Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, May 20, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part V: Deicide

This is Part V. Go to these places for The Interior Castle, The Blasphemous Saint, The Monster In the Dungeon, and The Consolation of Philosophy.

So I had gone from rationality to theism; but I wanted more. I had been raised a Christian, and I wanted to remain one, even while at the same time I wanted to repudiate Christianity. At any rate, I couldn't simply ignore Jesus. Unhistorical, or misunderstood, or what the Church claimed He was, or some combination thereof -- whatever the truth might be, He was too compelling to ignore.

The intellectual question was actually rather easily settled. The notion, popular in some circles and especially among those whose knowledge of the New Testament is wholly at secondhand, that Jesus probably never existed, may for convenience be described as a lie.* The number of scholars who seriously believe that there was no Jesus hovers somewhere around none of them. Nor was the hypothesis ever an obvious one: if there were no Jesus, why would the primitive Church (which everybody admits existed) bother to come up with Him? More particularly since it had a tendency to get them somewhat killed? I think that really the idea that there was no Jesus is merely a relic of an intellectual fashion -- academics have fashions like anybody else -- for deconstructing things, dating to the nineteenth century. But I digress.

The martyrs do not prove that Jesus was who the Church claimed He was. They do prove that the Church believed He was who they claimed, and that belief may be considered as evidence about Jesus (though not as exhaustive or unimpeachable evidence). For of course that belief must have come from somewhere, whether from Him or not.

Looking at the Gospels -- our only direct evidence about Jesus (unless one counts a passing reference in Josephus's history, which was almost certainly in the original but has also almost certainly been doctored by a Christian redactor) -- we do get a distinctive picture of a fascinating Person. Their testimonies do diverge at some points; very occasionally (chiefly in the timing of events during the Passion narratives) they are inconsistent with each other, and far more frequently they give differing, but not incompatible, information -- as when a parable is recorded in Mark but left out of the other three Gospels, or when John records lectures in the Temple and in synagogues rather than the mostly open-air addresses of the others. Indeed, their divergence rather strengthens than weakens their testimony; a lie must be circumspect, but the truth, seen from different perspectives, will be fundamentally consistent and still have a hangnail here and there.** The commonplace belief, popularized by such academic and respectable sources as The Da Vinci Code, that the Gospels are grossly inconsistent with one another and totally incredible to a critical mind, is -- how may I put this politely? -- about as accurate as this:

What's even better is that this is apparently part one of eight.

So they present, truly or falsely, a picture. In considering that picture, I couldn't help noticing that, if one accepted the possibility of miracles -- which, since I was already a theist philosophically, I couldn't prima facie rule out -- there was really nothing else at all difficult to believe about the Gospels. The people represented in them were extremely credible; if they were fabrications, they were highly accomplished ones, presenting people more realistically than Aeschylus or Virgil had done: every word and action of every person made sense in view of their attested character. And as for the miracles, I could see no reason in the abstract to assume them impossible. The only grounds I could think of for believing that miracles were categorically impossible were those of scientism -- the assumption that there is no supernatural realm, and therefore nothing to invade and reorganize the natural realm -- and I had already dismissed scientism as self-defeating. I therefore felt that I had no real grounds to suppose that the Gospels were presenting a false picture; so the natural thing to do was to accept it as a true one.

This then confronted me with Jesus' claim to be God. And it is indeed His claim to be God; it has been asserted that this was claimed for Him by His followers later (a less-than-plausible idea, given that all His earliest followers were devout Jews and kinda had the monotheism thing down), but this is not true. Most explicitly in the Gospel of John, but also in the first three, He attributes divinity to Himself, both by direct assertion and implicitly, e.g. in His claim to forgive sins or His calling Himself the Son of God -- this last being specially notable, in that it was the basis of the blasphemy charge that He was finally executed upon.

The three-horned dilemma, sometimes known by the nickname "Liar, lunatic or Lord," expresses the logical options fairly well at this point. If He wasn't God, and knew it, He was -- well, a very bad man, and a rather baffling one. If He wasn't God but thought He was, he was a whackjob. Lying, and maintaining the lie to the point of death, simply didn't seem credible to me; and reading the sort of man He was, lunacy seemed equally unlikely. That left me precisely with the Christian explanation.

And that brought me up to the threshold of faith. But not across it.

Thus far, the whole question was one of what I thought was true; what opinions I was convinced were true. But at this point, that question receded. From evaluating a philosophy, I had suddenly been put in the position of judging a Person. The Gospel of John is a good model for all this: from the beginning, it puts the reader in the position of judge -- its constant refrain of witnesses and testimonies, its setting forth of miracles as evidence, and its lingering over the two ecclesiastical trials and the cross-examination of Pilate; all closing with an imprecation to the reader to judge rightly, a gentle reminder to attend to the subject -- the Person of Christ -- rather than to curiosities, and an affidavit that the Gospel is indeed the truth. I, like Pilate, was asked to deliver, not a philosophical opinion, but a verdict.

I could draw back. I could accept Christianity as a fascinating and probable hypothesis, continue my Christian practice as the sensible response, and never engage with Christ as a Person, but only as an idea. I could wash my hands in that worthless water, that threatened nothing because it did nothing, conveyed nothing, cost nothing.

Or I could wash my hands in blood. I could accept who He was, and make myself His executioner. For that is part of what it means to be a Christian and mean it: it is to charge oneself with Deicide. We are, all of us, Pilate; we who choose to believe, confess that we are also Judas. People talk about a "personal relationship with Jesus" as though it were easy. But that is what it means. It means a great deal more than that; not less. To relate to God in Christ as a Person, that is the cost. And to trust Him -- i.e., to have faith -- is by definition a personal act, not an abstraction. That is why we refer to it, not as changing one's mind, but a change of heart.

*I say "for convenience," because I do not consider it my business to impute deliberate deceit or malignant irresponsibility to others. Some people who claim that Jesus never lived, &c., may in fact know better and be lying; however, the matter is adequately explained by the more charitable, if still unflattering, supposal that they just don't know what they're talking about.
**Due to space considerations, I've left out a thorough treatment of whether the Gospels as we have them are 1) the same as they were originally written, and 2) written within a reasonable period after the events they describe and based on eyewitness accounts. To the first, we can simply say: Yes. The manuscript tradition of the New Testament is literally the best in existence from the ancient world; it is orders of magnitude better than even the second best manuscript tradition, that of the Iliad. As to the second, it was quite fashionable during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to ascribe all of the Gospels to the late second or even the third century after Christ. So far as I know, there are now no reputable scholars who take this view; even the latest Gospel, John, has been unarguably dated to the beginning of the second century at the absolute latest -- early enough that direct eyewitness testimony would still in principle be a possibility. For a standard of comparison, imagine a book written today about the Second World War.

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