Lent 4 – Quarantine, Lead Us Not Into Temptation

The year 2020 will now be long remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We find ourselves in unprecedented territory, at least for the last hundred years.  It is just beyond 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic, the last real global “plague” of a highly contagious disease.  SARS, H1N1, Ebola, were mere scares which, happily, never lived up to their advanced publicity.  Unless you are someone in sub-Saharan Africa with Ebola or AIDS.

The Spanish flu of 1918-19 lives on in the memory of the West because it hit hardest in those countries – carrying off perhaps 50 million at the highest estimate – at a time when the world population was much lower (about 1.5 billion) and a terrible war had depleted resources and weakened many people’s health and constitution through long-term privation.  The Spanish flu did not discriminate against the elderly but was most devastating to the young.  My father caught it at age six and was at death’s door for at least a week.  (Obviously, he survived.)

We know that an effective quarantine is the best way to limit the spread of deadly disease.  It is not a cure, but must be done to protect those who have not been infected, while providing the best care possible for those who are suffering from the disease. 

It is interesting for those of us of Christian conviction (for me at least, at any rate) that this pandemic is hitting its global stride during the season of Lent.  Of course, from a scientific standpoint, this is irrelevant and mere coincidence, of no more import or interest than if it happened during Ramadan (Islam), Sukkot (Judaism), Diwali (Hinduism) or some other religious season for another major faith.

But its occurrence is calling the whole world, even its most wealthy and powerful, to mindfulness about the most basic issues of existence – what we live for and why we find life so precious that we are (or being made to be) willing to shut down all sorts of things that we normally choose to spend so much time, energy, and resources on.  Things like amusements and entertainments and public gatherings, shopping and restaurants.  Vacations and trips of all kinds cancelled.  Emergency centers and measures which we normally would resent or ignore being applied under government auspices, and, for the most part, with ready compliance because the potential consequences of non-compliance and pursuing blithe self-indulgence are too risky.  Or perhaps we simply fear being shunned as selfish and so self-absorbed that our peers would despise us.

The English world ‘quarantine’ is lifted right out of French – quarantaine – meaning “about forty”. 

In the Bible forty is a much used and symbolic term.  It first appears with Moses in exile from Egypt for forty years before God speaks to him in the burning bush. Then it recurs with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and Moses up on Mt. Sinai for forty days before God gives him the Ten Commandments.  Forty seems to symbolize a period of searching and preparation, withdrawal to regroup or retreat, to find the way.  In the New Testament, Jesus fasts for forty days as he begins his public life, being tempted by Satan and learning the will of God.  And at the end of his earthly sojourn, he visits his disciples off and on over a period of forty days before his ascension.

Here we are with a once-in-a century phenomenon of a world practicing quarantine (quarantaine again in French).  We are told to practice social self- isolation.  As we do, we cannot help reflecting on life’s fragility and death’s randomness.  We can hardly help getting back in touch with the most basic questions about why we live.  A century ago in 1918-9 the Spanish influenza had the same effect at the same time of year.  It seems that most of us in the West will not turn aside from our frenetic pursuit of so much that is frivolous and far from what is really important unless forced to by some sort of personal crisis.  Now we have one for all of us at the same time.

We have an opportunity to take stock.  What have we made our lives about?  What have we made our civilization about?  What are the great idols in our lives which rule our hearts and minds?

When Jesus spent his self-imposed quarantaine fasting and praying and meditating, we are told that he faced three “temptations”, or great questions.  The first was hunger.  The second was to prove how holy and tuned in to God he could be by daring to try something only God could do, or could save him from.  The third was to turn away from God to worship a false god and in return receive all the success and power and worship and adulation this world can offer.

Jesus did not give in to any of them, but they were very real temptations, very powerful attractions for a human wanting to find a formula for success or an easy way to get through life with the least hassle.  Jesus was a real human, so resisting these allurements was neither easy nor automatic.

In his first test the Tempter had said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”  He had just completely fasted for forty days!  I will not debate whether Jesus had the real power to transform stone into bread, but there are the stories of his turning water into wine and multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough to feed thousands.  But what Jesus faced is exactly the sort of thing we all face every day, but hardly ever think of in that way. 

Now, I can’t turn smooth round stones into loaves of bread. My temptation is to worry about how my needs and my family’s needs will be met, whether there will be enough, or whether we’ll find a way through our present trials and tribulations, whatever these look like.  Bread represents the day-to-day basics we can’t get along without. Maybe now more than ever as many face unforeseen loss of income on a massive scale.

Jesus was in the Judean desert (which I have seen and gone through) and there was (and is) nothing to eat or drink for many kilometers.  In some way and at some point, almost everyone faces a desert where there looks to be nothing to sustain us.  For many right now, that point is now. Jesus’s response to the Tempter was “Man (humanity) does not live by bread alone (mere physical bread), but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  For me, I may not see how my needs and my family’s and loved ones’ needs will be met or how we will get through our valley of the shadow of death. But, like Jesus, I can say that the Creator will meet me/us and walk through to the other side with me/us – and in the process provide what we really need, beyond what the appearance seems to tell me/us that I/we need.

In the second test the Tempter takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.  For doesn’t the Scripture say that God will not suffer you to fall or even dash your foot against a stone?” 

I don’t expect to be taken to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome or some other great holy place of renown and splendor and be tempted to jump.  And of course that’s not the point.  This is about the second path people often choose to “lose their lives while seeking to save/find them” as Jesus puts it in another place.  It is the path of religion and striving to be known as a great spiritual leader, guru, mystic, model, shaman, witch, ayatollah, priest, bishop, preacher, etc.  It is the path of making religion and recognition for spirituality one’s god rather than turning to the Creator Him-/Herself to find the way to truth and peace and harmony – “Shalom” as the Bible calls it.

It is the path of making God serve me rather than me serving the Creator, imposing my agenda and ambitions over those that come from His/Her heart and mouth.  For those of the population still hungering and thirsting for something deeper than the “stuff” and all the pleasure it can offer, this is a great temptation.  I can become someone respected and looked up to and listened to if I can rise as a holy person, a gifted person who “hears from God” or is “in tune with the spirit-realm” and able to channel such energy or “bring in the lost”, etc.  Or perhaps, if I do some heroic thing of self-sacrifice and self-immolation I will win a great reward and a place of honour.

This is a road I know something about, but it is a dead-end.  Religious performance and “getting it all right” as per a set of dogmas and rules will not create a bond with the One who made me to be part of His/Her family.  Jesus had some of his harshest words for people who were all about religion and hardly at all about caring for the needy and helping those who needed a little practical love so they could feel the love of the Creator.

The final test Jesus faced was to bow down and worship the Tempter himself.  In return, all the kingdoms of the world would be put at his feet.  He would have all the power and dominion possible for anyone to have.  Jesus’s answer was, “It is written, “You shall worship the Lord God alone, and He alone will you serve.””

I don’t expect to be offered great riches or worldly power any time soon (or ever).  Or fame and fortune and acclaim to make me the envy of millions (or thousands, or even a few hundred or dozen).  But once again, the temptation Jesus faced is generic – to bow down to the great idols of success of our culture, which the West has so idolized and made the great symbols of “success”: Money, Fame, Acclaim, Reputation, being envied by others, having the best job, car, house, stuff, nicest partner, best (most accomplished) kids, etc., etc.  To do whatever it takes to get there, to reach the top of the heap. 

The promises of the Tempter are all empty.  They may fool for a time, but in the end they whither and fade and leave the deluded one empty in heart and dead in soul.

Now, back to quarantine.  We have an opportunity, while we are waiting for the return of ‘normalcy’ so we can all turn back to running after our own particular set of goals.  Before we turn back to making sure of where all the stuff I “need” will come from, putting on a good show about how spiritual I am, and seeking to climb to the top.  The opportunity is to use our own “forty” days in the wilderness that we have been collectively given to turn away from our vanity and turn towards the only two things that really matter: finding our home in the Creator’s heart and arms, and sharing His/Her love to take in the others around us as we find that home, that Center.  In the old language it was called “Love God with you whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Love your neighbour like you love yourself.”

Lent 3: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

The New Testament: Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

Spring begins to warm our lives like hope returning as we march through March.  The cycle of nature promises renewal.  The sun warms our bodies and hearts just as it awakens the ground from its death-like slumber.  The somber landscapes of winter (not lacking in austere beauty at times) will soon give way to the bursting out of new things, new life.

The physical reminds us that the spiritual, mystical life also has its cycle – joy and sorrow, advance and withdrawal, activity and reflection, peace and upheaval, harmony and disarray.  Human psychology marches in tune with these things just as nature does.

The timing of Lent corresponds with the winter-spring transition.  It is a time to step back and take stock of what has become sterile, barren, and dead in our lives and to find paths back into life and renewal – first with our Creator, but equally with our fellow human travellers, and finally with the natural world in which we all live and move and have our being.  For the Creator made it and made us to be in it and tend and nurture it.

