What I want to address in this post is a question I received during the question-and-answer period after the lecture. As I reflect back on my response, it seems to me to have been seriously inadequate. And since I cannot go back in time to offer a better reply, I want to post one here.
But first, we need a bit of context. Hence, even though I’m not going to post the text of my lecture, I need to talk about some elements of it which bear on the issue at hand.
In the course of my lecture, I advocated a roughly Hegelian view of how we should develop our beliefs so as to bring them more fully into alignment with reality (a method that Hegel developed in order to address what he saw to be the weaknesses with the enlightenment and the seemingly intractable difficulty surrounding what has come to be called “the problem of the criterion”—although I didn’t get into those details in my talk).
Instead of repeating what I said in my lecture (which is very close to what I have to say in a recent post), let me frame these ideas in more explicitly Hegelian terms. The essence of Hegel’s method for increasing our understanding of reality—a method I like to call “critical traditionalism”—is this: reality as it is in itself, while distinct from what we experience (which is always filtered through our worldview), impresses itself upon experience in ways that expose the inadequacies of our worldview. Thus, if we live out our worldview with a keen eye towards noticing the “contradictions” that arise within it as it crashes up against reality, we can modify it appropriately. But then the modified worldview has to be lived out in the same way. When worldviews are handed down from generation to generation, and appropriated by each new generation with an openness to revising them in the light of the fissures that living them out exposes—when that happens, the worldviews evolve towards an ever closer approximation of the “Absolute” that transcends all finite human perspectives and experiences.
The idea here is that the only non-question-begging way to uncover the weaknesses of a worldview is from within, by those who “try it on” and seek to live it out with an eye towards noticing when and where it doesn’t work. Those who offer an external critique of a worldview will, inevitably, do so in terms of their own worldview, which itself will inevitably be inadequate. Their focus will be on this other worldview and all the ways in which it fails to measure up to the criteria presupposed by their own worldview—but all the while, these criteria are being embraced dogmatically. Because worldviews are, in effect, the lenses through which we look at our world, they become as invisible to us as the glasses we wear—unless and until they distort what we see so much that we stumble. So, instead of railing against alternative worldviews, we should focus on critically refining our own by trying to become more fully aware of it and its presuppositions, and by noticing when we stumble and then trying to make adjustments so that we stumble less.
This is not to say that alternative worldviews should be ignored. What it means is that we’re just being dogmatic if all our energy is focused on pointing out how many inadequacies a different worldview has. When we create such a list of inadequacies, it will be in terms of certain standards of adequacy—and the standards of adequacy we employ will be those that flow out of our own worldview. To put the point in blunt and oversimplified terms, such critique amounts to saying, “On the assumption that my worldview is right and yours is wrong, we can demonstrate that your worldview is wrong.”
But other worldviews besides our own can be very valuable. To the extent that we can put ourselves in the shoes of those operating out of alternative worldviews and see the world through their eyes, we can broaden the scope of human experience that we have to work with as we endeavor to refine our own worldview. To the extent that we can take note of tendencies towards convergence among alternative culturally and historically situated traditions, we can discover trajectories of development which may say something about the reality that all of these worldviews are responding to. And insofar as the project of living out a worldview produces some of its most glaring failures precisely where it encounters and engages with adherents to different worldviews, our engagement with alternative worldviews may be instrumental in forcing the kinds of changes that move us into closer alignment with a transcendent reality. In short, we may learn from one another, especially if we really pay attention to each other and resist the knee-jerk propensity to just critique other views in the light of our own presuppositions.
And while we are not well situated to critique the substance of alternative worldviews without dogmatically assuming the adequacy of our own criteria of criticism, we are well-situated to point out the dogmatism that such a thing involves, and hence to challenge communities which cry “heresy!” and pronounce anathemas against every alternative worldview (whether those communities be our own or others). We are well situated to point out how the path of critical traditionalism becomes stunted when adherents to a tradition refuse to be critical, even in the face of experiences which expose glaring weaknesses within the worldview. And we are well situated to point out that disdaining all traditions in the name of “thinking for yourself” really just amounts to starting a new tradition while failing to consider what progress other traditions may have made over the centuries.
