The Scandal Of Particularity: Facing Jesus In A Postmodern Age

It is the “scandal of particularity”, the declaration of the Gospels that Jesus the Christ is the only way to God, to the Father, that is the primary issue facing Christians, and the opposers of the faith, in our postmodern age. GodSpeak is generally fine, unless your hanging with Richard Dawkins. JesusSpeak… now that’s a whole other kettle of fish bumper stickers.

A Walk In The Bookstore

Walk into any bookstore today, and you will encounter myriad books claiming some form of transcendant spirituality, and each will ultimately feel it their duty to relegate Jesus to being a teacher of Peace, a demi-god of self-actualization, or a paragon of virtuous revolution in his own confounding context. Many of these books are a strange mix of beautiful ideas, scathing criticisms, genuflections to the god of tolerance, and a melting pot of all things spiritual. These books, like those of Christian authors, reflect the reality that the human beings that write them are themselves a strange mix of the beautiful and the broken.

Right beside those books, typically in the bestseller section, you will experience a wide range of books repudiating faith in any god at all, typically on anthropological or social grounds (in some cases, physiological grounds – the “god gene”), standing on the premise that faith of any kind is toxic to the perpetuation of the human race and her virtues. In these cases, the worst of Christian expressions throughout history, typically the most intolerant or most syncretistic, become the examples that form the case against either Theism or Christianity.

Now, I believe such books are to be read, with a thinking heart and a feeling mind, by Christians. The more afraid we are to read them, the more we circle the wagons, the less of a reasoning (and reasonable) voice we will have in the coming decades and centuries of culture. We will either retreat into increasingly insular faith structures, or lose our faith in the face of big questions we have neither thought about in the presence of God nor taught our children to faithfully engage. Most of us see very clearly that a more socially conscious, powerful, and kinder, expression of Christian faith is necessary in our day. Our critics have not been completely wrong – they have given us the gift of the mirror-holder, enabling us to see ourselves as we are seen. Some of that image is our problem, and of course, some of it is theirs. Jesus said that humans wouldn’t “get it” all the time; his way of life expressed through the Church would confound, confuse and often tick off the powers that be.

What’s The Problem?

Father Raneiro Cantalemessa, the personal teacher to Pope John Paul II, spoke to the leaders of our Vineyard movement in Rome a few years ago. We gathered in a resonant marble chapel, which to me symbolized all that which is beautiful, enduring, timeless and solid. His message? “The Battle Is Around The King.” Our entire group reeled as though intoxicated under the influence of his striking words, expressing that in the ecumenism of the day, the joy of interfaith dialogue, the quest for peace among religious leaders of the day, all is well when “God” is the topic of irenic conversation. However, in a recent gathering of Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Muslims and other faiths, Father Cantalamessa mentioned the name “Jesus.” Divisive stirrings began around the room.

In today’s world, “division” is the enemy of all that is good, peaceable and “tolerable.”
We want to be united as people, and to see that unity born out in intercultural care, communication and consideration. We resist division, because we see the horrors it breeds in governments, faith systems and families. Tolerance says “You’re okay; I’m okay. We’re just different.” But, what is someone (you or I) is actually wrong? What is someone, or an ideology, is actually harmful, over millenia or in a moment? What if “I’m okay; you’re okay,” actually can, and does, bear the children of blood, tears and hatred as well as peaceful dialogue?

What if there is actually one way in the world? What if it’s a wide road in the coming to it, but a narrow road in the progressing on it? What if there indeed is a way of living for human beings, that one unique faith system (I include the faith systems of naturalism and evolutionism, all part of the “humanity’s best guess” club), at its essence, promulgates? What if the scandal of particularity is exactly the plan, and a way has been made that addresses hatred, death, love, goodness and the strangeness of the human condition.

Jesus Is The Problem.

Back to our topic. Jesus is the reason that Christian faith is a problem. “…No one comes to the Father but by me” is the bone of contention, and a Jesus who has been aligned with the Crusades, Inquisitions and Acquisitions of history is an unacceptable personage in the 21st century world.

