Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Did Jesus Believe In God? (A Church Without God - Chapter IV)

Rev. Ernest Harrison provocatively titles the fourth chapter of his 1966 book A Church Without God, "Did Jesus Believe in God?"  Of course this seems like a ridiculous question for many Christians who believe that Jesus was/is in fact God. Let's go exploring.

Harrison's earlier assertion in his book that the idea of a supernatural God is dead, leads him to say that once people realize this, we are "liberated to walk into the presence of Jesus Christ." He goes on to say that "In our everyday existence, we must feel free if we are to know another person intimately. If i fear you, if I have some notion that you are above me, below me, or beyond me, then I am inhibited. In order to know you, I have to trust you completely. I must be certain of your love, whatever the circumstances." 

Harrison says that as long as we believed in a transcendent God, we were inhibited from knowing Christ. But once that idea is dead and removed from our consciousness, we can "greet Jesus as we greet the real friends of our life: in complete frankness, without hesitancy, with mutual joy, without striving, without grovelling, without delusions, with easy understanding that whatever we say or do or think, it will be interpreted in our favour, and whatever he does or says or thinks will be interpreted in his."
He says that even the smallest elements of fear, duty, or self-negation will hurt the love we give and take. And these elements are found in the belief in a transcendent God:
"Whatever was predicted of the God who lived under the Old Covenant is said to apply to Jesus of Nazareth who possesses all the attributes of Divinity. This puts him immediately outside the range of friendship. It is not possible to be friends with such a being who is by definition better, purer, and more refined. As we know in all the vibrant moments of our lives, friendship is based on what we have in common and is only possible if the gap between the life-standards of two people is bridgeable. The gap between the Divine Jesus and myself is not bridgeable"
As for the doctrine of the atonement as a "bridge-builder," Harrison says that in friendship both sides have to give and receive. "If Jesus does not need me, then I may bow my knee and praise and glorify, but we will never be friends."

Harrison continues by saying that "Mother Church" widened the gap between us and Jesus by the imagery and language it used. It can be seen in stained-glass windows, with pictures of Jesus as "Christ the King," "Christ at the Right Hand of God," or "Christ in Judgment." Harrison says that the Biblical story "tells of events that show an equal relation between Christ and his friends; but it is soon drowned in the clamour that proclaims Christ as supreme."

Harrison accuses "Mother Church" of covering up who Jesus actually was, and that scholars who undertook studies of who Jesus was were often met with contempt. Still they continued their work, though it is still difficult to see who the real Jesus was. And here we run into problems when it comes to clearing up who the real Jesus was. The first difficulty is that we cannot go back and relive history, but are often left to rely on the written works of others, or "documents that often come from other documents, themselves human interpretations of the day." Harrison's second reason  why the real Jesus alludes us is that even if a full portrait of Jesus resulted from our labours, it would still be impossible to relate the portrait to friendship or love.

Harrison continues by saying that "without transcendent God breathing down his neck, he can think of Christ and be open to full friendship with him. Harrison says that if we are disciples, we will know ourselves to be his friends, and that when we enter Jesus presence, we can do so on the basis of friendship, mutual acceptance, and an equality of bearing. In doing so, we meet and discover ourselves. Harrison puts it beautifully: "If I look into the face of a friend, I do indeed see myself; and this is the hallmark of all close friendships. For he also, looking into my face, sees himself. We are therefore one: I in him and he in me."

Harrison pictures Jesus saying to those who would listen, "Why do you call me God?"  He says that Jesus must be irritated because we keep eluding him as he is and keep seeking some far-off perfect being.
Rather, Jesus is a man, living his life to the full, pulling back from nothing, whether it gives exquisite pleasure or leads to death. He is, surely, God. "What more do you want?" He seems to be saying. "The God, who inhabits eternity, is no more; he no longer dwells in the vast untapped spaces; he no longer sits upon a throne; he no longer intervenes in history to win a war or punish a king. He is here, a man, among you. I am God," he concludes, and waits for the true response from friends."
Harrison says that it impossible to know if any of Jesus' hearers were able to respond as friends and say, "We, too, are God. We are your friends. In you, we see ourselves. In us, you see yourself. We, too, are God."

