Why I am a Christian

This is part two of the interview meme. Jamie‘s fifth question for me was, “Why are you a Christian?”

I have put forward various arguments in defence of my faith in other places. In this post, I will explore the subject from a different perspective. I am a Christian because I find Jesus, as he is depicted in the synoptic gospels, compellingly attractive.

Increasingly, sceptics make the provocative claim that Jesus never existed. We have only legendary reports about him, written decades after his death. Presumably (so the argument goes) they were written by people with a vested interest in the new religion.

It’s true that the material in the Gospels was written down several decades after Jesus’ death. Nonetheless, Jesus’ distinctive voice (ipsissima vox) has been preserved for us. Ancient (pre-literary) cultures were used to passing information along via oral tradition. Jesus’ teaching was crafted in such a way as to make it easily memorable.

The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) supply a vivid portrait of Jesus. His characteristic speech mannerisms are easily identifiable:

If Jesus never existed, whose “voice” have I just described? It is not the voice of Mark, John,1 Paul, or any other New Testament author.

The distinctiveness of Jesus’ voice gives us an insight into his personality; and it is that personality that I find so compellingly attractive.

Jesus, like Buddha, was a keen observer of mundane, everyday life. It’s easy to imagine him watching intently while a farmer seeded his fields, or while his mother mixed leaven into a lump of dough, or while children played make-believe. He was funny, in a rather cynical way:  picture a person with a log sticking out of his eye, trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye; or a blind person trying to guide another blind person; or someone blowing a trumpet before placing a cheque in the offering plate.

Jesus was also deeply humane, which led him to challenge conventional social boundaries. He was a champion of the poor and the disabled. Women were included among his disciples. And he befriended notorious sinners.

Similarly, Jesus challenged the conventional rules of right and wrong. He intensified the standard where interpersonal relationships were at issue. His interpersonal ethic may be summed up in the words humility, forgiveness, reconciliation, and non-violence.

On the other hand, Jesus relaxed the ethical standard with respect to formal religious rites.

Jesus’ life was oriented to Yahweh, our Creator. He subordinated all other priorities to the kingdom of God. He trusted God absolutely. The intimacy of this relationship is captured in the way he addressed God:  as “Abba“, i.e., “Father”. (To address God as “Father” is a commonplace practice now, two thousand years after Jesus, but it was virtually never done at the time.)

The greatest commandment, said Jesus, is this:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The second great commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Thus Jesus performed a superb balancing act. On the one hand, he was zealous for the things of God; on the other hand, he was full of compassion for the common people — folk who predictably fell short of lofty religious ideals.

Such a deeply admirable man! — but of course, his life ended tragically. Jesus’ zeal to reform Judaism alienated the religious establishment.2 Rumours that he was the Christ, the king of the Jews, made him an insurrectionist from the perspective of the (Roman) political authorities.

And so the Compassionate One was betrayed; mocked; tortured; and executed. The man of peace died violently. This tragic irony is part of what makes Jesus compellingly attractive to me.

In Mark, the earliest Gospel written, Jesus’ last words are a cry of despair. At that moment, it seemed that his ministry had ended in utter failure. Albert Schweitzer, in one of the most startling paragraphs ever written by a scholar, described Jesus’ death as follows:

In the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man, [Jesus] lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. …

The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.

(from the first edition of The Quest of the Historical Jesus)

Christian readers will strenuously object, But Schweitzer got it wrong! That wasn’t the end of the story; he has left out the resurrection, the most important part!

I agree that Schweitzer’s account is a distortion; nonetheless, I find it strangely moving. Let’s pause here for a moment:  with the cry of dereliction falling from Jesus’ lips; with this image before our eyes, of Jesus’ mangled body caught in the grinding gears of the world.

Christianity is least persuasive when it is cast in triumphalist terms. Just believe God and your disease will be cured … trust Jesus and he will provide the rent money … you’ll live in a nice house with two cars in the driveway … you’ll be impervious to temptation … your out-of-control children will mend their ways.

But it didn’t work out that way for Jesus. He shared Job’s experience of unjust suffering.

Jesus lived nobly and died horrifically. Both halves of the statement have deep personal meaning for me.

The values embodied by Jesus — love toward God, recognition that every human being is my neighbour, and his demotion of formal religion to make it the least significant element of the equation — these values of Jesus are the plumb line around which my life is oriented.

But God does not promise us a pain-free journey, an unbroken series of mountaintop experiences. For this life, God offers only one guarantee:  that in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, the Lord Jesus has been there before us; and he will stand at our side every step of the journey.

This sort of covenant will not appeal to everyone. St. Paul conceded that Christianity is a counterintuitive religion:

… we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
(1Cor. 1:23-24; emphasis added)

The Gospels climax with Jesus’ crucifixion. (The account of the “passion” consumes about a third of each of the Gospels.) The denouement of the Gospels is Jesus’ resurrection.

For reasons that I have explained elsewhere, I believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was a historical event. I don’t want to dwell on it here, because it will divert attention from my main point. It is not primarily the resurrection that attracts me to Jesus, but his earthly life and its tragic climax.3

Suffice it to say that the crucifixion — Mark’s cry of dereliction and Schweitzer’s mangled body — that is not the final word on Jesus. The resurrection is God’s Yes! to Jesus; a vindication of Yahweh’s servant/Son. Moreover, the resurrection imparts hope. It suggests that the injustices of this world are not the final “word” for the rest of us, who faithfully follow in Jesus’ path.

The point of this post was to answer Jamie’s question. Why am I a Christian? Because I find Jesus, as he is depicted in the synoptic gospels, compellingly attractive.

I don’t expect others to find this argument (if it is an argument) persuasive. It is too subjective, too personal to me. But it is the primary reason that I am a Christian.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1I accept the consensus view, that the Gospel of John is less historical than the synoptic Gospels. One of the main reasons for my scepticism is that Jesus’ distinctive voice is skewed in John:  Jesus addresses different themes and utilizes different patterns of speech than those summarized above.

2The “cleansing” of the Temple was Jesus’ last high-profile act before his death, and it constituted a public challenge to the Sadducees (rulers of the Temple). But in addition to their religious authority, priests typically were incorporated into the Roman government. Thus it was likely the Sadducees who handed Jesus over to Pilate. In other words, cleansing the Temple was the act that precipitated Jesus’ execution.

3Or perhaps I should refer to the crucifixion-resurrection, understood as one, double-sided event. This is the theological position staked out in the Gospel of John:

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)

“Lifted up” in this verse is a kind of double entendre:  it refers simultaneously to the crucifixion (Jesus is suspended above the earth on a cross) and the resurrection (Jesus is elevated to the right hand of God). By means of this double entendre, the Gospel of John presents the crucifixion-resurrection as a single, saving event.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erdweet
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 08:44:07

    Well thought out and said, Stephen. And I agree totally with your “triumphalism” point. Why so much energy is wasted on misguided aspects is beyond me.

    Reply

  2. michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 21:11:09

    Based on your description of Jesus, if he’s not divine, then nothing is. Your beliefs do you credit.
    .
    .
    .
    Er, you’ll understand if I remain a snaarsissist.

    Reply

  3. Andrew
    Oct 12, 2007 @ 02:01:21

    Thanks.

    I’m a Christian (and so tend to be numb to the most shocking Xian claims) and a skeptic by temperament (and so tend to resist being swept away by the most sweeping Xian claims). Your post overcame these two obstacles and moved me. Thanks – and ultimate gratitude to Jesus.

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    Oct 24, 2007 @ 13:08:24

    Andrew:
    My apologies for being slow to reply to your comment. I’m glad I found the right balance to speak to you.

    Reply

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