A Progressive Christian Take on Jesus


This post is a bit different. It’s an experiment and I hope you will indulge me. You see, whenever I’ve written a post, the interlocutor in my head has been an atheist, someone on the left who is skeptical that religion has anything to contribute to the question of human good. I have never attempted engage evangelicalism on this site before. But since I’m working to build a ministry at the University of Oklahoma, this issue has arisen for our students. Any help or insights to this effort is appreciated.

The objections they pose seem to center on a number of areas. I plan to spend the next several posts exploring some of them.  The uniqueness of Jesus and Gods relation to him, the role of miracles and God’s interventions in the world, and finally the role of sacred scripture. For today, my post will focus on the uniqueness of Jesus.

On the one hand this is a given. Every person is unique. It is what it means to be human. But more is wanted than that. Jesus has to be unique in a way that gives his religious claims authority. So some will say, only Jesus rose from the grave. No other religious leader did this. Or look at his miracles. Or look at how he spoke. Sometimes the “dilemma” of C.S Lewis is given. The way Jesus spoke either means he was mad, he was lying, or he is indeed the God man.

I’m baffled at these claims. How do claims become validated by miracles? Doesn’t the force of the claim lay in the claim itself and not on the person delivering it? And also I could imagine any number of unique events that mark the life of religious founders. Only Mohammad flew to Jerusalem for instance. Presumably this would not impress an evangelical protestant.

As for C.S. Lewis, we can imagine a fourth option. The Gospels represent a tradition that formed 40 to 80 years after Jesus. They represent the way the early church came to construct and identify with the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry. They are not newspaper reports of the events as they happened, they are layers of tradition and sayings and stories. They are related as much to the needs of the church, especially after the fall of Jerusalem, then to the time period of Jesus.

I would instead, propose that to the degree that Jesus spoke to something universal in the human condition (or at least how his views were appropriated by the tradition that followed him) is to the degree to which his views are validated. Some of this is in the way Jesus was able to translate the genius of the Hebrew Scripture’s prophetic tradition. Some of this is how Jesus and Paul appropriated the Stoic tradition. There is a reason that the words still speak to us across several millennia.

That doesn’t mean Jesus did not touch people because of who he was. His life matched his teaching, his prescriptions where not just sermons to hear but a life to be observed. And he was able to translate his faith in a way that connected to the real and felt needs of his listeners. As an example, some ask, why Martin Luther King? Why couldn’t a number of folks done the same job he did in the civil rights movement? Well, he was the one who was able to articulate the vision in a way that others could hear.

I propose Jesus was much the same. To paraphrase myself:

This is why I think evangelicalism has a hard time separating the person from the message. But when the message is lost because the person is the focus and then is used against other religious traditions, then we cease to have good news. Jesus simply becomes the guarantor that we play on the right team.

But I don’t believe Jesus was into hero worship. The many examples in Mark, in fact, suggests a “secret messiah”, one who was not eager to make claims about himself, what less to the public. One might contrast this with the Gospel of John but it is there we are given the last supper story which has the claim that the teacher is not greater than the student. This is the story where Jesus washes the disciple’s feet.

And it is in John where declares Jesus his friendship with the disciples. For the Greco Roman World, one cannot be friends with God, because friendship requires equality. One cannot be friends with women because they are below men, same with children and slaves. And the gods are forever above men. And yet Jesus goes against this division, declaring his friendship with God, with men, with women, with children, with every walk of life. Which means he declares his equality with them.

He did that with his sermons, but he also did it with his life. When he welcomed all and mingled with society’s undesirables, his life becomes a parable. A parable that tells us something about the character of the good and therefore God.”And this proves to be a threat to the first century and to the 21st century because the world is built on the hierarchies of wealth, privilege and power that Jesus crosses.

One retort among evangelicals is that if Jesus was a teacher of an egalitarian wisdom and not the supernatural God man of the creeds, would people have died for such a faith? I think history shows as does the newspapers that people will die for the noblest of causes, for wicked lies, for justified and unjustified reasons. We know this world has already claimed too many victims. But if we, among the living, want to look at that history, it is to find what makes for life  today.

How that plays out in Christology will be my next post.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Blog, Feature, Religion

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2 replies »

  1. Interesting. I came here by way of Slacktivist.

    I have often considered it telling that when Jesus is asked to describe “the greatest commandment,” he names two–and the second is described (depending on your translation) as “like unto the first.” To me that speaks volumes about egalitarian wisdom and the equation not only of human and human but of human and God. For what it’s worth…

    • The equality is one of the most important things that Christ brought to the world. I think that understanding that Christ, and God, is/are no respecter of persons, is what can get lost in creedal Christianity’s insistence on condemning “others” to Hell.

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