Beyond Mere Christianity
Jesus and the Magicians
is not (possible) for any human being to whom God has given the Book and wisdom
and prophethood to say to the people: ‘Be my worshippers rather than God’s.’ On
the contrary (he would say): ‘Be devoted worshippers of your Lord, because you
are teaching the Book, and you are studying it.’ Nor would he order you to take
angels and Prophets for lords. Would he order you to disbelieve after you have
submitted to God’s will?’ (Qur’an 3:79-80)
Who was Jesus? Or—if
we prefer the present tense, as many do—who is he? What would Jesus have told us two
millennia ago, what would he tell us today, about his ministry, his mission,
his objectives, his identity? These are fateful questions, questions that
If the Christian writer C.S. Lewis and
the other mainstream scholars and theologians of Christianity are correct,
Jesus would say to us, ‘I am God Incarnate, the second person of the Trinity.’
this view of Jesus with words to this effect: ‘Two thousand years ago, a man
appeared among the Jews claiming to be God, a man whose words and deeds
profoundly unsettled the religious authorities of his day, and whose mission
continues to unsettle all of mankind. In evaluating this man’s career, there
are only two possibilities for us. We may consider him a lunatic, or we may consider
him the Son of God. There is no middle ground. And who will maintain that Jesus
was a lunatic?’
Now, I must be
honest and admit that this line of argument has irritated me for many years …
because it reminds me so much of a magician’s performance.
Magicians, when they wish to make it
appear to a paying audience that they have supernatural powers, often employ a
series of careful misdirections: an unexpected flare from some flash powder, a
pretty lady in a revealing gown, a loud noise from offstage, even something as
simple as a gesture or a word. Magicians employ these misdirections, not for
the sake of simple showmanship, but with a purpose, and while holding a subtle
goal in mind.
instance, the case of a card magician. The aim is to distract an audience member who has been called up onto the stage
for just a moment, just long enough to manipulate the deck, and then to move
quickly enough to convince her that she has freely chosen a card on her own. In
fact, however, the magician has ‘forced’ a predetermined card on her.
This is the magician’s principle of
in very similar sleight-of-hand with his ‘lunatic-or-Son-of-God’ argument, which
appears in his book Mere Christianity.
Of course, there is no thoughtful,
spiritually aware person—Christian or otherwise—who
can read the Gospels with an open mind and an open heart, and come away from
that experience convinced that Jesus was a lunatic. And so the believer finds
herself holding a ‘card’ that she did not choose, a ‘card’ that has been forced
upon her, a ‘card’ that informs her that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God,
the human component of the Trinity—as (she is assured) he
himself claims to be.
The thoughtful Christians, however, must be prepared to appeal to the
most authentic words of the Gospels to determine the truth or falsehood of such
Once we resolve that much firmly in our
hearts, we may find that we really are brave enough to pose the question for ourselves:
Who is Jesus?
Does he say, ‘I am the only begotten Son of
God and the second person of the Trinity’?
If we examine this fateful question carefully, we reach an extraordinary
conclusion. We may look through the Gospels for as long as we please, but we
will have a very difficult time indeed locating any verse in which Jesus says
Now, Islam teaches that Jesus Christ forcefully rejected claims that he was divine. Most
mainstream Christians who disagree with the teachings of Islam do so because of
its emphatic insistence on this point.
have a right to be skeptical about Islam’s claims about this issue. It is only
fair for us to demand evidence from the
Gospels, and not from any other source,
before we conclude that Jesus rejected
the divine role that so many believe he was born to play in human affairs.
So the question becomes: Can we find even
one Gospel passage that plausibly
suggests Jesus rejected today’s prevailing
understanding of his mission? Can we find a verse that shows him denying that he was the divine
incarnation of God, the second person of the Trinity?
If we cannot find such a verse, then the
discussion is over. Islam has failed to support its claims. If we can find such a verse, we are perhaps
obliged to look a little more closely at what Islam has to say about Jesus.
We have, I think, both the right and the duty to determine whether or not
Lewis, as he spreads out his deck of cards for us, is trying to distract us
with his lunacy-or-divinity argument—and if he is, what he might be trying to distract us from. Misdirection
is fine for entertainment, but it has, we must admit, no place when it comes to
the important business of determining one’s own path to salvation.
Well. What could Lewis
be eager to direct our attention away from?
Perhaps from Gospel passages like this
one … in which Jesus explicitly denies
any claim on divinity:
when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to
him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal
life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but
one, that is, God.’ (Mark 10:17-18)
If Jesus was God, why in the world would
he say something like this? Did he somehow forget that he himself was God when
he uttered these words? (A side note—I had a discussion with a woman who assured me
that this passage in Mark was not really in the Gospels, and who refused to
believe that it appeared there until I gave her the chapter and verse number
and she looked it up for herself!)
