God is great! Jesus is super … but is he unique?

Over the next month we will continue ramping up for the Emergent Village Theological Conversation for 2012. We are very excited about bring the Emergent camp (who we love) into dialogue with Process thought (which we love) in a live-interactive-open ended- relational engagement.
These blog posts may come from the reading in preparation for the conference but I want to be clear about two things:

  • We are not under the impression that everyone is on board with the Process thought 
  • We love to hear from other perspectives at they illuminate, challenge and respond to this ongoing exchange.

I was reading something that other day that really excited me. It was a comparison of the existential approach of someone like Rudolf Butlmann and the “powerful and illuminating analysis of post-christian existence” with the approach of someone like A.N. Whitehead in his book “Religion in the Making”.
It was particularly this sentence which caught my attention:

Bultmann’s belief that through Jesus’ death and resurrection a change was effected in the human situation at the most fundamental level can be examined as a historic hypothesis without introducing any ad hoc notions of a unique act of God.*

Fairly straight forward stuff, but it piqued my interest enough to go back and make sure that I understood the whole section leading up to it. What is interesting is that just before the above quote is this little nugget:

In such a context (exploring distinctive Western structures) the role of such historical figures such as Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus can been seen a bringing new structures of existence into being.

“Whoa! Hold it right there! I like it when you say wonderful things about how great Jesus is … by why do you have to include those other people?” I can hear my conservative and evangelical friends saying.
This is not the only time I have seen something like this and had the same reaction. (God is not One by Stephen Prothero springs to mind). It can almost be framed in this simply rubric

  • God is Great!
  • Jesus is super.
  • don’t elevate anyone else or Jesus won’t seem unique

I remember giving that original Homebrewed interview with John Cobb (ep. 38) to some friends and how uncomfortable they were (across the board) that Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, and Siddhartha Gautama may have been as open to the will of God as Jesus was.
According to Cobb, what makes Jesus unique is not simply that he was so open to the call of God but what God had called him to. In my circles you have to tack Bible verses on to the end of every major point, so I referenced Romans 5 that what God did in Christ satisfied something in God and changed humanity’s relationship to God. Was that enough? That God did something unique in Jesus … or does there also have to be an absence of affirming what may have done in others?

The other night I was talking to a college student from a different continent. She asked me why there was so much confusion in religion and if it “was the work of the evil one?”. I tried to explain how religions grew up in relative isolation during a much simpler time and they were simply not equipped to handle the complex world we now find ourselves in nor are they meant (or even attempting to) answer each other’s questions. They are just not set up for it.

Religions developed in a simpler time and are not set up for a) this level of complexity or b) this much overlap. There is going to continue to be a need for work to be done within each religion and between the religions (or traditions/communities). What will be the Christian contribution?

We all agree that if there is God that God would by necessity be great! Even those who don’t think that the God of Abraham is Allah and Jesus’ Abba will agree with that. Almost everyone agrees that Jesus was extraordinary. Even those who are not so sure about the accuracy of the historical record will acknowledge his impact. But was Jesus unique? Can we affirm something great in other figures without diminishing him?

Unfortunately those who have inherited an unquestioned view developed in Christendom’s monopoly will just quote John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 as if that settles the matter. A pre-existent Christ came down in Jesus and that is all you need to know.
This is why I am so intrigued to have Process theology as conversation partner. I am excited to hear what John Cobb has to say on Thursday morning at the Emergent Theological Conversation when we talk about Pluralism. I have been reading a lot of Cobb and when talks about the way that God was present in Jesus … it makes more sense than anything else I have ever heard on the subject. I would be interest in your thoughts. How does your tradition handle this? What will the future hold in this arena? Is the Christian tradition capable of this give-and-take of the 21st century?

