Nathan Hitchen: Sure, Jesus can meet you where you are and solve the problems you have. But if that’s your Jesus, it says more about you than about Jesus.
What problem does believing in Jesus solve for you?
It’s a question that answers more about you than about Jesus. I recently asked it to a group of friends and heard back answers reflecting a range of concerns about the world. Theological friends said Jesus solved technically precise theological problems. Intellectual friends said Jesus solved intellectual problems. Practical friends said Jesus solved everyday problems. Apparently, Jesus solved what they needed him to solve. But were any of their problems the right one?
We often think of “orthodoxy” as the right answer, but what about the question itself? What if orthodoxy has more to do with having the right problem? The right problem would have to be one to which Jesus is the unique, not an adequate, solution—the acceptable answer, not an acceptable answer. A human problem Jesus solves uniquely provides the ground to stake the orthodox case for Jesus: he is the only way. A problem Jesus solves adequately is the wrong problem because an adequate Jesus is the wrong Jesus.
Christianity is benignly optional to people who don’t believe Jesus solves anything uniquely or who have solutions already adequate to their problems. Sure, Jesus can get us through the day, motivate us to help with poverty, provide a social ethic, or resolve intellectual problems. But people use many things to get through the day, among them coffee. Indignation motivates crusades against poverty. Pick your social ethic. Theory solves academic problems. While Jesus can solve such problems adequately, an adequate Jesus inspires nobody.
So how can people change their problems?
Problems are encounters we interpret as inconsistent with our cognitive models of the world. We reckon with life by assessing our priorities, expectations, and concerns against how we think the world works. Problems are the gaps between what we observe about the world and how we expect it to work. Thus, our models set up problems that structure the solutions we seek.
Two cognitive models set up problems that, in turn, structure our theological solutions. One model centers the ego in the solution while the other displaces it. People with ego-centered models tend to identify their problem with “their world’s” problem—their country, social circle, or individual life—and scale solutions to the size of their world. Theological constructs scaled to resolve such problems define their faith in God. People with displaced-ego models tend to invite new encounters that subvert their problem with bigger ones—typically on missions trips—and expand their world in the direction of a bigger solution. Faith in God defines their openness to bigger problems that destabilize their theological constructs.
For both kinds of people, models shape the problems we see and shape our theology about Jesus. Theology is how we apply our beliefs about Jesus to our lives, how we “make solutions” out of him. Using theology to fit Jesus into our problems is a tricky business because our theological constructs are obviously not Jesus himself. They are what we use to get at him, which calls for two caveats: 1) constructs are tools for knowledge, not knowledge itself; 2) we must hold loosely answers that result from our theological constructs. They are the output while models are the input. Thus, replacing theological constructs amounts to replacing answers: the underlying problem remains.
People change problems when they adopt displaced-ego over ego-centered models of the world.
Changing models is ultimately a way of discarding an adequate Jesus by discarding the wrong problem. Displaced-ego models make us vulnerable to encounters that overturn our understanding of Jesus, surfacing how we use him for solutions and answers we want to get. But that means we must seek such encounters, and learn to know when we’ve had them. Jesus himself performed ministry this way.
Jesus entered the world in a moment of culture war. Competing ego-centered constructs about societal problems filled first century Palestine. Pharisees claimed their problem (cultural decline) was their world’s (Israel’s) problem. Laxity in observing holiness had precipitated Israel’s decline, hence Pharisees wanted to hallow the land because Yahweh was holy: “You shall be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy.” Their solution was personal and national holiness to correct the broken link between God and their world. So they responded to Roman subjugation with a rigorous morality, emphasizing barriers among people along an axis of holiness.
Jesus confronted the culture war around him with displaced-ego theology. He subverted the bounds of the Pharisees’ solution by enlarging their problem. Jesus criticized the ceremonial, societal, and ultimately exoteric spiritual barriers of their holiness program while enlarging the formal principle—and problem—of holiness. “It is not what enters the mouth that defiles a man, but what proceeds from the heart” (Matt. 15:11). He dedicated his ministry to breaking down spiritual camps and advocated an alternative vision of human community: compassion on all groups that violated the barriers of each (the Parable of the Good Samaritan). He dealt with people’s hearts—their ego-centered models—in showing that their accepted problems were too small.
Ego-centered models tend to make Jesus an adequate solution to a scaled down problem.
