“Some things are too clear to be understood. . . . We always have to go back and start from the beginning and make over all the definitions for ourselves again.” — Thomas Merton, Seeds
There is a common view that under the skin we are all alike, that were it not for accidents of birth, language, geography, and culture, we’d probably all be . . . Americans, or at least Western Europeans. On the other hand, Americans are so imbued with the belief that each and every one of us is sui generis, and that we have something of enormous import to bring to the universe which would not arrive in any other way, that we would be shocked to find ourselves considered merely curious in most parts of the world.
We are constantly trying to make sense of life. It appears to us in many forms: as a ‘darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night (Arnold),’ or as hope springing eternal or as the marketplace in which fortunes are made and lost in a moment, but no one is sure why or who to blame. And we see the many variations on a theme, some of them irreducibly contradictory, and may come to wonder if we could, any or all of us, ever understand each other.
So at the end of a semester of teaching a course in Jesus and the Gospels, one that coincidentally I began my teaching career with 30 years ago, I discovered that the Jesus of the Gospels is even less intelligible to me now than he was then. Then I was fresh out of graduate school, brimming with other people’s research and ideas, ready to pass it all along to eager, inquisitive students. The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith were parallel figures to me, but they appeared to converge at only a few points. While Jesus of Nazareth could be placed in the historical stream of events with some certainty I never felt that I understood him. If the Christ of faith, carried in the heart, was more real I had the uncomfortable feeling that it was because he was made in our image—a 20th-century man under the first-century garb. Jesus was a first-century Jew whose short life was spent traversing the countryside of Galilee with occasional trips to Jerusalem. The Christ was an urban dweller, equally at home in Corinth as in Carthage, and fluent in Christian faith-talk.
Those classes back in the day were exciting as we tried to look with fresh eyes at the Jesus of the Gospels. Reading the Gospels as both scripture and as literature, like miners we worked our way down through the layers of history with some of the tools of modern critical research on the Bible. But while it was illuminating to make the Gospels our primary texts instead of the usual Bible commentaries, it was usually with the assurance that the end of the story was known. The trajectory of the plotline was so familiar that we did not bother to look where it landed. I came away from the years of teaching that class with a sense that I had barely scratched the surface. I knew more of the context, of the historical and critical tools that helped to identify the strata of the texts, but I could sense that there was so much more to be found.
Then my personal and professional life changed directions and for the next twenty-plus years my teaching was in communication theory, public relations, ethics, and religions of the world. Jesus and I traveled the same routes—not always at the same times however—and I found myself regarding him from a greater distance than before. I tried to place him more clearly within a historical context, a process that sharpened his outlines but made him smaller, like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. But my admiration for him increased, along with the growing conviction that I wouldn’t have understood him more than the disciples, even if I’d spent as much time with him as they did. I wasn’t even sure I could recognize him if he wasn’t surrounded by a crowd.
Coming back to the course after all these years has been an exhilarating—and humbling—experience. The students have changed drastically—not just that there are new ones to take the place of the former students—but in so many other ways. When I first taught the course in 1981 almost all of the 100 students in two different sections were white and from Seventh-day Adventist backgrounds. This semester there were two white students in a class of 30 and only one was raised an Adventist. Most of the class were Africans and few of them were teenagers. They had come from many different Christian or Muslim communities; some had left families and husbands back in other countries, and they were here to become nurses as quickly as possible. They were dignified, deferential, and quietly stressed with work, studies, children, and bills. They regarded the Synoptic theory with wonder and found the variances between the Gospels as troubling at first and finally, merely interesting. For many of them Jesus was not a mystery but a personal friend.
But I felt myself gripped this time around by the otherness of Jesus, the numinous quality of that which is alien, even transcendent, while still intensely human. I found myself struggling to put this experience into words. Whereas years ago, still in the heady glow of graduate school, I wanted to set off firecrackers in the classroom and rip away the placid veils of ignorance, now I came as one who knows how little he knows and is grateful to experience that hunger.
We cannot step outside of history, particularly when it comes to following Jesus. His history is ours by virtue of the fact that he made our history his own. And yet . . . we must not grow too complacent with this God-man who can bless children and throw out money-changers. He traveled easily with prostitutes and counted possible insurgents as his friends. His eyes could fill with tears over the pain of the many, but he could roundly curse the religious authorities to their self-made hells. He knew us through and through and loved us anyway. In the end, he went to his death without heroics. Like a scarecrow against the threatening skies he was an awful sight to see. Most of us ran. Against all odds he transcended death after descending into it like one diving into the wreck. And on the third day, rising, he opened a portal to a parallel dimension. Lest there be any misunderstanding he said he would be with us to the end. Now we see through a glass darkly but one day face to face.