It's All About That Center
What do the Pentagon, Lower Manhattan and Lindor Truffles have in common?
We associate each one with the idea of a Center. Especially Lindor Truffles- that smooth, creamy center is unparalleled when paired with a nice cup of coffee.
The Centers for Disease Control, the National Hurricane Center, and the national Center for Missing and Exploited Children: all places where data gathers, decisions are made and policy emerges. These are places we depend on to define reality and shape a coordinated response.
Missionary Paul Hiebert's idea of a centered set* applied to a worshipping community is taking root in a small number of American churches, requiring them to rethink how they define conversion and membership. It's opposite, the bounded set, has functioned as the normal pattern for church communities throughout much of church history, drawing a sharply delineated boundary between believer and non-believer on the basis of one's commitment to certain dogmas and behaviors. A centered set on the other hand, depends on an attractive center and includes anyone who is at least partially oriented toward it, with no hard doctrinal or conduct-based perimeter.
The concept of a center is a common theme in the ways we think about the structure of our world. Is it an innate sense of geometry? A need to see things in relationship to a safe "home base?" Whatever it is, we seem drawn to centrality as a metaphor for the essential core of both physical and abstract domains of our existence.
Without a well-defined center, we naturally expect chaos. Organizing principles flowing from a common core are an important feature of civilized society. When there is too much disagreement about the center, conflict is as inevitable as eating a second Lindor Truffle when you told yourself you only wanted one.
Does everyone in a centered set community need to agree on exactly the same center?
Most members of a Christian centered set would nominate "Jesus" or "the gospel" as the core around which the community aligns. That might work until you realize that both of those concepts are multi-layered and complex with many different nuances and studied opinions.
There's more than one way to see a Savior
We don't all see Jesus in precisely the same way. Our access to information about him is heavily mediated through time, language, and tradition. Knowledge about Jesus ostensibly can result from direct experience, like Paul's vision on the Damascus road. This kind of information about Jesus is subjective, and asking for consensus from those lacking the same experience can be problematic. Furthermore, what comes to us from someone else's subjective experience has passed through the sharer's unique perspectives and biases. Even if everyone in a group experiences the exact same vision at the same time, there will be disagreement arising from each hearer's intellectual development, preconceptions, social situation, and unrecognized motives, to name only a few subjective factors.
The solution? We turn to the words of the Bible as the arbiter of truth. Lamentably, we find even less consensus around which interpretation is the correct one.
Conclusions about Jesus
What follows is a very brief list of possibilities when it comes to understanding Jesus, from experienced and intelligent scholars.
Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who failed in his attempt to fill the role of the Messiah who ushers in the Last Day. The fact that the Jews are not currently ruling all the world's governments from Mt. Zion is evidence that the Last Day has not occurred as Jesus said it would, neither has there been a final judgement or the resurrection of the righteous dead to eternal life in a restored Eden. Jesus' death was probably the same as anyone else's, and the story of his resurrection emerged from the Hellenistic notion that a much admired human being would always be deified at death.
Others believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who succeeded as Messiah and the Last Day is simply delayed for the purpose of rescuing as many Gentiles as possible from the Wrath to Come. The purpose of Jesus' life, teaching, death and resurrection is to epitomize the mercy of God in the present age so that many will repent and escape God's wrath when the day finally arrives. It opens up a path to right standing before God to both Jews and Gentiles.
The character we call Jesus is mythological. This by far a minority view, and proposes that Jesus was a legendary figure along the lines of Greek or Egyptian gods who share the themes of atonement, dying and rising, and a connection with ancient prophecy. This fiction was so effective that it eventually captured the hearts and minds of multiple movements of admirers and developed into the story we know today.
The "Historical Jesus" view takes seriously the fact that our source data for knowing about Jesus is incomplete, complex and foreign to a modern way of conceptualizing the world. It focuses on what we can confidently know about Jesus from historical records, especially the New Testament. Recognizing that all the ancient documents we have to work with are not only alien to our way of thinking, they were written with specific agendas using formats that were accepted as persuasive in their day; texts we might call "embellished" today. Peeling back the layers of these early sources, we find a Jewish peasant from the margins of empire who is a remarkable, charismatic social reformer. Executed by the Romans, his movement outlived him and was eventually became the official state religion of the empire he sought to resist. Any conclusions about Jesus beyond a very limited set of sayings and vignettes should be taken with a grain of salt.
Many different conceptions of Jesus were circulating in the first three centuries after his death. Most of them were stamped out as heresy, but they show an early diversity of opinion on Jesus and the good news. A very limited sampling:
Marcionism- Completely rejected Yahweh, the Hebrew God as a "demiurge" or an evil deity who promoted chaos and violence. Marcion embraced the God of the New Testament, endorsing Luke and the letters of Paul only. No physical or bodily resurrection was needed- Jesus was a spirit-being, sent by the merciful god of the New Testament, to appear as human. Jesus appeared to demonstrate the good nature of this nicer God and rescue us from the clutches of the evil Old Testament demiurge.
Arianism- Jesus is a created being, not eternal or equal to God. Divine, yes, but not part of a trinity. The death of Jesus was simply an admirable martyrdom demonstrating his commitment to God and the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. Salvation for the believer came through faith in the life and teachings of Jesus, imitating his example and obedience.
The Ebionites- They saw Jesus as a human prophet, like those of the Old Testament. He became the Messiah by obeying God's will and study of the Torah. Ebionites didn't like the Hellenistic idea of incarnation but affirmed that Jesus was adopted by God as a son. The cross was not the source of salvation for believers, rather it was by observing Jewish law and living by the ethical teachings of Jesus.
Reformers like Luther and Calvin emphasized Jesus as the one who atones for our sin, but differed in some of the details. Substitutionary Atonement enacted at the cross was Luther's emphasis, while Calvin saw Jesus as a mediator or broker of salvation which depended more on God's activity through the Holy Spirit in the life of an unbeliever.
