Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Spero: Question Eight, Extra Bonus Bit

This is that observation of Mark Twain’s from The Innocents Abroad which I was going to get on to:

I state as my simple deduction from the things I have seen and the things I have
heard, that the Holy Personages rank thus in Rome:
First- “The Mother of God” – otherwise the Virgin Mary.
Second- The Deity.
Third- Peter.
Fourth- Some twelve or fifteen canonized popes and martyrs.
Fifth- Jesus Christ the Saviour- (but always as an infant in arms)

My thesis is that this ranking is entirely proper. This ranking is a useful and appropriate order to list the Holy Personages. This is how things ought to be, for any theology which defines ‘Jesus Christ the Saviour’ as ‘God from God, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.’

Let’s say I wanted to take the train from Mombasa to Kampala. Ultimately, and trivially, this is only possible because somebody built a railway line from Mombasa to Kampala. This was a tremendously expensive engineering project. It was technically very impressive. I understand many of the workers were eaten by lions. It was an uneconomic move in the imperialist Great Game, where Britain needed to control Egypt to guard the sea-route to India, and needed to control the sources of the Nile so no one else could use them to put pressure on Egypt, and needed some decent way to get to the sources of the Nile in less than a long time. But do I need to know any of this stuff? No. I just need to know where to buy my ticket, and have enough cash and the appropriate stamps in my passport. It would be a petty and bizarre bureaucracy that forced me to pass a test on the history of the railway before letting me ride on it.

In the same way: let’s say we grant that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a vitally important and necessary part of God reaching out to man that has transformed the relation between us and made it possible for us to reach God. Does this mean we have to know the name of Jesus? Or pay any attention to him at all? I think, no. No, in direct proportion to how worthy God is actually worthy of our worship. If He is outside of time and space, if He is omnibenevolent and omniscient with respect to the universe, He will make it possible for us to reach out to Him wherever and whoever we are. God’s reaching out to us is a fait accompli: what matters now is our reaching out to God.

Now, if you accept an orthodox Christology, you cannot possibly use the life of Jesus Christ as a model for your own response to God. Sure, we can listen to what he said, and we can throw ourselves on his mercy, but imitate him? All of our discussion here so far about the nature of God, all of C. S. Lewis’ metaphors about oysters and Mark Twain’s metaphors about microbes, all the careful refinements of the definition of the Incarnation in which any common-sense simplification we try to make invariably dumps us into heresy- and I endorse all of those refinements, I see why they are there, I agree with their purpose- all of these things raise an insurmountable barrier between our understanding of Jesus the man and our understanding of ourselves. I don’t think there is any way to think ourselves through that barrier.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus may be the ultimate myth and symbol and case study of God reaching out to man, but the people we ought to remember most, the ones that ought to appear to rank highly in any ranking of ‘Holy Personages’, should be those who have responded heroically in reaching out to God. These are people we can be expected to imitate, whose lives will have lessons for us.

The first and greatest exemplar of man reaching out to God in the Christian story is obviously the maid Mary, saying ‘thy will be done’ and casting her whole life on the mercy of a divine messenger only she could see. There were no other Christians for her to imitate. There was no Christ she could see. It was a pure leap of faith. So, why not put her first?

The proper study of man is man, so Mary ought to be first. But it is entirely proper that after this first and greatest example of man reaching out to God, we should fix our attention next on the God revealed to us, who is not only Spinoza’s creator and sustainer of the universe, but a person, described to us as a Father.

Then, we come to other important exemplars of man reaching out to God:

The rash disciple who was the first to recognise Jesus as the Christ, and was crucified upside down.

Those twelve or fifteen Popes and Martyrs who also spent their lives in reaching out to God.

And then, only then, Jesus Christ the Saviour, at an age when his humanity is not overwhelmed and made incomprehensible by his divinity.

Here's that article by celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach that I couldn't find before. The important bit is this bit:

Yishayahu Leibowitz once said that the quintessential symbol of Christianity
is God dying on a cross for the sake of man, thereby making humans the center of
the faith. But the essential symbol of
Judaism is Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son for God, thereby establishing God at the epicenter of human endeavor to which all action must be directed.

Man must be prepared to give up his life for God, not the reverse.

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