In the last few days/weeks I have written several posts dealing with broad, abstract things: Truth, goodness, beauty, the monarchical vision, God, heaven and earth and so fourth. I do have a weakness for the broad and abstract, the heavenly instead of the earthly and the practical. One thing I’ve noticed is that Jesus doesn’t fit too well into this sort abstract, metaphysical thinking. I did bring up Jesus in my series on truth, but even then, I felt somewhat awkward, wasn’t this a paradigm case of “Jesus smuggling?” Indeed, “Jesus smuggling” is pretty good description of the problem. There are all sorts of arguments for the God of the philosophers, but to get from God to Jesus, is, as many have noted, quite a leap. Jesus is pretty inconvenient for the would-be Christian Philosopher. All of the pieces in his/her grand philosophical scheme seem to fit together, but then, there is one piece of the puzzle left, this random dude from 2000 years ago who claims to be the “cornerstone.”
It is particularity that bothers us. This particular Jesus lived in Galilee, he ate fish and probably got some on his beard, he had friends named Mary and Peter and Lazarus. This Jesus was crucified on a cross because of the politics of a particular time, at the orders of Potifus Pilate. What is the God of the universe doing there, in that particular place, in that particular time, with that particular group of people, using those particular words, why does he have that particular name?
This is the paradox of the incarnation, at the heart of Christianity. That God became a particular man. Kierkegaard writes:
The paradox consist principally in the fact that God, the Eternal, came into existence in time as a particular man. Whether this particular man is a servant or and emperor is neither here nor there, it is no more adequate for God to be King than to be beggar; it is not a greater humiliation for God to be a king than to be beggar.
The God-man wasn’t the shining figure in pure white we see in our children’s picture bibles, he was a “socially insignificant man:”
Christ is the Paradox, the God man. He is the very compounding of God and a socially insignificant man. But this is not the way we Christians like to think about it. We regard Jesus Christ as a great man who lived misunderstood, but after his death became somebody great. And this is how we want to be. Aha! This is why today’s Christianity is nonsense. All the danger is taken away. No, Jesus Christ is the sign of offence and the object of faith. Only in eternity is he in his glory. Here upon earth he must never be presented in any other way than in his social insignificance- so that everyone can be offended or believe.
Our inclusive, tolerant society doesn’t like particularity all that much either. We celebrate all cultures and religions and say “diversity is our strength,” but we don’t much like the whole “no one comes to the father but through me,” thing. Our society likes ALL of the religions, but we don’t like any of them in PARTICULAR. See, we love, the broad, the inclusive and the universal, but we hate the particulars. It’s like a character in Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov puts it: “The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually as separate persons.”
If we invented Jesus, we would invent a universal figure, one that somehow comes at all times, places and cultures. But the real Jesus is a lover of the particular. He brings us down from our lofty metaphysical heights and tells to “love people in particular.” The creator of the universe descends from on high and gets his feet dirty walking the dirt road to Emmaus. The ineffable Glory washes fish slime from his fingers in the Sea of Galilee and calls particular children to him. He cries at the death of his friend. He uses coins with Caesar Augustus’s inscription on them. He came for mankind, one individual at a time.
I often think that our contemporary cultural situation isn’t all that different from the Roman culture Christianity emerged in. The same religious relativism that pervades modern western society today also pervaded the Roman world: there was room in the Pantheon for ALL deities, but no Deity in particular. By all means, add your god to the heap, after all, “diversity is our strength,” but please worship the heap, not the God. In a rather amusing parallel to the unprincipled open mindedness of today, the author of Acts writes: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” So this was a society just as relativistic as ours. It was just as scandalous and offensive (and probably intolerant) to proclaim Jesus as Lord, then, as it is now. The idea that Jesus has to be domesticated to fit the relativism of a cosmopolitan society is not a “because it’s 2015” idea, it’s just 21st century Hellenism.
So, it’s not just us “moderns” (if that word isn’t chronological snobbery, nothing is.) who find the particularism of “Jesus is Lord,” awkward, the early Christians were in the exact same situation. The only difference? Particularism in the 21st century gets you labeled “exclusivist” or “intolerant.” Particularism in the first century got you killed.
It’s also not just us “moderns” who are repelled by the particularity of Jesus: that it is this particular man called Jesus that is Lord. The contemporaries of Jesus faced the same reality. How can it be that the God-man came into time and walked among us as a particular individual? When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, the Nazirites were repelled. They must have seen the young Jesus eating figs, playing games, helping his father, or getting into mischief, and yet here was this man, now fully grown, proclaiming that the scriptures had been fulfilled in their presence. Really? They asked. This particular Jesus? This carpenter? This son of Mary? This, the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us? And they took offence at him.
Really, the situation today is no different. When we are confronted by the Nazirine, when we are asked with Peter, “who do you say that I am?” we can be repelled, or we can say with Peter, “You are the Messiah.” The choice is the same one that has confronted individuals across the ages. We can be offended by the Particular or we can fall down and worship him.