Monday, November 23, 2015

Jesus, Christ, or Christianity?

An Ethical Musings' reader requested my thoughts on Mohandas Gandhi's statement,
"l like your Christ, but not your Christianity."

Admittedly, there is much about Christianity to dislike. Gandhi personally experienced much evil done in the name of Christianity. Injustices he suffered from people who used Christianity to justify their actions included racism, colonialism, and imperialism. In fairness, much good (e.g., campaigns to abolish slavery, to respect the dignity and worth of all persons equally, and to care for the sick) has also occurred because of Christianity, but critics prefer to emphasize the negative.

Christianity – even at its best – is an earthen vessel. Humans who find the Jesus path helpful, who experience in trying to walk in Jesus' footsteps the one who is life itself, have discovered a pearl of inestimable value. Many who tread the Jesus path want to preserve the treasure they have found as well as to share it with other people. This initiates well-intended attempts to encapsulate the infinite in finite human words, actions, and traditions. Invariably, the process dilutes and distorts the experience. The word "Christ," which means savior, represents an effort by followers of Jesus to encapsulate in human words who Jesus was and what he meant to them. Had Jesus not had any followers, nobody would even know that Jesus had been born, lived, and died.

Similarly, pilgrims who try to follow the Jesus path band together, united by shared goals and commitments. When these pilgrims journey together, even if they number only a handful, they quickly realize that they can move forward more easily and quickly if they cooperate, adopt some rules, and organize themselves. Thus is born the institutional church, which is both an essential blessing and an unavoidable bane for pilgrims.

The greatest challenge for anyone who wants to follow Jesus today is to decide who Jesus is and what he taught. The four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament (i.e., the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are all earthen vessels attributable to humans and codified by the church. Non-biblical sources of information about Jesus are generally more suspect historically. These sources include non-canonical biographies such as the Gospel of Thomas and references to Jesus in other writings. Nothing that Jesus may have written has survived. Nor do we have any sketches or paintings of Jesus made by an artist who actually knew Jesus.

In sum, the dichotomy Gandhi articulated may seem attractive but is actually false. Apart from Christianity, nobody would or could know Jesus. Gandhi himself developed his positive opinion of Jesus the Christ through information he gleaned from Christianity's earthen vessels, regardless of his overall assessment of Christianity.

What Gandhi recognized in the Christian tradition, what he called the Christ, was what he experienced in his own Hindu tradition. That is, the earthen vessels of theology and organized religion are earthly vessels containing the same pearl of inestimable value, the ineffable and infinite mystery that is life itself, that which many call God.

1 comment:

Dotun Olagoke said...

Great write up---Thanks for the clarification