I want to talk about the Good News of Jesus Christ. What is that Good News?
God created us, loves us, forgives us.
We are free to choose, and have the power to create.
Jesus is God, and he represents God’s commitment to us.
These are statements we hear all the time. They are the platitudes of Christianity. But how do they really fit together? What are the elements of the story that are necessary to understand it as a whole? It’s simple, but there are a lot of moving parts!
Let’s assemble an actual working model of Christianity, in which all the parts play their role, and the marble moves through each of the logical gates in turn, finally coming out in the form we’re so familiar with.
Let’s start with Original Sin. Yes, I think it’s a metaphor. But the conclusion is the same: We are incapable of keeping our promises, no matter how much we believe them and value them ourselves. Basic Ten Commandments stuff: I won’t lie, I won’t swear, and so forth. We’ve all promised to do those things, and we’ve all failed again and again.
In that inability to keep our promises and consistently do what we know is right, we are fatally flawed, we are fallen. I see this as a valuable insight, because it begins to point toward the inscrutability of why God forgives us. After all, would you forgive someone who promised to do something important to you, and then didn’t do it, then promised again, and didn’t do it… for their entire life? And God sacrificed His son to absolve not just all the sins to date, but all the sins that ever will be. Why would anyone do that?
But this begs the question of why God created us in the first place, which must be answered before we can talk about forgiveness. I want to approach this question from the angle of “How are we special?”
Most people seem to agree that our Freedom to Choose is the crucial element that distinguishes us from other animals, and marks us as special to God. But I think this is a little superficial. I’m sure lots of creatures are able to make choices. I can literally see my dog making choices!
What is uniquely human in our decisions, or more interestingly, what is uniquely divine in our exercise of freedom, is that we do so with a clear understanding of their ethical import:
- We act in the best interest of society. But this isn’t unique. Many animals do what is good for the herd.
- We can be Good Samaritans, and help someone to whom we have no obligation. This is much more unusual.
- We can sacrifice our own good to that of another – step in front of a speeding bicycle to save a child. This is unheard of in the animal world.
- We can even make altruistic moral choices where no one would be directly harmed by not doing so.
This isn’t just the freedom to make choices that the animals have, but the action of the Divine in us.
(Remember – we’re trying to get at why God created us.)
Another way we are special, is that God gave us the ability to love creation and to delight in it, just as God does. I don’t think a dog or a monkey stands on a mountain top and experiences awe. Other intelligent mammals may experience something like beauty when they see their own offspring, but I doubt they can experience beauty in a drawing, or even a sunset.
Does a beaver feel accomplishment upon building a dam? Pride? Can an animal feel a sense of value when doing something good? Can one animal love an animal of another species, as we do with our pets, horses and such?
These are the divine aspects of our nature, precisely because they aren’t necessary to our survival. They don’t change our day-to-day activities, but they enhance them, like technicolor vs. black & white.
They are divine because they are the way God experiences the world. They are gifts from God to share with us His love and delight in creation. These divine gifts demonstrate that God created us because He wanted us, and He wanted to share His creation with us. He likes us. He feels one with us, as we should with Him.
To return to the beginning… Why does God forgive us, when we fail to keep the most simple promises to Him, again and again? Because He loves us. Why does He love us? Because He created us. This is not hard to understand for the parents in the room. It’s actually pretty straightforward: God loves us because He created us.
Creation isn’t incidental to God… Creation is definitional for God. To paraphrase Descarte’s Cogito, “God created, therefore He loves.”
Now, the marble reaches the point in our working model that is Jesus. How does this part of the model work? Let’s consider how the model would work if Jesus were just a man. A teacher. What would that look like?
Jesus-As-Just-A-Man clearly saw that the various disconnected laws of the Jewish tradition could be simplified by reducing them to guiding principles (Love God, Love your Neighbor). By remembering the principles, people will make the right decisions with regard to most of those laws, most of the time.
He also saw that those simple principles implied that the Jews should “love” all the non-Jews, which was pretty radical. But that’s where the revolutionary aspect of Jesus’ teachings would have ended. Jews would still feel virtuous only because they follow the laws, and non-Jews would still feel they were excluded from the Hebrew God’s protection altogether.
