apologetics, ascension, Barton Gingerich, Bible, Buddhism, Christian Piatt, higher criticism, Incarnation, Institute on Religion and Democracy, IRD Blog, liberal theology, miracle, resurrection, Sojourners, supernatural, transcendentalism
The progressively evangelical Sojourners has done it again: they have provided an “edgy” take on a theological issue. On the God’s Politics blog, Christian Piatt mused on Jesus Christ and His miracles. Namely, the Sojo writer asserts that we make too big a deal about them. He clarified that “amazing feats, whether or not they are literally miraculous acts, are simply not enough. The fall will inevitably come.” This “fall” in spiritual morale has had significant consequences, as Piatt contends, “If we focus solely on the supernatural, fantastic stories of Jesus, he becomes removed, unreachable, less human. And if we justify our faith by such miracles, what happens if someone else comes along who appears to be equally miraculous? Will we know the difference?” So what then is the Christ all about? Piatt answers, “It seems to me, based on my understanding of the Gospels, that Jesus always pointed toward something other than himself — toward God — in all he did and said. And in doing so, he performed what I consider his greatest miracle: complete transcendence of self.”
The first warning lights for this article probably brightened at the sight of myriad mushy qualifiers. Let’s look at Exhibit #1: “I’m not in a place where I’m ready to qualify all of the miracles in the Bible as metaphor — though I think some likely are — but I am wary of affording too much weight to them, as if my own faith depended on them being literally true.” Hark! Higher criticism! Piatt even goes for the resurrection. The “spoken word artist” observes, “Some will argue that he saved the biggest and best for last, raising from the dead, which finally put all of his doubters in their place. Really? Then why are our numbers, at least in the Western World, in such precipitous decline?”
First of all, the decline in numbers doesn’t speak to the truth of Christianity’s claim that Jesus literally, physically rose from the dead. Followers apostatize (even Judas, who accompanied the Messiah for about 3 years), Christians fail to evangelize or have babies, other religions convert, and popular ideas try to discount claims of the faith. The world, the flesh, and the devil strive to make people forget about the empty tomb. Second, the physical resurrection is the keystone of the Christian faith; if rejected, the whole edifice crumbles. St. Paul clearly states this case in I Corinthians 15. After recounting a very historical (nay, even legal) case for Christ’s physical resurrection, the apostle warns, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain…If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”
Yes, Jesus is fully God and fully man. The resurrection proves that. Piatt is right to notice that failure to portray His humility and meekness is to not give a full picture of Him. Most significant heresies attacked the nature of Christ in some way, whether we look at will, divinity, or humanity. Christians need to give a full picture of the Christ, downplaying nothing. I would argue that the humanity-divinity issue is resolved in the resurrection, so hypothetically forcing it to be a non-historical literary trope is out of the question.
But this does not deal with the meat the blog post’s thesis. Piatt ultimately questions a superstitiously naïve reverence for the power of God. [I would add that this is generally an all-around bad idea (though every generation has its Gideons and Doubting Thomases, who eventually confess “My Lord and My God!”)]. The Sojo blogger looks to a stage magician and Michael Phelps. The magician replicated some of Christ’s miracles, showing that “miracles of transformation (water to wine), levitation (walking on water) and multiplication (fishes and loaves) that are all part of a modern-day magician’s wheelhouse.” Likewise, Olympic swimming star accomplishes superhuman feats of athleticism, so miracles as exceeded human limits seems problematic.
Piatt isn’t the first to raise this point. Pharaoh did the same with Moses. The lord of Egypt had his magicians turn their rods into serpents, transform water into blood, and summon an overabundance of amphibians. The cost of this, we will remember, was quite high. The Might of the Almighty (hint!) quickly dwarfs that of any other power, whether sleight of hand or otherwise.
What then is Piatt’s point if we need to avoid portraying Jesus “removed, unreachable, less human”? What should we be making a big deal about instead? Well, according to Piatt, Jesus is great, but it’s because he draws people to a “complete transcendence of self.” As a friend of mine said, “I think the biggest problem amongst this clash of titanic blunders is that the author apparently thinks Jesus is the founder of Buddhism, not Christianity.” This, indeed, seems to be the case: either Buddhism or a kind of the ole standard American Transcendentalism. Yes, the soul does rise to the spheres to gaze in awe at the majestic Three-in-One. That’s kind of the point of Dante’s Paradiso and really isn’t anything new. You see similar elements in the last book of Plato’s Republic. The phenomenon, however, is not as interior and non-physical as Piatt portrays. It’s both; it is paradox; it is, in the words of Lewis, “myth become fact.” The embodied soul is resurrected with Him. We’re not just talking about overcoming the ego here. No, Jesus merits our everything because He died for the sins of the world and resurrected three days later to prove that He had truly destroyed death.
And we cannot ascend if we are not first resurrected with Him.