I tried desperately to find another topic for this issue — anything. I wracked my brain. I paced and thought, sat and thought, slept on it — all to no avail. The topic was clear — there was no getting around it. God kept prodding me, popping the question into my mind at each turn: “Who do you say that I am?”
Finally, I gave in — this is the topic I am stuck with — the topic I must wrestle with. Not happily, mind you. I have never wanted to set out to write out any sort of systematic Christology, and I don’t intend to start now. Systematic Christologies tend to become dogmatic, unbending and generally useless to everyone but the author presenting the ideas. Jesus’ life and ministry is too rich, too deep and majestic, to be shrunken into a “one-size-fits-all” theology. Even my attempts in this essay to say who Jesus is will fall terribly short because Jesus simply refuses to be put into any of our little categories. He will always, without fail, surprise us with some new aspect of his life and teaching that we hadn’t quite considered yet.
Legalists who read this magazine, looking for ammunition to prove that I can’t possibly be a “true Christian” will find plenty in this article. I will not argue for Christ’s divinity. I will not defend Chalcedon’s fully God and fully human doctrine. I will not even defend Christ as God’s only Son. What I will seek to do, instead, is discover who Christ is for me and, hopefully in the process, give you tools to decide who Christ is for you. Because, in the long run, what is important is for us to find a personal meaning in Christ, even if it contradicts everything the church has ever said about Christ. What I am proposing, quite simply, is that we should not be afraid to be heretics. By coloring outside the lines and refusing to toe the orthodox line, we will find that our experience of Christ — our connection to this man, Jesus — will be strengthened and deepened. We may even come to the conclusion that the orthodox view of Christ is right — but the bottom line test should be whether or not our relationship with Christ gives us that intimate bond we need with God. If our current view of Christ does not do this, then rethinking our view of Christ is mandatory.
Who Cares What Jesus Would Do?
Those little WWJD bracelets make me crazy. Every time I see one I want to just shake the person wearing it and say, “You want to know what Jesus would do? He’d tell you to think for yourself and stop trying to live by example.” Jesus didn’t call us to live our lives just like he did. If we all took the WWJD slogan seriously we’d all be poor, homeless itinerant preachers, surrounded by 12 disciples. It’s a ridiculous proposal. What the real WWJD slogan instills in us a line of thought that goes something like this: “Well, Jesus would love these people unconditionally, but since I’m not Jesus, I won’t.” When we think in the WWJD mindset we feel free to devalue people instead of actually following Jesus’ example. Oh, maybe now and then, we think WWJD and will do a good deed for others, but it’s the exception and not the rule. Jesus cannot be our “example savior” as Bishop John Shelby Spong calls it, because “the good example produces only a religion of good works, duty, and finally death.”
Asking WWJD only produces in us a false sense of “being good” but does not, finally, change our hearts. Jesus was all about changing what’s on the inside, not just what we do on the outside. Jesus knew that once we got our hearts and minds right, good works would follow naturally. We would never have to even think WWJD. We would instinctively know the right thing to do because it would be in our hearts and minds already! The simple fact that we even have to ask WWJD proves we have no clue about who Jesus is or what his message is about.
We do the most violence to Christ when we try to domesticate him. When we try to make him “ours” and no one else’s. When we try to define Christ by our standards to the exclusion of everyone else. I recently bought a kitchy piece of Christian memorabilia to remind me of our penchant to domesticate Jesus. It’s a figurine that depicts Jesus playing football with a couple of children. The figurine is one in a series offered by the Catholic Supply Company. Other figurines show Jesus playing hockey, softball and other sports. The purpose of the figurines are to show children that Jesus is such a friendly guy that he’ll even take time out from being God to play a little touch football with us. The image is dangerous. Such a view of Christ leads to the ridiculous scenarios of football players thanking God for their win, or tornado survivors thanking God that they didn’t perish like their next door neighbors. It makes Jesus so much smaller than he is — it makes Jesus manageable for us. It ultimately robs Jesus of all his power.
Popular Christianity is rife with domesticated images of Jesus, whether it’s figurines of Jesus playing sports, or books on how Jesus would handle business problems. We do a grave injustice to Jesus when we reduce him to nothing more than our buddy or our business mentor. We neuter the powerful message of his ministry. We turn his life and works into a farce — a mere shadow of what he lived and died for.
The Many Faces of Jesus
It seems that everyone has their own take on who Jesus is. Liberation theologies see Jesus as an advocate for the poor and oppressed. Conservative theologies see Jesus as the only Son of God and unless we believe that he is both fully human and fully divine then we will be doomed to hell with all the other heretics and non-believers. Liberal theologies run the gamut from seeing Jesus as an avatar who taught a radical theology, to a divine spirit-person who embodied God but was not God.
But what about me — how do I see Jesus? Who do I say that Jesus is?
For a long time, I’ve left that question unanswered, and even now I hesitate to give any sort of complete answer, because my view of Jesus is an ongoing process. I don’t know that I will ever arrive at one, final, concrete view of Jesus. I don’t think, as Christians, we are meant to. Jesus should be fluid for us. If we cast our view of Jesus in stone and begin to form doctrines and dogma out of our views, then we cut off any further communication with Jesus. We make him a dead idol instead of our living guide.
For me, Jesus is my guide in life. By studying his words, his life and his death, I can begin to see what God demands for me in my life. But, if I get too stuck in one way of seeing Jesus or one way of believing in Jesus, then I lose my focus. I no longer focus on the God that Jesus points me to, and instead begin to worship Jesus. Jesus points us to God, but so often we get wrapped up in worshiping Jesus’ finger and building theologies and doctrines around that finger, that we forget to look where Jesus is pointing.
