Who is Jesus? – A Letter to a Friend

Dear Friend,

In your last email, you made some theological/christological statements that I would like to address. I think that you and I are, in many ways, in a fairly similar place, and from what I understood of your beliefs, I do not feel the need to “correct” you. I think that you will be led into all truth if you continue to follow the path that you are on – that of opening yourself to God’s Spirit and trusting God to guide you in all things, even things that run contrary to your own desires. However, I would like to share with you my own understanding of Christ’s Inward Light. This may be at some variance with yours, but perhaps you will hear something in it that you can resonate with and that might be useful for your consideration.

The way I understood what you said, you believe that Jesus was filled with “the Christ,” but that “the Christ” is not specifically identifiable with Jesus of Nazareth. This is a fairly common view among Friends, and it has many things to recommend it. First, it avoids any hint of idolatry. Let’s be honest: worshipping Jesus is a really questionable practice. All of our monotheistic heritage teaches us that we are to worship God alone; and things get really complicated when we begin to understand a human being as being not only a human, but as also being God. By saying that Jesus was “full of God” rather than “being himself God,” we avoid getting tangled up in this question. We can affirm the oneness of God and the importance of Jesus as teacher while setting aside any tricky discussions of the “Trinity.”

Another useful thing about this line of thought is that it allows us to emphasize the responsibility of each human being to live up to Jesus’ measure. That is, if Jesus was only human – not also God – then there is no doubt that we can, and should, live up to the same standards of holiness that he did. All of us are called to be filled with the Life and Power of Christ, just like Jesus. By removing the “Divine” from “fully human and fully divine,” we can remove any suggestion that Jesus was somehow not normative for human behavior.

Finally, this understanding of God and Jesus is very suitable to a pluralist understanding of world religions. If Jesus was only human – not also God – then it is easier to imagine that other religions might have “gotten it right,” while not necessarily negating the Christian tradition. If Jesus was simply a human who was fully living out God’s purpose for humanity, then maybe so was Mohammed; or the Buddha; or Gandhi. The “exemplary human” view of Jesus allows us to disengage from controversial claims of Jesus’ uniqueness and focus on the divine potential in all people, culture and religions.

So, I see a lot of really attractive aspects to your view of Jesus as an exemplary human being, full of the “Christ Spirit,” but, ultimately, just an ordinary human being like each of us. I have held this view in the past. However, my understanding of Jesus has since changed.

My experience of Jesus is one of indescribable mystery, and my ability to argue in favor of my understanding of Jesus is weakened by the fact that it is beyond any human comprehension. However, I am convinced that it is the truth. Somehow, the inconceivable happened: God became a human being. My conviction is not that Jesus “lived up to the light that he had”; instead, I understand Jesus as being the Light. When Jesus said, “before Abraham was, I AM,” I do not believe that he was speaking metaphorically. I believe that the same Being that spoke to Moses out of the burning bush was born, lived, and was put to death among the people of ancient Palestine.

And yet, Jesus was also a human being, just like us. What is so incomprehensible in my understanding of Jesus is that I do not simply think that he was some divine avatar, God wrapped in a thin veneer of the human form. Jesus was a human being. Jesus was not just God, he was a man, too. He thirsted, he hungered, he defecated. He suffered humiliation and torture, and he died on the most dreadful instrument of Roman terror, the cross. Jesus was God’s Son – a human being, but at the same time, God’s very presence on the earth.

It makes no sense. It is indefensible. It is foolishness to the secular and a stumbling block to interfaith dialogue. It is weak in every area where your belief is strong. But I am convinced that it is the truth.
It is humbling to find that my faith is orthodox by historical Christian standards. I never had any particular desire to be orthodox. I have always taken pride in being different. But, here I stand, taking up the faith of the ancient Church, held for thousands of years. I am not original.

What does make our faith different from many Christians today and throughout history is that we are convinced that Christ’s presence is not limited to the short period of Jesus’ earthly life. We know with certainty that our Lord is indeed risen from the dead and present among us in glory and with power. We can hold our beliefs lightly, because we know that God is so much bigger than our own human understanding. However, even though I see now in a mirror dimly, I believe that I must continue to be a witness to the Truth as it has been revealed in my life – even knowing that I cannot defend it with persuasive arguments. The Truth does not need me to defend it; only to be a witness.

Even so, I would encourage you to re-read the gospel accounts with what I have said in mind. I believe that you will find that Jesus’ claims as to his own identity fit more convincingly with an understanding of Jesus as God’s Son rather than a view of Jesus as a “completely inspired,” but otherwise ordinary human being. I’d be interested to hear how you justify your view based in scriptural interpretation. I do not feel that the Bible “proves” that Jesus is the Son of God; but I do think that it confirms with a written witness the inward reality that I, the early Friends, and the early Church have experienced.

Your friend in Truth,