James Carroll

Jesus: The core of faith and history

By James Carroll
December 27, 2010

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THERE IS the Christ of faith. And there is the Jesus of history. Scholars distinguish between the figure elaborately defined by creed (Light of Light, True God of True God) and the nearly anonymous character who lived for 30 years or so in a rural province of ancient Palestine. But the festivities of this season, even for that vast areligious majority for whom Jesus has only cultural significance, point to the way in which he has transcended doctrine to become a token, in Western civilization at least, of almost universal positive regard. For multitudes, whether church-going or not, he is quite simply an object of love.

“By their fruit you shall know them,’’ Jesus is remembered saying. In his case, for all the enshrouding mystery, a palpable harvest of ethical goodness and spiritual genius survives a long history of intermingled virtues and crimes advanced in his name. Not only critics of Christianity sense the distance between Jesus and the institution that jelled around his image: Christians are first to do so. After all, the Gospels tell a story of abandonment by those who loved him most — and they were themselves the ultimate source of that story. The betrayal of Jesus by Jesus people goes with the territory. Thus the quite human communities of his followers have, from the start, used his memory as a measure, and, always falling short, have found in that memory principles of self-criticism, forgiveness, and resolve. Followers of Jesus still do that.

The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus was first to get it, how those who loved Jesus “were unable to let go of their affection for him,’’ which still holds. This astonishingly unbroken attachment, in culture as well as religion, has to do, perhaps, less with the accretions of ecclesial tradition than with the way ordinary people, children included, have found steady access to the man himself, fully alive behind all layers of dogma. Hence the 12 days of Christmas, when that man is once again glimpsed through all that might obscure him. That many humans use these days as markers of hope, peace, generosity — if also as a time of fate-laden reckoning with endings and beginnings — suggests something about who he remains to us.

The other side of this story is the way in which, again from the very start, we humans have used Jesus as a lens through which to project our prejudices and needs onto the screen of history. So when 1st Century Roman military occupation led to civil war among the colonized Jews, Jesus people purged him of Jewishness to imagine a Gentile Jesus (“His own knew him not’’), in radical contradiction to the first fact of his history — that he was a Jew through and through. When Christians found themselves aligned with the Roman empire, Jesus emerged as the embodiment of political power (King of Kings). When, in times of plague, the challenge was to make sense of inescapable misery, an agonized Jesus came to the fore (the bloody crucifix), as if God could will suffering as a mode of redemption. When Christianity remade itself as Christendom, a necessary reaction to material excess elevated a puritan Jesus (the cross without a corpus). Against cold rationalism, there came a warmly pious Jesus (the Sacred Heart). In line with racist eugenics, an Aryan Jesus emerged (blue eyed, light brown flowing hair). When the time came for the overthrow of the corruptions of the old order, why not a revolutionary Jesus (liberation theology)?

All of this might be described as normal Christology, how the Christ of faith has continually been re-imagined out of the Jesus of history, shaped more perhaps by that prejudice and need than revelation. This pattern repeats itself in every generation, even as every generation takes its quite contingent portrait of Jesus as — well, as Gospel. If there is something different about the way we think of Jesus today, in a time of scientific historical criticism, it may lie precisely in our being conscious of this process — Jesus as a lens through which mere shadows are cast on the screen. But there are no shadows without light, and that light, finally, is not of our making. Light of Light, after all. There is the core of faith, and also history. Seasons greetings.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.