Saturday, December 13, 2008

The "J" Word

In a famous and oft reprinted essay, local columnist Jon Carroll laments that at Christmas “we are required to deal with the divinity of Christ.” I am not sure exactly what he means about being required to deal with divinity in a culture where only 8% of the population goes to church, but if using the phrase “divinity of Christ” is a cipher for other difficult issues that arise at this time of year, then I fully agree that this time of year exudes “soft emanations of uneasiness.”

I think that any season that lives at the edge between the holy and the profane is going to be uneasy. Whether or not we attend religious services, we are not an especially holy nation. We’re traders. We are a market culture; hence we celebrate the descent of heaven by going shopping. If there is anyone in the Bible whom we are like it is the moneychangers. These are the brokers in front of the temple who get a commission every time someone goes in to offer a sacrifice. We’re not a royal priesthood. Until we crash, we multiply assets, not loaves and fishes. Jesus may have overturned the moneychangers’ tables and liberated the animals, but the culture who embraced faith in his name soon put them back up, despite the protests of the holy ones.

When life as lived runs contrary to the sacred story, one or the other will change. Enter the American Jesus. There are two very good books that describe how Americans have reinvented the savior, so I won’t get into a history of Jesus the teetotaler, Jesus the biker, Jesus the shaman, Jesus the manly man. What I will say, from listening to hours of my friends’ sermons and reading reflections is that most accounts of Jesus say a great deal more about the writer than they do about the Messiah. My Jewish friends don’t tolerate the idea of God and human mushing up together the way many Christians describe Jesus, and I think they have a real point. If Jesus is God in human form, then it is just too easy to project myself upon that form and create a god who looks just like me. And since that projected God is made by human hands, then, bingo! I have created, not God, but an idol, and that, as my Jewish friends again remind me, is a very bad idea.

In addition, I suspect that it takes a holy person to accurately describe a holy person, and most of us who talk about Jesus are far from being holy. We can admire Jesus, but we cannot really see him. I can only see as far as I can see. I can only know the holy by its effect on me, and if it brings out the very worst, where’s the problem? With God or with me?

There’s an interesting observation in Carlos Castaneda’s “The Art of Dreaming.” As Carlos discovers his powers as a dreamer, he just dives into the universe like a daredevil, without giving the slightest heed to the possibility that disturbing the cosmos might be a dangerous enterprise, not only to himself, but to others. There are times, as a Christian, that I feel myself face to face with a daredevil church, leaping into controversy without the slightest thought that it might be harmful to the gentle practice of faith.

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