What do we do with a God of love, who through His messenger Jesus, declares that a life of love is the way of God, and evidences this through real loving, healing, forgiving, restoring spiritual activity on the planet? We want everyone to be right, mainly because Derrida and others helped us to understand that many of us in charge actually have thought we were right, but to our own controlling ends. But, what if one is actually right? Then, what if that God declares his uniqueness among the faiths of all ages?

I’ll bring this to a point, particularly for my Christian friends who have been in what I would call “high and deep process” with their faith these past few years.

Christians Quietly Devolving To A General Theism

Many of my Christian friends around the world (both culturally and in their estimation, by chosen faith) are considering the scandal of particularity just that – a scandal that represents the worst of those with whom they no longer wish to be identified. They are both sad and happy for all the deconstruction of the faith in our age. In essence, they are seeking to ameliorate (improve) their language of “living a life of love” (accurately, the central message of the New Testament), and at the same time remedially ignoring any language of specificity or particularity related to Jesus. They don’t want to throw their vibrant history with God, or with God through the worship of Jesus, away; they just want to let it simmer on the other side of their outward confession for awhile while they figure this thing out.

To some friends, I would honestly and without judgement ask, “Have you left your faith in Jesus, your faith in his life as the Christ, his life, death and resurrection, while still trying to rationalize in your mind that you haven’t gone anywhere?” In other words, “Have you fallen back into a noble Theism, replacing any Christocentric language with ‘God language’, in order to compensate for your own internal struggle without letting others know how intensely it is raging? Is Jesus an example of yet another noble life, one which you and I simply choose to follow? Is Jesus becoming, in your heart of hearts, and option among options, to be embraced either to keep peace, or to remain socially connected, or because the jury of your heart and mind is still out. Or is he, as the earliest believers powerfully advanced post-resurrection, God incarnate?

I would ask them to be honest, as a friend, and answer that question – even in secret. So much is on the line for these wrestling friends; families, relationships and so much more, if they were to honestly answer this and live it out, that I think the psychological dance may simply need to continue for them until they die. Secret letters honestly answering that question may come out after they’re dead, but to live out their honest answer would cause too much pain and heartache for them to bear this side of death. In other words, the faith of their mind and heart must now hide behind the faith they express to the stakeholders in their lives. Once again, it seems that Jesus is as much about dividing as he is about uniting.

Have compassion on these ones, a group of people whom I have often lived on the edge with, and still do on my worst and best days. Somehow, they harbor Jesus in their heart still, but, when pressed, wrestle with the specificity of salvation experience he relegates to himself in the Gospels, and that the epistle writers expound on in the New Testament. The internal, rationalizing gymnastics are hard on them internally, but they feel that in order to be in integrity as a healthy spiritual person, and to be in integrity as a follower of Jesus, they must slightly hedge their bets on Jesus’ particularity and err on the side of a Gospel Of General Love Based On The Teaching Of Jesus. This may sound tenable, but aligning ourselves with the earliest, and historical, Christians, while falling to the side of the “less particular gospel of our own making” is an enterprise that would lack both academic and soulful integrity.

In other words, the Old and New Testaments are what they are: Very Particular. I would like to edit the canon, too. But the work would be too hard (though some seem to do it with great ease, simply forgetting or rescripting the parts of the scripture they find distasteful) and the resulting iPod spiritually would feel too… too… selective and particular. In fact, I’m sure I do the internal editing as much as the next Christian, but it doesn’t feel good at this point – I’ve simply known and seen too much to be comfortable in that skin for very long.

What If Particularity Is Divine Clarity?