From this Hegelian framework, a particular religious worldview might be viewed as having its origins in a culturally and historically situated interpretation of a reality that transcends human understanding. As succeeding generations live out the worldview, inadequacies are discovered, and (sometimes grudgingly) changes are made. If so, then the pathway to deepening our understanding of the “Absolute” calls for (a) allowing all of these traditions to evolve in just the way that Hegel recommends: adherents to a tradition appropriate a worldview from the preceding generation, live it out critically, and pass a revised version on for the next generation to do the same; (b) following this procedure with the tradition that we have inherited; and (c) challenging anyone who imposes various sorts of impediments to progress—such as refusing to critically assess their inherited worldview in the light of experience, or denouncing those who do so, or directing all of their critical energies on other worldviews rather than their own.
In any event, what I was doing in my lecture was sketching out what such a Hegelian approach to religious traditions entailed, both in terms of a willingness to critically assess the teachings of one’s own religion and a conditional respect for alternative religious traditions (conditional insofar as it does not extend respect to traditions that staunchly resist critical development or have no tolerance for other traditions than their own, etc.)
But the question that prompted my inadequate reply related to a point I made about convergence. If alternative religious traditions are evolving in the light of inadequacies exposed by the collision between an inherited worldview and a reality that transcends direct human experience, then all these traditions are being molded by the same transcendent reality. And if that is the case, then—barring various impediments to progress—we should expect a convergence of traditions, a gradual narrowing of the gap of difference between them. Of course, there are always impediments to progress, and so it is an open question whether the convergence will ever be significant enough to allow for these traditions to achieve full congruence within the lifetime of the human species.
In the face of this possibility of convergence, and the kind of respect for alternative religious traditions that it implies, one young man in the audience asked, in effect, “What about Jesus?”
More precisely, he pointed out that Christianity is “Christocentric,” that is, it is a religion that makes Christ central. The nature of reality is understood through the lens provided by the story of Jesus’ life and death. To be Christian is to stand in a certain relationship to Jesus—the relationship of a disciple. And it involves believing certain things about Jesus—that He was more than just an ordinary man or a wise prophet, that He was the messiah, the savior of the world, the incarnation of God, the divine Logos, one Person of the Trinitarian Godhead. Or something in that vicinity (there are narrower and broader definitions of Christianity which allow for more or less flexibility in precisely how Christ is to be viewed).
The young man didn’t say all of this. What he did was ask a question along the following lines: “Jews are never going to accept that Jesus is the Son of God. So how do you think that this convergence is going to happen? Are Christians going to have to give up on the divinity of Christ? Doesn’t convergence require, in effect, that Christians cease to be Christian?”
My reply was essentially this, although probably worded less elegantly: “I can’t read the future. I don’t know what a convergence will look like or even if it will fully happen. What I can say is that, according to this progressive model of religion, you should not give up on your belief in the divinity of Christ without a good reason to do so.”
But there is so much more I could have said and should have said. Two things in particular come to mind. First of all, either there really is a sense in which Jesus was divine, and the earliest Christians were recognizing and responding to this (in their own culturally situated terms) as they formed their religious communities and shared their stories and, eventually, wrote their seminal texts—or not. If not, then in the course of living out a worldview in which the divine is perceived to have expressed itself in and through Jesus in a special way, a contrary reality will gradually wear away at this belief until at last it has eroded away altogether. But if Jesus really was divine, then the divine reality that transcends our experience will ultimately reinforce and refine this doctrine. It won’t go away under the pressure of living out a Christian worldview, because whatever contradictions emerge in the course of doing so won’t ultimately call for abandoning this doctrine.
Versions of the doctrine may have to be abandoned, as will versions of Christianity which combine with the doctrine in ways that don’t work. But if, in the course of living out your life as a Christian, the divinity of Christ facilitates rather than inhibits your capacity to live with integrity and honesty in relation to your world, you may be justified in believing that this is one of the things that won’t erode. You will be like Schleiermacher, the father of progressive religion, who respected alternative religious paths, who thought that each had something of importance to share with others about the divine—and who believed that the thing of most importance which Christianity had to share was precisely its central doctrine that God acted in and through Jesus, a human who was also divine, to effect the redemption of the world. If you agree with Schleiermacher in this, then adopting the progressive approach to Christianity should not lead you to fear that Christ will be lost in the process of convergence.
The second point I should have made in response to this young man's question was this: When we consider the claim that Jews are never going to accept the divinity of Christ, it may be worth asking why it seems so plausible to think this. And it does seem plausible. Although some Jews do convert to Christianity—my own brother-in-law, for example—it is hard to imagine a widespread transformation of this sort. This is true despite what I personally see as the intrinsic power of the core story of Christianity (which I sketch out, for example, here).
