After his natural life and rather sudden death, Jesus the Galilean started on a mythological career which carried him all the way to the top-floor corner office of the universe, as none other than God Incarnate. A surprising majority of those who confess to be Christian have little knowledge of how a backwater itinerant teacher eventually became the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The obvious reason for this ignorance is rooted in their belief that Jesus was God Incarnate from the very beginning, just as Christian orthodoxy says. In other words, the story starts there.
But the advancement in our knowledge since the fourth century, when Jesus was officially promoted to his fully-divine status, makes such a confession today a matter of willful ignorance. Discoveries from the study of history, cosmology, sociology, mythology, psychology, and the development of Christian doctrine itself have to be deliberately ignored for the sake of ‘keeping the faith’. In this case, faith becomes a matter of believing it anyway, as if intentionally sweeping aside all evidence, rationality, and common sense against the claims of Christian orthodoxy is somehow a demonstration of spiritual virtue. All it really demonstrates, however, is that individuals prefer the security in what they believe to the risk of being wrong.
Having served in professional ministry as a church pastor for fifteen years I am well acquainted with this phenomenon, technically known as fideism – the exclusive reliance on faith as a substitute for rational thought and reality-testing. Many believers don’t realize how they are being gamed by a system that constructed its most prized doctrines in the head, but cautions parishioners against using theirs.
This rise of the Galilean Rocket Man progressed by stages, like a rocket breaking through the stratosphere as it disengages and drops off the weight of parts no longer needed. By the end of his mythological career Jesus had become the most significant item in existence – nothing less than God himself, the supreme Lord of the universe. At the stage just before this one he had achieved the status of World Savior, whose crucifixion and resurrection saved the world from sin, the devil, and death itself – or we should say, he saved those who can believe this.
Earlier still, before the focused effort of orthodoxy got underway, Jesus walked the storyland of the gospels as a Miracle Worker healing the sick and bending laws of nature. Actually he was one of many highly honored and well-remembered holy men in and before his time. It was common practice to represent such figures in narrative scenarios, short stories, and hero legends giving miraculous performances in exhibition of their unusual powers. To suspend or transform conventional reality, even if only in storyland, served to keep the holy man alive in the memory of his disciples and descendants.
It would be a tragedy for Christians to remember the one who worked miracles, saved the world, and took his place as god, but not give serious reflection to what he had to say or how he lived. Granted, it is not easy to sift the authentic message of the historical Jesus from the embellishments of hero worship, myth-making, and emerging orthodoxy in the Bible. But the tragedy turns into a double catastrophe when those who profess to be Christian follow the Rocket Man into heaven and completely eclipse the vision he had for life on earth. As long as they have assurance of joining him when they die or witnessing his return in the meantime, what he said and how he lived before his mythological ride into abstraction has little relevance to them.
Am I saying that Jesus isn’t (or wasn’t) God Incarnate, savior of the world, or a wonder-working miracle man? Yes, at least not in any literal or factual sense. If he is or did all those things he is worshiped for, then he is and did them inside the mythopoetic construction of an early Christian worldview – a vertically oriented three-story cosmos, a fallen human condition in need of rescue from above, and the popular portrayal of important historical figures as possessing supernatural powers. Look around. Our view of reality today (i.e., our contemporary scientific worldview) is very different.
Interestingly enough, we do still flock by thousands to watch celebrity faith healers and charismatic self-proclaimed prophets perform miracles – right before our credulous eyes. Something inside us knows that it’s a put-on, but we fail to pause and ask why these faith healers don’t have an office inside local hospitals where so many more of the suffering and ill could benefit from their extraordinary gifts.
Because so much of Christian identity is invested in an outdated cosmology and in a mythology taken literally, the religion will continue to decline, breaking into numerous sects, cults, and extremist factions on its way to extinction. And along the way, more damage will be done. The way out of this tragic predicament is to take one more step down to earth with the Galilean Rocket Man – out of mythology and the abstractions of orthodoxy, and back to the vision and way of life of a Wisdom Teacher.
You’ll notice that I didn’t say ‘the’ Wisdom Teacher. That’s because as a teacher of wisdom, Jesus was not, as we say, one of a kind. I realize that may sound disrespectful, irreverent, and even blasphemous to many Christians. But in the great stream of wisdom teachings which has been coursing through the world cultures for thousands of years, the personal identity of a teacher is much less important than the clarity, depth, and real-world relevance of the wisdom he or she has to share. As a Wisdom Teacher Jesus was one of many. But as is true of all the others, his unique personality, family background, life experience, and historical situation conspired to bring this wisdom to bear on the concerns of his time in a highly individualized way.
Wisdom is about the challenge and opportunity of being human, profoundly (i.e., thoroughly) mortal yet grounded always in an eternal now. How can we live out this life with integrity, authenticity, mindfulness, and compassion – for ourselves, for others, and for the whole community of life? How can we step beyond fear, suspend judgment, and be more genuinely present in the moment, wherever and with whomever we find ourselves? Jesus had some very timely things to say, but the wisdom he shared is timeless.
Before he became the Rocket Man of Christianity, Jesus the Galilean was a human being. That was his true glory.
In my diagram above I have distinguished two terms often used interchangeably: significance (vertical axis) and relevance (horizontal axis). As the root-word suggests, significance (from sign) is value we can point to. We talk of ‘high’ significance to acknowledge such value as up and above common or ordinary values. When Jesus got promoted to the status of God Incarnate, his significance was made absolute. But in the same stroke he also became utterly irrelevant, for relevance has to do with timely, real-world value. If Jesus was/is God Incarnate, what practical difference does that make in daily life? On the other hand, as a Wisdom Teacher Jesus is very relevant but not highly significant – that is to say, his value is not ‘up there’ or outside our situation in life, but in the very heart of it.