As we consider this, we cannot avoid the climate change debate.  It has become an obsession which so polarizes people that we seem incapable of admitting that, whether we put ourselves on its “left” or the “right”, the creation is groaning in great travail, as the Apostle Paul comments in Chapter 8 of his Letter to the Romans.  Whether you accept that the world is warming dangerously or not, we must all see that we, the human species, have recklessly pillaged Earth’s resources and polluted our whole nest from top to bottom, stem to stern.

It began many generations ago, and we have not stopped doing it.  Now, however, we are without the excuse of ignorance.  Our rape and pillage is deliberate and totally devoted to present comfort and convenience with no regard for what is to come in a few decades.  It is of little use to point fingers at the parties we choose to hold (most) guilty – we all participate to greater or lesser degree.

We are told that prosperity depends on this exploitation, that fundamental rights and freedoms are involved in allowing it to continue, that a free and democratic and liberal society holding out the promise of life without poverty depends on it.  Free enterprise demands that we leave things run their course.

A reflection on Lent is not the place to debate whether Capitalism or Socialism is most compassionate and appropriate.  The key problem is deeper than a vehement debate full of vituperation against the evils of one or the other.  It is a problem of the brokenness of the human heart and our emptiness of the soul. 

Poverty is the lack of the most basic and essential things that make a decent life possible.  We lose sight of its terrible effects on real people when we turn it into a statistical exercise by reducing it to a question of income.  Talking about it as a question of money eases our conscience because we can then advocate remedies such as offering more money and more services to the poor with a measurable, impersonal price-tag.  Those of us who are not poor can regain some perspective by volunteering to help at the Food Bank or the Soup Kitchen or the Goodwill or the Street Ministry.  All good things to do, of course.  And they need to be done. And getting out of our comfort zones may lead to where we really need to go- to get in touch with our own poverty of spirit.

The deepest poverty is referred to by Jesus as “poverty of spirit” – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven [God].”  (Matthew 5:3)  Luke has him saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)  It is good that we have both, for we must not lose sight that both forms of poverty exist.  Someone might suggest that the Luke verse is saying that actual material poverty is somehow good.  That is certainly not what he is saying!

But let us begin with poverty of spirit, and why Jesus says it’s a blessing.  First, it is the opposite of self-sufficient pride and confidence in our ability to get along without the Creator.  It is not an automatic posture, especially in the 21st Century West (if it has ever been automatic).  It is actually a rather rare revelation.  Few humans attain it for very long.  It takes a lot of counter-intuitive cultivation to “arrive” there and abide in it.  (I make no claim to abiding there!) To the extent that we do and can, Jesus assures us that we actually begin to experience God’s real presence – for by getting our self-sufficiency out of the way, we make room for the Spirit of the Creator to break in. 

We discover humility: humility as a dependent creature acknowledging my personal emptiness; the hole in my soul which only knowing my Creator can fill.  Humility is knowing that I cannot earn my way into this; I cannot perform a bunch of good deeds and sacrifices to enter this fundamental relationship.  Until I humble myself before the One who made me and seeks for me that I might come to know Him/Her, I remain locked in my pride and arrogance, my illusion that I am, in effect, a god unto myself.

If I can begin to live in poverty of spirit before God, I can begin to see my fellow humans as other lost souls desperately trying to fill that inner void.  They may well be unaware of it themselves, but, knowing my own poverty, I can relate to them in real compassion and humility and offer to come alongside them.  Not by preaching or cajoling or showing off my advanced spirituality, but by offering to walk humbly and openly with them and bring what is needful where they are. 

The materially poor are often already aware of their spiritual poverty and may well be beyond me in that understanding.  To those who are deluded by the illusion of control over their own lives, I can offer relationship when the illusion begins to dissipate amid the inevitable tribulations of life.  But no one can (re)enter or discover their true identity as a son/daughter of the Creator without first coming to poverty of spirit.

Finally we must come to the creation with that poverty of spirit.  It teaches us that we do not own it and it is not mere “stuff” for me, for us, to use, abuse, chew up, and trash when we’re done with it.  I understand that, like my loaned (lent) life, the creation has been loaned to us, that we do not own it, that we are responsible to care for it, to steward it, to bring it into its best state.  We are meant to appreciate it for what it really is, the Creator’s amazing gift, where He/She has placed us for whatever short span of years we have. He/She has also given us the potential to enjoy and glorify it in gratitude for allowing us to love all He/She has made in all its incredible wonder and beauty.  And we too are part of the incredible wonder and beauty to be enjoyed and brought to be the best we can be.

Lent is a good opportunity to deliberately choose one or two small ways to cultivate poverty – first, of spirit – but perhaps also alongside the materially poor.  Perhaps I will find myself actually meeting the Creator more intimately as I move this way.  If you ask, He/She will doubtless show you.

Lent 2, Sowing and Reaping

“Do not be deceived; you reap what you sow. If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”

Dwight L. Moody

As a culture and civilization the post-modern West of the 21st Century is quite peculiar.  It (we, really) do not have much regard for tradition, for customs, for the ways of our ancestors.  Most cultures and civilizations (and there are still quite a few others out there despite our Western global encroachment on everybody else) still place a high value on the things that have made them who and what they are.  Somehow, we have gone in an almost diametrically opposed direction.  Somehow we expect to survive and thrive by turning our backs on most of what has made us what we have become.  We also prefer to denigrate and devalue most of the people who once upon a time played the greatest roles in that becoming.

In a (relatively) short blog such as this it is impossible to explain or describe with any justice how this amazing state of affairs has come to be, let alone the “why”.  And naturally, for any sense I could propose to make of it, a myriad of other voices, more potent and noteworthy, would rise up to denounce or disprove my interpretation.  Which is at least in line with what the West has been for the last three hundred years – a society open to the challenge of new ideas which can be debated and accepted or rejected, or perhaps nuanced into something more true and balanced.

My point here is that for those of us noting and to some extent currently observing a certain season called “Lent” in English, we now find ourselves in a twilight zone, a cultural back-eddy, while the vast majority of our co-travelers on  the S.S. West are either oblivious to it or could care less even if they have heard of it.

Here are two of the probable reasons for our amnesic cultural disregard of Lent – a chosen amnesia which is symptomatic of the greater current we find ourselves in on our ship’s journey.  For Lent is a practice found only in Christianity, although, as we previously noted, other traditions have their own times of fasting, self-denial, and spiritual reflection.  And, in the West, until perhaps sixty years ago, awareness of this season would have been pretty general throughout the ship’s company, even if many of the voyagers did not observe it.

I rather like the play on words which the English name for this solemn season opens up – even though it doesn’t work in any other language I know of.  “Lent” reminds me that my time aboard Spaceship Earth has been “lent” to me by our Creator or, if you prefer, the universe.  I do not own my time.  It is a gift to me, lent to me for as long as I live and breathe.  There is a Bible verse in the Book of Acts which reminds me of this, when a man named Paul tells the great philosophers of his day in Athens that everyone lives on borrowed time, that “the Unknown God” is the One in whom we all “live and move and have our being”.  Basically he’s telling them (and us via them, for we are very much like those skeptics of two thousand years ago), that we didn’t make ourselves, that we have very little power to change the nature of reality (self-delusions aside), and that there is a Power far higher and greater than any we can conceive of to whom we owe both life and even our feeble ability to understand existence itself.

Thus, Lent points us to something that, Christian or not, sceptic or not, atheist or not (as many of that crowd of the intellectual elite of that age were), we must all face: we are not God; we  are not gods; we did not just appear as some sort of cosmic hiccup that the ever-gyrating maelstrom of universal energy suddenly and quite unintentionally just barfed up one “day”.  And yes, even back in Paul’s long-ago day, that was a serious philosophical and proto-scientific proposal which both Greek and Roman thinkers had considered – Democritus on the Greek side and Lucretius on the Roman side being two examples of such thinkers who were taken quite seriously by the great professorial and sartorial dons of Athens to whom Paul spoke.

The second part of thinking about life being (like) “Lent” is that something “lent” is supposed to be returned to the lender.  If we realize that this “lender” is in fact the Creator (once we get past our arrogance and blinding pride about being “in charge or our own life and forgers of our own destiny” – or perhaps our call to “self-actualize” in this age’s usual ultra-individualist formulation), it puts a whole different perspective on who we are and why we are here (two of the most basic of all questions of existence, questions everyone who thinks asks at some point).

But what do we make of someone who refuses to admit they have borrowed, or been given, the most basic thing they have, with an expectation from the Lender, or Giver, that that precious thing will be returned in good working order?  Or perhaps rather that it will have been used to enhance the lives and general well-being of all the rest of what the Giver had created.  What will the Lender-Giver make of such an outcome as refusing to accept the conditions or mandate of being gifted?

In our dominant current Western way of thinking about it (or, rather, adopting an avoidance-strategy in order not to think about this), if there is indeed a Lender-Giver, He-She-It-They will just be so kind, generous, and loving that it won’t matter.  It’ll be a big shrug of disappointed love at worst, but have no real bearing on what, if anything, follows.

