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Rembrandt - Three Crosses

Rembrandt – Three Crosses

Two years ago, in a conversation about being a Christian amidst non-Christians, a friend of mine noted that Christians today struggle to answer well the question, “Why do people need Jesus?” In attempting to respond, she observed, Christians often spend substantial effort trying to convince our interlocutors we’re not crazy! But “crazy” is a matter of perspective, and Christians have known since the first century that from some perspectives we are indisputably crazy. And so, in fact, no one can give a universally satisfactory answer to the question, “Why do people need Jesus?” But Christians are charged to be Jesus’ witnesses (Acts 1:8), which requires us to communicate the story of Jesus’ cross and resurrection even as we know that those who do not already believe will receive it as “foolishness”  (1 Cor 1; 2 Cor 4). Jesus gives Christians the gift and burden of a commission to tell as “good news” a story that will most often be received as “crazy.” So here we are. What now?

Christians should not apologize for our crazy; we should not try to make ourselves make sense according to general or supposedly universal standards of the rational, acceptable, or sane. Such standards, whether those who promulgate them know it or not, arise from particular perspectives no less than ours do. If we accept the rules of a different game, we lose before we begin. I cannot prove myself sane, but my inability on that score does not absolve me of Jesus’ commission to be a witness—to tell, portray, live the good news. I need not prove my sanity in order to tell the story.

The Milky Way, photographed from Waldo Mtn, S. Oregon by Matt Connell, mattconnellphoto.com © mattconnellphoto.com 2013

The Milky Way, photographed from Waldo Mtn, S. Oregon by Matt Connell, mattconnellphoto.com © 2013

One can only begin in the middle. The first important thing to say concerns epistemology—theories of human knowledge: I see no reason to suppose human beings can perceive everything that exists. I don’t mean microscopes versus telescopes here, or subatomic particles versus galaxies thousands of lightyears away. I refer to things our senses lack the ability to apprehend. I simply don’t suppose that in this world, what you see is what you get; just as likely, there exist untold things of which we know nothing. Philosophers would identify the converse assumption as an argument from silence—a weak argument. No objective foundation supports the claim that the sets “things knowable” and “things in existence” overlap exhaustively. In other words, epistemology and ontology are distinct subjects.

Second, the story seems internally consistent. In short, the Christian claim that the God who created this world speaks to us in Scripture seems totally plausible to me. Here’s why. Imagine God is utterly distinct from us—not a different kind of being, and not a person or a thing or a force somewhere in the universe, but the sole source of existence itself, and therefore, able to create this entire universe without the benefit of raw materials. Imagine Being that can and did generate matter and energy, and fashioned the world and everything in it. Imagine Life that cannot die, and so can bestow life on material creatures. If God created everything including us, creatures capable of communicating, it makes sense to me both that God would seek to communicate God’s existence to us, and that doing so would be no small feat.

Imagine the difficulty involved in communicating between Being itself and a created object, or creature. The distance between God and human being is categorically and infinitely greater than the distance between a human potter and a clay vessel. The potter and the jar both consist of matter and occupy the same material world, but God does not live somewhere in our universe. Imagine a potter speaking to her pots—and expecting comprehension, to say nothing of response! The analogy is flawed, but it begins to show the difficulty of communicating between Creator and creature.  Creator-creature communication must begin from the Creator side, and success depends on the Creator.

“Rembrandt’s Mother as Biblical Prophetess Hannah” (1631)

“Rembrandt’s Mother as Biblical Prophetess Hannah” (1631)

The Creator must use methods adapted to creaturely limitations. The message must appear familiar enough to be apprehended, but not so much like usual human communication that we mistake the source of the message. A message from God must come in a form we can receive, but also that we can perceive as divine. That God would successfully give us any message is nothing short of miraculous—several times over—even before reckoning with the general attitude of skepticism prevalent since the 17th C. Especially in the post-Enlightenment era, Westerners prefer nearly any characterization of an event other than “act of God.” Even if God wrote in flames across the sky, “This is God.  Let me tell you about myself…” we could easily imagine other more probable causes of such a spectacle. Grand gestures do not suffice. We require a strong dose of the ordinary in our messages from God. We need burning bushes, human teachers, and written words.