While this diversity of thought about Jesus was successfully controlled and eradicated by the Roman church of late antiquity and the middle ages in Europe, not all the wiggle room was extinguished.
When and how did Jesus know he was the Messiah, if he understood himself that way? If he didn't see himself as the anointed one that initiated the end of the world, what did he think about his identity? If he was a mixture of human and divine, how would that appear in the historical record? If he was a supremely gifted moral leader, how would that play out and why was he later elevated to godhood?
Outside Catholic orthodoxy, these questions were not ultimately settled, and remain on the table to this day.
Liberal protestant thinkers like Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher wrestled with these questions and came up with different answers. Friedrich Schleiermacher instructed us to look to Jesus as someone who personified the ultimate religious experience of redemption. What was divine about Jesus was his unique sense of self-consciousness and communion with God. Was he God? No, Jesus was a unique appearance of God in the world in a human being who transcended the usual limitations of humanness. We who believe are to follow his quest for the unity, redemption and salvation all humankind.
Schleiermacher's protégé, Albrecht Ritschl, thought that Jesus was a human like us, a moral teacher focused on the establishment of God's kingdom on earth. He was also a revolutionary who aimed at bringing about a just and peaceful social order. The more abstract notions of divine natures and metaphysical reality weren't on Jesus's agenda. Ritschl also encouraged us to consider the political and social factors in play when Jesus acted and spoke. Original context is critical to understanding the meaning of Jesus's ethical teachings.
What about modern American evangelical churches? Here are some samples of what they say about Jesus:
We believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, fully God and fully man, one Person in two natures. Jesus, Israel’s promised Messiah, was conceived through the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He lived a sinless life, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, arose bodily from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father as our High Priest and Advocate.
Christ is the eternal Son of God. In His incarnation as Jesus Christ He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus perfectly revealed and did the will of God, taking upon Himself human nature with its demands and necessities and identifying Himself completely with mankind yet without sin. He honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin. He was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to His disciples as the person who was with them before His crucifixion. He ascended into heaven and is now exalted at the right hand of God where He is the One Mediator, fully God, fully man, in whose Person is effected the reconciliation between God and man. He will return in power and glory to judge the world and to consummate His redemptive mission. He now dwells in all believers as the living and ever present Lord.
We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly and inseparably united. He is the eternal Word made flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. As ministering Servant he lived, suffered and died on the cross. He was buried, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to be with the Father, from whence he shall return. He is eternal Savior and Mediator, who intercedes for us, and by him all men will be judged.
These positions bring the reader's mind to the Nicene and Apostles' creeds, which reflect answers to controversies that burned in the minds of church leaders in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. As such, they don't touch on the portrayals of Jesus in everyday sermons, Bible studies and worship songs. A brief sampling of Christian radio and popular praise songs portray Jesus as an active presence in our daily lives, helping us overcome personal problems and sins, a source of emotional support and love. The creeds above might form a basis for these portrayals, but they don't really address the questions on the minds of today's churchgoers in our auditoriums.
Do these paraphrased creeds do enough to create a realistic center to which people are drawn? If we say our center is Jesus and the gospel, then lead with the concerns of ancient theocratic elites, we miss an enormous opportunity to talk about radical change for the world as it is now by moving toward the kind of fearless love Jesus demonstrated.
What's your center?
What is it that provides the gravitational pull, causing people in your community to turn and move inward?
Is it Jesus the way you imagine him, based on the information you received from your personal and cultural formation? If so, it will be different from the Jesus other people imagine.
Is your center defined strictly by what the creeds say? If so, you will encounter people who have taken the time to form an opinion that is at odds with some of the creedal material. There will be differences.
Does your center come from literal interpretations of the Bible?
From the authority of church hierarchies?
Is fear at the center- a desire to avoid hell and go to heaven when you die?
Is there anything that overlaps our different conceptions of the center of our centered set?
At Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, our center hovers just outside our differing individual conceptions of Jesus and the gospel. We work toward a focus on the expected effects of aligning with Jesus. When people begin to align with the way of Jesus, a journey of change begins. We capture it verbally in this statement, "Loving God and Loving Others Fearlessly," or abbreviated, "Loving Fearlessly." The result of embracing Jesus as an inspiration to love is the same whether his story is an embellished heroic tale, literal fact as recorded in the New Testament or somewhere in between.
It's the same whether or not a person believes in penal substitution, moral influence, Christus Victor or any other theory of atonement.
It's the same for people who affirm the concept of the Trinity and those who don't. We're all wrong in some aspect of our theology- it's far too big for us to be too certain about our own perceptions.
Our center is fearless love arising from the ethic of Jesus. You can add more to it to make it more specific, such as "…for God and for other people." or "…motivated by God's love for me," or "…arising from the activity of the Holy Spirit," but the essential core is love, as embodied in the person of Jesus. All the rest is detail.
Now, to be fair, we ought to define what we mean by "love." But we'll leave that for another article.
*Hiebert, Paul. Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories. 1978. Gospel in Context. October. Reprinted in Asian Christian Communications Fellowship Journal (November 1980)
**Examples of the gap between churches' creeds and the message they regularly convey:
Lyrics of currently popular worship music:
Love me Like I am, by King & Country: "I'm a little unstable / Loose wires always getting tangled now / I am a little bit difficult … It's amazing that you can / Love me like I am / And even when I can't…"
Believe, by Blessing Offor: "So You catch me when I fall, right? / And You hear me when I call cryin'?/ And You fix me when I'm broke, right? / And that's all I need to know / So the storm is gonna break right? / And the sun is gonna start shining / And everything is gonna go right / And that's all I need to know…"
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