We are not going to rehash the old debates about heavenly rewards and hellish punishments.  There is, however, the issue of reaping and sowing.  If I sow a life-course that is based almost entirely on personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment, what return have I made to the Giver for having invested in me as a contributor the Big Vision of creating a better, more harmonious universe?  It does not take Christian theology to know that, eventually, generally, “you reap what you sow” and “if you sow the wind you shall reap the whirlwind”.  What we all find as we come into the world is what is being reaped from our ancestors, their works, their words, and their deeds.  This sobering realization begs us to think about what we are bequeathing our own descendants, at least once in a while.

Lent is a good time to consider our sowing and reaping, our use of what has been lent to us by the Creator, or, if you prefer, our ancestors and the universe.  It is a good time to consider how to improve our use of the great gifts we have been given, and how to stop abusing them – whether those gifts be other people and their gifts of love to us, or the gifts of resources and time we find all around us.

Fasting is a practice often associated with Lent.  In line with sowing and reaping and learning to truly appreciate and value the gifts we have, and the Giver who gives them, practicing a little self-restraint to teach ourselves to begin returning love for love and appreciation for the gift of life, which comes before all others, would not be out of place.

Which is where tradition comes back in.  Tradition is a way of acknowledging how much has been passed on to us by those who have preceded us.  Traditions recognize that our forebears sowed into our lives and created things we enjoy.  They gifted us, in many cases with loving intent, and with a faith that what they were passing to us would make our lives better, would enhance our ability to give back in the future.  In our trendy phrase, they are saying “pay it forward”. 

The West has by and large chosen to discount many of the best gifts of  the previous generations, especially those coming out of the religious and concomitant moral aspects our cultural heritage.  Consequently, the West has also by and large lost its coherence and way. “Without a vision for the future, people perish,” and struggle to find viable ways to maintain any coherent sense of worth about both themselves and their world.

So we now find our ship S.S. West aimlessly meandering, perpetually searching for some anchorage. The port of haven is proposed in the shifting target of the supreme humanist values of individual identity and rights and freedoms. As good as these may be theory, they have to be continually redefined to suit the newest trends.  It is time for the  West to begin practicing some of the old Lent discipline and turn towards the compass of a much Higher Ground of Being than mere personal preferences.

The foundations are shaking, and it may just be that the Creator is allowing the ground to quake beneath us and the whirlwind to stir around us, according to the old law of reaping and sowing. The wake-up Trumpet may be tuning up.

Lent, 1

I will begin this post with a thank you to all my regular readers and subscribers for your faithful support and interest.

We are now in the season of Lent, which will end on Easter Sunday, April 12.  The word “Lent” in English is derived from Old English lencten, referring to the time when days lengthen or a long period.  Latin-based languages such as French derive their world for the season from the Latin word for forty –  quadraginta – of fortieth – quadragesima, e.g. – French la Carême.

During this season, i.e. for the next five or six posts, we will be taking a break from the usual fare of this blog.  There will not be a fixed theme, except along the line of what our topic today indicates – things appropriate to Lent.

Once upon a few generations ago in the West, this season of about forty days was publicly acknowledged and discussed as a time to dial back our usual bent towards self-concern and self-indulgence.  It was even mentioned in public institutions and political and cultural events to encourage people to “get a grip” on their bad habits and help one another out.  The purpose was to commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The forty days was as an imitation of Jesus’s time in the wilderness before he set out on his public ministry.

Whether you observe the traditions of Christianity or not, dialing back and slowing down, taking the focus off oneself for a season, deliberately finding a time and some self-discipline to regularly turn aside from “the usual” – the  pursuit of self-fulfillment for good ole Number One – cannot be a bad thing.  Other faiths do it and encourage it too (Ramadan in Islam is a prominent example), and even the sages of the health and well-being industry who promote forms of alternative spiritualities or secularized forms of such things (yoga is the most common) tell us that periodic fasting and self-denial is a good thing, especially when we mix in some genuine altruism to get our heads out of our own belly-buttons.

Many people set themselves a goal of “fasting” in some way during this time.  In the “old days” when most people in the West were at least nominal Christians, this meant doing without some favourite foods, for example.  Many people still do this, and add in more focused attention to daily prayer, meditation, and devotional reading.  Other forms of “fasting” might be setting aside forms of personal entertainment, abstaining from social media obsession, or watching less or even no Television or videos.

Now we live in a culture which hardly registers Lent as a blip.  There is a good side to this.  As a Pastor friend pointed out when we were talking about church attendance and declining numbers, the good part of this is that the people who are in church or “walking the walk” these days are there because they want to be and are committed. 

Some dominations and affiliations within the “Church” (I use the word here in its “catholic” sense of “universal” – the One Church which crosses all the denominational boundaries and enfolds everyone who follows Jesus, regardless of their affiliation as “Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, etc.” – are more deliberate and formal about this whole Lenten season and making it a real observance.  I encourage those of you in that persuasion to “go for it” with all your might.  For others who may have more of a hesitation about being so deliberate and intentional about “observing days and seasons” as if they can create more godliness in us or impress God somehow, I would encourage them to see this season as an opportunity to more consciously implement the kinds of disciplines their background values.

No one can compel us individualist Western Christians of the 21st Century to do much of anything “religious” these days.  We love to say that faith and salvation are an individual choice, “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).  Coercion and manipulation by guilt or social pressure are pretty much done for most churches and individuals in North America and Europe.  All the statistics about religious adherence and practice demonstrate this.  But our self-indulgence and claim to individual rights cross into every aspect of how we live our lives.  Lent is one of those.

We might say that we have the same choices to make every day God gives us to continue enjoying (or enduring) our lives.  True enough.  But if all days are the same, no day is special.  The truth is, we really don’t live the rest of our lives that way at all.  We all want and need to feel unique and special, to have special occasions and days.

Our cultural hypocrisy then excludes this from the religious and spiritual side of our humanity.  And this is just another manifestation of what has occurred over the last century.  Despite all the attempts to remove religion and spirituality (the old Enlightenment progressive code-language for Christianity in particular) from the public sphere, humans are innately spiritual, even those of atheistic bent.  There is a hunger and need at our very core.  We deny it at our peril.

The point of Lent is to stop denying it and awaken it, encourage it to search for what can finally bring us to real  fulfillment – to set aside the counterfeits that can never fill the hole in our soul.

Of that, more next time.

The Third Way, 58: Saviours and Salvation, 13 – Boomers

“The three most formative thinkers of the darker moments of the modern era are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In one way or another, most baby boomers were fed a steady diet of heightened awareness of human exploitation, oppression, and illusion, coupled with the insight that the received world of common opinion and tradition was a chimera.  Suspicion of progress and optimism, and dread of a world breaking down, became de rigueur.  After all, most… baby boomers were highly receptive to the radicalism of their teachers and the books they thought important…. our culture was lost to the homogenizing influence of Hollywood, public policy was massively influence by the power structure, marginal peoples were oppressed… consumers were passive dupes of subliminal advertising and the corporate manufacture of false needs…

“…. Baby boomers were a generation with a deep desire for commitment, yet, ironically, many were persuaded that all bonds were distorting and colonizing, and that they should commit to nothing permanently.  While a corrective to platitudinous boosterism of the status quo, this teaching was also highly corrosive to civic trust, partisan loyalty, or pride of inheritance.  Indeed, the image of a human being it vaunted was that of a drifter: Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur who is a detached street voyeur, Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur who deconstructs and sifts ideas, compounding them at will, Jean-Paul Sartre’s skier who leaves no tracks.  There is neither commitment nor investment required by such lives, which surf above life, where traditional pieties give way to chic cynicism and disassociation.  It allowed baby boomers the sophomoric mien of being against “the System” without having to commit to a specific alternative.”

Peter C. Emberley, Divine Hunger, Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd,, 2002), pp. 36-7.

Being of the Boomer Generation (first cohort), so deftly described by Professor Emberley in our lengthy opening citation, it is the one I am most familiar with.  He evokes the ethos of the late fifties and the sixties very well.  While most of us did not consciously adopt Baudelaire’s or Levi-Strauss’s posture towards society and life (few of us having actually read these authors), many of us practised it, having been seduced by its illusion of “freedom”.  Having no obligation to commitment meant “free love”, “tripping out”, “being cool” rather than having to grow up and take responsibility.  There were plenty of more accessible models of these postures (e.g., The Beatles, Timothy Leary, etc.) than these rather esoteric, heady ones. 

Emberley gives a short list of books which signified this whole cultural shift, particularly in the Canadian universities.  Here a few of the better known ones, at least to Canadians (his list gives only Canadian authors of that era): Marshall Macluhan’s seminal and ground-breaking Understanding Media (to which I would add Macluhan’s other, more accessible offering, The Medium is the Message), John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic, and Pierre Vallière’s White Niggers of America.  Many non-Canadian titles were as widely read in Canada as in the U.S.  I am sure that some readers of this blog could offer their own list, but here a few more that come to my mind: Thomas Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, Leonard Cohen’s (another Canadian) Beautiful Losers, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, John Robinson’s Honest to God, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Neil Sheehan, et al.’s The Pentagon Papers,Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,etc. 

