Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Attractiveness of Jesus

 In an article currently featured in the online edition of the National Catholic Reporter, Georgetown professor of theology Fr. Peter Phan is asked the following question:

If most people at Jesus’ time and a large number of people in our time did not know or acknowledge Jesus’ special relationship to God, why were they attracted to him ?

Here is part of Fr. Phan's answer (italics are mine):

"What then is the attractiveness of Jesus? Rarely is it the Jesus as presented by the Christian dogmas in the abstract Greco-Roman philosophical categories. It is rather the Jesus as narrated in the gospels, with his teachings on how to live a fully and truly human life, the example of his life dedicated to the service of the poor and the marginalized until death, and his deep and unconditional love for and obedience to God . In other words, people are attracted to Jesus because in him they find a full flourishing of human life. Let’s note that it is not “happiness” as defined by modernity -- the self-centered satisfaction of material, psychological and even spiritual needs -- that Jesus refers to when he says he gives “abundant life.” Many of Jesus’ teachings are indeed “hard sayings” that require a total renunciation of the self to be his disciples. In spite of this highly demanding ethical ideal, many people are attracted to Jesus, precisely because they find in him the concrete way to live a fully and truly human life."

Read the full article here.

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  1. Interesting, though I sometimes honestly tire with the derogation of Christ as confessed in our creeds and dogmatics---as though these highly intellectualized formulae were not themselves the canonization of the most widely disseminated and popular account of the meaning of Jesus--his being light from light and very God of very God, and therefore a Saviour, because he has a power we do not have. Perhaps the ordinary layman of the ancient and Medieval world, unschooled in theology and philosophy, would never have thought to confess His Lord with these words "consubstantial" or "eternally begotten" . But he confessed it with his knees and tears.

    Personally, I think Christ became so popular because He promised miracles to the faithful, some hope of temporary freedom from suffering, hope for victory over death, and consolation during trials and in the face of despair.

    This, I truly believe, is the Jesus of the most helpless-- therefore the most universal--: incarnate suffering, Deity. We here, "poor exiled children in the Valley of Tears", need first and foremost someone to lift our eye up towards, even as we beg the heavens to convert their eyes down to us.

    This, I think, is the enduring, indispensable, populist and thoroughly a-intellecual truths preserved in High Christology.

    There is power clothed in his weakness (divinity in the humanity) . The function of popular religion is, I believe, really to give you "whatever you want--- whatever you need most", as I heard recently in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia.

    As far as I can see, a social Messiah is no use if he is not God.

    "Out of the depths, O Lord, I cry to you. O Lord, hear my voice!"

    This is why the disparaging of the divinity and origin of Christ, dogmas, in favour of "more human" or more "populist" explanations irk me.

    Jesus the social prophet, Jesus of the marginalized and the outcasts, Jesus of the "flourishing human life", these are all terms cooked up by yet more theologians, scholars, academics and intellectuals and some others looking for a [albeit liberal] political co-opting of Christ.

    Though... perhaps in our society, with most material conditions satisfied, Jesus' remaining popularity can only be accounted for in humanistic, socially revolutionary terms, whereas as his popularity in the Third World is much more fraught with the kind of superstition and miraculous that comes with being in such dire straits.

  2. I suppose what I'm getting at the end is a question: maybe we here in the modern age under middle class conditions just don't suffer enough to need a saviour like our ancestors did?

    Thus the emphasis on low Christology, the plethora of pop Jesus', from Deepak Chopra to Sylvia Browne to Marcus Borg and Joel Osteen, to the conservative and traditionalist brands arising in reaction to the modern aporia.

    If religion is popular because its gives us "whatever we need most", then the version of Christ that rules the bookshelves and fills the sermons is probably revealing of what modern man actually needs, and telling of what he already has.

    So this question---posed more to myself tonight--is does modern life really change us in our spiritual needs?

  3. JD:

    Wow. I don't really know how to respond to this without getting into a quasi-theological argument, which I am miserably unqualified to engage in and which would be endless. I do respect and appreciate your intelligent musings always and I thank you for your comments. Peace and blessings to you in 2011.