I’ve been visiting the .atheism and religious newsgroups
most days for eight months, and in discussions about God’s existence
the IPU regularly makes his/her/its appearance. (I hope I’m politically
correct – ie. ‘inclusive’ – gender-wise here: I don’t want to
be disrespectful of another’s deity…) The IPU was created (I
gather it was not self-created) before I came here, so I don’t
know the nuances of scholarly debate about its history/hermeneutics
The IPU, I gather, is somewhat harmless (it’s a unicorn,
not a rhinoceros, as perhaps it was in ancient lore), fairly cute,
certainly colorful, and most decidedly invisible – and therefore,
ipso facto, non-existent. Occasionally someone asks the brave
question, ‘What if the IPU wanted to reveal him-/her-/itself:
how do you think that sort of incarnation might occur?’ But I’ve
never seen a satisfactory answer…
Now, back to an alternative deity: Yahweh/God/the
Lord. What followers of the IPU (and some Christian fundamentalists)
have done, is set up a caricature of the God of Jesus, demolished
it, and gone away feeling quite self-satisfied. And not even tried
to answer the basic question: if the Hebrew Yahweh wanted to be
humbly incarnated, how would Yahweh have chosen to do that – better
than in the person of Jesus of Nazareth? (Yes, I don’t buy Aquinas’
classical ‘proofs’ for the existence of God either).
So we come to the Lord/liar/lunatic argument of C.S.Lewis,
popularized in the U.S. by Josh McDowell (but pinched from the
ancient Church Fathers). Actually it’s not a trilemma, but a quadrilemma:
the fourth possibility is that the fairly prosaic writers of the
New Testament records were mistaken/ imaginative / assuming legends
were history, etc. and were unanimously prepared to die for that
lie/error. (I’d need a _lot_ of ‘faith’ to believe that one).
The two basic questions seem to me to be: Did Jesus
exist? Does he possess some credibility when he makes claims to
divinity? After 40 years of skepticism-to-faith, my response is
yes, and yes.
First, let’s take a little journey into what is called
‘The Quest for the Historical Jesus’, where scholars debate the
historicity of Jesus. There have been three modern ‘Quests’. Briefly:
Schweitzer (yes, the African doctor) dates the first quest from
Reimarus (1694-1768) whose ‘Apology or Defence of the Rational
Worshippers of God’ was withheld from publication because of its
dangerous ideas. Two images emerge: Jesus-as-somewhat-liberal
(Harnack) and Jesus-as-a-kind-of-Nietzschian-‘superman’ (Schweitzer).
The second quest also threw up various images: Jesus-through-whom-we-encounter-a-transcendent-God
(Barth, Brunner); a demythologized Jesus who can become ‘Christ
of faith’ (Bultmann). The third quest is either radical (eg. the
Jesus Seminar’s Jesus-below-layers-of-tradition), or conservative
(the Jesus of the Gospels and the Pauline writings are complementary)
or liberationist (Jesus as radical prophet who identifies with
the poor) or Jewish (Jesus as dangerous prophet/wonder-worker
who, according to Deuteronomy 13, had to be purged) or Moltmann’s
Jesus-as-suffering-God. Take your pick!
Behind all this is a remarkable man, who so impressed
his friends (and his enemies) that everyone had an opinion about
him. About eighty times in the Gospels he is recorded as saying/doing
things that only God (as his contemporaries understood God) would
dare say/do – forgiving sins, promising tickets to ‘eternal life’,
raising the dead, casting out demons (whatever that means), and
generally telling people he is the key to their eternal well-being.
He claims to have a unique relationship to God. And so on.
Now, the _rational_ question is: what do you make
of all this? You can – indeed _should_ – compare Jesus to other
‘prophets’ (Mohammed, the Buddha, Father Divine, Koresh – take
your pick, there are plenty of them).
And at the end of the day, you have to ask: ‘Did
Jesus seem to be what he claimed to be?’ My answer to that is
‘yes’: I would need _more_ faith to believe otherwise. Am I saying
Jesus was God? Yes. That no one else – before or since – was God
in the same sense? Yes. That Jesus’ character matches that amazing
claim? Yes. That he is is a real sense alive today? Yes.
Now, hang in here: this is _not_ preaching. The toughest
question of all is: How can I know this Jesus? And how can I _know_
I know him? This is where I believe a _suprarational_ (not ‘irrational’
or ‘non-rational’) approach is needed: not dissimilar to my having
faith in anyone. I have been married for 35 years. How do I know
my wife loves me and vice-versa? Because there are observable,
historical evidences for it. Ditto for Jesus? Yes: some generations
removed. So I have to trust the NT records as being reliable?
Yes: provided you understand they are ‘theological history’. But
isn’t that a circular argument? Yes, in a sense (most syllogisms
begin with presuppositions assuming beliefs- supported-by-a-kind-of-faith).
There’s a host of further explorations implicit in
all that, but for the sake of brevity let me conclude:
So what is Jesus asking of me? The fundamentalists
respond: ‘Receive him as your personal Lord and Savior’ – a nice
Western, modern, individualistic caricature of the demands of
Jesus. Better: _commit_ yourself to what you know of Jesus with
what you know of yourself. That is, follow him (become a modern
‘disciple’), and move from ‘orthodoxy’ to ‘orthopraxis’ – doing
in your world what he did in his. Read Mark, then John, then back
to Matthew and on through the NT, with an open mind, praying (skeptically
if you like): ‘OK Jesus, if you are who you say you are, convince
me!’ And you just might find a better deity than an invisible