 

*p. 86 of Cobb’s book

 

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15 comments
Da stand das Meer
Da stand das Meer

Bo, So much has been going on at HBC that I can scarcely keep up. Your productivity is simply amazing!! I guess many of us are and will be pondering the whole question of how to strike the right balance between the affirmation of Christ and genuine open dialogue with other religious traditions. For those interested, some very thought-provoking audio has recently been put up by Heythrop College in London where the three authors of the book 'Only One Way?' (Gavin d'Costa, Paul Knitter and Daniel Strange) made three contrasting presentations on the question of inter-religious conversation which set out the issues in a helpful way, I think. Even if I wish they had recorded some of the subsequent interplay between them! You can hear the talks at http://soundcloud.com/oakhillcollege I'd put d'Costa slightly ahead on points myself, although both Knitter and Strange make some extremely pertinent and valuable remarks. In terms of internet resources, another dialogue well worth listening to is a conversation in Istanbul in 2010 between the great (well, for me, anyway) Harvey Cox and the eminent Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr entitled 'Religion, Modernity and the Future' at http://themathesontrust.org/papers/audio/audio_page.php?filename=nasr-harveycox/nasr-harveycox I would also very much recommend a typically profound take on things by Rowan Williams (yes, he of the facial hair ... and one of the Emergent Church's staunchest supporters on this side of the Atlantic) entitled 'The finality of Christ in a pluralist world' which you can find at http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/585/the-finality-of-christ-in-a-pluralist-world both in audio and transcript formats. It's a powerfully cogent and yet humble plea for Christian theology not to be too hasty in abandoning the Church's traditional view of the absolute uniqueness of Jesus, while absolutely taking on board the many objections that have understandably been levelled against that position on ethical, philosophical and political grounds. Listening to it reminded me that, for all that his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury has been extremely problematic, Rowan Williams is still one of the theological giants of our time. What strikes me in this talk, as in many others, is his patient and unfashionable insistence on thinking with a real 'theo-logic' that is both intellectually penetrating and yet knows when to keep what he calls a 'hard silence' in the face of Divine mystery. I guess that comes out of his long engagement with the contemplative tradition of apophatic mystical theology both in its ancient forms and in the work of modern Eastern Orthodox theologians such as John Zizioulas and Christos Yannaras. There is something about that whole stream of thought and practice which gets beyond doctrine to address spirituality at a far deeper level - and it is precisely at that level (here Cox and Knitter are spot on, I reckon), as well as in demonstrating practical compassion, that real progress is going to be made in what has to be one of the most exciting conversations of the epoch in which we are living. Shalom, Peter B.

Jeremy
Jeremy

My major anxiety is that we start acting like Jesus was some super human who had these amazing powers. Jesus was just like you and me. According to the church fathers, it is his humanity that is the vehicle of salvation. The fathers were relentless in defending the fact that Jesus was fully human. When you ask in what way was God present in Jesus? My question is this: what do you mean by God? Do you mean the Father? It was the Son of God who became human. I just want to emphasize that we don't need to act as if Jesus was somehow omniscient, omnipotent, or brilliant beyond measure. He acknowledges that he doesn't know things, and he is even corrected by the woman in Mark 7. If we claim that the this man was the Son of God we don't have to pretend that he wasn't actually human. Bonhoeffer says it best in Christ the Center: “If Jesus Christ is to be described as God, then we may not speak of this divine essence, of his omnipotence and his omniscience, but we must speak of this weak man among sinners, of his cradle and cross. When we consider the Godhead of Jesus, then above all we must speak of his weakness. In christology one looks at the whole historical man Jesus and says of him, ‘He is God.’ One does not look at a human nature, and then beyond it to a divine nature; one meets the one man Jesus Christ, who is fully god.” (108) “We say of the Humiliated One, “This is God.’ He makes none of his divine properties manifest in his death. On the contrary, all we see is a man doubting in God as he dies. But of this man we say, ‘This is God.’ Anyone who cannot do this does not know the meaning of ‘God became man.’ (110)

T.Scott
T.Scott

@Bo I think my use of "super" was akin to dipping my toe into the water to see: a) Is it warm, or b) are their crocodiles lurking somewhere underneath waiting to consume my mortal soul. :)

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

YES! nice. Now let me take it up a notch... do it without the 'super'natural. I believe in the miraculous but there is no such thing as the SUPER - natural. God's work is the most natural thing in the world. :) I have been chipping away at this in my workshop. It is going pretty well! -Bo

T.Scott
T.Scott

@Bo That is the question exactly..."In WHAT way was God presenting Jesus?"–and it is an awesome conversation starter if you are willing to look beyond the vail of inherited dogma :) It is the crux but how do we answer without speculating (which I guess is the point)? I am fascinated with the idea that Jesus was fully man but had a supernatural understanding of humanity (he had an instinctual and full comprehension of the powers and limitations of being human); he understood the Father, His creations, and how everything was meant to work. Did this understanding elevate him above all other men into Deity or was Deity preconceived? These are the types of questions that get us in trouble but in my opinion (as a Christian) should be more widely welcomed.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

