I’m not the clearest communicator. I know this. But I may have taken confusion to new heights last week when I wrote Our Jesus.
The comments to that post (and a couple blog posts others wrote in response) have bothered me over the weekend, making me feel like I’ve failed you. Some people think I’m a relativist who doesn’t believe there are any absolutes. Others think I’m a universalist of some sort, encouraging people to believe whatever they want about Jesus as if what’s actually true doesn’t matter. So, as annoyed as some of you may be with my revisiting this topic, I think I owe it to others of you who are concerned about me and have been brought to what one reader called a “point of despair.” So here’s another stab at it.
Stephen posted a great quote from N.T. Wright in the comments that sums up well much of what I’m trying (unsuccessfully) to say:
“The one thing I want to add to that is humility. And humility includes intellectual humility. And it’s difficult, because within our rationalistic western world, people assume that if you say that, you’re a relativist. I’m certainly not a relativist. Jesus is the Lord, and I worship Him, and He is the center of my life. And that’s non-negotiable, actually. I know I could no more step outside that than I could step outside my own skin. But precisely because it is Jesus who is the Lord, it behooves me to say, as I used to say to my students when I was teaching in the university, “Listen, a third of what I’m telling you is badly flawed in some way. But I don’t know which one third it is.” So you need to live with those questions and puzzles.”
If that doesn’t clear things up maybe this will.
When I read the words of Jesus I make a decision about what he meant and how I should think and live in light of what he meant. We all do this whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Those decisions are not made in a vacuum. My politics, upbringing, church tradition, books I’ve read, people I’ve met, race, concerns about my comfort and prosperity and reputation, age, the trajectory of my current plans – all of these things and thousands more factor into those decisions.
For many years I made decisions – without realizing it – that resulted in a Jesus that rarely made me more than mildly uncomfortable. Jesus didn’t say anything that offended me, endangered me, or wouldn’t support every point of the Republican party platform. I interpreted Jesus through the filters of my preferences and experiences and came up with a Jesus very much like my parents.
My parents are fantastic people, by the way, but they aren’t Jesus.
I now try to simply be aware of the filters and biases I bring to interpretation (and the filters and biases of the “experts”) while realizing I can never fully rid myself of them. They are the dark glass blurring our vision for now.
The constant possibility that my understanding of God is biased and incorrect doesn’t make me a relativist though. Nor does it cause me to abandon scripture and interpretation altogether. It does three things for me instead that I’m thankful for: 1) It makes me – a naturally arrogant guy – more humble. I’m constantly reminded of what I do not know. 2) This makes me much more focussed on the core stuff of Christianity I am most certain of, the things most of us Christians believe in common: I am a sinner, Jesus was not, He was divine and human, He died for me because He loves me, He wants me to partner with him now to meet the spiritual and physical needs of people, and nothing I can do or not do can change how much He values me. 3) This increased humility and focus gives me less to fight with you about. Holy wars and church splits both often come, I believe, from being arrogantly certain about things that are not at the center of our faith.
Uncertainty then, for me, is a gift that enhances my faith in Jesus by obliterating my faith in my own intellect and that of the experts.