Which Jesus?

“She’s fun, she’s smart — and she knows Jesus,” my sister-in-law said, singing the praises of her new neighbor. I’ve heard her use that phrase before. “Knowing Jesus” means something very specific to Karen, a certain way of being in relationship with God. But which Jesus is that? I wanted to ask. Is it the atonement Jesus or the wisdom Jesus or the apocalyptic Jesus or the social justice Jesus? What makes you so sure there is one right answer?

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight says people relate to Jesus as if he were a Rorschach ink blot, seeing their own beliefs reflected in him. That’s probably true of all the ways we look at the world. Our own understanding is necessarily part of what we see, isn’t it? That turns out to be a very modern proposition, I have learned. The classical approach sees truth with a capital T: an objective reality that can be known if not fully understood. There is no ambiguity in the Jesus my sister-in-law knows. She believes the facts about him are made plain in scripture. Yet the lens through which she reads scripture has been shaped by the creedal controversies of the early church, Anselm’s theology of atonement in the Middle Ages and the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth in the 20th century.

There is no such thing as truth devoid of its context. My neoplatonic belief in a God of emanation and return dovetails with the Eastern mysticism I was exposed to as an impressionable teen. The Christian faith I have claimed is an outgrowth of the liberal tradition developed by Schleiermacher and other Enlightenment thinkers, who argued that we can only know God through our own experience. When carried into community, this approach views our shared life together as the means to realize God’s kingdom. Liberal theology emphasizes ethics over eschatological (end times) hope. Two other strands of thought affect my Christian orientation: the mysticism I’ve gravitated toward since early childhood and the ongoing quest to separate the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith.

Karen and I have approaches to faith so different as to be almost two religions. Add the sacramental faith of Roman Catholicism, the charismatic worship of the Pentecostal churches and the dizzying array of postmodern approaches, and it gets hard to know, which Jesus are we talking about?

Sometimes I feel like the blind man with the elephant, reaching out for Jesus and touching …. what? An archetypal presence? A projection of my own consciousness? A discrete entity capable of effecting change? Maybe even the Son of God? There is something there. I have known it with a certainty that makes all uncertainty disappear. And so I keep groping. Somehow, beyond any category I can grasp with my mind, there is something real we call Jesus. Maybe I’ll never understand. Maybe Jesus is the mystery that will never be solved and my search is the striving for control that is ultimately illusion.

I pray, dear Jesus, not so much to know you as to love you, to surrender myself to your love, again and again. Help me be alive in you. Help me see your aliveness in every other living being. Help me live in a way that nurtures that aliveness in myself and in others. Amen.

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Teach Me How to Pray

The afternoon sun illuminated the undulating mounds of the summertime ski slope. I paused as the rest of my family continued the hike and turned to survey the valley below. We had climbed so far — halfway to the sky, it seemed to me. I felt like Heidi in the Swiss Alps, light years away from the mundane world of the city. I was alone, truly alone, even as I heard the voices of my parents and sisters above me. Yet I wasn’t alone at all. I was part of everything and everything was part of me. I stood in wonder, reveling in the completeness of this one shining moment. The sun was warm on my face. The good smell of earth filled my nostrils. A slight breeze moved through the grasses. Everything mattered. We all belonged.

Teach me how to pray. Alone on another hillside, fifty years from the earlier one. I’ve climbed up from the campground below, following an overgrown spur to a trail blocked by fallen trees. The humidity of this rainy June presses against me, feeling like weight against my bare skin. I crouch and crawl through the tumble of logs and pick my way past them onto the trail. I see the same sights that so excited me when I was here several years before — grey tufted moss hanging from the trees, yellow cactus flowers blooming. They don’t seem so special to me now. I am hot and tired, worn, cranky. I sit on a rock, my little dog at my feet.

Teach me how to pray. It’s been a confusing year for me. My sense of spirit, of presence, of God — of that which exists beyond words or knowing — has been shaken to the core. I’ve been in conversation with something beyond myself for as long as I’ve had conscious thought. Now I wonder if anything is there at all — and if there is, if it doesn’t properly belong inside me, if it isn’t time to bring back the projection of God to the is-ness of human experience. Yet I thrive on the practice of devotion. It’s a good fit for me, a form of worship that allows me to surrender my own limited perspective to something More.

Teach me how to pray. It doesn’t seem so important anymore to find one cohesive system of thought, so disrespectful to mix modalities. I turn to Mother Earth, to the brothers and sisters of trees and woodland creatures, to Jesus, whoever or whatever that might be. “Do you even exist at all?” I say aloud. To pray in the face of not knowing might be the most powerful prayer.

Teach me how to pray.

Arms Open On the Cross

Easter Sunday dinner at Joy’s and Tim’s house. We listened to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar. My older sister loved the film when I was a young adolescent. I came of age with those songs ringing in my ears. Now I heard them again, particularly Jesus’ lament in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“I only want to say
If there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don’t want to taste its poison…”

I felt myself entering into the drama, plummeting with Jesus into the depths of despair. I felt his fatigue at the enormous amount of work he’d done in the past three years (the work of helping both my parents die?) and his uncertainty that he’d accomplished anything of note. Then his tone changed. It hardened, as he accepted the inevitability of his death and challenged God to tell him why.

“But if I die
See the saga through and do the things you ask of me
Let them hate me hit me hurt me nail me to their tree…”

I sang the words with deep abandon, stretching my arms out wider and wider with each phrase. When I felt myself as outstretched as I could possibly be, I rested there a moment. It was a moment suspended in time, a moment of pure surrender. It’s an interesting position, those arms open on the cross. It signifies both strength and vulnerability, a heart open to the joy of life and to the pain.

I thought of another instance when I had stretched out my arms in opposition. During a talk about the apostle Paul during Christian formation hour at church a few weeks ago, our rector asked us to consider the continuum between a faith grounded in tradition and one inspired by a personal intuition of God. He drew an imaginary line along the wall and asked us to point to where we fell on that continuum. I hesitated as I scanned the wall, then stretched out an arm to each corner. My faith was formed in the liturgical traditions of the Roman Catholic church. That remains important to me. Yet I’m a mystic and a religious renegade, an out-of-the-box believer in a God too big to be contained by any system of belief.

I’ve struggled this semester with another set of polarities: My deeply intuitive sense of God challenged by the academic understanding of how manmade religion is. The two kinesthetic experiences — pointing to each corner of the room, and joining Jesus in surrender on the cross — have given me an inkling of how I might reconcile those understandings. It’s not an “either/or” but an “and,” a way of holding both poles in simultaneous affirmation. Yes, religion is a humanly constructed vehicle to express our deepest longings, hopes, and fears. Yes, faith points us to something true, something so far beyond ourselves we can never reach it any other way.

I’m feeling a peace that has eluded me through these long winter months. I’ve stopped struggling to ascertain which position is correct and accepted that they all are true. I’ve joined Jesus in letting go of the need to understand, of abandoning myself to the human drama without the need to control the outcome. As Jesus says in another song earlier on the soundtrack: “To conquer death you only have to die.”

All quotes from “Jesus Christ Superstar” with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Copyright 1970, 1993: MCA Records.