Jesus-As-Just-A-Man’s entire message could be boiled down to “Here’s a simpler way to not break most of the laws.” On this reading, Jesus would just have been a Hebrew reformer of no significance. This understanding of Jesus could never have changed the world, as in fact it did within a few generations.
Our model doesn’t really work here. The marble of our thought gets caught, and won’t make the turn.
But with Jesus-As-God, everything is different. Now it is God who brings the message to use principles instead of laws. And the two prime principles are also God’s explanation: Because He loves us and wants us to love each other.
God encourages us to use principles because He trusts us to make good decisions. Under this understanding, the laws actually diminish in importance or become irrelevant. And non-Jews can fully belong to the Hebrew God and enjoy His strength, protection and love.
Most importantly, people can feel “virtuous” (as opposed to sinful), not because they follow the laws, and not even because they follow Jesus’ new principles, but because they are loved, which is very powerful, and universally empowering.
Jesus’ death serves to eliminate any doubt about God’s commitment to the new understanding, as the death of God could only be a sacrifice (it obviously couldn’t be an accident), and as a sacrifice it atones for humanity’s failings (that fatal flaw we talked about earlier, that we are incapable of keeping our promises, of being the good people we commit to being every Sunday morning in these pews).
To say we can stand before God with a clean conscience because of Jesus’ sacrifice is a shorthand for saying “We stand before God with a clean conscience because God has made it clear that He loves us more than He is annoyed by our failings, and that He wants us to accept our birthright as His chosen and beloved creation.”
At one stroke, Jesus-As-God moves humans two steps forward on the spiritual evolutionary path from mere creatures, to people who share in the divine:
- As mere creatures we were fearful of God the powerful and unknowable (think of concepts like Sky God, Earth God, and other Titan-like deities – powerful and entirely mysterious).
- As thinking creatures (we’re evolving now…), we were fearful of Gods who were whimsical, careless, and cruel (think of the Olympian Gods, or the Roman Gods).
- As rational creatures we were given laws to follow, but were still afraid of God’s vengeance. (think of the Hebrew God).
- Jesus-As-God, as Christ, gives us the next spiritual evolutionary step by trusting us not just to follow the rules, but to understand the concept behind the rules and to apply those concepts as we see fit, using a truly free will.
- And as Christ the God, he also gave us the next step of being able to stand free of any vengeful judgement, because of God’s explicit commitment to us in Christ.
There are two more sets of logic gates our marble has to clear:
God invites us to share in His creative process, to partake in creation through the adventure of our lives, and to take responsibility for its outcome, confident that God trusts us to make the best decisions we can. Every time we make a choice, something new comes into being that was not there before.
Choices are hard, not always clear, and God knows this. This fact, and God’s trust, make our freedom more exciting. Simplifying the challenge of a Christian free will down to “Don’t do bad things, do good things,” doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexity of our lived experience. We are faced with uncharted territory every day, and with every step we take, in the adventure of deciding how to behave in a thousand shades-of-gray situations.
God trusts us with this power to create, and to make mistakes, because He truly understands us. He understands us because He created us.
The final gate for our marble is simple, but important:
God didn’t participate in humanity by becoming human. God proved that He understood us and was fully committed to us by becoming human.
Another way to say this is that we didn’t become closer to God, or begin to participate in the divine, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We had always been so, and God made our mutual participation undeniable by becoming human.
So, this is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Through God’s gift of total creative agency, we actively participate in the divine. If we believe in a God at all, this is the God that is most attractive. Most loving. Most hopeful. This is the revolutionary understanding that had the power to change the world. It puts the past into perspective, and it opens the future to endless possibilities.
Jesus being God is not simply a flourish to add authority to His teachings, but a transformative understanding that changes everything we know about the world.
So that’s my working model of Christianity. I’ve put the marble at the top many times, and it has never jumped the track. I hope it proves as useful to you as it has been to me.
Praise be to God
[Peter Aziz, 08-15-21]