Ego-centered models (in Jesus’s day and ours) are particularly vulnerable to getting wrong societal problems—and creating among people spiritual camps—because they are self-referential in identifying their problem. They rely tenaciously on a person’s limited experience of how his “world” works, and for knowledge beyond that, substitute derivative models from others to inform how the “world” works (i.e., societal narratives or worse, ideology). Those derivative models, or narratives, are the perceived “world” from which problems are identified, and within which theological constructs are meant as solutions. The problem of the ego-centered model and the problem of its “world” become the same. And the solution—for many, Jesus—is scaled to the size of their world.
Thus, across any spectrum of ego-centered diagnoses of societal problems, theological constructs tend to mirror each other as partial, absolutized “worlds” in dueling conflict. Exoteric spiritual barriers among people rise up when people take the boundaries of their “world” as absolute. That is why fundamentalist and ideological movements—of both Right and Left, religious and secular—regiment communities of true believers into mirroring camps along the axis of their respective solutions.
Ideologies and fundamentalisms, Left and Right, are ego-centered constructs aimed at preserving the sacred link (however defined) between society and the cosmos that an enemy endangers. Christians—both Left and Right—make Jesus a symbolic solution to such problems because in reality they desire a societal outcome: the link (however they define it) between the cosmos and their “world” restored through the other side’s defeat. Both sides overemphasize the exoteric in a rigorous projection of their problem on their world. Jesus solves adequately both sides’ need for a rallying symbol. Both sides use Jesus as an adequate solution to the wrong problem.
So what problem can Jesus solve uniquely?
Jesus subverted people’s theological constructs by solving a problem different from cultural decline. He stressed that God’s compassion solved a bigger problem, the right problem, while the culture war of the Jews’ holiness code impeded people from discovering it. Our enemies are not the right problem, so defeating them is not the solution. This is why we turn the other cheek to those we consider evil and love those who impede our solutions. Only after people confront the bigger problem will Jesus’s solution seem real enough to accept. How does someone get to the place of having a problem for which there is either no “adequate” solution for anyone, or one unique answer for everyone?
The right problem is discoverable by displacing our ego from the accepted problem of each of our worlds, narrowly considered. Carrying this to its logical end, the right problem demands that we expand our world until it encompasses everyone equally. We must all be in the same camp: in other words, we must confront a concrete human problem.
Jesus devoted his ministry not to confronting people with sins and absolving their transgressions, but to proclaiming a kingdom through healing and raising the dead. Of 47 encounters Matthew records between Jesus and the “multitudes” and Pharisees, 28 involve healings or discourses about life and death, but only two involve sin or forgiveness. In Mark’s account, 22 of 38 encounters recorded involve healing and life, while only four mention sin. In Luke, it’s 23 of 43 encounters with four mentions of sin. In John, it’s ten of 20 encounters with four mentions of sin. Jesus’s own response to faith was never, “Your faith has made you sinless,” but “Your faith has made you well.”
We are objects of God’s compassion and Jesus’s ministry because we are subject to decay and death, and need his life. The enemies we make are objects of Jesus’s ministry and God’s compassion because they are subject to decay and death, and need his life.
Death is the orthodox problem.
Jesus saw himself as solving death uniquely with life. His mystical teachings always center on his ability to impart “true life,” “everlasting life,” and the “life eternal,” to anyone who believes, and contemplated his own flesh as the solution given “for the life of the world,” according to John’s account. Matthew (10:39), Mark (8:35), and John (6:53) all record Jesus teaching that anyone who rejects him and clings to their own life will have no life.
The church fathers’ true north in the Christological controversies was a Jesus who solved genuinely the problem of death. He had to partake fully in divinity, fully in humanity. He had to have both natures, both wills. Only then could God become man that man might become god, in the words of Athanasius, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine. Humanity only then could partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) through mystical union with Jesus and share in the spoils of his victory over death. The displaced-ego theology of the Incarnation solves uniquely the orthodox problem of death.
Sure, Jesus can meet you where you are and solve the problems you have. But spiritual growth consists in embracing the problem of orthodoxy, and effective spiritual challenge to the world consists in confronting it with death. The orthodox solution is life, joy unspeakable and full of glory: Jesus came to be the life of the world. And not the sort of life lived as passing through events—as the times crease into our faces—but the positive force of life of being and doing in flourishing relations with others under the expectation that our death is conquered, and is the curtain call for the real show.