The reason I remain Orthodox is the same as the reason I became Orthodox. I remain confronted with the Incarnation. Confronted with what to do with the historical person of Jesus Christ.
I begin with this person Jesus. There hasn’t been any serious historical debate over his existence for some time. Those who simultaneously deny his importance and try to disprove his existence have been silenced by the weight of evidence. After all, his enemies, both Roman and Jewish, wrote of him vociferously. And the Greeks, so often discounted with the ad hominem that they were, after all, his converts, wrote of him, friend and foe. That there was a man named Jesus who lived when and where and more-or-less how he is supposed to have, and died when and where and how he is supposed to have, is not under substantive dispute.
It is also quite clear that he said certain things. Of course, the Holy Scriptures are so often discounted as ‘tainted’, while some really amazing tripe is taken for academically acceptable, but I am unable to discount something because of who wrote it, or why. Sometimes in the footnotes, even of fools or fanatics, we find things we are unable to discount. But what is more, we find agreement and little disagreement in the writings of his enemies about Jesus’ central claims.
It was clear, also, that his claims were fairly well understood by those who opposed him. When they stoned him, he asked why. They said because he had made himself out to be God. And that was precisely the point. They had hit upon the central assertion of his life. That God had become a man.
It’s become somewhat common to hear the Anglican C.S. Lewis’ logic in the mouths of fundamentalists who would otherwise deny the ecclesiological and mysteriological conclusions to which he comes. So I risk offending the reader with what, in some circles, has come to seem not only trite, but a mark of a certain sect of which I am no part. Again, I feel free to draw from sources that are widely subject to ad hominem. After all, I am not an Anglican. Lewis makes the following observations:
Jesus claimed to be God become man. Either:
- he was lying (i.e. He knew he was not God, and yet claimed to be.)
- he was mad (i.e. He did not know he was not God, and yet claimed to be.)
- he was telling the truth (i.e. He knew he was God as he had claimed to be.)
It is interesting that these are exactly the three reactions that his contemporaries had. They were not confused over his claims. They understood that he had claimed to be God. But the records from all sources are clear: Some said he was mad – a “fool”. Some said he was lying. Finally, there were those who believed. The surprising thing was which people thought what; it wasn’t what one might expect. Those one would think would defend him, ridiculed him or shook their heads. Those one might think would mock him, knelt.
There was one other assertion, which is very interesting. Some accused him of having a demon. Demonism, of course, would approximate madness, and the two would still be confused for nearly two millenia afterward. Demonism, too, would be an explanation for lying, since Beelzebub, their chief, was the “Father of Lies”. But the assertion is interesting for another reason — the claim that Jesus was evil. And the claim makes absolute sense if he was lying, whether out of his own ego or under a demon’s influence.
To truly grasp the nature of this accusation against Jesus, one must think about the implications of his central claim. For this confession, that God had become a man, twenty centuries of martyrs have surrendered to torture and have given their lives. A massacre dwarfing the genocide practiced on behalf of any ideology of any world dictator from Stalin to Hitler. An after all, Jesus warned that he was taking up his cross, was going to die, and bade anyone to come and follow him. In short, if Jesus was lying, he was more evil than a Hitler, more monstrous than a Stalin. In fact, if he was lying, he makes the chief among demons look more like a moderate thug. I am willing to consider the possibility that Jesus was the most evil man in human history, but I ask that those who must assert this when they suggest that he was lying, help me to understand how this most evil man in history could invent and bestow upon us the most beautiful and loving moral and ethical worldview ever conceived. The foundation of mercy in law. The institution of chartiy (after all, it was Jesus’ followers, taking his words literally, that built the world’s first hospitals, orphanages, and homes for unwed mothers). It was the words of Jesus that led Martin Luther King to proclaim “I have a dream.” I think, for the educated reader, enough examples will come to mind that I need not belabour the point.