Jesus’ entire life was spent trying to show people how to be in relationship with God — not how to be in relationship with Jesus. Jesus was a tough man to have a relationship with, as the experience of those around him clearly showed. The disciples misunderstood Jesus from the beginning and only briefly recognized him as the Messiah who came to point the way to God. They found his stories mystifying and his acts amazing. The Pharisees found him to be dangerous, scandalous and ultimately a threat to their control on society. The people found him bewildering, confusing, but somehow strangely compelling.
When asked what the most important commandments were, Jesus was clear about where one’s allegiance should lie — with God, not with him. He clearly instructed us that we should love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and further to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus knew that if we got our hearts right with God that self-love would overflow in our lives and we would not be able to do anything but spread that love around to others.
It’s true that Jesus told those who met him to “follow me.” But following Jesus is not the same as worshiping Jesus or trying to guess what Jesus would do in any given situation. Following Jesus means following what Jesus taught. It means trying to penetrate Jesus’ words, even the hardest of his sayings, so we can discover how to be in proper relationship with God.
Following Jesus is a tough road. Jesus truly gave some difficult teachings. For instance he said his true followers must “hate his own father and mother.” What are we to make of a commandment like that? Shall we take it literally? Shall we explain it away metaphorically? How do we soften such a harsh teaching?
Jesus also warns us that if we even think about committing a sin like adultery or murder, then it’s just like we’ve already done the deed. Again, this reminds us of Jesus’ main message that the only thing that defiles us is what is in our hearts.
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)
The evil that we do springs forth because the evil was in our hearts to begin with. If we eradicate the evil in our hearts and cultivate a heart that loves only God and our neighbor as ourselves, we will never have thoughts of adultery or murder in our hearts.
These are not words from a buddy. Jesus is not here to get us a beer when we get home and spread out on the couch with us to root for our favorite football team. Jesus is here to teach us, to guide us and ultimately to lead us beyond himself, to God.
What Makes Jesus So Unique?
If I’m not arguing for Jesus’ divinity in this article, then what makes Jesus so compelling? While it is true that I don’t believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, I do believe that Jesus had a very special relationship with God that no human had before or since. I agree with theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher who posits that all humans have a certain level of “God-consciousness.” At some level, we are all connected to God in a very special way. Jesus was the only human being to exhibit a perfect level of God-consciousness. We have flashes of this God-consciousness when we feel closest to God, when we truly love only God and our neighbor as ourselves. Other humans, like Mother Teresa and Gandhi, have displayed vast amounts of God-consciousness, but most of us just reach this level occasionally. Jesus lived in this state of complete God-consciousness all the time. He was so intimately connected with God that he could do nothing else but display that love and character of God at all times through his words and deeds.
It was this intimate connection with God that made Jesus so compelling, and so puzzling. It was this intimate connection with God that made him so dangerous to the rule-keeping Pharisees of his day. It’s this intimate connection with God that compels our modern-day Pharisees to domesticate Jesus — taking the subversive edge off of his message so they can control him through doctrines and dogma.
Jesus defies all categories, though. There is no way to keep Jesus “in his place.” He is constantly breaking out of the boxes we put him in or the categories we assign him to. If we’re truly listening to Jesus and truly seeking to understand the message he came to tell us then Jesus constantly keeps us off balance. As soon as we think we have Jesus pinned down, catalogued and categorized, Jesus surprises us. As soon as we say, “Jesus is for the oppressed,” is the moment that Jesus shows us that he plays no favorites. His message is liberating for the oppressed, yes, but it’s also liberating for those in power — if only they’ll allow Jesus to break out of the categories they’ve stuffed him into.
In the end, there is no doctrine or dogma that can fully capture the essence of Jesus’ life and ministry. The mainstream church believes it has captured that essence, however, and to question its conclusions, to reject them or dare to rethink them is nothing short of heresy. But, I believe we must dare to be heretics if we are to truly let Jesus be the Christ in our lives. We must dare to rethink the doctrines we’ve been given about Christ. We must dare to step outside of the orthodox lines and give up our preconceived notions about Jesus and who he is. Jesus will reveal himself to us if we’ll just let go of our set definitions and truly begin to follow his teachings.
It has been in the letting go of these doctrines and daring to be a heretic in the eyes of mainstream Christians that I have discovered how to stop worshiping Jesus’ finger and instead begin to look at where Jesus is pointing. Sometimes it’s disorienting and maddening because Jesus keeps defying my definitions. Just when I think I have Jesus’ message figured out, I bump into another hard saying of Jesus that I must struggle with. In that struggle I find new revelations of Christ — new sides to Jesus’ message and ministry that I’ve never seen before. Living outside of the doctrinal comfort zone is a hard thing to do, and often I fail — getting too comfortable with one or another definition of Christ that I like. But, Jesus is always able to shatter any notion I might cling to and shows me time and time again that no doctrine or notion is big enough to capture everything he came to teach us. By continually challenging my notions of him, Jesus is instilling in me a new heart — one filled with compassion, love, joy, gentleness and peace.
We learn who Jesus is not by asking what he would do, or trying to tame Jesus by making him our buddy, or trying to box him into a set of doctrines or systematic theologies. We only learn who Jesus is when we truly invite him into our lives and allow him to continuously surprise us with his grace, peace, mercy and love.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.