Sometimes, “What if” questions lead to breakthroughs in the way we think and live. What if we could make our own fire? What if the sun doesn’t really circle the earth? What if “up” and “down” aren’t really up and down? What if I’m wrong?
Most of the time, the “what if” questions don’t lead to earth-shattering breakthroughs about the real world. Most of the time, they posit something that’s impossible, or just doesn’t make sense. When we ask, “What if the South had won the civil war?” we’re not suggesting that the South did win, just hoping to learn something by contemplating what the world might be like, if it had. I believe there can be value in asking such questions.
So when I ask, these days, what if I’m wrong, I’m not thinking of a mere philosophical acknowledgement that I’m likely wrong about something . Rather, I like to ask, what if I’m wrong about something really important? It’s easy to acknowledge I might be wrong about the best restaurant in town, or the culpability of O.J. Simpson. No, I’m thinking on the scale of what if “up” isn’t up, and “down” isn’t down? And today, I’m wondering, “What if I’m wrong about Jesus?”
I imagine I’ve just alienated lots of people: most obviously, those Christian faithful for whom belief in Jesus is the most important belief in the world, but maybe also those atheists, Jews, Muslims and others who might take offense at the suggestion that belief in Jesus has ever been important to them. In fact, for non-believers, if I’m suggesting they might be wrong, I’ve just alienated them by revealing myself as a closet Christian proselytizer who’s just disclosed a very annoying agenda – right?.
Indeed, therein lies the reason for my question. What if we’re all wrong about Jesus? Not just those who believe in him, but also those who don’t? Anyone whose feathers may be ruffled by the suggestion that belief in him, one way or the other, may not be important after all?
At the mere asking of such a question, a lot of us brace ourselves for the sort of debate we’ve grown used to – a debate we may have grown tired of – a debate between those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t. Jesus himself is said to have predicted that brother would deliver brother to death, and be hated, on account of him. (Matt. 10:21-22.) I’ve always thought it ironic that a figure so identified with principles of loving – not just one’s neighbors but one’s enemies – would end up at the center of debates, wars, and genocides fought in (or against) his name. Yet, from the Crusades to jihads, from the Salem witch trials to modern clashes over sexual identity, this advocate for love has been at the center of controversy and hate. Probably because I was raised in the midst of argument between Roman Catholics (my father’s side) and fundamentalist Presbyterians (my mother’s side), I lean toward agnosticism, not only with respect to religion, but politics, psychology, and physics as well. Agnosticism, after all, is a part of what led me to We May Be Wrong.
But having been raised as a Christian, I have a special interest in the irony of the animosities surrounding Jesus and his followers. And so I ask, “What if we’re all wrong about Jesus?”
Now, for me, the proposition that we may be wrong has never meant to suggest we’re wrong about everything, or even totally wrong about any one thing. I simply start with the acknowledgement that I’m almost certainly wrong about something, and from there, I move on to the belief that I really have no way of knowing, for sure, which subject(s) are the ones I’m wrong about. I may be right about a lot of things; I just wish I could identify what those things were, so that I could jettison all the others. So I‘m not asking anybody to question all their beliefs about Jesus, or to contemplate the possibility that all of them might be wrong. Today, however, I do have a particular one in mind.
I think the concept of “belief in Jesus” is unique in the modern world, or very nearly so. Our language itself suggests as much. If we say we have “faith” in our generals, we likely mean only that we trust them, that we feel secure under their leadership. But if we say we have faith in Jesus – or even more so, that we “believe in” him – we usually mean a good bit more than that.
I don’t say, “I believe in dogs,” or “I believe in pepperoni pizzas.” I might say I believe that such things exist, but not that I believe in them. If I say I believe in Santa Claus, or in the Easter Bunny, I’m saying I believe that such creatures are physically real, not just figments of fairy tale. When I say “I believe in ‘X’” it’s usually an abbreviated way of stating a belief in the truth of some specific proposition about ‘X.’ If I say, “I believe in love,” or “I believe in democracy,” it’s the equivalent of saying I believe in the truth of the proposition that love (or democracy) is a good thing. But if I say, “I believe in Jesus,” I’m not generally understood to be saying that I trust his teaching or that I believe in the truth of the proposition that he was a good man; I’m understood to be asserting belief in the truth of a very unique proposition about him, and no one else who’s ever lived. A belief, in fact, that has no parallel in truth propositions about anything else in my vocabulary.
Yet, when it comes to belief in Jesus, discussion often stops right there, at the “I believe” stage. As soon as we hear “I believe – ” or “I don’t believe –” it’s as if the “sides” are drawn without ever getting to what it is that one does, or doesn’t, believe about him. For some reason, Jesus has become a virtual poster child for polarization. “You’re either with us or against us” often seems the attitude on both sides.
Now, my parents were from different religious backgrounds, and for that reason they disagreed about religion a lot: Transubstantiation. Limbo. The assumption. The veneration of Mary. The priesthood. The authority of the Pope. The sacraments. How to pray. How the world was created. The list goes on. Personally, I came to believe their disagreements were symptomatic of the pitfalls inevitably encountered when we start trying to define metaphysical things with words that draw their meaning from the physical. (Words draw their meaning from their use as applied to shared experiences; when we use them to describe things we claim to be unique, I lose confidence in them.) But while my parents disagreed about many aspects of their Christian beliefs, they were typical of most Christians in one respect: when they said, “I believe in Jesus,” they were agreeing that Jesus was God.
