What’s the big deal about Christ?—A Jew takes a closer look at Christianity

Jews and Christians share a lot of texts and history; what separates the two religions most visibly is the figure of Jesus Christ. Recently I sampled some of the most famous Christian writers over the past 2,000 years to get a better understanding of what distinguishes their religion from other faiths, and especially Judaism.

At first I could not understand why Christ is so central, but my reading and discussions with Christian friends have given me a better understanding. This essay explores Christ as the key to understanding Christianity.

Beyond the Sunday School view

Certainly, many Christians (as well as non-Christians) treat the religion as centered on a simple doctrine: that Christ, through terrible suffering on the Cross, redeemed us from the pawn shop where Adam and Eve had left us. In isolation, this view provides a suspiciously simple comfort: Believe the salvation narrative constructed by Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, and you’ll go to Heaven. You might even get a divine boost in this life.

I do not go as far as Søren Kierkegaard, who suggested that “the whole official Christianity” is “not worth a pickled herring.” Even conventional Christians have a keyhole into a more sophisticated religion. The understanding is that you must not only believe in Christ, but behave like Christ. Jesus’s own exhortation throughout the four canonical gospels is not so often “Believe in me as your savior” (although hints of that appear), but more simply “Follow me,” an ambiguous demand suggesting that we behave like Jesus.

The hurdle comes in figuring out what it is to behave like Jesus. An open-minded reading of the Gospels makes it clear that Jesus is neither tolerant nor mild. Jesus is constantly haranguing the people around—not least Jesus’s closest disciples—to say they’re not doing enough and don’t understand what Jesus is talking about.

The radical teachings about wealth and social justice in the four Gospels are perennially gripping, but when taken as written, lead to people begging in the streets and ignoring the need to sustain human society. The Gospels provide fodder for the notion that one should put piety before any practical matters (“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin”), but these urges haven’t created movements that can last for centuries.

In short, given that few people can cure skin disease or schizophrenia, it doesn’t seem like you can take literally the injunction to behave like Christ.

This dilemma is the taking-off point for the richer, deeper, and more difficult path that great Christian leaders have opened for us. Their interpretations of the New Testament are abstract enough that many of them have been called “mystics,” but I think they offer the most useful interpretation of the Christ story. Absent their approach, you’re left with an adult equivalent of Santa Claus.

So let’s look at three elements of Christ, found in traditions over many centuries, that explain Christ’s crucial role in Christian life and thought.

Christ’s presence on Earth cements God’s devotion to our world

Christian thinkers are absorbed by concern over whether God is in our journey for the long haul. Granted, God created the Heaven and the Earth, but what has God done for us lately?

I think this worry reflects the powerful Greek philosophical tradition that hovered over Mediterranean thought at the dawn of Christianity. Plato and others thought of God as something outside our visible world. Combine that tradition with the Manichaean and Gnostic rejection of the natural world that was popular at that time, and you’ve got a serious risk of withdrawing from life.

Eastern religions have a more nuanced spirituality that presents an alternative to the natural world but is not divorced from it. Christian thinkers had to reclaim a similar vision to make us think that God cares.

Christ provides the crucial link between the Platonic spiritual world and our natural world. Christ was one of us and walked this Earth. Christ’s physical, corporal nature was not base, not opposed to spiritual purity—and therefore we can turn our own corporal natures, tainted as they are with sin, to serving the spirit.

I think that Christians also found that Christ embodies an approachable presence of God in our natural world, a presence that was provided in ancient Judaism by the Holy of Holies but that retreated in Judaism with the recently destroyed Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

To prove that God has not become indifferent to Creation, we have to take another step: Christ is still with us. The birth of Jesus was not just an historical event that took place during the dying years of the ancient Jewish state. Rather, Christ is constantly being reborn within each of us. Christ provides us with the energy to live and to improve our natural world.

Abstract as this view is, outsiders might appreciate it as a metaphor for the richness and urgency of life on Earth. To Christians, the view is not a metaphor. It is reality.

Idealists, feeling that the real world seems too corrupt to be saved, are tempted to elevate their view of a better world into an unworldly heaven. But Jesus was part of the real world and called for its perfection, an appearance of God in our midst spurring Christians to action here and now.