Byzantine mosaic of Moses and the Burning Bush

Byzantine mosaic of Moses and the Burning Bush

It strikes me as totally plausible that God would select a few people with an epistemic apparatus open to the experience of God and charge them to write the texts that communities throughout history have treasured and preserved because they found in them witnesses to God’s own revelation. It makes complete sense to me that God would choose the kind of thing Christians call “Scripture” as the primary means of communicating God’s identity.

Beyond internal consistency and the recognition that no story anyone tells about the world stands on an objectively knowable foundation, I can only say, third, I find the scriptural story a compelling account of reality. Telling the story of the world as God’s story—God creating, God calling Israel, God in Jesus, God calling the church, and God making all things new—strikes me as both plausible and beautiful. God calling particular people in the world as ambassadors to the rest of the world seems like the most plausibly effective way of communicating God’s plan for the world to humanity. God  becoming human in order to communicate and save us seems like just the sort of thing the Creator God would do. The character of Jesus and the way that God saves us in Jesus’ cross and resurrection strike me as exactly fitting and beautiful. Jesus at the center of the story matters all the way down, and I never saw that more clearly than I did after reading Stanley Hauerwas’s The Peaceable Kingdom. Here’s how.

hauerwas-peaceable-kingdomJesus’ life is the life of God in the world[1]—the God who “overcome[s] the powers of this world, not through coercion and force, but through the power of this one man’s death.”[2] Jesus does not capitulate to violence by participating in it, but rather subverts it by submitting to it. Jesus rejects violence not because he is powerless, but because he possesses the true power of God, which, “exactly because it is a genuine and truthful power, does not serve by forcing itself on others.”[3] Jesus’ power overcomes worldly powers not because Jesus wields a stronger version of it, but because Jesus wields a non-oppressive power against which the world’s corrupted powers are ultimately impotent.  Jesus’ power subverts and voids any power expressed as violent subjugation and oppression.  Jesus’ cross inaugurates God’s peaceable kingdom—a kingdom that cannot be inaugurated or inhabited through coercive means.

God’s raising of the crucified Jesus confirms that love and forgiveness inhere in the structure of God’s world.[4] Moreover, the inner logic of God’s world presents a life-paradigm for those who would live well in it. Christians, therefore, reject violence not because it is inherently evil or merely because it is ultimately ineffective, but rather because it is incommensurate with imitating the God who rules creation not through force but through nonviolent love. Hauerwas writes, “The nonviolence of the church derives from the character of the story of God that makes us what we are—namely a community capable of witnessing to others the kind of life made possible when trust rather than fear rules our relation with one another.”[5]  Here Hauerwas names the core from which Christians’ peaceableness derives and Christians’ resultant primary posture toward the world as “witness.”  The Christian church is that community which, through both its internal and external relationships, bears witness to the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians bear witness to the God who rules creation through nonviolent love.

This is the story I find compelling. Suppose it’s true. What if God really did raise Jesus from the dead?

Cover illustration by Pauline Baynes for C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Cover illustration by Pauline Baynes for C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

That’s the point on which everything turns—Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus is not God incarnate, risen from the dead, and the only one who saves us, we don’t need him after all. We can only say why people need Jesus if we already assume the Christian story is true. We can only know the truth of the Christian story by living it with other people, and we can only communicate that truth by inviting people to come and see it in action. That’s what it means to be Jesus’ witnesses. Yes, it’s a circle, and philosophers hate that. But it’s a good circle, if you have to pick one… and, some say, you do. Or, it just might pick you.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics, (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 78.
[2] Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 76.
[3] Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 81-82.
[4] Hauerwas, Peaceable Kingdom, 87.
[5] Hauerwas, “The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering,” in A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, 53-71 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 70.