Now, I’ve never thought I had a very good idea of what it would be like to be a theoretical physicist, or the President of the United States, much less God. Whatever it means to be God, if such a person or things exists at all, seems too much to comprehend. I won’t delve into the nuances of whether my parents meant that Jesus was really God, or just the son of God, or a part of the three persons in one God, or any of the other verbal formulations that had church leaders arguing from the get go. Years of effort to understand such nuances have only further convinced me that it’s like arguing over the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin. I, for one, don’t really understand what it means to be God – in whole, or even in part.
And for me, at least, the logic is one of mathematical equality: if I can’t say exactly that “God is X,” then I don’t see how I can say that “X is God.” And if I can’t understand what it means to say that “X is God,” then I don’t follow how important it could be to believe that Jesus was, or is, or wasn’t, or isn’t. How can it be important to believe in the truth of any proposition I cannot understand?
For my mother and father, the most important thing I could ever do was to profess my belief that Jesus was God, or the son of God, or (fill in whatever qualifiers you deem relevant.). Throughout their lives, I held my ground, refusing to profess a belief in the truth (or falsity) of a proposition I didn’t understand. This frustrated the $#@! out of them. For my parents, “belief in Jesus” did not mean a belief that he existed, or that he was good, or that he performed miracles, or that he proclaimed the importance of love, or that his advice on human behavior was incredibly wise. “Belief in Jesus” meant belief that, in some sense or another, he was God. And – crucially – this belief in the divinity of Jesus made all the difference to them. Whether I was, or wasn’t, a “Christian” depended on that one thing, not to mention whether I’d spend eternity in heaven or hell on its account
I could believe in dogs, or Santa Claus, if I thought they existed. I could believe in the American flag if I thought it represented a good country with good ideals. I could believe in Donald Trump if I thought he was a good president. But I couldn’t believe in Jesus – not really – unless I believed that he was, in some way, God.
This core requirement for what it means to be a Christian in our world has permeated the thinking of Christians and non-Christians alike since Paul began writing epistles. The “divinity proposition” that has attached itself to Jesus – the principle for which martyrs have died, for which wars have been fought, for which heretics have been burned – seems to have caused a divide between believers and non-believers that, from where I sit, has no parallel in human history. And the gospels report that Jesus himself predicted it!
So I ask, “What if we’re all wrong about Jesus?” in this respect.
Now, some of you may think I’m asking whether we’ve been wrong, all this time, to suppose that Jesus was divine. Others may think I’m asking whether we’ve been wrong to suppose that he wasn’t. The traditional concept that belief in Jesus’s divinity (or not) is the be-all and end-all of what it means to be a Christian has shaped our understanding. If you’re a Christian, it determines whether you’re among the “saved;” if you’re not a Christian, it determines whether you’re a self-righteous, deluded dreamer, not to mention potentially dangerous because of the strength of your unreasonable convictions.
But what if, properly recorded, preserved, translated, and interpreted, Jesus neither claimed to be divine, nor denied it? And even more: What if he disapproved of such theological inquiries, seeing them as the downfall of the Pharisees? What if, when asked by his disciples what he would have them do, his answer was not that they should believe him to be divine come hell or high water, or that their eternal salvation would depend on their belief in any such theological proposition, but, simply, that they should do as he did? That they should care for the sick, and love their neighbors as much as they loved themselves?
What if, on this single aspect of understanding –that belief in the divinity proposition is the sine qua non of Christianity – we’ve all been wrong, all along? What would the world be like if the central element of Christianity had not turned out to be belief in the divinity of Jesus, but in living the sort of life he’s said to have lived? What if Jesus were celebrated for teaching, essentially, “Look, folks, I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with this question of divinity and divine origins. Haven’t you better things to do, and to talk about, than whether, in one sense or another, I am God? Stop doing that, please! Leave it for the Pharisees!”
If that concept had been at the center of Christianity for the past two thousand years, what would it mean, today, to “be a Christian”? If Christians had been taught not to concern themselves with whether Jesus was God, would that mean that all the “rooms of my father’s house” would be empty, beccause no one had “believed”?
I’m not saying it’s true, or false, I’m just wondering, what the ramifications would be, for the past two thousand years, if the divinity proposition had never been considered important, and that “Christianity” had been a movement centered on “love thy enemy” and “judge not lest ye be judged” and “care for one another.”
What would have happened to the pagan persecutions of the martyrs? The history of schisms in Christian churches? The Church’s persecution of heretics? The Christian endorsement of the African slave trade? Conflicts between Christians and Jews, Muslims and atheists? The household (and the world) in which I grew up?
I can hear the condemnation. To posit a Jesus who disapproved of contemplating his divinity – who counselled against the very thought of such an exercise as non-productive, pointless , Pharisaical, and bound to result in division and strife – would be to rip out the core of Christianity itself.
But what if we’re wrong about that?