Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hellenism and the Canonical Man

One of the phrases doing the rounds in scholarly circles of late was “the Hellenisation of Christianity”.

Until recently, I had no idea what it meant, other than that it was a bad thing. The basic narrative was that Jesus had started out with a really good Gospel, but in subsequent centuries, Hellenism had crept in and corrupted it. Just how Hellenism had corrupted the Christian Gospel had eluded me.

That is, until I got an invaluable insight from an extended reflection on the Nicene Creed in L Charles Jackson’s book “Faith of our fathers”. Jackson's study goes much further than to compare the “Faith of the Fathers” with the Hellenized Gospel, but he does illuminate the differences, which I shall attempt to repeat here.

Not Hercules 

If you want a primer in Hellenistic theology, the good news is that you can get one that’s both fun and accessible. Disney’s 1997 animation “Hercules” covers much of it, and it even does it with a thumping “Gospel” sound track. I should know, my daughter loved to watch the video with me when she was a toddler. (Such is the relationship between an indulgent father and an insistent daughter, we had to watch it a million times, or so it seemed.) Notice how close to the Christian Gospel the Hercules story is;
• Zeus has a son, Hercules, who finds he is blessed with superhuman powers
• Hercules plays a key role in defeating Hades’ plans to overthrow the gods
• Hercules’ willingness to sacrifice his life to save his dame earns him immortality and the right to ascend Mount Olympus, home of the gods.

Hercules is a Hellenistic Christ, but he is unlike the Christ of the Christian Gospels in several profoundly important ways, and so are his “divine” parents.

Importantly, the “gods” of Olympus are constrained in their actions by the larger forces of fate. Hades has to wait for the planets to align before unleashing his hellish plan, but fate works against him. Zeus is unable to tell his own son how to attain immortality (because he doesn’t know?). There’s a very real sense of vulnerability, as the primeval forces, (the Titans) from which the gods owe their existence, rise up against them. It needs a superhuman, Hercules, to save the gods.

The problem is that all these characters (Zeus, Hades, Hercules) are neither true gods or true human beings. They are something in-between. They are really superhuman, but they remain agents of the larger forces of fate, and this is something of which the Bishops of Nicea were acutely aware.

The introduction of a Hellenized, superhuman Christ can be traced back to the early history of Christianity, but not its genesis. For example, in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (a Second or Third Century reconstruction of Jesus’ boyhood), there are legends of the immature Jesus turning clay into living birds, and striking a rival dead because he had yet to learn to control his superpowers. It’s important to note that these stories are pre-dated by the Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and they chart the encroachment of Hellenism into the Christian Gospel.

The Hellenized, superhuman Jesus persists in Christendom today. Our need for heroes will always be with us, and we often ram Jesus into the hero-shaped hole that we create. If it’s not Jesus, it might be Hercules, or Doctor Who; Steve Jobs or Mother Teresa, or whoever is the subject of the latest franchise. The trouble with this kind of hero-worship is that it all boils down to who has the greater super-hero. Will Batman beat Superman in a fist-fight? If you’re not on that bus as Spiderman pulls you back onto the bridge (and, be honest, how many of us have actually found ourselves in this situation), how does this story engage with you and your “real” life? Can you really say, when Tarzan swings through the trees for a fleeting moment of redemption, that God is with you? Where is the Immanuel, who delights to live with His people, day in, day out (because He loves them)? Does He just swing in, snatch us from the jaws, and swing out again?

In the light of Jesus’ exploits in feeding the multitude, foreseeing the future, walking on water, raising the dead, and affirming his immortality at the resurrection, it is sorely tempting to regard him as superhuman; an essentially different species than you and I.

In the light of his relationship with his heavenly Father (e.g. he didn’t even know the Father’s plans about his own return, see Matt 24:36, Mark 13:32) , it is sorely tempting to regard him as something less divine than God. The result, then is a mixture, a chimera, the offspring of an unholy marriage between heaven and earth, but not something that properly belongs in either sphere.

What’s wrong with the superhuman Jesus?

So, what is so wrong with a superhuman hero, who is not unlike Hercules (except with less of the chopping-off-heads-of-monsters)? Why did the Bishops at Nicea go to war on the Hellenized Jesus?

The problem, according to the Church Fathers, is that the Hellenized Jesus is a mixture; an alloy, or confusion of the divine and the human, but neither fully one nor the other. The Creed contests this notion by affirming that He is both fully God and fully human.

If Christ were not fully divine, he would be constrained by larger forces. If he is vulnerable to them, he can be overthrown by them. He might be the major player in the game, but he does not set the rules. The story of Christ’s life, then, is not the culmination of a plan conceived at the Creation of all things, but a one of compulsively reacting to the hand that fate dealt him. He might have gone through the agony of the cross as he played out his cards with all the nobility of an exemplary hero, but the gains bought through his sufferings could all be undone by a shift in the currents of fate.

In other words, there can be no security in the salvation that God has to offer, and the promise of Isaiah 43:13 is void;

Even from eternity I am He, And there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it? 

If Christ were not fully human, his exploits and his status would be beyond our reach. The reason he could do all that wondrous stuff was that he was fundamentally different to us. This isn’t just about raising Lazarus, but it’s also about Christ’s access to Heavenly Father – his ability to live a “right” life. If Christ were not fully human, then there is no hope for us as we seek to live “right” lives. The door remains closed to us, and it will only open if we become what we are not, superhuman.