In that age, everything was up for questioning and the sense of crisis and radical change in values and old patterns pervaded every domain of life, at least in the West.  Music, drug shortcuts to temporary nirvana, fashion, moral values, ethics, the sexual revolution accompanied by easily accessible and usable birth control, government turmoil, the threat of nuclear annihilation, brutal war (Vietnam) waged in full Technicolor on TV, and civic disorder and violence seemed to confirm  the diagnosis of the end of the old world and the desperate need for a new way of doing things at every level.  A few paragraphs cannot capture or convey the “feel” of that time, any more than they can that of any other generation and its time. 

Emberley goes on to describe the enormous letdown that ensued when the dreams of “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” disintegrated in disillusionment in the ‘70s.  Having questioned everything and come up mostly empty and short of any real solution to what so obviously seemed a need to fundamentally change the way power, economics, and society work, by the ‘80s boomers “had a paradoxical relationship to the workplace.  Many boomers achieved a level of success and affluence which… bordered on the obscene.  Both their real spending power and the senior positions of influence with which they were already flush in their forties represented a new apex of worldly success.” (ibid.)  Thus, the boomers who had eschewed commitment in their libidinous and “sophomoric” youth stood it all on its head by insisting on and getting posh pension and benefit plans in addition to fat salaries and wages.  If they had to now “work with the man” and even “be the man”, they would redefine what this looked like and negotiate their own terms. 

In the name of freedom and equality for all, the 60s activist impulse was diverted from idealism to cynicism in a scramble for “a fair piece of the pie”.  Luxury items and lifestyle took the place of failed ideals.  “Bliss out” was replaced by “drown out” the pain and the repressed gloom with stuff and games and substances.  Depression became the new epidemic, and Prozac (or cocaine) the new drug of choice.  The quest for personal freedom to enjoy life and not “be screwed by the system” or “ground down by the Establishment” had to be diverted into “making the system work for you”.  You could now use that old evil of money to capture life on your own terms with whatever amusements and pleasures took the place of the old ideals of “universal love, brother-and-sisterhood, peace, and freedom”.  However, the old inequities and class divisions had not really gone away and the rich got progressively richer and the poor fell farther and farther behind – which is where we find ourselves now.

The boomers had largely abandoned the old, inherited paths to salvation through tradition, established ways, adherence to religious custom, respect for class and appropriate expectations for one’s inherited position, marriage and family, financial reward for hard work and integrity, and “doing one’s duty”.  Now it became all about personal expectations and agenda.  The old paths to “salvation” out of chaos, failure, and disorder had been replaced by finding one’s own way to meaning.  Salvation was in whatever you chose as your personal path to “self-actualization”.

As Emberley points out, some reverted to “that old-time religion” as they aged, but moved to more energetic and active forms of it in Evangelicalism and Charismaticism, or perhaps into soft forms of oriental faiths, especially Buddhism and Yoga—which are still very popular.  In fact, recent data on religious affiliation and practice in the US suggest that, next to “no religious affiliation”, Buddhism is the fastest growing faith preference in North America.  Many serious scientists have been quietly turning in that direction as well in order to seek inner peace and meaning as they deal with the semi-mystical and elusive realities of Chaos Theory and the Quantum Universe.

“Personal peace and affluence”, as Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the age even as it unfolded, was the boomer road to salvation, the way of escape from despair and hopelessness.  Every society which exists and has ever existed either lives by a path to meaning which has already been established and generally accepted , or, if that established path has collapsed or been radically uprooted, sets out to find another one.  When such upheavals occur, the times are troubled and great turmoil ensues.

The Boomers sowed the wind when, as the Chicago 1 album put it, it sought to “Tear the system down, tear it down to the ground”.  Lamentably, as they forsook their old idealism, they went over to the hedonistic side of their “cultural revolution”.  Now, forty years later, what they seem to be leaving to their Gen-X children and the Millennials resembles a cultural wasteland filled with a whirlwind of violence and expectations of impending apocalypse.  The planetary environment is in severe distress and the socio-politico-economic infrastructure is strained to breaking point and quite unsustainable for much longer.  Yet the boomers still control and refuse to relinquish their self-serving stranglehold on the levers of power in the corporate, social, and political institutions which dictate most of what life will be like for the 99.5% of the rest of humanity who support the elitist paradigm.

For the Millennials and Gen-Xers who will soon be and already are moving into the positions of executive power (as in Canada where our two-term Prime Minister is a Gen-Xer), they have the opportunity to learn from the Boomer debacle.  Rather than being irresponsibly seduced by false promises of some sort of hairy-fairy Aquarian Utopia built on romantic dream-castles, they see quite well and more practically that the old ways are disintegrating, and have been for decades.  What is also clear is that their parents have done very poorly at managing the foundations as they have pursued a completely unsustainable paradigm of luxury retirement built on unceasing GDP growth .

The big question is where the upcoming movers and shakers of the world will turn to for their answers. What will be their salvation strategy to preserve enough of Planet Earth to continue as a living, thriving “Garden of Eden” in a universe that seems to have produced only one of its kind?  At the very least, it seems that they can hardly do worse than their immediate forebears.

The Third Way, 57: Saviours and Salvation, 12 – The Jesus Story, 9: The Third Way

“Jesus called himself the Son of God and the Son of Man, but he laid little stress on who he was or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the Kingdom.  In declaring that he was more than a man and divine, Paul and his [Jesus’] other followers, whether they were right or wrong, opened up a vast field of argument.  Was Jesus God?  Or had God created him?  Was he identical with God or separate from God?  It is not the function of the historian to answer such questions, but he is bound to note them, and to note how unavoidable they were, because of the immense influence they have had upon the whole subsequent life of western mankind.  By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume One.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp. 456-7

Not all readers of this blog or all Christians will agree with H.G. Wells in every detail of this citation from his magnum opus The Outline of History.  I would agree with his view that it is not the historian’s function to pass judgment on questions such as Jesus’ ultimate identity.  He is fair in recognizing that Jesus did accept the titles of “Son of Man” and “Son of God” as proper to himself.  He is right in saying that Paul (and the other Apostles and first disciples) opened up “a vast field of argument”.  These arguments came in later generations, but, while they had disagreements among themselves, the Apostles did not disagree about Jesus’ identity.  As Wells says, perhaps the later arguments were “unavoidable” and have been historically significant “because of the immense influence they have had” on all the generations since.

I would not agree with Wells that Jesus “laid little stress on who or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the [coming of the ] Kingdom [of God].”  If one considers only the three “Synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one could reach that conclusion on a superficial reading.  But the major emphasis in John’s Gospel is the central issue of Jesus’ identity.  It focuses on his proclamation that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the form of his person.  The heart of the message was really that the coming of the Kingdom was not just coincident and correlative to his own coming among humanity with a new teaching at a specific time and in a specific place, but that it was intrinsic to his being present.  It was and is bound up in his person, and entering that Kingdom was and is through him, through commitment of one’s life to God through him.  When we look carefully at the Synoptics[i], we will still find Jesus declaring this. 

The difference is one of “optics”—focus and perspective.  The focus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic means seeing the same, taking the same perspective) is Jesus’ public ministry and persona as seen by the witnesses involved as he travelled through Israel and met his death, and then rose from the grave.  By comparison, the perspective of John is an intimate look at how Jesus related to those closest to him and with those who opposed him and eventually engineered his crucifixion. 

Wells is effectively doing what so many have done when trying to sort out “the historical Jesus” from “the Jesus of faith”; he is reducing him to a message, a set of teachings and admonitions to be applied, comparable to what the typical mystical prophets, philosophers, and sages have done for millennia.  But, as we said in our previous episode, we cannot reduce Jesus to that; he does not fit the mould or stay in our neat categorical boxes.  His message was really himself, and in that he is really and truly unique among all the great religious figures of history. 

Buddha, Muhammad, Lao-tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, etc. did not say things like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father/Creator except by/through me.”  We could give many more examples of Jesus making such statements.  Here are a few to reinforce the point: “I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the Good Shepherd; … I am the resurrection and the life,” etc.  Any of these others “greats” saying such things would have rightfully been declared a megalomaniac.  As C.S. Lewis so cogently puts it, “He does not leave us that option.”  He is so sane, so manifestly not a Lunatic!  So manifestly not a Liar!

Jesus also openly claimed to be sinless and publicly challenged his critics to produce one instance in which he had sinned.  He had lived a very public life for at least a couple of years by this point, and had been shadowed at every turn by hostile critics who should have been able to produce at least one tale of his having acted badly.  There were no takers.

Jesus did indeed teach extensively, often in parable form.  He challenged hypocrites wherever he found them.  He discredited stereotypes, stood up for the poor and downtrodden, and commented critically on many issues such as the way the powerful control, oppress, laying heavy burdens on people and inflicting suffering.  He criticized the wealthy and their lack of compassion. 

He said that his followers needed to be different from all this—to be like him!  Everything he brought to the table as a new way, a Third Way, was bound up in knowing him and following him.  It was not about a new set of rules or a new philosophical insight, or even a different way of performing religious rituals and routines—or not performing them, for that matter.  He elucidated and illuminated what they already knew, declaring that the scriptures spoke about him.  As we have said before, it will not do to confine him to being a sort of nice, peacenik guru saying “All you need us love, so stop being selfish and nasty.” 

