by Andrew Pratt.
It has been said that the earliest Christian creed was ‘Jesus is Lord’. It carried with it the understanding that for the Christian Jesus was the definitive model for human life and living. To say the words is easy but, for the most part we don’t take this seriously. If we did, finding out how Jesus lived in relation to people and mirroring that in our own lives would be our priority.
Beginning with that creed, we have built a religion predicated on the affirmation of beliefs rather than on ways of being. The consequence is that faithful living has become equated with this affirmation rather than on a recognition of the enormity that follows from embodying those beliefs. When they are attacked we spend time defending them and trying to diminish our detractors rather than demonstrating through our lives and actions that we accept Jesus as Lord. Our loss is that we dismiss this opposition often without hearing what its proponents are saying. Richard Dawkins, especially, I think largely because of his aggressive tone, has been side-lined. Some of what he has to say ought really to be understood if we are to recognise how difficult the call to faith actually is. This calling is unnatural.
A starting point for Jesus was not adherence to a creed, but with a call to love, demonstrated to the uttermost in how he lived and died. Deuteronomy 30:19 states: ‘I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore, choose life, that both you and your seed may live.’ If Jesus did have a creed, this was it. This choice of life is not referring to life after death, though you might want to define it as ‘eternal’ as being so utterly different from ordinary human life as to be ‘other’. The choice is existential, determinant for the very existence of humanity and love is at its centre. This is what I believe Jesus was pointing towards.
Dawkins in The Selfish Gene writes of his understanding that life continues from generation to generation by preferring aspects of living things which preserve them. Self-survival is hard-wired into out very being. That is why being selfless is so difficult. It is, by definition, unnatural. Human nature is counter to what Christians are supposed to espouse. Dawkins is, however, subtle. He addresses altruism. ‘Altruism’ may have advantages. It can make us feel good, but it can have other benefits which are not individual. He points out that care of another, in the long term, can help the whole population. This is simply utilitarian. It relates to the long-term survival of a species, in our case, humanity.
This, if we could see it, brings us back to Jesus Lordship. When we frame our statements as to what defines being Christian we need to be conscious that what is being asked of us is, firstly, apparently running counter to a strand of our being which is fine-tuned to self-interest. This demonstrates itself, for instance, in the uncritical development of hierarchy in the church. We have an inherent drive to survive and the higher up we rise, the greater the likelihood of survival.
It seems that Jesus is conscious of this, but his understanding reaches beyond the individual, beyond the tribe to encompass all of humanity. Jesus demonstrates not what to say, or believe, but how to live in a way which chooses life.
Two, illustrations undergird this. In Mark 1 Jesus is moved to reach out and touch a leper. This opens him to condemnation. It is physically and socially isolating, the opposite of being self-protective. In terms of the Greek words describing what is happening, he is viscerally moved so that he feels the person’s alienation as his own. This motivates him far more strongly than simply seeing it. He has to do something about it even if it is personally deleterious. Secondly, the Good Samaritan is moved to help in the very same way. The same language is used. Following this example puts us at a disadvantage but ultimately makes the body of humanity stronger, more inclusive, more likely to survive.
If we take Jesus as Lord, this is our model. It is not natural, in the sense of our biology, it works against our own existential longing, yet it offers salvation for humanity as a whole. The outcome enables the continued life of those despised or damaged. Finally, on the cross, those who have taken Jesus’ life are offered forgiveness. Had they been condemned, and such condemnation been our creed, humanity would have been diminished.
Moving to immediately current events, the events of war. I am conflicted. For whom do I feel compassion? The answer must be obvious. But Jesus interposes himself between those who espouse hatred and those who are hated to save both. He becomes victim to save both.
And can I follow? This is never as easy as giving assertion to any creed or belief.
This is no cheap grace.