Have we ever gone to
church and heard a homily or sermon exclusively devoted to Mark
If our answer is ‘no,’ perhaps it is fair to ask why that is so … and to ask what other Gospel passages
our magician may be attempting to distract our attention from.
Perhaps the magician
would prefer to distract us from the italicized words that appear in the following
Gospel passage … words with which Jesus makes clear that all of the truly
faithful are (metaphorically speaking) Children of God:
I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them
that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,
that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh
his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and
on the unjust.’ (Matthew 5:44-45)
Or perhaps the magician is eager to
distract us from Gospel passages like this one … in which Jesus draws our
attention away from reverence of
him, and towards obedience to God
it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company
lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and
the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that
hear the word of God, and keep it.’ (Luke 11:27-28)
Or perhaps we are meant to be distracted
from this Gospel passage … in which Jesus reminds us that it is God Alone who
his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I
forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me. Shouldest not thou also
have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his
lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all
that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you,
if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.’ (Matthew 18:32-35)
parable, does Jesus say that he himself will
deliver us over to the torturers if we do not forgive those who wrong us, after
we ourselves have been forgiven?
Or does he say that his heavenly
Father—our heavenly Father!—will deliver us over to the torturers if we choose
to persist in this hypocrisy?
We are entitled
to ask: Is this heavenly Father he speaks of the same as, or different than,
the Father referenced elsewhere as the Father of all the faithful, the One who causes the sun to rise and the rain
to fall on all of us?
To be sure, all these passages appear in
the New Testament, and they are all
easy enough to look up and consult. But if you have ever tried to engage members
of the clergy in a discussion of these passages (as I have), you will find that
a very interesting thing takes place
when you try to talk about these passages. St. Paul keeps popping up.
You may begin
by talking about the words of Jesus, but somehow you will always end up talking
about the words of St. Paul. And this, I submit, is misdirection.
faith Jesus preached was not Paulism, and no amount of legerdemain can possibly
alter this fact.
We should not have to ask for any
special permission to focus on the authentic words of
Jesus, and only on the authentic
words of Jesus. And if we are willing
to focus only on the authentic words
of Jesus, we may eventually conclude that they paint a picture of Jesus as a
human Prophet, a picture that is startlingly similar to the picture offered in
around the world repeat the Lord’s Prayer faithfully every day, attributing its
exquisite words to Jesus himself. We are entitled to ask: Does this prayer
require the faithful to appeal to Jesus himself? To the Trinity? To the Holy
Spirit? Or does it require the faithful to appeal to ‘our Father’?
We are entitled
to ask: To whom was Jesus praying when he spoke these words? Himself? Certainly
not! And it is not ‘my Father’ that Jesus appeals to … but ‘our Father.’
And we are entitled to ask: Why was he even speaking these words, if
he himself was God?
In the end, our own honest answer to the question ‘Who is
Jesus?’ need not be much more elaborate or sophisticated than a simple ‘I don’t
know.’ That may very well be the best answer as we make our way through the
Gospels. It’s certainly not an answer to be ashamed of: ‘I don’t know.’ And it
is far better than answering as though the question we were facing were actually
‘Who does St. Paul say Jesus is?’
The only answer
that is worthy of shame, when we are
asked ‘Who is Jesus?’ is the one that elevates the force of our own habit over the actual words of the Gospel. We
may well face grave difficulties if we consciously choose to answer this
question out of force of habit when we know better.
C.S. Lewis and the theologians of what is
today known as mainstream Christianity may want us to answer that question
out of force of habit, of course. They have their reasons. They have made their
own choices. And they have arranged the deck as they see fit.
accept the card that has been extended, and then tell ourselves that we have
chosen it freely, however, is up to us.
I headed East for college and entered
the Roman Catholic Church. In college, I met a beautiful and compassionate
Catholic girl who was
to become the great love and support of my life;
she was not particularly religious, but she appreciated how important these
matters were to me, and so she supported me in my beliefs. I do a great
to her seemingly limitless resources of strength, support, and love by
compressing the beginning of
our relationship into a few sentences here.
Ó Ó Ó
I asked the campus priest—a sweet and pious man—about some of the Gospel material that had given me trouble, but he
became uncomfortable and changed
the subject. On another occasion, I remember telling him that I was focusing
closely on the Gospel of John because that Gospel was (as I thought then) a
first-person account of the events in question.
Again, he stammered and changed the subject and
did not want to discuss the merits of one Gospel
over another; he simply insisted that all four were important and that I should
study all of them.
This was a telling conversation, and a fateful one,
as it turned out.