June 18, 2024

Seeing Jesus Not-As-We-Are

 One reason that mysticism has been frowned upon by the church, historically, is that people who get mystical also tend to get kooky, if not down right unstable. That sad trend is well documented. Another reason mysticism has been frowned upon by the church, historically, is that it threatens the clergy/laity arrangement. If each person claims their own profound sense of access to God, then who needs a priest or a preacher? 

 Personally, I have long considered myself a failed mystic. I gave it up long ago and I do not promote it. As for clergy, I have also loads of evidence that ditching formal hierarchy in the pews often leads to little more than informal domineering in a living room. The challenge of group dynamics is not solved by trusting everyone to stay well-attuned to their own imagination to God.

 As Christian historians of Jesus, however, neither institutional resistance nor personal failure nor fear of kooky chaos must ever prevent us from considering ways in which Jesus was not as we are. It may have been a long time since I personally felt a profound touch from the Lord, but that should not stop me from proclaiming that I think Jesus believed he was experiencing spiritual communion with God, probably everyday of his adult life. 

 As both Christians and historians, then, let us further suppose that Jesus did indeed experience deep and profound interaction with God on a regular basis, during his earthly life. If we do so suppose, then I would urge us to also weigh heavily the fact that Jesus spent his teens and twenties abstaining from public ministry. That is, if we agree Jesus was exceptionally spiritual during his public ministry, then let us also recognize that Jesus at age 12 had no such lock down on God's leading, and that intervening years provided him opportunities to grow. Alas, here's a third reason for religious systems to resist my construction of Jesus, because they're addicted to leveraging youthful enthusiasm and idealism in their leadership programs. More's the pity.

 At any rate, I am not a mystic but I think Jesus was a mystic. 

 Furthermore, as the above thought experiment illustrates, embracing the view that Jesus was NOT like me in some ways can be a prerequisite for extrapolating from there to achieve higher vistas. If we do not first embrace the view that fully-grown Jesus was super spiritual (although we are not), we cannot then proceed to consider that younger Jesus was not yet fully in tune. Perhaps it is only after surrendering our short-sighted need to promote a Jesus who is like us, and after ceasing to fear the promotion of a Jesus whom we cannot imitate, that we can then discover a higher paradigm.

 Perhaps Jesus grew. Perhaps spiritual maturity requires decades of growth. Perhaps evangelical leaders who teach newly baptized believers to declare confidence in God's direct leading, are simply perpetuating a tragic and desperately vainglorious pretense. And perhaps older Christian traditions are being too cautious. If we all embraced the simple historical inference that Jesus's own mysticism required thirty years of developing growth before he began making weighty pronouncements, then established authorities might be less worried about kooks, and grass roots ecclesias might be far less at risk of living room insta-gurus. 

 If spiritual weight was something we expect persons to acquire not without decades of devotion, that expectation might put a stop to all sorts of shenanigans. 

 Now, I said all this in part because I would love for you all to go read my 2011 draft of Jesus in Nazareth, if you haven't already. Heck, feel free to revise it for me. Thanks in advance!

 But the other point I wish to underscore is about courage and self-denial in historical method.

 We need to get away from the practice of building into the past only what we promote. I support the military and pay taxes. I'm not sure Jesus ever did either. I refuse to attend religious services. Jesus faithfully attended Synagogue gatherings. I have become an avowed feminist but no person in the first century was a feminist. The list could go on, but the point should be clear.

 We cannot see Jesus as he was if we continue using him to justify ourselves.

 And we cannot construct history in good faith if the ideological cart is pulling the analytical horse.


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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton