Do we need a different Jesus?
I've been wondering how the figure of Jesus might recapture the contemporary imagination? Or which Jesus - because there are many - might strike individuals (a bit like me, I confess) as engaging; even worth orientating a life towards?
I don't think it can be many of the more common Jesuses you meet. I wouldn't want to knock the idea of the Jesus who died for my sin, for example: the prevalence of sin is one of Christianity's more obviously true doctrines and it is a wonderful thing to be able to live in spite of all your failings. But the cross as a sacrifice is now difficult to get a handle on.
If that's the evangelical Jesus, then the liberal one - Jesus the social justice champion - seems like a kind of category error. He was drawn to the poor, though I suspect not because he thought he could alleviate material suffering in any political sense, though he did what he could. But because he realised that the poor live explicitly what all people live implicitly: in a state of vulnerability and dependence. 'The poor will always be with you,' he said, because their condition will always be true of mortals. In this sense, 'Blessed are the poor.' They know a truth I typically don't.
But perhaps there is a Jesus tradition that might speak, and is ready to be revived. It has had an awkward relationship to mainstream western Christianity because early on it got on the wrong side of the gnostic and Chalcedonian controversies. I'm thinking of the Jesus who is variously described as the hidden, wisdom or mystery Jesus. He might speak to a world that seems increasingly conscious of a lost spiritual dimension.
This Jesus invites you on an inner journey in everyday life, thereby becoming more aware of what's going on at depth. Material life is important: denying it was the gnostic mistake. And the historical Jesus was not remembered for being an ascetic: he seems to have feasted and fasted, equally disinterested in both. That was presumably because he knew the humdrum is only part of our story, and not the determining part, a bit like choppy waves on the surface of the sea that lose touch with the slower, steadier pulse that traverses beneath, though contains much more of life's energy.
This Jesus naturally fits the language of psychology, a big plus today. Take his saying, 'First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye'. This can be translated as tackling the way we project what we dislike most about ourselves, and so find intolerable, into others. It's a neat, vivid version of the rule that if someone bugs you, you can be sure they reflect something you hate in yourself.
This tradition is also associated with the great psychotherapists of the early church, the desert fathers such as Evagrius Ponticus. He was the first to describe the deadly sins, though he himself did not deploy them to condemn people. Rather, he provides a guide to the inner life and warns his fellows that if they go on this journey they must be prepared to face their narcissism, gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory and pride. It is not easy to do. Self-justificatory denial is an ever present option.
In this schema, one way to see the cross is as a truth that all who seek enlightenment must face: transformed life can only be found through confusion and struggle because we understand only from within the constellation of our present suffering. Look at the stories of the ancient Greek heroes Odysseus, Heracles, Demeter. They undergo trials and deaths, which though they did not realise at the time, serve to break their assumptions about life and reveal the kind of insights that can only be transmitted by experience. Such myths are remembered because they capture the prototypical path of the individual soul. The Triduum of church liturgy around Easter can be experienced similarly.
Similarly, this Jesus is a wisdom teacher, a master of the kind of sayings and stories that dislodge, disorientate and make for movement and change. Some are pretty straightforward: 'It is more blessed to give than receive' (because it is in giving that you become more receptive). Others seem to be about how you tackle life: 'Sufficient for the day is its own trouble' (face the anxieties in front of you now and the anxieties of tomorrow may, in fact, lessen.)
Jesus does not have a monopoly in this domain. There are fascinating parallels between his teaching and that of the Greek cynics, say. I think these links should be explored. They help incarnate Jesus in history, you might say.
There are also other sayings that are more mystical: 'Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.' I take this to be pointing to Jesus the Logos, the word or pattern or wisdom which pervades creation - 'in whom we live and move and have our being,' as Paul put it, quoting the Stoics. To be washed in the Logos would be to have conscious and unconscious willfulness soaked away so that my life gradually reorientates around a bigger flow. For we humans, for whom our own existence is too small for us, this process is painful but liberating, I trust.
The crux of the figure of Jesus, for Christians, is his death and resurrection. Well, I sense this tradition can invigorate the meaning of that too. The mystery of Golgotha, I take it, is not some empirical demonstration of divine power. It does not prove, it shows and, I'm inclined to think, after the pattern of the ancient mystery cults, enacted in history. It offers a wisdom that had formerly been attainable at places like Eleusis, via theoria. This was spectacular journeying that strips away ignorance to afford glimpses of the spiritual truths of being - 'spiritual' simply meaning beyond the physical senses; another kind of knowing. Knowing what? Well, in Heraclitus' summary: 'Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living in their death and dying in their life.'
The death and resurrection of Jesus opened this mystery to all. The follower of the Christian way experiences it too, and might come to know eternal life.