Harrison says that Jesus rarely spoke of God, instead choosing to use the term Father. But when he did use the term God, it was often in reference to the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom was not one of dignitaries or kings or transcendence; rather it was an earthy kingdom among men.  Time and time again, Jesus was saying that he was equal to those around him. Harrison boldly states that "On the cross, driven by a terrible agony of separation, he cried out that God had forsaken him. The last link was broken. The union was to be renewed, but throughout the ages, there were always those who knew that Christ had died because he strove against the "wheel of religion" and cried out for men to be free of their rulers, their driving guilt, and their tyrant God. Jesus, like Yahweh, is the great Atheist.

Harrison says that Jesus rarely taught about God, but due to his upbringing he probably believed in a deity. In his day and in his culture, it was generally accepted that their was a God "up there" who controlled things. Jesus didn't throw away such heritage, but when there was a clash, there was Jesus, challenging the authorities, breaking the sabbath, disrupting synagogue services, breaking food customs.  Jesus learned in the same way that he lived. In one passage, a Gentile woman approaches Jesus wanting healing for her daughter, but Jesus refuses, saying that he has come only for the Jews. The woman persists, and Jesus learns that in her eyes he sees himself, and he has mercy on her.
"She has given herself, and he has given himself. She has looked into his face and seen herself. he has looked into hers and seen himself. They have shared a mutual hostility; they are friends; they are one. They have both changed. She knows herself to be a full human being."
Harrison argues that we can only meet God in personal terms, so Jesus calls God "Father." Jesus picked this term, the author writes, because the image of Father can change and grow, for instance from an authoritarian figure to an equal.
The word "God" is static; the "Father" is mobile. The word "God" implies eternity; the word "Father" implies death. The word "God" admits of no equality; the word "Father" assures it. The word "God" is sexless; the word "Father" is sexful. The word "God" is supernatural; the word "Father" is human. The word "God" is isolated; the word "Father" implies a relationship.
Ernest Harrison wraps up his chapter on Jesus by saying that it is hard to know whether or not Jesus believed in God. Perhaps Jesus' belief in God was as unquestioning as a medieval Catholic; perhaps Jesus saw God like Paul Tillich and John Robinson did. Harrison argues that there is one detail in Tillich's description of God which fits all descriptions. God is our "ultimate concern." If you can discover a man's ultimate concern, then you have discovered his God.  So, the, Harrison challenges us to look at what Jesus' ultimate concern was. Again he says that we can have a friendship with Jesus, but that people will have varying opinions on what Jesus' ultimate concern was. Some see his ultimate concern as healing people or touching the broken-hearted. Indeed, Jesus seems more concerned with earthly things than with a transcendent God.
"Examining what he did, how may we suppose that Jesus thought about God? As a judge? He condemned the judging of people. As a monarch? He was vitriolic in his denunciation of rulers. As a high priest? He condemned all priestly practices. As a person who exists above and beyond mankind? He gave scant attention even to the possibility."
Harrison writes that "it may be true to say that whatever Jesus believed about God was a consequence of his desire to be close to men so that they could truly become themselves. His love for them did not derive from any love of a greater person known as God; love for his friends was his ultimate concern."

Finally, Harrison concludes that the question of "Who was Jesus" defies an answer, but that "To say that you are a Christian means that you are in a living relationship with Jesus Christ. How you proceed to describe this is for you alone to decide."


For myself, I am still trying to figure out what I believe about Jesus, some 10 years after I left the fundamentalist Christian faith. I like what Harrison is getting at here about Jesus wanting to be in relationship or friendship with us, and that in Jesus we see God and in us, Jesus sees God. Did Jesus believe in God? If by "God" you mean a transcendent God-person, then the answer may be decidedly no.  How we live our lives, how we treat each other is what seems key to Jesus, so if I want to be close to Jesus, I will love my fellow humankind more fully and realize that we are equals.