The implications of this last point are horrifying. God save us from a “gospel” that says we must become what we are not. Contrary to that dreadful religious ditty, God does not want me for a sun-beam. He wants me to be what I am, a human being.

It’s also elitist. The Hellenized Gospel is all about super-heroes. It has nothing to offer for the “least of these” (Matt 25:40, why does Jesus think that the "least of these" are so important?), except for an awesome story that’s played out by the other, more “important” people in life.

Incidentally, it strikes me that the opposite of Hellenistic is catholic, which is an essential characteristic of the Church, according to the Nicene Creed. Where the Creed calls it “One, holy, catholic and apostolic church”, I hear a message about not needing to qualify to get in. In fact, you get in by baptism, not by ascending Mount Olympus in some superhuman feat of strength.

The Canonical Man 

So, if we are not to be superhuman, what should we be?

Enter, what I call, the Canonical Man.

The term might be new to you. If it sounds too religious and philosophical, let me bring it down to earth by saying that the Canonical Man is Jesus Christ.

I’m using the term “canon” in the sense of a measuring rod, or something that sets the standard. For example, the International Prototype Kilogram, or IPK, is a perfect cylinder of platinum and iridium alloy that’s used to define the mass of a kilogram. Its the canonical kilogram, and it’s what every measuring device in the world should be calibrated to. If you weigh the IPK on your weighing machine and it says something other than exactly one kilogram, you need to adjust your weighing machine.

It’s the same with the Canonical Man. If you are something other than what the Canonical Man is, you need to adjust yourself. In other words, if you want to know what it is to be truly human, you should look to Jesus Christ.

This, I believe, is borne out in the Bible. It’s behind the phrase “Son of Man”, first used in Daniel 7:13-14, then by Ezekiel, before it became Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself. It’s also behind the idea of Jesus as Ultimate Judge. Christians are (or ought to be) familiar with the idea that they will be judged by Jesus. What might be less well understood is that Jesus judges our humanity by his own; in other words, Jesus is the standard by which we are all judged – we are measured by Him.

What do we know about the Canonical Man?

Surprisingly, quite a lot. Frustratingly, not enough.

The good news is that if there was any divine activity around the life of Jesus and those who recorded it, the New Testament reliably provides the essentials. The bad news is that if you want to know the answer to questions like “what car would Jesus drive”, you won’t get an answer because it’s not on the agenda. To be fair, there are much less trivial questions that the New Testament does not answer, but I suggest they would get answered if we start with the New Testament agenda and move to specific contexts from there.

This is where the Canon of the Bible becomes important. If we are to look to Jesus for what it means to be truly human, where do we find him? The answer to this, I believe, is not in your imagination, but in the Jesus of the flesh, who was witnessed by those who wrote the New Testament. Like the IPK and our weighing machines, if we imagine Jesus being or doing something that’s not in line with the Jesus of the New Testament, we need to adjust our perspective of Him.

And, whatever else we can say about the Jesus of the flesh as recorded in the New Testament, we can conclude, emphatically, that he was fully human.

I find this tremendously encouraging; the center of the Creator’s plan was not simply how to make a brighter super-nova, or how to impress human audiences by beheading a Hydra in record time, but it was (and remains) a human being. That means human beings like you and I are at the center of the universe. We have value because God values us. If God, the Creator of all things seen and unseen, sets things up so that at a singular point in history, He becomes truly and fully visible as a true, full human being, then we need to recalibrate our sense of just how important human beings are in the grand scheme of things. The Incarnation (posh word for the Word of God becoming flesh, per John 1:14) changes everything that we think we know about God and man.

Return to Nicea 

Returning to the Nicene Creed, it’s noteworthy that it spends so much time defining who Jesus is, and what he is not. About half of the Creed is occupied with Jesus.

Incidentally, topics such as “my commitment” and “the level of my involvement in the local church” hardly feature in the Creed, which presents an uncomfortable message to certain expressions of evangelicalism and a myriad of Christianisms that major on the believer’s experience or commitment. It’s not that commitment or involvement are unimportant, but the over-arching message is that Jesus Christ sustains the body of believers, not the other way round.

To me, the agenda of the Creed makes most sense in the context of the conflict between the Christian Gospel and Hellenism. It’s more than just marking boundaries; it’s saying that if we want to understand what it means to be truly human, we should look to Jesus as the Canonical man. At the same time, it says that if we want to understand what Divinity is, we should also look to Jesus. Whatever we think we know about ourselves and God, we need to calibrate it against what we see in the Jesus who features in the New Testament.

This Jesus is not a Hellenistic superhuman, but fully God who fully entered into our humanity. Its good news because we do not need to become what we are not. Its good news because us ordinary non-superhumans have seen one of our own fully connect with the divine, and we connect in exactly the same way. Its good news because our messy, ordinary lives mean something.

Because Jesus Christ was human, you are important. And so is your neighbor, and his neighbor, and so on, until the ends of the earth.

That’s a message worth taking to the ends of the earth, as Jesus commanded.

1 comment:

  1. Via email from Lynne;

    First time I have read one of your blogs. I feel like I am listening to your voice inside my head as I read. Your writing style reflects the inherent Martin! Liked the use of the IPK as a tool of measurement then likening this to Jesus Judgement for each person's life. Calibrating gives us a chance to enter into an ongoing process not just a wait to see what happens at the end when life is done. Thanks as this broadens my outlook on what I can achieve as I am often willing but lack vision as to what is possible in life.