If You Don’t Think He’s God, You’re Only Going to Follow Him So Far

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2013 — 3 Comments

imagesI’m digesting, having recently finished it, Reza Aslan’s bestselling, mud-in-your-eye-to-Fox News- book, Zealot.

Sadly, Aslan’s book reveals more about the latent anti-Islamic temper of the American political-media establishment than it does about New Testament studies.

When it comes to how Americans view Muslims with an abiding suspicion, Aslan’s book- or the reception to it- speaks volumes.

When it comes to how scholars understand that other guy from the Middle East, JC, Aslan’s book merely rehashes 19th century scholarship.

One of the truly annoying features of books like Aslan’s is that they buttress the prevalent liberal assumption that the INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH complicated, theologized and ruined the simple message of Jesus, the Rabbi of Compassionate Love.

Claims of Jesus’ divinity, resurrection, incarnation, preexistence et al were all added on later, it’s assumed, by power-broking philosophers.

Not only is that too simple to be true.

It’s also so simplistic it’s actually counter-intuitive.

Early Christianity’s small population meant few people knew much about them. What was ‘known’ was that Christians practiced ritual initiations and ceremonies that sounded like cannibalism and infanticide. They were known to have eccentric beliefs that ran counter to Roman virtue and refused to participate to venerate imperial gods.

For these reasons they were labeled unpatriotic and atheists.

Put more positively, Christians early on were known for what was visible (not behind the closed doors of worship) about them.

Namely:

They practiced what seemed to Romans like a conservative sexual ethic, marrying and practicing monogamy.

They practiced nonviolence, insisting converts resign military commissions.

They cared for widows, orphans, lepers, the poor and ‘rescued’ newborns ‘exposed’(an ancient equivalent of abortion) by Romans.

In fact, over time Christianity compelled ordinary people to such acts of boldness, compassion and virtue challenged dominant Roman attitudes about virtue and class. Romans, owing to Greek philosophy, believed virtue could only cultivated by years of training and education and, as such, belonged to the realm of the wealthy.

Even the emperor Julian, no friend to the faith, lamented how “it is a disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”

A pertinent question to ask is what motivated such bold, potentially dangerous, culturally counterintuitive acts among Christians?

It’s fashionable today to praise Jesus as a teacher and person and even to wish to emulate his life while at the same time disavowing the theological claims which have supposedly grown up around him.

For this reason it’s often assumed that earliest Christianity, and hence the purest expression of it, was focused on Jesus life and teaching, that understandings of his divinity and worship of him as God-incarnate were later developments and, accordingly, are for modern people optional.

The reality is the opposite.

As the liturgical sections of the Didache illustrate, the very earliest Christians were making very sophisticated claims about Jesus’ identity. And one should wonder why it would be any other way.

To assume that the early Christians risked their lives and the Empire’s wrath because they believed ‘compassion would change the world’ is facile.

It’s much easier to suppose that with high christological claims comes greater focus on embodying the Gospels’ teachings.

In other words:

the early Christians practiced Jesus’ teaching so thoroughly because they were convinced the One who said them was God. 

As any Mennonite will tell you, committed as they are to nonviolence as THE witness to the truth of Cross and Resurrection, there’s no way you’re following this guy very far if you’re not convinced he’s God.

That’s why, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, Christians should live in such a way that MAKES NO SENSE if Jesus Christ is NOT raised from the dead. 228958_10150729303960096_564145095_20288493_4614542_n

Thank God, Reza Aslan to the contrary, some Christians did.

Jason Micheli

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3 responses to If You Don’t Think He’s God, You’re Only Going to Follow Him So Far

  1. I think this is beautiful, but I have 2 personal caveats.

    1) I’m a Christian who supports full reproductive rights for women. I do not see infanticide as “the ancient equivalent of abortion.” Fortunately, neither does US law. (But I don’t think this is the place for an extended argument about abortion. I’m happy to leave it at that.)

    2) Your post reminds me that Christians do have to wrestle with the fact that other people, people who are not Christians, do live quite exemplary, selfless, lives. Maybe they do it for reasons we find less than convincing, ie., believing “compassion will save the world,” but their behavior does beg the question, “how is it that they follow him so far,” — dying ignoble deaths, refusing to practice violence or to hate their enemies, and we Christians don’t..

    What we cannot honestly say is that nobody who is not a Christian, nobody who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, has ever lived in these ways. It may be rare but we could surely find such stories. The Sikhs, the Bahai — also have stories of being minority communities living at odds with the violent cultures that surrounded them, and acting even on behalf of those who were not in their fold.

    • Hi Tracy,
      I really do need to respond to your comments more. They deserve it. I apologize. I barely have time for the posts themselves so don’t take it any other way. Quickly, I agree with both your points. Agreeing there’s no easy analogy to Roman ‘exposure’ and abortion (and even if there was, it doesn’t eliminate the many headache inducing particularities) I just think it’s important to point out how the first Christians were known for bold actions against the grain of the Empire. I also agree there are many folks who lead exemplary lives without the Gospel. Some take that as testimony to the virtue of others’ lives. In my cynicism, I take that as an indictment of how badly Christians embody the Gospel. I like to think Christians have the potential to make even Ghandi look prosaic. Shit, I think I just stumbled upon a future blog post…:)
      Thanks for the thoughts and appropriate caveats.

  2. Great column, great response. Thanks.

    I’ll look forward to the prosaic-Gandhi column. I’m skeptical, but maybe you’ll show me something. Its a question I’d put to Hauerwas too — maybe I just don’t understand why we’d be surprised if other people’s behavior was as (what’s the right word? — heroic, virtuous, exemplary, sacrificial, selfless) as the Christian ideal. Is there a reason we’d want to win that contest –and be in a class all by ourselves. What’s at stake for us in that?

    And I can patiently await the full blogpost. 🙂

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