See, this for me is the thing. We can start with pre-suppositions (I don't mean that critically) that we inherited with from the classical formulations.... and I was raised, trained and have practice that way of apologetics as an evangelical. BUT this is where Process lures me to value it as a conversation partner. It asked "In WHAT way was God present is Jesus?" and starting with a different question has led me into such better answers. -Bo

Jeremy
Jeremy

You're right that his supposed sinless life is also a uniqueness, but it's theologicall incorrect to view this as somehow constitutive of his divinity. Although to be fair, it's hard for me to understand what it means, phenomenologically, for Jesus to always choose right over wrong.

Jeremy
Jeremy

His 'sinless' life is not the grounds of his uniqueness. It is simply a consequence of his divinity.

T.Scott
T.Scott

Isn't the fact that Jesus lived a perfect life within the boundaries of being fully human a uniqueness in itself? If I am understanding the tenants of process theology (and I can't say I fully grok them) we progress through the daily process of experience and choices we make–good or bad, throughout our existence, under only the influences of God. Thus if Jesus, as man, was able to make all the 'right' choices and understand and follow all of God's influences obediently, then that establishes his uniqueness. Am I understanding this correctly?

Jeremy
Jeremy

That's good to know because I don't think the incarnation is dispensable, and I think Tripp's said before that incarnation has priority over Trinity (which I also accept). I'd be interested in hearing more, and I just think that we need to be clear that Jesus' uniqueness can only be located in his personhood. It's not as if what he said was that different from John the Baptist, and apocalyptic prophets weren't hard to come by during that time.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Yeah, I was kinda alluding to 'super'man but also just being playful like he is 'swell'. ... meaning we have a high opinion of him in an innocent mentality. But on a serious note, I am intrigued by your line of reasoning. We might take this up in a future TNT. and just for the record - I am 100% on the incarnation. I am not as confident in the hypostatic formulation being the final word on the subject. -Bo

Jeremy
Jeremy

The incarnation wasn't specifically denied, but I'm saying that the being of Jesus is the only grounds for his uniqueness . If one does not affirm that Jesus was fully God and fully Man, then I don't think we can make the claim that he was unique - by any stretch of the imagination. Neither his actions nor his teaching were unique. I suppose I don't understand what you're getting at it: Jesus was "super", i.e. the God-man, no?

Jeremy
Jeremy

I have to admit that I don't understand why the debate is being shifted from Jesus' action to Jesus' being. I suppose my anxiety is that liberal christology tends to strip Jesus of his deity, but always makes the concession that he is the best person EVER in word and deed. I don’t buy that. He didn’t end world hunger. He loved the people and he was killed for preaching justice to the poor by the state (similar to someone like a Fred Hampton). Many people have suffered a similar fate, and many people have helped out more people than Jesus. We honestly don't have much ground to say about Jesus' life and whether or not he was good of a person as Martin Luther King, etc. I'm also unclear about how Jesus' mission differs from the one God also calls us to - namely - striving for peace and justice in solidarity with the oppressed. I don't really see how affirming the divinity of Christ somehow minimizes the goodness of other human beings. In fact, if we grant Jesus' divnity, it actually makes human accomplishment that much more amazing, considering Jesus' actions can't be compared to another human being's action. Furthermore, Jesus might have done good things, but it wasn't like he lived the most extraordinary life every. Like Althaus-Reid once said Jesus might have been a feminist, but he could”ve done a helluva lot more for women’s rights. Last question - isn't the absurdity and violence of Christianity being diminished here in the hopes of not offending others? It is pretty ridiculous to think that the Son of God became man 2000 years ago, but that's basically Christianity in a nutshell. The incarnation is absolutely indispensable to Christianity, and I don't think we benefit from denying that.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Those resources look amazing. I can't wait to did into them. a new semester kicks off Wednesday so I have plenty of drive time ahead of me. and thank you for the helpful explanations! I love Knitter, Cox, and the Bearded One (Williams) so this should be fun. -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Jeremy, You had me for a while but then you lost in the last sentence :( I agree with you about the Liberal thing and a followed you with some other stuff... but who denied the incarnation? I just missed what you were referencing there. -Bo