Thursday, January 24, 2008

On the Offensiveness of Christ

When reading the New Testament, one thing that becomes apparent is that Christ was offensive. For whatever reason, people were genuinely offended by him. And it wasn't just the Pharisees either. For all that is written about living a Christ-like life, apparently people tend to omit the foregoing. It certainly seems intuitive that being offensive is not a sign of being a true Christian. But to deny the offensiveness of Christ is to ignore an important aspect of his divinity. For those who acknowledge that Christ was offensive, they interpret his actions as a reformer exposing hypocrisy and false teachings. But even this viewpoint is flawed.

As Soren Kierkegaard points out in his Practice in Christianity, there is an unusual incident involving Jesus and two followers of John the Baptist. In Matthew 11:6, John the Baptist sends two followers to Jesus to ask if Jesus is the one they are waiting for or if there is another. Instead of giving an unequivocal, “I’m the one you’re waiting for”, Jesus gives a very curious answer. Instead he answers with:

“Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

All of the above seem to be signs that Jesus is the Christ, but what he says next, as Kierkegaard aptly points out, seems non sequitur.
“And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (The New International Version says: Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.)
The logical answer would be that because of the miracles and the teaching, Jesus is the Messiah. But instead of the logical answer, we are left with ‘Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.’ How is it that on seeing miracles performed and the gospel preached, someone could be offended? I admit to struggling with what Christ seems to be saying.

But, as usual, Kierkegaard makes an interesting insight into the nature of God and the nature of faith. You can’t know that God exists through rational argument. There is no ‘If p, then q; p, therefore q” when it comes to God. It’s a matter of faith, pure and simple. To me, it seems that it is irrational to believe in God or to not believe in God. It’s irrational to believe in God because there is (seemingly) no empirically verifiable evidence. But when someone is confronted with empirical evidence, there is no unavoidable conclusion. Jesus didn’t say, “You saw me do this, therefore believe,” he says, “Blessed is he that is not offended.” You can’t know God through science. You can only know God through faith. Such a fideistic answer may be unsatisfactory to ‘hard fact’-types, but that’s where we have to leave it at this point.

On further reflection, however, it seems that the New International Version provides an interesting nuance because it talks about falling away on account of Jesus. I’m sure that most people arrogantly assume that if they had encountered Christ, they would have known who he was. But it seems that appearances can be deceiving. It seems that humans don’t make religious decisions based on the evidence. It appears that humans make religious decisions about the truth based on the speaker. On pure appearances, Jesus was an uneducated carpenter. In Luke 4, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, reads what is now known as Isaiah Chapter 61, and tells the people that the scripture was fulfilled because of him. They became offended and tried to kill him, but for whatever reason, Jesus managed to avoid this fate. They failed to understand who Christ was because instead of listening to the message, they focused on the messenger.

But what is about Christ and Christianity that is so offensive? Kierkegaard thinks its because the miracles and the teachings don’t build faith, they bring people to the point where ‘faith can come into existence.’ When faced with a miracle, people are discomfited because they see Jesus, all they see is a regular human being. If by the miracle, he is claiming to be divine and you do not believe him to be divine, it leads to the conclusion that he is lying and therein lies the offense. We have a certain worldview and we reject any information that does not comport to that worldview. We become offended by the things that we can not easily account for.

A true believer will reject any theory that appears to show God as unmerciful or uncaring. An atheist rejects all miracles as misunderstandings at best, and outright falsifications at worst. But they are doing the exact same thing. They are rejecting information about the world, not because it is false, but because it does easily fit into their view of what the world is. When a fundamentalist summarily rejects evolution because it does not allow for God’s intervention, they are no worse than the atheist who rejects God because the evidence for Him is not in the form the atheist wants it to be. They are both deciding which evidence to accept and which evidence to reject. And because the beliefs of the other make both the fundamentalist and the atheist uncomfortable, they are offended.