imagination (Milbank, Hart, Zimmerman et al). What do you think? What has motivated our behaviour: the will-to-power or radical servanthood towards the neighbour? What has shaped our values and goals: an aesthetic turn beyond principles and norms, beyond good and evil, beyond rights of the vulnerable, or Jesus’ quest for justice, righteousness, forgiveness and mercy? Is it the aristocratic valorization of conquest and crushing the weak or Jesus agape love? The contrast can be poignant as it is highlighted through debate, self-reflection and interrogation of Western accomplishments (and their darker secrets). There are many people on both sides of this debate on the human condition (humanist, anti-humanist, and trans-humanist). Northern Mexico and Russia now represent to us the new nihilistic worlds, claims Milbank, worlds controlled by violence and lawless power. Is this what we hope for?

The genocide, the ideology wars, coersive dictatorships, various humanist alternatives of Marxism, Nazism, Capitalism and Liberalism challenge us, promises much and sometimes crushes our dreams and our loves with ruthless abandon. We are not afraid to say with Al Gore that Capitalism is broken today. Even our great technological breakthroughs have shocked us with their destruct power in the hands of state-sponsored terror and violence. It is urgent that we develop a consciousness of the Nietzschean influence in our culture; we are often swimming unconsciously in a pool of nihilist thought and attitude without being aware of its philosophical roots or where it leads.

The value of contrast between Nietzsche and Jesus is a pressing concern of discernment. French philosopher Rene Girard saw this clearly. There are consequential cultural choices to be made in the twenty-first century. We need to ask tough questions about where we want to go, what kind of trajectory we want to negotiate. Jesus and Nietzsche offer two radically different discourses, two very different incarnations of the human spirit, two totally different paradigms for looking at self, society, morality, politics, the arts and the Other.

The more will-to-power and egoistic self-interest promotion dominates, the more cynicism will reign and hope will disintegrate and die. Is the movement of the wealth in the USA in the last thirty years into fewer and fewer hands not just a new form of nihilism (1% of Americans own 50% of the entire wealth of the country and seem to want even more sooner than later) and a form of oppression within Capitalism. It looks and smells like will-to-power to many (John R. Talbott, Survival Investing; Al Gore, The Future: six drivers of global change; Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: the rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else.). How do these  anarchic traders and de-regulating bankers and financiers, government lobbyists who caused the 2008 market crash get away with their crimes, especially crimes against the poor and the vulnerable?

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart takes aim at the heart of this debate. Cultural philosopher and Eastern Church Fathers expert Hart takes us back in history to help us recover part of our lost narrative, to show us what a revolution, what cultural value Christianity actually offered to the brutal ancient Greco-Roman world. He wants to prevent us from trivializing our Western heritage or taking civility and democracy for granted. He shakes us to the core with the serious cultural consequences ahead, as we sometimes naive late moderns contemplate leaving the Christian values behind, often with vociferous intent of moving towards a shrill version of  freedom.

How do we recover substantial hope in late modernity, and talk about God, virtue and love in today’s campus environment?

Firstly, we suggest that there must be an understanding and identification with the causes of despair and cynicism, or our message of hope will sound naive, even hollow; it will be suspected of an attempt at domination. One method of confronting the ruse of power games of our day is through the critique of the cross. The cross offers an alternate vision of a subversive power through weakness. As English philosopher of hermeneutics Anthony Thiselton puts it, the cross offers a meta-critique, a paradigm of God’s self-giving love (New Horizons in Hermeneutics, pp. 614-619). Nietzsche’s will-to-power is thereby transformed into the Christian will-to-love. Healing comes through brokenness; hope emerges out of despair. The resurrection hope follows Good Friday’s crushing blow; it does not bypass it. Do we go with Milbank who claims that theology out-narrates social theory? Give people back their tradition, he argues in his The Myth of the Secular interview (CBC Ideas Series). Otherwise they will have only ashes. Hope is one of our most precious resources; we dare not squander it.

There seems to be no way forward without a thorough identification with the despair of people in our day. Jesus identifies with human brokenness, pain and alienation. Nothing is more central to his message than deep compassion towards the marginalized and weaker members of society, as well as anger against those who oppress, crush and destroy lives. His gospel is about the emergence of hope breaking forth out of the midst of despair. It is brokenness, oppression and despair that creates the quest, the longing and category for hope (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer).

The postmodern world in one sense is a form of critique of false hope offered by a secular enlightenment, but it in turn offers not much of substance in its place. Irony is not enough. Expressivism is not enough. Doubt and skepticism is insufficient. Perhaps promise can emerge through pain in a paradoxical way. The human heart doesn’t want to give up on hope even in the midst of tragedy, senseless suffering, exploitation and displacement such as Syria, Iraq and North Korea today. True despair (giving up on hope itself) is much more harmful than pain or oppression. Can we discover again a politics of virtue, of equal opportunity, of self-sacrifice for the Other? Can we renew civil society and restore virtuous associations? We certainly hope towards that end; the world longs for it deeply. A recovery of a full robust understanding of Jesus and his teaching is definitely a move in the right direction.

Tools for Telling the Jesus Story in Fresh and Dramatic Ways

Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah Finding Jesus

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is; 

Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew.

Darrell Johnson: Who is Jesus? (connects Old and New Testaments)

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; The Narnia Chronicles.

J.R.R. Tolkein, Lord of the Rings.

Joseph Loconte, The Searchers: a Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt; plus A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18. (Harper Collins, 2015).

Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good. (excellent on the teaching of Jesus)

Films: The Passion; Gospel of John; Jesus Film in several languages; Hamlet as the antithesis of Jesus; YouTube presentations by top scholars and apologists.

Poetry: Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, David Wesley, David Crowder, Brian Doerksen

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