This still leaves me with the possibility of Jesus’ madness. I think dubious psychohistory would finally cut off its own head, if it were to make Jesus out to be insane. Anyone who has ever read the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.”) would have a hard time showing anything but the most benevolent sanity. If the Jesus of those precious words is mad, then so am I, and so would I want to be. And so are half the poets we have inspiring us in university, and so are half the literary genius’, and so are all who conceive of an make peace. I would be willing to accept the possibility of Jesus’ insanity, but only in accepting that he is no more insane than a Ghandi, a Martin Luther King, or a Mother Theresa, and that insanity, if that is what it is called, is desireable, and sanity of the opposite kind the true evil.
The problem most of us have is that we’re prejudiced against the final option. Logic tells us that we must consider it on its own merits, equally with the other possibilities, but we flinch from that. I suppose at some point I decided not to flinch. So often one is considered to have surrendered his logical faculties to religion. I don’t plan on surrendering anything. It is, in fact, the willingness to be true to my logical faculties, and the choice to be free from anti-intellectualism, whether of the religious or of the ideological and academic kind, that made me willing to examine each possibility with logical equity. I don’t accept an ad hominem prohibition on one question where I allow another question.
In considering Jesus’ claim to be God, I looked for implications of that. Not so I could rule out the question if I didn’t like the implications. I looked because if he was telling the truth, then things would be different than if he were lying. I wasn’t looking for “proof”; I was looking for prima facie evidence. If I do indeed have a light in my hand, the room should not be entirely dark.
Naturally, I didn’t ignore the other common claim that one hears religionists make. That some 600 prophesies were fulfilled by Jesus’ Incarnation (his becoming man). From the time and place of his birth, to the things that would be said and done to him by his enemies, I did, in fact, see things that would be impossible to fulfill intentionally. But I wanted more. I had to satisfy the theoretical part of my mind.
What I thought about was this: If there is “God”, then “God” would have no relevance to me at all. For “God” to be “God”, to be what we are attempting to say when we say “God”, he would have to be beyond all categories of human thought, beyond knowing, beyond even the knowledge of his existence. In short, he would have no bearing on anything that I could know or care about. It would be as if he didn’t exist. But if this were true, and “God” were at least our creator, and wished to have any relevance to us, or even for us to be really aware of creation, he would have to have some connection to us. We would have to have some connection to him. But this would be impossible, if for no other reason than that we are temporal, finite, limited, bounded, ephemeral, and when we say “God”, we mean something that cannot be contained by those categories, cannot exist in them, cannot touch us.
In short, for “God” to have any relevance whatsoever, he would have to do the impossible to reach us. He would have to become man. And that is exactly what Jesus was claiming had happened. In short, in order to believe in “God”, in order to have any basis to speak of “God”, one must believe in the Incarnation, in God becoming man. Short of that, there is no “God” of any relevance, and all that we say about “God” is make believe. It’s the Incarnation or atheism. I wonder if some threw stones at Jesus and others knelt because they grasped this crossroads of religious experience.
What’s more, the Faith he founded, Orthodox Christianity, beginning with twelve Apostles, is the only collective of people to ever claim that God had become a man. Every other religion in the world had, was, or is rejecting such a notion. The Jews and the Romans rejected it. The Gnostics, enemies of the Orthodox, denied it, by either denying that Jesus was not fully God or that he was not fully human. In short, they severed the connection. What the Orthodox were claiming is that joining God and man as one person, uniting the two natures in one person, made it possible for man to be united to God in Jesus. Those who would eat his body and drink his blood would share in the union, would be able to achieve theosis. In St. Athanasius’ phrase, “God became man, that man might become God.”
