As I promised in my last post (though a day later than originally stated), here’s the reflection I was satisfied enough with to post on this blog. This reflection was the final writing assignment for the first week of one of my online Theology courses through the University of Dayton. The prompt was, “Name one of the new issues in Christology and describe how it relates to our current cultural issues,” referring to an article by Elizabeth Johnson we read earlier in the week. The reflection follows underneath the line.
A goal of many contemporary theologians is to discover the “Jesus before Christianity,” to get beyond all the cultural accretions that have been put on to the person of Jesus throughout the centuries. Dominican Albert Nolan has written a seminal text on this topic, and there are groups of students who meet regularly to discuss this topic. In a post-World War world, where figures of authority are not trusted and long-standing cultural institutions are considered irrelevant, it is not a huge surprise that such a quest exists. To a certain extent, it is a worthy quest, as we all know there have been depictions of Jesus throughout the past 2,000 years that are not consonant with the figure of Jesus in the Gospels.
At the same time, I am wary of this search for the “Jesus before Christianity.” In fact, I think the phrase itself is an oxymoron: there is no Jesus without Christianity, nor can there be. Indeed, Jesus himself ensured that he would continue to be present to people of all times precisely through Christianity, better expressed as the Church, his mystical body. Furthermore, he made sure this group of people, this culture, would preserve his image well by giving those people the Holy Spirit as helper and guide to “teach us all things” – presumably also things about himself. When I hear of the search for the “Jesus before Christianity,” I worry that people might be searching for a Jesus outside the living tradition of the Church – which, note, has never been the one to (officially) endorse an image of Jesus that is in contrast with the Jesus of the Gospels. Certainly individual figures within the Church have distorted the image of Jesus, and cultures apparently rooted deeply in the Church have actually been in opposition to it at the core. But the Jesus of true Christianity is indeed the true Jesus – historical developments and all.
Perhaps a better way to term this issue would be the search for “Jesus above Christendom.” Soren Kierkegaard liked to distinguish between Christianity, the true life of Jesus Christ carried out in his people, and Christendom, the formalized, governmentally influenced state church of his time. The image of Jesus in the latter was undeniably distorted and deserves “digging behind” to get to the true Jesus. Hopefully that digging, however, would eventually lead to the Jesus of Christianity, which in the end is not merely each individual’s relationship of faith with Jesus, but the whole community, the Church’s understanding of Jesus throughout all of history.
Thoughts? This was actually written rather quickly, so there might be some holes, and since it’s also brief I hope it doesn’t imply anything I wasn’t able to develop. Ready, go!