Certainly, we need to stop being selfish and nasty, but the problem is that, in and of ourselves, we just can’t do it very well, at least most of us can’t, no matter how hard we try. There area few who somehow manage it much better than most, like Buddha, for example.  But even most of the prophets, gurus, and sages come out pretty splotchy when we dig a little deeper.  Most of us are like the Prophet Daniel’s dream of a giant statue of a King-God made of massive, shiny, metallic sections of gold, silver, and bronze.  We (try to) look shiny, powerful, and impressive, but we’re standing on clay feet which cannot support us at all when the waves crash in.

At the end of our citation Wells says, “By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Unfortunately, this part of his assessment is all too true.

At the end of The Third Way 56, we noted the tremendous positive and progressive impact of the legacy of Jesus and the best of the work of his disciples over the last two millennia.  As Wells puts it—the “charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Too often though, we have seen large segments of those followers turning inward on one another, “agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments” with one another about God’s nature, Jesus’ nature, the Holy Spirit’s nature and work, questions of Church order and government, questions of right ritual and observance, and on and on.  And when the workers turn in upon one another, the anathemas proliferate and the love evaporates, evening  climaxing in war sometimes.  This does not even include the completely twisted notion of crusading to convert or crush “the infidel” or “heathen” of another religion.

When the Church, which is really just the community of his followers which Jesus commissioned to be “the light of the world and the salt of earth” loses its way and does those things, it has gone over to the “Dark Side” and lost its salt.  It breaks faith with its Founder and shames and dishonours itself.  So do all who take Christ’s name in vain by using it to say and perpetrate things and actions which in the end he will denounce and declare dreadful distortions of everything he is and calls those who follow him to be.

Nevertheless, Jesus has always had followers “muddling through” to act and be as he calls them to be and do.  There is still and has always been a remnant of communities and individuals who are “doers of the word, not mere hearers” and fancy talkers and theologians.  Now, at this time in history, and especially in the history of the West, faithful hearers and doers are more needed than ever, for much of the earth is in spiritual famine and dying in its vapid materialism and self-absorption, without hope or vision.  “Without a hope, without a vision for the future, people perish,” says a verse in the Book of Proverbs.

The core of the Christian proclamation is about hope—Good News—which is what the word “Gospel” really means.  That Good News is the coming of God’s Kingdom into our midst.  And it has come and continues to abide in a living Saviour who promises to “be with you always, even to the end of the age.”  He said, and says, “In this life, in this world, in this age, you will have trouble.  But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

The “First Way” is the way of Religion—seeking peace and safety through appeasement of the universe and its dominant forces by the right kind of actions and staying out of the way of what can destroy us.  The “Second Way” is the way of Power, the way of control and manipulation and domination, to (re)make the world in our own image, even if it is just our own corner of it.  The ultimate form of this kind of counterfeit safety is world mastery—political, economic, and social domination and forcible conformity.

Both of these “Ways” of trying to make sense of reality are alive and well.  None of us is entirely free of them, either within ourselves or in our dealings with others, or even with nature.

The “Third Way” is what Jesus offered and offers—to cease from the first two and become truly free, as only he can make us free: “For if the Son (Son of God and Son of Man) shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”


[i]  “Synoptics” = Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  These three take a similar, more or less biographical perspective to Jesus’ public career.  They see Jesus through the eyes of witnesses who were there, although takes a somewhat different witness perspective.  Matthew’s perspective is very Jewish – Jesus as the fulfilment of Torah and its reinterpreter for the New Age, the renewed or new Covenant.  Tradition says that Mark’s perspective is based on Peter’s stories about the Messiah Yeshua.  For much of the account, Jesus seems to be keeping a low profile, but is finally revealed to be the Son of God and the Messiah.  He is then arrested and crucified.  The end is wonder and amazement, and there is scholarly controversy about the last part of the final chapter being a later addition.

Luke takes a more scholarly approach, systematically accumulating evidence and eye-witness testimony.  Tradition says Luke was a well-educated, articulate, very literate physician, perhaps even a Gentile convert of Paul’s.  His story focuses on the humanity of Jesus while including details of healings and relationships which a doctor would note.

With this understanding, John’s approach becomes more illuminating as a bridge from the very public record of Jesus to his more intimate, personal dimension and the things he said about himself both with his closest followers and those who challenged and opposed him.

Lincoln and Douglass

This is a slightly revised post from another page two years ago. It is in honor of Black History month.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress … Power concedes nothing without demand.  It never did and it never will.  Find out just what people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Frederick Douglass, former slave and American Abolitionist, spokesman for full Black Rights in the late 19th Century.

            In 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland by hopping aboard a train near Baltimore and making his way to Boston.  He did not flee to Canada, as thousands of the refugees from slavery did in those days before the Civil War (April 1861- May 1865)[1].  Instead, he settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, found work and eventually married a free woman.  He worked hard to educate himself and became not only literate, but eloquent, both as an orator and a writer. 

He became an icon of the Abolitionists, as well as the premier advocate for Black Rights, including the right to bear arms in the Civil War.  He worked tirelessly to have Blacks become full-fledged US citizens with voting rights and freedom to do anything (legal) they chose and live freely anywhere in the country. 

During the War, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln grew from doubt of the President’s ability and commitment to end slavery to one of warm respect.  They met many times, as Lincoln recognized his need of input on dealing with the issue of abolition and granting rights to the former slaves and the Free Black population.  The President found Douglass abrasive to deal with at times, but grew to respect his intellect and his insight.  Douglass criticized Lincoln (as did many) for not moving more quickly on Abolition and not fully immediately accepting Blacks as entitled to equal rights.  Lincoln saw that this had to happen eventually, but thought they needed to be educated into it and that the country needed to be prepared for it.

Perhaps there is some justice in Douglass’s critique of Lincoln.  Both were men of their time and products of their heritage.  Lincoln may not have been fully ‘modern’ in his views of the equality of the ‘races’, but Douglass recognized that the President was vastly in advance of the great majority of his compatriots.  In his time, he was one of the most misunderstood, maligned, underestimated, and undervalued ‘greats’ of history ever. 

Today, the US recognizes both these titans, wary allies and occasional opponents, as unquestionably great men.  Both were necessary, and both fought the same battle, but from very different vantage points.  As a young man of nineteen, Lincoln had already begun to abhor slavery and the oppression of ‘the African Race’ as an abomination.  He had said, “If I ever get the opportunity, I will hit this thing hard.”  This was long before he had any notion of becoming President.  He was not yet even on the road to becoming a lawyer.

Lincoln refused to succumb to radicalism, at least to the kind of Abolitionist radicalism of William Lloyd Garrison.  He was, however, a moral and constitutional radical.  Yet, even though he abhorred the evils of the whole slavery institution and system, he equally abhorred the idea of a wholesale violent demolition of it.  His view was that solving one great evil by wreaking havoc, mayhem, and destruction as some sort of hand of Divine Retribution (as per John Brown) would merely compound evil upon evil.

Lincoln sought a firm, measured, gradual approach.  He learned as he went, and grew into the man people would later revere.  He was far from a simple, simplistic ‘yokel’ lawyer from the backcountry of the Mid-West, as so many tried to portray him – ‘the Original Gorilla’ or ‘the Buffoon’, as the press so often vilified him.  Even his closest collaborators failed to see the real man and the subtleties of his mind and soul being worked upon by ‘the Deity’, as he sometimes called the God he increasingly turned to as his burden and need increased.  The great suffering in his personal life also drove him to God, although he was never “an enthusiast”, remaining quite private about his personal faith.

Frederick Douglass was understandably more one-dimensional.  His calling and mandate were simple and always remained clear.  His goal was fixed, and he strove to advance towards it for the rest of his life.  He too felt a sort of ‘Divine calling’ to do the work he knew he had been given.  It is perhaps understandable that he took time to recognize that, in a different way, Lincoln also knew he had been chosen for a great work and must see it through to the end.

For Lincoln, the work and the goal evolved in his vision and understanding as he evolved into the greatest President the US ever had.  His basic persona did not change, but his wisdom and understanding increased, and his insight into how to move in practical ways grew exponentially and rapidly as he found himself catapulted into a context no one before him had ever faced, and never has since then.

The Civil Rights Movement in the US rightly gives Douglass a prominent place in its pantheon.  He did much with little, and greatly advanced the cause of racial justice.  He also had enduring and significant support from a strong base of well-intentioned, well-positioned, and financially prosperous white Americans.  He was the leader of a nascent movement at a time when circumstances were opening new doors. 

Lincoln was often surrounded by those who disdained him as a person, mocked his ‘inferior’ abilities (as they considered them), and questioned his every move (including many of Douglass’s supporters).  He would have said, if the expression had been in use then, that all this ‘came with the territory’. 

Lincoln was rarely angered by attackers, detractors, and opponents.   He preferred to laugh – both at himself and the absurdities he was the target of.  He became exasperated at times, and frequently discouraged, but he would remain philosophical about the whole business, and seemed able to look at the issues with a kind of calm detachment.  Like Douglass, once he could see the goal, Lincoln’s eyes remained fixed on it.  He began to see how he had to move, how to find his way through the maze, how to bring some good out of the Apocalypse his country had fallen into. 