And I knew that the various confessions of Christianity all make this assertion today. But they each make it differently. For the Protestant, the humanity is undermined. Notice that they refuse, with Nestorius the Gnostic, to call Mary Theotokos (“Mother of God”), breaking the unity by claiming she is mother only of his humanity. For the Roman Catholic, the deity is undermined, if much more subtly, since they first define “God” as impersonal essence, in which Jesus becomes essentially an attribute of impersonal ‘godness’. Only the Orthodox were saying what Jesus was saying, with all the attendant implications. But there’s something else: If Jesus was right, then the Orthodox were the church that Jesus actually founded. There were no Protestants, no merely Roman catholics. There was one Church, sharing one confession of Faith, and there would be for 1000 years from Jesus’ fundamental claim to be Incarnate God.
I suppose that wasn’t enough. The Orthodox argue that we’ve misunderstood objectivity. For most of us, objectivity means to stand outside of something and look at it from without. But the Orthodox were saying that there are some things, to stand outside of which, are to fail to comprehend. That the only means of comprehension is conversion – to know from within – to know in a way that doesn’t divide intellect from experience, theology from mysticism. The Orthodox were denying every single logical assertion I could make about God, apart from Jesus Christ. Every positive proposition. The only way to know, they were saying, was to eat of his body and drink of his blood, and afterward I would know. The only way to speak of “God” is through the knowledge that results from the Incarnation. In short, they were saying it was the Incarnation or functional atheism in the form of mere religious philosophy apart from, and now even denying, historical events. Aquinas, of course, the seminal thinker in what had become a Western “Christianity” would take the Roman Catholic/Protestant road of ‘speaking of God as if there had been no Jesus Christ’. The purely theoretical – the ahistorical. A “God” containable in rational categories, rather than God knowable and relevant in that he had become a rational soul and body, Jesus Christ.
For the Orthodox, to know meant to convert. To convert meant to know. It was a paradox. But if Jesus was right, it was the only way. If he was God, and if union with him was the way to God, then there could be no other way. Jesus even said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” If God were beyond all human categories of thought, could not be contained in created concepts, could not even be so much as spoken of – so that all that may be said of God were as equally false as it may be true, such were his inaccesibility (as I say, that’s what we mean when we say “God”), and if Jesus were telling the truth, then the Orthodox were absolutely right. The Incarnation was the impossible made possible.
I suppose I have shared that fear of getting ‘sucked into’ something that C.S. Lewis describes. I suppose my eyes glazed over. But eventually, I allowed myself to ride a storm into a harbor. I cannot prove what I say. I can say that I know that Jesus was telling the truth. But I cannot prove it. What I can do, is explain why I found it to be the only reasonable possibility, and why, unless I were to kill my own reason, and cease to exist (cease to be the one thing that makes me who I am) I had to consider the possibilities.
I do not leave, and I do not fall entirely away, and I do not forget, for one reason. Standing in the middle of the tempestuous sea that is my human experience, is God become a human, the Incarnation. And all of my experience since tasting that first drop of blood and the first bit of flesh confirm it. The beginnings of theosis confirm it.
It is an event. A historical, tangible, physical, material event that holds me. An actual person that can be touched, seen, handled, depicted. Something that cannot be circumvented. A pillar in the middle of our minds. Not a mere proposition that one can ignore. Not an ideology. Not a theory. A man came and said he was God, and everyone heard it, and since then we are forced either to answer certain questions, or hide our eyes, cover our ears, and gnash our teeth at our own minds, cutting them off from tangible reality. Become casualties of cognitive dissonance.
The Incarnation is the central point of human history. All looks forward to or back to that one event. And things are different since then. Matter is divinized. Icons, for example. And finally, in the rejoining of man to God, the rejoining of all creation to man, the reconciliation of all things is possible. Again, I suppose if that is madness, then I want to be mad.
So, is Our Lord the most monstrous mass murderer ever to walk the earth? Is He insane, He who painted us in His life and words history’s most moving portrait of peace, charity, mercy? Or is he telling the truth? I answered these questions. I couldn’t live with mental suicide. And ultimately, that’s what atheism had become. Confronted with the historical Jesus, it was no longer a feasible option, and neither was anything else.
It’s the Question that drives us, Neo. (The Matrix)