When I reflect on the narrative of Jesus’ life, I see a story of astonishing beauty that resonates with some of the deepest longings of my soul. But I know that most of my Jewish friends just won’t see it in these terms. There’s just too much ugliness that has been heaped over it—because the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity is intimately bound up with a history of persecution at the hands of Christians.
Consider it in these terms: What distinguishes Christianity from Judaism? Of course, there are numerous differences. But these differences trace back to one seminal difference, the thing that distinguished the Jesus sect from other Jewish sects in the earliest history of Christianity, despite their shared roots and overlapping Scriptures. And what is that difference? Obviously, it is a different understanding of who and what Jesus was and what His life meant.
But that one difference was sufficient to map out a history of social marginalization and oppression—a history that eventually set the stage for one of the greatest moral horrors in the history of the world. This is not to say that Christians perpetrated the Holocaust. The Nazis did that (although many Christians were quietly complicit as Jews were herded off to concentration camps, brutalized, and murdered). What it means is that the history of social marginalization within Christian Europe set the Jews apart in a way that Nazi ideology was able to exploit.
Anti-Semitism wasn’t born with Hitler and the Nazis. Its roots trace back to the earliest history of Christianity. As Karen Armstrong has noted in The Bible: A Biography, a vilification of the Pharisees became so potent in the earliest years of the Christian movement that it made it into the Gospels. Why? Armstrong puts it this way:
After the destruction of the temple the Christians had been the first to make a
concerted effort to become the authentic Jewish voice and initially they seemed
to have had no significant rivals. But by the 80s and 90s, Christians were
becoming uncomfortably aware that something extraordinary was happening: the
Pharisees were initiating an astonishing revival.
In effect, two Jewish sects survived the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem: the Christians and the Pharisees. And the Christians resented the efforts of the Pharisees to establish themselves as the true inheritors of Judaism. This fact was combined with another force that Armstrong notes in passing. In the efforts to reach out to the gentiles, the writers of the synoptic gospels “were too eager to absolve the Romans of their responsibility for Jesus’s execution and claimed, with increasing stridency, that the Jews must shoulder the blame.”
As Christianity distanced itself increasingly from its Jewish origins, the other surviving sect became identified with Judaism. But the old rivalry remained. And as the Christians became the empowered majority, that rivalry took on a new and more sinister shape. Fueled by the biblical passages which seemed to blame the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion, the Jews were vilified and marginalized. The fact that they didn’t accept the divinity of Jesus was trotted out as a justification for social oppression. And so an anti-Semitic ideology was born.
And this history of oppression, culminating in the horror of the Holocaust, has shaped Jewish culture and identity in ways that would be hard to underestimate. To embrace the divinity of Jesus, given such a cultural history, could very naturally be seen as caving in to two millennia of social oppression and abuse. For many, it would symbolically represent selling out one’s cultural identity to the oppressor.
Now I don’t simply want to say here that this history of oppression provides powerful and understandable impediments to Jewish acceptance of Christ’s divinity, impediments that would interfere with such acceptance even if it is true that the doctrine of Christ’s divinity expresses a genuine insight into the divine. And I certainly don’t want to say that the prospects for convergence between Christian and Jewish worldviews depend upon Jews getting over their resentment so that they can come to see the beauty of Christian teachings. The point I want to make goes deeper than that, and follows the Hegelian spirit of directing criticism inward, towards one’s own worldview.
What I want to point to is a practical contradiction within the dominant Christian worldview, a contradiction that has made itself manifest in the course of a history in which generations of people have sought to live it out. The Christian worldview has from its beginnings urged evangelism, that is, sharing and promulgating the “good news.” But it has also laid down layers of crud that have made it essentially impossible for some people to hear this news, even if that news really is as good and beautiful as Christians claim (Christianity's more recent history in relation to gays and lesbians is also instructive on this point).
Such a contradiction demands internal criticism. If there are impediments to a convergent evolution between Judaism and Christianity here, I don’t think their main sources lie in Judaism. If the doctrine of Christ’s divinity has its source in a transcendent divine reality, then the capacity to appreciate this is blocked by crud. And it is Christian communities that, over the centuries, have been spewing out this crud.
As Christians, we need to turn our critical eye inward and ask why. And we need to transform our own worldview to repair this ugly fissure, out of which this ugliness has been allowed to pour into the world.
According to the Gospel of Matthew (7:5), Jesus offered up a saying about this kind of prioritization of self-criticism, one which strikes me as very wise: “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
In any event, when the young man at the lecture asked, "What about Jesus?", that’s what I should have said.