When I was still a university professor, I often asked my students to play an intellectual “what if” game. I asked them to imagine what our world would be like if Jesus Christ had never existed and, therefore, Christianity had never come into being.
I did this to subvert the hostility of so many of them toward the “institutional Church” owing to centuries of misconduct and deep sinfulness by her various members. The honest, non-ideological students had to admit that a world in which the values of the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire reigned supreme would have been far, far worse than the civilization formed by the Christian Church. You can disagree with that assessment, of course, but you would be wrong to do so. I have noticed, on this topic, that those who indulge the puerile intellectual habits of folks such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens never bother to notice that much of the force of their facile critique of Christianity is a moral one, centering on the numerous ways they claim that the Christian Church has been morally bestial—yet without offering any justification for this moral vision from within the ideological logistics of their atheism. In many ways I think their moral instincts are sound, and their criticisms of the Church—though exaggerated and often ignorant of the real historical record—are at least loosely grounded in the sad reality of the sins of Christians.
Nevertheless, what they fail to notice is that the very moral verities they are invoking, which they imagine to be nothing more than the “common sense” morality provided by secular reason, are in reality Christian in inspiration and origin.
And if that is true, and it most certainly is, then what remains is the task of identifying what the specific Christian contribution was and is. In other words, what was the revolution that Jesus of Nazareth created, why was it so shattering to the dominant power structures of the world, and how did it change our view of who God is? That Jesus preached the advent of a new “Kingdom of grace” cannot be reasonably doubted. But what are the rules of citizenship he established for admittance into this Kingdom? And how does living in this Kingdom put us at odds with the “ruler of this world”?
These are hard questions to answer because the Gospel authors themselves seem quite reluctant to domesticate the image of Jesus inside the box of a ready-made “theological system”, realizing, I suspect, that as soon as one cages a Tiger you really no longer have a Tiger. The temptation has always been to domesticate Jesus, whether it be through a thousand syllogisms or ten thousand Deepak Chopras. I think our culture today is more prone to the latter than the former, as the coffee shop Christ allows us to both call ourselves “Christians” and to then kill people, whether that be in Imperial wars or in our various “clinics”. And the Christ of the clinics and the Christ of the drone wars is a result of the domestication of Jesus through a cultural and political reduction. Thus does the Jesus who was crucified in an act of a self-emptying descent into the depth of the human condition, become, through the alchemy of a latte and NPR, the Jesus of “death from above” and “dilation and suction”.
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