The following is a guest post by Kyle David Bennett. Kyle is a recent PhD graduate from Fuller Seminary in philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. Before moving to NYC last year he taught philosophy at Azusa Pacific University and theology and ethics at Providence Christian College. He now teaches religion at The King’s College. He lives in Hoboken, NJ with his wife, Andrea, and their five-year old daughter, Elliott.
Hominis Deus: Reflections on the Mass that is Christ
Let us talk about him as we talk about a contemporary about whom we do not make a lot of fuss.
Some tell legends of “Christmas wars”–”Fundies” feverishly battling for the meaning of this holiday, the “reason for the season,” as they put it, and secular liberals pushing for a “Happy Holiday,” not a “Merry Christmas.” To be honest, I’m a bit confused by the armies and their anxiety-ridden attacks. I don’t feel my precious family and social customs being threatened. Nor do I fear my religious freedom slowly being corroded by moral and legal infringements. I don’t understand the agonism and bite. And I especially don’t feel the need to dust off the old bullhorn and press my heels down in preparation for some impending political apocalypse that will ruin the future of my children.
I don’t really understand these “Christmas wars.” Why can’t we all just get along? I’m baffled by the lack of attraction to Jesus and his message. Perhaps it’s those miraculous acts, discourses of the afterlife, or his claim to be divine. Admittedly, in our day and age, these parts of the story are a bit awkward and superstitious. For others, probably only a few, though, it’s the violent legalistic havoc his followers have wreaked on civilizations, cultures, and others throughout the ages: Christendom, Crusades, Copernicus, oh my. Such egregious errors! Notwithstanding, today some still like Jesus. That’s reassuring. They like Jesus, just not the church. They are spiritual, but stay clear of religion. Understandable. At least they like Jesus. I can live with that.
There’s much to like about Christmas, even if you aren’t a Christian. Yes, we Christians turned this pagan festival into a holy day and year after year we deny, reject, or ignore the reminder. But look what we have done with Christmas?! Even the curmudgeon loves the joy and peace of picking Christmas trees, listening to carolers out in the snow, and the sensation of exchanging exorbitant gifts and tearing that thin, opaquely designed fibrous material and throwing it on the floor. The naughty find a place at the table as well. They enjoy making out under the mistletoe, imbibing spiked egg nog at 11 a.m., and putting erotic lingerie in the stocking. There’s much to like about Christmas, even if you aren’t a Christian. And there’s also much to like if you are a Christian but have to spend the holiday with your family.
I mean, what’s all the fuss about? Everyone likes Christmas; even Scrooge converts eventually. So if you like Christmas, why wouldn’t you like Jesus?
It is during this time of year that I’m reminded why I am a Christian. I like this god. Other gods force us to come to them. They make requests and demands. They force us to do things that deep down we don’t desire. Other gods impose and thrust themselves upon our psyche or orbit this material environment to demonstrate their glory, dominion and power. They scare the hell out of us and terrify us into pious practice. But this god, Jesus Christ, is different. He comes to us. He gives (δίδωμι) himself to us. He understands us, our condition and customs. He understands our condition so well he becomes one of us, and then practices our customs. He incarnates himself as one of us and condescends to us. And apparently he liked it so much, he stayed as one of us.
Oh, and the gentle manner in which he approaches us! He is the event that comes when welcomed. His presence arrives when it is least intrusive. He steps carefully and slowly around our “hurts, hangups, and habits.” He is a “god who may be” depending on our reception of him. He is a god that waits, asks, concedes, prays, and moves with kindness, gentleness, and peace. Mary could have declined, Peter could have gone back to fishing. This is the least intrusive god I know. He is the opposite of Levinas’s l’Autre. He is Isaiah’s suffering servant, Cone’s god of suffering, Gutierrez’s god of liberation, Weaver’s non-violent god, and Caputo’s weak god all wrapped into one.
Affliction, oppression, domination, discrimination, aggression are absent from his nature and action. He doesn’t hurt, harm, or harangue. Abasement is his primary quality. Humility, not sovereignty, is his primary being-in-the-world. Sacrifice, not assertion or control, is his cardinal virtue. He chastises violation, eschews manipulation, and condemns violence. Lowliness is how he manifests himself, κένωσις is his modus operandi. He confronts the arrogant and self-righteous–those damn Pharisees, but all others are received in love, kindness, patience, and gentleness. He never impedes without consent. He lives for everyone but himself. He is the ultimate model of altruism.
What he invites us to believe and practice isn’t all that far from what we ultimately want. We want to believe that we continue living after our last breath and, deep, deep down, we want to care for those around us, even if this care is rooted in fear–recall chapter 13 of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Jesus’s message is innocent, harmless, peaceful, and pacifistic. While he may be a bit radical, and his context ancient, his message is applicable and lacks offense. It is gracious, loving, and liberating. His message can fit in any state, country, nation and culture because its demands are minimal. Not that much change is required. As he put it, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. What he offers is what we want, and this is precisely why he is called the Son of Man. He is hominis deus. Intellectual offenses, ethical dilemmas, metaphysical antinomies, and social sacrifices are minimal. Nietzsche, sorry, but you were wrong: self-mutilation is hardly what he calls us to.
I’m comforted by this god’s approach and how much space he gives me to be me.
Jesus has power and lordship, sure, but he lays it down. This is what the incarnation is about, what Christmas celebrates. Condescension is his telos, not ascension. The cross is his labor, heaven his sabbath. His message, his mission is ultimately of benefit to us. What he offers us isn’t opium, but champagne. Here is a zealot we can celebrate and model our behavior after! Violence, thanks to Levinas and Arendt, is in timeout. Power and force, thanks to Nietzsche, Freud, and Foucault are walking on ice. Good news: here is a god that isn’t violent, coercive, or power hungry! At Christmas we are reminded of just how gentle, accommodating, and “weak” this god really is, just how fitting he is to our culture and civilization at this period in history. He comes in the silence of the night, in a manger, with only a few observers. In his entrance and exit he disturbs no one. This god is primarily a sacrificial god, not a sovereign one–for, remember, we are Christians, not Messianic Jews.
As I sit in front of the tree tomorrow, arm around my daughter on my coffee stained leather couch, I’ll be celebrating the vulnerable, hospitable gentleman from long ago. And I’ll be rejoicing in the realization that his submissive and weak nature is an attractive one in this culture of economic malfeasance and power hungry political advances. Whether or not you are a Christian, I think that all of us can give a spiritual and social head nod to the nonjudgemental, quietistic, and subtle movements of the Jew from Nazareth who taught us what it means to truly tolerate others. He is what we are looking for, what we want, and at the very least, he is a god we all can like, even at a distance.