Christ represents all life and therefore renders us all equal

Let’s take another step. It may seem from the Bible that the world muddled along all right for some 3,000 years before Jesus came along. But to the “mystic” Christians, Christ is an integral part of the creation of the world. Were there no Christ, there would be no world.

Thus, Jesus’s short life on this planet was part of the original plan. That’s why so many passages in the Old Testament are interpreted by Christians to refer to Jesus’s life and message.

Christ also rescues us from egoistic isolation. We were each created in the image of God, who is infinite in time and space, but we perceive ourselves as discrete individuals. Countering this superificial consciousness, the oceanic sense sought in many religions—a connection to all humanity and reality—is embodied for Christians by God’s entering the world in the form of Christ.

But what does this mean practically? It means that all beings in this universe are of equal importance and that we must strive to give better lives to all. Take the doctrine another step, and you commit to protecting every tree in the Amazon. We cannot hope for a personal salvation, but must seek the salvation of all creation.

It’s difficult to make personal sacrifices to carry out an ethereal concern for “all oppressed people” or “all living species on Earth,” but the tangible figure of Christ brings the abstract to a personal level. The community formed by Jesus and the disciples also provides a tangible pointer to the type of world they wanted to bring into being.

And when we experience despair at the state of things, we can remember that Jesus also experienced despair—the burden of all humans—and yet remained as Christ eternally powerful. The truth will be persecuted by sinful humanity in every age, just as truth was persecuted in Christ’s time. Those who know the truth must proclaim it anew in every generation.

The example of Christ gave us all the chance to redeem the world from sin

The Christian thinkers I have been summarizing emphasize that a Christian gives up personal desires and goals to take on God’s desires and goals. Christ was not alone in redeeming humanity from condemnation. We can do the same. By following the teachings of Jesus, we become more and more like Christ.

The great dilemma posed by the Gospels is that Jesus could have escaped crucifixion by exerting God’s infinite power, but chose not to. By accepting the punishment of human judges, Jesus reaffirmed our free will and, by so doing, left it up to our own will to complete the rescue of humankind and the natural world. The message of the crucifixion is not that we are guilty for the death of Jesus but that we are responsible for God’s mission on Earth.

A key result of accepting that belief—of living that belief every day of your life—is that you don’t need an external guide such as the book of Leviticus to do the right thing. Throw out the Law! If you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus is God, you will be saved.

There’s a risk in this doctrine, which runs through the history of Christianity with a persistence strong enough to earn it a special term (antinomianism): Many people honestly believe they are carrying out God’s will while doing horrible things. Stymied by the gulf between intentions and outcomes, several authors over the centuries distinguish between the role of the Church—to love and to forgive—with the role of an avowedly secular government that restrains wrong-doers and metes out justice.

In any case, while emphasizing the God within, Christians still erect some goalposts in the hope of averting such transgressions. The Sermon on the Mount indicates that Jesus was not discarding Jewish law but taking it to a more demanding, more mentally engaged, and more spiritually abstract level.

A foundation for constructing a moral tradition

The power of the Christian tradition is that it empowers those who want to preserve the ethical and the good over the long haul. The preserved Gospels and the letters of Paul both evince a feeling of urgency because redemption is at hand. In contrast, views of Christ developed in later centuries are ones that subsequent generations can live by.

Some of the ideas I’ve laid out in the article are frequently classified as mystical. Their exponents insist that the principles are not a catechism that you recite, but a guide to contemplation. You can’t reach the goal they’re setting for you through pure logic; you must train yourself to open your deepest soul to God, who will then respond.

But the epithet “mystical” may devalue these approaches, or at least set them off unjustly from what is classified as “mainstream.” Although the writers I’ve been summarizing might be a subculture within Christianity, they frame out their position on passages from the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John, which display those very elements called “mystical.”

But indeed, this view of Christ takes a seat in a long mystical tradition within which you can find the adherents of nearly all religions, including Jewish Kabalists.

In contemplating this view, you come to the realization that the universe is all connected and that each of us is inseparable from all other things within it. That’s a powerful impetus to behave like other people and living things matter.

More Biblical commentaries

Andy Oram
December 23, 2023

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