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.


Anonymous said...

I agree. Many of Christ's teaching were very radical, and he was quite capable of being offensive, especially to the pharisees, sadducees, etc. However, you need to be careful when teaching this in Sunday School. I tried to show how revolutionary some of Christ's teachings were, and soon found myself released as Gospel Doctrine teacher.

When we truly examine Christ's teachings, they can be even more enlightening. For example, we all hear that Jesus hung out with "publicans and sinners." I heard someone say that if Jesus were alive today, he would hang out in bars. "I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance." As church members, wouldn't it make more sense to do missionary work in bars? After all, who needs repentance more than a bunch of alcoholics? (I'm not saying everyone who goes to bars is an alcoholic, but you're definitely going to find more alcoholics in bars than say, the mall.)

To do missionary work in this way would cause many members discomfort. But, isn't this the way Jesus spread his gospel? Isn't this why Christ was so revolutionary?

Stephen said...

Thanks for this post, it was useful and timely.

Anonymous said...

Of course the things he taught were revolutionary and hard to bear, in fact. But the point I see this point making is that ANYONE who claims the things Jesus did, or does miracles will either move one to faith or disturb them. Joseph was much the same. How easy is it to picture in your head what a prophet should be like and then get out of sorts when you meet the man and he doesn't match the grand idea in your head. He started the church at a very young age, and it was extraordinarily difficulty for David Whitmer, or any of these senior apostles to think that they couldn't understand the things of God better than this boy. The claim of authority from God is by its very nature offensive. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Wow, DPC. I came to your blog from mine, and found your first post well-written, fascinating, and very deep--but not so deep it was utter garbage. In short, very thought-provoking and interesting.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I have just read your post and marveled at its insight. You have just disproved my earlier opinion of you as being merely a cynic. You are unmasked! The responses of "MH" and "doc" are equally cogent. I'm grateful to have been mistaken and to have had a chance to repent! I have also just learned from my knowledgeable wife that the book of Ecclesiastes begins with the main assertion of your blog.

DPC said...


I'm actually an idealist posing as a cynic.

BNI said...

I recently started reading "Articles of Faith". In it, Talmage claims that we can gain faith in God through rational means.

I was wondering if you are familiar with Talmage's points on this matter a d what your thoughts are.

DPC said...

Hi Kim, always great to have a fellow Canadian stop by. I'm originally from the Calgary area.

He appears to argue that God's existence can be proven by the teleological argument for the existence of God. It also appears that he is aware of the problems associated with that view.

It seems that he limits his discussion of knowing God through reason to what I would term a deistic belief. The apparent order of the universe does lend some basis for belief in a rational, organized God. However, the attributes that we usually assign to God (love, compassion, etc.) are not knowable through human reason alone or to an argument based on the apparent orderliness of the universe.

Talmage smartly avoids talking about the characteristics of God that go beyond what human reason can tell us and leaves that for his section on knowing God through revelation. And any appeal to revelation brings you to faith unsupported by reason.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Enjoyed your posting, particularly about the irrationality of believing or not believing in God. Sums up beautifully the thoughts that often swirl through my mind.