I am immensely fortunate to have the colleagues that I do. They are more than colleagues – they are friends. It is why, even though it is difficult to be away from home as much as my job sometimes demands, I enjoy my work-related travels. This week we were in the Cape, the first stop in our annual tour of the country. On Wednesday night, after the first meeting, a few of us lay under the stars at the Bed and Breakfast. It was a warm, clear night, with a proliferation of stars that would be impossible in the city we had left behind. I think one of the greatest tributes a friend can pay you is to feel free to honour you with a discussion of their deepest metaphysical questions. For the next two or three hours, we lay on our backs beneath the trees, marvelling at the distant pricks of light, giving voice to our souls. My friends have brilliant minds, generosity of spirit, and a courage and humility that very few possess It is easy to love them. When eventually we said good night and walked to our rooms, I felt exhausted (the combination of an intense work day, the wine, and the lateness of the hour), but alive. And enormously privileged. To be allowed a glimpse into another’s soul is the most intimate kind of trust. To be free to give voice to your own, without fear of being judged, is exhilarating.
I want you to have that experience too. I want to invite you to share my soul, my fears and my deepest questions, and – if you feel inclined to – to honour me with a glimpse into yours. I have more questions than answers; I will confess that up front. And I want to stress, as I take you with me on my journey over the next few months, that I am sharing opinions. They will probably present themselves as factual, because that is how I write, but the truth of the matter is that, as confident in my assertions as I may seem, I am simply another lost soul, bewildered before the enormity of a universe that doesn’t make a lot of sense, trying to understand my place in it all. So feel free to question my assumptions, correct my errors, and engage me in debate. I know nothing, although I have many ideas. Please do not be offended if I challenge your ideas too, though, because I am certain that you know as much as I do. When it comes to understanding God, we are all equal.
For me, somehow it all keeps coming back to Jesus. Every path I following in my efforts to comprehend God invariably loops back on him. He is a towering, unavoidable figure. And the more I think about spirituality, the more it seems to me that any genuine engagement with the question of whether or not there is a God, and – if so – what that God would look like – must, at some point, grapple with the mystery that is Jesus.
I have a suspicion that real questioning – the kind that leads to sincere seeking – is always precipitated by chaos. As long as we are comfortable, we tend to stagnate. Sometimes things need to be broken into pieces before they can be reshaped into something beautiful. I don’t know where the unravelling started for me, but I find myself quite unexpectedly on a different path. And for the first time in a long time, I believe that a treasure of incomparable worth lies at the end. I have new questions, terrifying and liberating simultaneously, and, as somehow they always do, they centre on Jesus.
I realise that may sound dramatic. Again, an explanation may be necessary at this point. Please understand that one of the things that has not changed is my conviction that Jesus is God. I am more than happy to write about that journey another time. If anything has changed, it is how I think about him. It may seem strange that this took so long, but I think – to quote The Truman Show – we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. And I have been immersed in a Western Christian paradigm that views Jesus as a mediator between people and God, who was punished in our place, suffered the righteous fury of an angry God, so that we could be reconciled to God. And it made sense to me for a long time. It never even occurred to me that the theologies in which my beliefs were entrenched were simply theories. After all, I had done the research necessary to convince myself that Jesus was who he said he was – one with God. So I accepted the other teachings of the church, rooted in what I now see as only one possible reading of the gospels, and profoundly affected by the worldviews of various prominent Christian thinkers. I now know that there are other theories, alternative ways of understanding the cross. Better ones.
All historical figures are fictions. They are stories we tell each other, either to reinforce dominant ideologies or to challenge them. We construct them in ways that speak to our desires, our prejudices, our fears. Jesus is no exception. There are as many Jesuses as there people who think about him. And, as with any story that has been around for a long time, “Jesus” has been embellished and distorted through the ages. Whatever “Jesus” story you tell yourself, remind yourself that it is your interpretation (either positive or negative) of somebody who has spiritual significance in your life’s interpretation (a priest, a preacher, a parent, a teacher) of some theological reformer’s interpretation (Luther or Calvin, Augustine or Joseph Smith) of an English translation of the disciples’ or Paul’s interpretations of their experiences of Jesus. And wherever I have used the word “interpretation”, it must be considered that ‘interpretation’ happens through cultural, educational, socio-economic, ideological, contextual filters. You would have to be extremely naïve to believe that the Jesus story you own is beyond criticism. Certainly, it would be unlikely that the Jesus story we preach in our churches is reflective of what many seekers refer to as “the historical Jesus”.
Truth be told, that is what I want, too. To find the historical Jesus, to see him as he is rather than as we have reconstructed him, although I don’t think that is fully possible in this life. I want to know God, not a problematic projection of who I or others need him to be. And to achieve that, in any degree, will require rewriting the story by stripping away the embellishments, the accretions of the ages. It is not as heretical a thought as it might seem. The church has already rewritten the story of Jesus, after all. All I am asking for is for us to get rid of the chapters we have added that do not make sense, to give the story back the cohesion and the transformative power it had before we interfered. In the next few months, I want to outline some of my problems with the Jesus narrative that dominates contemporary Western Christian theology, considering how some of the filters have distorted the story in problematic ways, and I want to share some of my thoughts on reconstructing the story. Come lie with me under the stars. Tell me about your journey.