One of Lincoln’s strongest opponents was his main rival for the Republican nomination of 1860, William Seward.  A second major opponent was Salmon P. Chase, another rival for the nomination.  A third was Edwin Stanton, a powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives who sought to bring every decision in the early conduct of the war under close scrutiny in order to discredit Lincoln and his administration.  Lincoln’s gift as a political genius enabled him to incorporate each of these one-time bitter opponents into his Cabinet, although Chase continued to secretly undermine him.  Lincoln could have ruined him because of secretive conspiring but instead, he manoeuvred him into quietly resigning from Cabinet to become a Justice of the Supreme Court.  He brought Stanton into the Cabinet to replace the corrupt Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, in 1863, thus giving him a chance to ‘put up or shut up’ about how to prosecute the War.

What was the eventual estimation of the President by his former arch-rivals, men who saw him almost daily and got to know him intimately?  I will paraphrase Seward’s response to a critic of Lincoln still protesting his bumbling and mishandling of things in 1862, with the war in full swing and the North in disarray.  The critic suggested that the country would be far better off if Seward took over, if they could somehow manoeuvre Lincoln into resigning or being impeached.  Seward told this man, “I have since completely changed my mind about Mr. Lincoln and his ability.  None of us measure up to him, and he outweighs all of us put together.”  Mr. Seward never changed this opinion thereafter.

Stanton often found himself crossing swords with Lincoln over strategy and assignments of personnel and resources.  They could engage in bitter arguments, with most of the vitriol and bitterness on Mr. Stanton’s side.  Lincoln’s calm persistence, often attributed to brute stubbornness, frequently later proved the justice of his perceptions.  Stanton was eventually completely won over by Lincoln, although he continued to be headstrong.  When Lincoln lay dying after being shot in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, Stanton sat the whole night by his bedside mute with grief, for he had come to regard Lincoln as a true friend and a very great man.  When Lincoln finally expired, Stanton was heard to say with a tear-choked voice, “And now he belongs to the ages.”

Frederick Douglass had also come to recognize Mr. Lincoln, for all his ‘limitations’ on the race question, as a truly great and unique man.  He said this:

In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.  He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a State [Illinois, and born in Kentucky, a slave state] where there were black laws.  I account partially for his kindness to me because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the lowest round of the ladder. . . .

There was one thing concerning Lincoln that I was impressed with, and that was that a statement of his was an argument more convincing than any amount of logic.  He had a happy faculty of stating a proposition , of stating it so that it needed no argument.  It was a rough kind of reasoning and it went right to the point.  Then, too, there was another feeling that I had with reference to him, and that was that while I felt in his presence that I was in the presence of a very great man, as great as the greatest.  I felt as though I could go and put my hand on his shoulder.  Of course I did not do it, but I felt that I could.  I felt that I was in the presence of a big brother, and that there was safety in his atmosphere.

Frederick Douglass, On Slavery and the Civil War.  Philip S. Foner, Ed.  (Dover Publications, Inc., 2003), p. 52.

It is amazing what time and perspective can do to help us see things more clearly.  He realized that if Mr. Lincoln had survived, the reintegration of the South and the racial integration of the Blacks would have gone much differently and with far less longstanding bitterness to pass on to future generations.

The survival of the United States was Lincoln’s true legacy along with the final abolition of slavery.  His closest contemporaries, along with millions of his fellow citizens, attributed this uniquely to him, a man whom they concluded God Himself had chosen for the task.  Lincoln himself had an inkling of this, more than once voicing the premonition that when it all ended, he would be gone too, his appointed work finished.


[1]  The last significant Confederate force actually surrendered May 25, 1865.  Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 12 did not end all the resistance, although it is usually cited as the war’s end.

The Third Way, 56: Saviours and Salvation, 11 – The Jesus Story, 8: Conclusion – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 3

#5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

#6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

#7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

In episode #55, we concluded that Jesus indeed claimed the unthinkable – to have been (a) the Son of God and (b) God Himself, clothed in human flesh.  We did not resolve how this is even possible.  If God is indeed infinite and eternal, with all the “All” attributes (Almighty, etc), it is in fact, humanly speaking, insoluble.  It is a true mystery, in the classic sense of “mystery”- a hidden thing beyond our understanding.  As such, it rankles with us Westerners of the 21st Century who pride and preen ourselves on our science, determined to solve all the riddles of being and the universe by the collective superpower of our minds enhanced by our technology.

As to what Jesus meant when he accepted worship as God, and the title “Son of God”, we are helped by putting him and these ideas in their proper historical and cultural context.  The idea of “Son of God” was already current in the Roman Empire, and had already been in use for three millennia in Egypt.  Although the position of Emperor was still rather new in Rome, it had been quickly, if at first only unofficially, associated with divine status.  In Rome itself, deceased emperors, beginning with Augustus, the first Emperor, were posthumously accorded divine status by the Senate.  However, in Asian provinces the Emperors were being acclaimed as gods while still alive, and temples were built and cults initiated for their worship even during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). 

But the concept “Son of God” in relation to Jesus was far different in nature and degree from this honorific sort of deification already known from Egypt’s Pharaohs and Alexander the Great’s hubris.  Jews totally rejected such pretensions from a human as blasphemous and abhorrent.  They successfully revolted (the Maccabees) when the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to impose this on them in the 160s BCE.  They revolted against Roman attempts to bring idols into the Temple, including the mad Emperor Caligula’s statue (as Jupiter with his face on it) in 42 CE and paid dearly in lives, but eventually won their point.

In Jesus’ time and not long before, some Jews thought that the Messiah might bear the title Son of God, meaning Son of Yahweh, but it was unclear if this would involve actual sharing the divine nature in some way, or would be an angelic incarnation of some sort.  Angels had been called “sons of God” in the Tanakh (what non-Jews call The Old Testament), as had descendants of Adam and Eve’s third named son, Seth, in the Book of Genesis.  But, as we saw previously, it became clear that Yeshua ben-Yosef of Nazareth in Galilee was claiming actual identity and equality with Yahweh Himself as well as Messiahship.  This was a step too far even for most Jews hoping for the Messiah to come in their time.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ amazing healing ministry, his down-to-earth association with the humble and downtrodden, and his challenging teaching “with authority, not like the Scribes and Pharisees”, as the Gospels put it, made him very popular with regular folks.  He was also terribly clever and knowledgeable for a supposedly uninstructed country bumpkin, even setting down the best challengers of the Sadducees, Scribes, and Pharisees. 

But most outrageous of all was his claim of authority to forgive sins, authority he claimed to have directly from “my Father in heaven” – the God of Abraham and Moses.  He added to this the authority to reinterpret the Torah itself, such as how to observe Sabbath and tithing, two of the pillars of the religious observance of Judaism.  He suggested that his presence boded the coming of something even greater than the Temple itself and, by implication, that superseded the whole Temple system.  He hinted broadly that his authority came from Yahweh Himself, but when the leaders’ agents plainly asked him, he told them he would tell them if they answered a question of his first – whether John the Baptist’s baptism was from God or from men.  They said they did not know, and he said therefore he wouldn’t tell them where his authority came from. 

On another occasion he repeated that he had been very plain with them about his identity, but no matter what he said to them or how he explained it, they would not believe.  He then challenged them, “If you will not believe what I tell you, then you should believe because of the works (deeds) that I do.”  But even these they stubbornly rejected, outrageously stating that he did then by demonic power.  Jesus asked them how he could cast out demons using the authority of a demon.  Satan’s kingdom must surely fall if it is so divided; but if he was casting out demons by the power of God’s spirit, “Then the Kingdom of Yahweh is among you.”  He warned them that every sin but one can be forgiven – blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – attributing God’s work to the devil.

In other words, Jesus offered “many proofs” of his Messiahship and special relationship to Yahweh as His Son during his earthly life, but the final and ultimate proof came after he died – the resurrection!  Without the resurrection, we could assign Jesus to a well-known sort of category—the well-meaning prophetic voice preaching God’s coming judgment on the oppressors and abusers of humanity and creation and his coming reign when all will be set right.  But in the end, like all the others, he is eliminated by the powers he denounces, and ends up as another footnote in history.

But, as we have said now repeatedly, Jesus won’t stay in that box.  No such category fits him.  He is not a Buddha, “showing us the way”; he says “I am the Way”.  He is not another prophet in a list of twenty-eight (as Islam categorizes him) who preach Islam (“submission” to Allah) or eternal hellfire and earthly annihilation for the infidel.  In contrast, he boldly declares “Before Abraham was, I AM.”  “I AM” is a direct claim to the name of God Himself as applying to him.  So did his hearers at that time understand what he had said.  They took up stones to stone him then and there, “but he hid himself from them.”  At last, having been put to death for his frontal assault on what the establishment and, in the end, even regular folks were prepared to possibly accept about him, he simply did not stay dead!