Jesus keeps us on my toes, I do declare. I believe that God is willing to live there on this rocky edge as well (I note here that in those times, for some beautiful reason, it is the music of worship that anchors and renews me in mind and heart). My layman’s studies of world history and civilization tell me that the “my god is better than your god” game is a long-standing past time. We view particularity, in some fields, as lacking in academic sophistication. However, in other fields, to be increasingly particular and specific leads us also the greatest of discoveries, and even to the answering of macro questions that have haunted us for time immemorial. Particularity is not always a bad thing. Certain us/thems, on sides of ideas and explorations, can be helpful to the whole – disagreement is not always the enemy.

The real question becomes then, in my own mind, does the specific teaching of Jesus, related to how faith and followership of himself and God the Father, accurately tell us both that he is uniquely the way to the Father (no matter the vehicles by which we come to him – a mystery still to be sorted out by God and God alone), and that a life to love all unconditionally (in the way of Jesus) is the truest way to live out that very particular faith? If it does, does it rise above all other faiths (not render them all devoid of truth, but rather clarify what is true and false about them) not only in its strength to remedy the human condition, but also in its ability to enable us to understand our bestowed greatness in the grand economy of God’s work?

The laws of civilization (read Guns, Germs And Steel, for example) and the zeitgeist (popular thinking) tell us that the scandal of particularity is the blemish that unveils the falsity of the faith. The regurgitating of the Gnostic gospels in their varied forms furthers the incredulity of the faith’s greatest opponents and inquisitors, and manipulates the mind of the average church goer (or causes them to close their minds further to any arguments against their faith).

Instead of simply conforming to the age and its values, or conforming to a body of followers of Jesus who refuse to engage with the deepest questions of both civilization and popular culture, or reacting to either (I see so much reactionism that most days I’m tired from having to counter it in my mind and relational activities – and yet I do it, and it’s common not only to our age, but to all ages), is there a third way that embraces the particularity of Jesus, and yet does so in a way that is stunning intellectually, psychologically, socially, spiritually and even physiologically? Is the language of the Creator, the fallen ImageBearer, the New Adam, New Creation and the Age To Come a powerful enough story to right all the confusions of the world? Is it more substantial than, or does it complete and clip and clarify, the stories of the ancient Olmecs, or the Jews, or the Romans, or the Buddhists, or the brands of Christianity, or the atheist or the macro-evolutionist.

The God I have encountered, in my worship of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit (the doctrine of Trinity, one God self-revealing in three persons), has been that stunning. I lead people into worship because I can; if I did not, I would probably beg for the opportunity to open the gates of revelation to such a glorious God, such a glorious Jesus, such a glorious Holy Spirit.

The world is waiting to see such a mix of both intellectual integrity and spiritual particularity lived out before them. Does their addition together create the perfect storm – a storm of love, of power and of sound-minded humanity? Could we be the vanguard of a fresh way of being human – according to the salvation story of the Jews – the only real way?

Thoughts for today.

P.S. On a stranger and tangential note, another idealist’s suggestion has been, at least in the postmodern stew of western culture, that the term “Christian” be given a possible burial (or at least a leave of absence) due to its extreme misunderstanding and misrepresentations (i.e. the clean slate approach, as if it could exist), toward a version of Jesus-followership emerging that promulgates more of the essence of the New Testament than the historical versions of that faith to which we bring so many cultural assumptions.

I personally love and celebrate the historical expressions of faith; but the challenge should be noted.

Or, what would happen if the global church entered into a shared (and temporary) pact of verbal silence to tend to the misdirection of our age – deciding together that a Gospel of words would need to be given a sabbatical (again, in western postmodern culture, and apologies to my evangelical friends who believe that ‘preaching’ should center only or primarily on the spoken word, and we should never give it a break as we explore other expressions) while we engage in actions of faith that bring redemption and restoration in our cities and communities.

Then, when asked the reason for our hope, we explain the Kingdom of God, as always, as redemptive storytellers.

I.e. Maybe we’ve ‘over-spoken’ ourselves, and an agreed upon silent time would enable us to reflect, reconsider and reclaim territory we have lost through some of our more cultural stylings of Christianity. (Then again, we must preach the word with our testimonies as well as our lives.)

 Just musings and reflections.