"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What was it about Jesus?

[W]e are compelled to wonder and awe at the fact that out of  this strict and monotheistic religion, there was born such an all-but-idolotrous worship of a prophet. The scholars can speculate about the origins of theological ideas, imagining, for example, where this or that 'christology' first evolved. Simple common sense, and decent reverence in the presence of such faith, is bound to ask, 'What can it have been about this man that inspired such thoughts? ... What was it about Jesus at the time of his earthly life which so impressed his followers that they could group together in his name and be convinced that even after his death he was the focus of Israel's hopes? ...

Any Jews, however poor and humble...could in the teaching of Jesus embody in their own person the divine nature of pity and purity and love.  When the Judgment comes, Jesus taught that we shall not be asked to rail at God for having created a world in which there are hungry, poor, unhappy people. He, by contrast, will have expected us to have incarnated his virtues; he will expect us to have been 'God' towards our unfortunate neighbours; for he will have been hidden within them.

'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  (Matthew 25:35-36)

There is something immediate and accessible about this, the 'religion of Jesus,' and which formed the basis of the enormous authority of Jesus as a moral teacher. Combined with his gifts as a healer, we must believe that he was one of those rare and charismatic 'saints', rather like Francis of Assisi in the Middle Ages or Mother Teresa in our own day, who captured people's imaginations, filled them with the love of God.  The historian comes to this conclusion not for reasons of sentimentality but because it is inconceivable that a movement could have grown up in Jesus's name had Jesus himself not been a person of remarkable virtue, eloquence and personal magnetism.

excerpts quoted from pages 114-116 of Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson


sanil said...

I think the assertion that Jesus-worship came out of a monotheistic religion is a little problematic. It has roots in Judaism, sure, but Jesus isn't actually worshiped when it was a strictly Jewish group following him. Even fairly early on, as of when Paul's writing his letters in the middle of the 1st century, he's writing to a lot of Greek pagan converts. There's a reason Christians ultimately separated from Judaism - in the minds of most Jews they were following after the pagan ways around them and straying too far from acceptable Jewish belief and practice. And of course we'll never know, but I don't think Christianity as it exists today would have gotten a chance to get off the ground if it hadn't started in a polytheistic environment, if say Jesus had been born before Israel was invaded and had the unwanted influence of the religions around them.

Personal opinion, I think that mix of Jewish and Greek belief is also what makes it possible for his followers to continue after his death. Some sects of Judaism were already waiting for the eminent apocalypse, which explains a lot of Paul's teachings. Then the Greek mystery cults (and for that matter even mainstream Greek religion) worshiped other dead gods, it wasn't a problem to believe in a god or prophet who could die and come back. Jesus actually fit the already existing savior archetype pretty well. Pull the two together, and there's room on both sides for the death not to be a problem. Either the end has already started and Jesus just paved the way and went ahead, or he died but is still living in the same way Dionysus, Osiris, and Adonis were, having conquered death. Or both.

I almost might phrase the question in reverse - what is it about Christianity that convinced a strict polytheistic religion to abandon all gods but one? But even then I can offer up my slightly cynical answer that they weren't so much convinced as forced by a government that benefited from having all the people under one flag, one god, and one doctrine.

He, by contrast, will have expected us to have incarnated his virtues; he will expect us to have been 'God' towards our unfortunate neighbours; for he will have been hidden within them.

I like that quote a lot. The idea of the divine being incarnate in humanity isn't quite unique to Christianity (Orphics believed that the pure soul came from Dionysus, and the corrupted flesh from Titans), but it was interpreted in a unique way. The view of Christ living in his followers lends itself well to a lifestyle where hospitality is not just a virtue or a norm but a devotional act. Caring for the poor and the stranger isn't a duty anymore in that context - it's worship. I think the world would be a better place if more people adopted that attitude towards service.

Joni said...

this sounds like a really interesting book!

Amber said...

What Sanil said. FYI, the freaking iPad autocorrect kept changing your name to 'snail' until I capitalized it!

Susanne said...

Sanil, thanks for sharing all that! I really enjoyed it! :)

Joni, yes, pretty good book!

Amber, copy cat! ;-P

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