Perhaps he was just a madman?  In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis masterfully dismantles the typical categorizations people over the millennia have concocted to dispose of this so-disturbing historical anomaly.  He says there are only three options: Jesus was a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord.  If he persistently claimed things he didn’t mean and even knew not to be true for some nefarious purpose of deceiving people, or even for a good purpose of getting people to live better and be nicer to one another, he was a liar, not just a kind but misguided religious teacher teaching “love is the answer”.  Why do we continue to take him seriously if that is what we are reducing him to?  If, on the other hand, he really believed what he said about himself, but was deceived about himself, suffering from hysterical delusions of grandeur, then he was a pure madman, and we should certainly shun everything about him.  But if what he did and all we see of his character and teaching totally line up with what he said about himself then we have only one option left: He is who he said he is – Lord of life and God-in-the-flesh.  No other options are possible. 

So what proof is there for his actual, real, physical resurrection?  We are not talking about some sort of ethereal continuation of his presence and legacy in a mystical sense, although many would attest to that.  Many liberal theologians say that is all that really happened.  Jesus himself promised that his Father would send his followers the Holy Spirit to empower them to continue his work and bring his life and message to the whole world.  BUT!!  he was very clear that he would rise physically from the grave, just as the prophets had said: “The only sign that will be given to this generation is the sign of Jonah.  For just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will lie in the belly of the earth and be raised again.”

All the “proof” of the resurrection is circumstantial, unless Jesus himself pays a personal visit in his resurrected form, as we see described in the Four Gospels.  There is millennia-old Christian tradition associated with two empty tombs in Jerusalem.  One of the two is extremely likely the actual tomb in which Jesus’ corpse was laid on a late Friday afternoon in April 29 or 30 CE (or perhaps 33 CE).  There were multiple eye-witness encounters with the risen Jesus, both in the Gospels, then in Acts, when Saul of Tarsus encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. 

Outside the New Testament, there are personal testimonies of such encounters of many with the risen Jesus since then, including in the recent past.  (Personally, I tremble at the thought but I still long to see him in person, in the flesh.)  But of course, none of this will qualify as scientific or “definitive”. 

Historically and socially, there is the enduring Christian Church and religion, which both stand on the declaration that Jesus Christ is the risen Messiah and Son of God.  Millions across two millennia have claimed and continue to claim to have had personal encounters with Jesus, rarely in his “glorified” physical body, but unmistakably with his presence through the Spirit.  (This I can claim too.)  

Millions have been ready and willing to die as witnesses to his reality and his resurrection, and millions continue to be ready and willing.  In the last decade alone, close to 100 000 Christians have actually done so in many countries (Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Syria, to name a few), and now  including even churches in the United States where Christ- and Christian-hating terrorists have several times rampaged on Sunday mornings in the last few years.

Attested and verified healings and miracles continue to happen regularly under the authority of the name of Jesus as risen Lord and God’s Son.  The media ignore these things and skeptics mock, but there are incontrovertible occurrences of such things. 

Works of love, compassion, charity, and justice continue to be done daily by thousands around the world inspired by this living Lord’s presence and Spirit in those who do them.  In fact, a very large proportion of such work on behalf of the most oppressed and most downtrodden is done by compassionate souls acting because of their commitment to Jesus’ mission to bring God’s love and compassion – essential elements of the coming of His Kingdom – to those who are most despised, afflicted, and defenceless.  Scratch below the surface of almost any such work, and Christians will be found intimately involved.  (Jesus: “If you give even so much as a cup of cold water in my name to the least of these brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”)

It is easy to point the finger of fault and accusation at the human failings of those who have followed Jesus in the past and who follow him today.  At some point, this becomes empty and tired refusnikism.  There are mountains of evidence about the actual reality of Jesus and his claim to be humanity’s one true Saviour and Lord.  Writing it all off with facile mockery and disdain because of the wrongs committed by some who have claimed to have acted in his name but done horrific things he would never countenance will not excuse refusing to actually look at him and daring to see if he will encounter anyone who comes seeking. 

His words about seeking him out were simple, generous, and crystal clear:“Ask, and you will receive.  Seek, and you will find.  Knock, and it will be opened to you.”  And, “The one who seeks me I will certainly not reject.”

While none of this evidence (see above and below) “proves” that Jesus is the Son of God and God-Man, little of most of the enormous works now in progress for the betterment of our human condition would be happening if it were not for those who are passionately inspired by their faith in and personal experience with Jesus as a living Saviour today.  If Christ were not truly risen, his followers would long ago have abandoned his teaching, for it was centred on his own mission and identity as God’s final answer to humanity’s estrangement from the Creator, from one another, from our own true selves, and from the Creation we were made to care for and watch over as its intended caretakers.  And if those followers had not been doing his works and were to cease now from doing them, however inadequately they have been done and are being done now, the human condition would be immeasurably worse and more hopeless.

Those who wish that Jesus would just go away, or that his followers would just shut up or disappear, thinking this would make the world a better place, are incredibly naive and deceived.  They have adopted a wilful blindness and incalculably impoverished themselves and the world they think they know how to save.

There is a great deal more that could be said regarding areas such as education, social justice, and healthcare and their Christ-inspired roots in the West and, via the West’s world-reach, all over the world, but we will conclude with what Jesus said:“No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friend….  Do not believe only what I have told you [and shown you]; believe because of the works that I do [and that my followers now do as my bodily presence in the world].”

The Third Way, 55: Saviours and Salvation, 10 – The Jesus Story, 7 – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 2

#5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

“Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, son of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth” – these are the sonship titles of Jesus.  We saw previously that the first two in this list were not-so-subtle claims to Messiahship.  Jesus of Nazareth, the upstart son of a carpenter from a nowhereville little village called Nazareth in First-Century Israel’s boondocks in Galilee, had outrageously accepted each of those appellations as his own proper designation.  He constantly called himself “The Son of Man” and he never refused being called “Son of David” when others called him that.

As to “Son of God”, there are several occurrences of his being openly called this by someone else, and he does not deny its relevance.  The first time is when Jesus calms the storm.  The disciples are recorded to have worshipped him and said “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32).  Later his closest disciple, Simon bar-Jonah, whom Jesus renamed Peter (the Rock) – see Matthew 16:16 and The Third Way 54 – answered for all the disciples after Jesus had asked “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus tells Peter that his Father in Heaven had revealed this to him.  Therefore, Jesus fully acknowledges the title and identity. 

The last time is far different.  It is during Jesus’ trumped-up trial before the Sanhedrin.  The High Priest challenges him to answer clearly, “Are you or are you not, the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One [Yahweh-God].”  Jesus answers “(It is) As you say” or “You are right in saying I am” (Luke 22: 70b).  It is a definite, “Yes I am.”  It was enough to have the court condemn him to death for blasphemy—assuming it was false, as all the judge-jurymen did.[i]

The other more subtle approach to claiming a special “Sonship” status with God which Jesus makes is by consistently calling God “my Father” and “my Father in Heaven”.  This was not a time like ours when everyone went about calling all humans “children of God” or “sons and daughters of God” by virtue of being God’s creatures.   The Gospels are contextually quite clear that Jesus was consistently and repeatedly claiming some kind of unique relationship with the Creator-God, with Yahweh-God, the God of Israel who was also the One God, the only true God, the Maker of the whole universe, which is how Israel and Jews saw their God.  The gods of all the other nations were false, zeros, nothings, no gods at all or, worse yet, demons.

But just how far did this claim to a unique relationship with the One-and-Only-True-God go?  The short answer is “far enough to get him killed by the Jewish leaders for blasphemy, and far enough to convince Pontius Pilate to collaborate with even though he appears to have had significant misgivings.”  As John’s Gospel recounts, Pilate sought to find a way to release Jesus as innocent, but priests tell Pilate, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”  They convince Pilate to crucify him by saying that Jesus’ claim to be a king makes him Caesar’s enemy, and Pilate cannot escape his duty as governor to condemn anyone suspected of raising rebellion.

Thus, it is clear that Jesus accepted worship and being called “the Son of the Living God”.  When asked directly by the High Priest, he declared he was the Son of God, and that the Jewish leaders understood this to mean that he claimed a supernatural identity, not just the ordinary Jewish status of being a “son of God” through Adam and Abraham, the God-chosen ancestor of all Jews.  The Talmud’s vitriolic references to Jesus and the “sect of the Nazarenes” reinforce this understanding.  The ensuing hostility of First-Century Judaism to the Jesus Movement also confirms this.

What did Jesus himself mean by “Son of God”?  We can get closest to it by referring to what the Gospel writers report as his description of that relationship.  Here are some of those declarations:

“Whoever acknowledges me before men [human beings] I will also acknowledge him [her] before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men [human beings] I will also disown him [her] before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10: 32-3)

“He who received you receives me, and he [she] who received me receives the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40 – the context clearly refers to God as “the one who sent me”.)

