Published: March 2010
A friend recently asked me, out of the blue, "Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?" I could have simply said, "Yes," but hesitated instead.
Why? I felt that it was a simple question to which I should, as a Christian, have an immediate and satisfactory answer. Racing through my head, however, were various interpretations of these words, some more valid than others. Furthermore, what answer would be most useful to my friend at her stage of questioning? Other progressive Christians joke about being labeled heretic.
I'm impressed by their bravado but remember that, not so long ago, heretics were excommunicated, shunned or burned at the stake. Also, the use of the word "heresy" in any discussion immediately stops it; I prefer to keep talking.
Back to the question of the identity of Jesus. He called himself "the Son of Man," a more modest label than "Son of God." Like "Messiah," with its overtly warlike associations, "Son of God" was an aggressive, politically loaded term from the Old Testament that some of Jesus' followers must have pressured him to claim. They also called him "Teacher," "Rabbi," and "Lord." The Christian Church has used all these titles as well as "Christ" and "Emmanuel."
What these names all mean today may be very different from what they meant to Jesus or to the early Church. First, there's the problem of meaning being lost in translation over time. What Jesus said in Aramaic, translated over the ages into Latin and Greek, has now surfaced in English, a language that has itself evolved immensely even in the past 400 years, as any student new to Shakespeare realizes. The nuances of a term such as "the Son of God" have certainly shifted over the past two thousand years from language to language and from Jesus' Middle Eastern society to ours.
Moreover, we do not know exactly what words Jesus spoke since the gospels were written decades after his death by disciples who heard what his immediate circle remembered that he had said and done. His actual witnesses were likely illiterate, unable to have recorded his sayings. The gospel writers were apologists, choosing stories to make their points, not objective reporters--as if any writer can ever be objective.
By the time I had realized that this information was merely the tiniest corner of the scholarship on the topic, days had passed. I began to consider that the key word in my friend's question was "believe." That posed a second challenge. Have I any business expressing my ideas let alone my beliefs if I do not believe in Jesus in an orthodox way?
This is a variation on the Nicene Creed debate. Many church leaders have stopped reciting it during church services because they can no longer believe it to be literally true. No wonder many loyal Anglicans feel torn! Another friend said recently, "I like to recite the Creeds because they remind me of what I believe. If I throw out these beliefs, which I realize are limited in terms of common sense, it's like jumping from the familiar into the unknown and I don't know where I'll land."
As Søren Kierkegaard, the early 19th century Danish theologian, put it, to be a Christian requires a leap to faith because of the logical absurdity inherent in orthodoxy. How else, for example, can we assert that Jesus is both God and man when our rational minds say that this, let alone the doctrine of the Trinity, doesn't make sense? To take a leap to faith requires a leap of faith. The pervasive 20th century response to the claims of religion was the existential despair of nihilism.
In the current theological study group at St. Thomas's, the progressive American theologian, Marcus Borg, has been shown to address this angst that still nags at the core of Christian belief. Pre-critical naivety is characterized by innocence--total belief, for example, in the birth narratives. Critical thinking leads to a skeptical analysis of everything, assuming that truth equals factuality. The necessary third step for contemporary theologians is post-critical naivety, belief in the Bible stories as true but not necessarily as historically factual. Reaching this stage of Bible study is a great relief: here is religious language that works....
Your donation will help us thrust the Niagara Anglican into the future - communicating the Gospel and the good news of our Anglican tradition to generations to come.