Most of what we see Jesus saying about this is reported in John’s Gospel, which makes that Gospel seem the least authentic (most distasteful?) to the more liberal school of critics and scholars who least appreciate the supernatural elements of the Jesus story.  Throughout John’s version of the Jesus Story, we find Jesus saying things like:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (3”16-7

“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”  For this reason the Jews [Jewish leaders is the meaning] tried all the harder to kill him … he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (5:18)

“I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty …. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.  For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (6: 35, 37-8)

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man [an oblique reference to his coming crucifixion], then you will know who I am and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.  The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (8: 28-9)

“My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.  Though you do not know him, I know him …. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews [leaders] told him, “ and you have seen Abraham!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”  At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” (8:54b, 56-9)

The upshot of all this is that, according to the first-hand sources, Jesus clearly claimed divine status, equality with God, a special relationship of what he described as a unique “Sonship” in which all that he taught and did was in complete harmony and union with God’s will and nature.  The final occasion we will mention is the Apostle Thomas worshipping Jesus and saying to him “My Lord and my God!” after the resurrection. 

Thomas was a sceptic, and needed a personal physical encounter with the risen Messiah and Son of God to accept him and his true identity as God incarnate in human form.  Having missed the first appearance of Jesus to the assembled disciples on the previous Sunday evening (Easter as we now call it), Thomas had refused to believe all the other disciples’ account of their Lord’s physical resurrection.  A week later, they were again assembled in the same “upper room” and Jesus once more appeared in their midst.  He turned to Thomas and told his to stop doubting and to put his fingers in the nail holes of his hands (wrists) and his hand into the lance-wound in his side, as Thomas had declared the conditions on which he would believe.  Thomas, all-atremble, declared, “My Lord and my God!”

We will leave this question here for today.  The records as we have them certainly point to Jesus claiming divine status.  As to “proof”, we must acknowledge that the Gospels in themselves do not satisfy everyone, especially in a culture now immured in scepticism.  Those who accept the Gospel accounts are a dwindling minority of people.  Now, when actual historical and archeological research is affirming their substance more and more, after hundreds of years of systematic (and often spurious) deconstruction and relegation to the “religious” sphere, they are seldom admitted into the rank of truly reliable historical source-documents.

We will close with the observation that all points of view are biased by faith-based presuppositions, and none more than those regarding the consideration of the identity of the historically titanic person of Jesus of Nazareth.


[i] There may have been a couple of exceptions—Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.  However, there is no record of any dissent with the verdict in the Gospels.  Some suggest that these two, whom Luke and John call “secret disciples”, were not present at this “trial” in the middle of the night, perhaps not having been notified that it was to take place.  Or perhaps their fear of being ostracized, or worse, kept them silent.  This is no worse than Peter’s triple denial or all the other disciples fleeing.)

The Third Way, 54: Saviours and Salvation, 9 – The Jesus Story, 6 – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 1

“All sins are attempts to fill voids.” 

Simone Weil

In the previous two instalments we answered:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

Here are our remaining questions:

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

Four questions are too much for one instalment, but we cannot easily separate these questions from one another in any clinical fashion.  They all dovetail, and so we will have to consider them together.

#3 can be disposed of quickly.  For #1, the extra-Biblical sources confirm that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person who lived in the early First Century in the Roman sub-province of Judea, which was part of the greater Province of Syria.  For #3, those same sources, both Roman and Jewish, confirm that he was crucified during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was Procurator (a Junior Governorship title) of Judea between 26 and 36 CE.  As far as those sources go, there was and is no question that his crucifixion mean absolutely that he died on that cross.  Roman executions never missed, and crucifixion was a centuries-old near-science adopted from their old arch-enemies the Carthaginians in the Third Century BCE.  They had since refined it into perhaps the cruelest and most excruciating form of execution ever devised.  No one survived it.

Why then do we find strange proposals cropping up in the 20th and 21st Centuries in the West (e.g, The Passover Plot, 1965), suggesting that in fact Jesus never really died on the cross, but swooned from drugs and was taken down when he appeared to be dead?  This unlikely proposal says he was supposedly revived, thus fabricating the whole resurrection scenario.  One version of this tale suggests that he later succumbed to his wounds, but had hung on long enough to create the deception of his resurrection which his followers used to deceive multitudes into accepting Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah.  Another says that he actually did recover and secretly made his way to southern Gaul (France), married Mary Magdalene (if they were not already married) and had a family.  We are told that only a small circle of faithful followers actually knew of this, but they founded a secret community to carry on the true mission of Jesus.

Islam goes so far as to say that Jesus was never crucified at all, but Judas was substituted for him by Allah, who deceived the Romans and Jews but whisked Jesus off to Paradise to await being sent back to show the later Christians the error of their ways.  How this created the Church is unexplained, except to say that the Apostles deceived people somehow.

Of course, the sensationalist e-media and conventional tabloid media love these kinds of conspiracy stories and are very ready to capitalize on them for purposes of profit, entertainment (e.g. The Da Vinci Code), or perhaps straight-on hostility to establishment or any form of Christianity.

One way or the other in these scenarios, Jesus died and is still dead (except in the Islamic account), like everyone else who ever lived, so why get into knots about it?  But that is the whole (missing of the) point.  Citing eye-witnesses who had nothing to gain by lying, and in fact risked their lives to testify that Jesus resurrected,Christians and the Christian Church have declared since the very first that Jesus really and absolutely died on that cross, but did not stay dead!  Thirty-Six hours later, he was alive again, and he is still alive, with a real physical body, to this day.  No human agency participated in his resurrection in any way.  And, Christians say, he will remain alive forever.

Furthermore, Jesus himself declared ahead of the event, and the Church maintains, that his resurrection is also a seal of promise from God that those who commit their lives to him will also be raised from death in the same way with the same kind of indestructible body.  There is thus a universe of difference between saying he died on the cross but the story of his resurrection was untrue, or he escaped death on the cross but died later like anyone else and is still dead, and the declaration of his disciples and the Church that he rose incorruptible and promises the same to anyone who will accept him as Lord and Saviour.

Let us consider #4 – Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

Once again, we find some modern interpreters saying that Jesus never clearly claimed to be Israel’s expected Messiah, and probably claimed nothing more for himself than being a prophet in the long line of prophets found in ancient Israel’s history since the age of the Judges beginning before 1000 BCE.  As with so much else when it comes to this sort of debate, much of it hinges on modernist reductionism in the treatment of the New Testament accounts and those of the early Christian (“Patristic”) sources. 

Once more, we must reiterate that the latest and best scholarship, both textual and archeological, weighs heavily against those kinds of disclaimers.  If Jesus claimed no more than prophet status, his disciples seem somehow to have badly misinterpreted his life and message from the get-go.  The authorities seem to have thought he claimed a lot more than that too.  Seems like all his contemporaries, even the Romans, misheard him to the point he was taken as a direct personal threat to the whole established order, including the Emperor.  Leaves one wondering how two thousand years later we seem to be the only ones who have understood him!  Or maybe he was just a whack-job and they decided to get rid of him rather drastically, rather than just ridiculing and ignoring him?

It is true that, during his public ministry, Jesus could be rather cryptic about his identity at times.  His favourite title for himself was “Son of Man” and, at least until his trial before the Sanhedrin, he never openly claimed to be “the Son of God”.  But the “Son of Man” assignation, as per the prevailing view among the Jewish teachers of Jesus’ time, was tantamount to saying “I am the Messiah.” The Son of Man was the the one the Prophet Daniel prophesied about who would manifest the very presence of Yahweh Himself among the Jews of the Messianic Age, the time when Messiah would finally come.  There are many scholarly and contemporary-to-Jesus Jewish confirmations of this.

Another such title was “Son of David”—i.e., the royal heir of King David (ca. 1000 BCE Israelite King) who would establish God’s rule (and Israel’s) over the whole earth according to Yahweh’s covenant with King David made in the 11th Century BCE.  Jesus was acclaimed as the Son of David more than once and never said “No I’m not!”  In that environment, silence, or lack of denial, was indeed consent.

How about the identity “Son of God” then?  He overtly accepted it from his disciples when Peter declared it on behalf of them all at Caesarea Philippi (see Matthew 16:16): “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”  Jesus affirms this and calls Peter “blessed” for having received this revelation directly from his Father in heaven, the God of Israel.  (Mark and Luke give shorter versions of this declaration.)

Well then, does accepting the identity of “Messiah” and even “Son of God” mean he claimed to be God?  This is less obvious, and it directs us to how the Jews of the First Century understood this issue.  Was the expected Messiah going to be a sort of “super-Prophet”?  Was he going to be a being actually sent to earth from Heaven?  Or was he going to be a regular human being with some sort of direct connection to God as God’s anointed and adopted Son?  Not a “son/child of God” like everyone else “made in the image of God”, but a unique, divinely empowered and one-of-a-kind son who acted and spoke like God Himself?  All these concepts were current and circulating.

 The leaders themselves differed sharply on them.  The Priestly caste, the Sadducees, even questioned that a Messiah was ever promised.  The Pharisees believed a Messiah was promised, but did not agree as to which version was correct.  All who believed in a coming Messiah agreed that he would deliver Israel from Roman and pagan oppression and establish the rule and reign of Yahweh on earth, with Israel as the ruling people and Jerusalem as the capital.  A smallish number thought there might be two Messiahs—one a “suffering servant” figure who would be martyred by the infidels but show Israel how to truly live for Yahweh, and the other who would come after as the mighty ruler.  Or could the same one be both?

More on this next time.