By N.S. Palmer
The title of this blog post is not meant to be disrespectful. It reflects my sincere quest, as a non-Christian, to understand what Christians believe.
Some of the best people I know are Christians. They are not merely good people: they are also smart people who think deeply about their faith.
They talk a lot about Jesus being the son of God, dying for the sins of mankind, and so forth.
Most of the time, I literally don’t know what they’re talking about. But I do know that whatever it is, it’s important to them. It helps them be the good people that they are.
For that reason alone, I want to understand it. In addition, of course, I want to understand it because they’re my friends.
As a college student, I was kind of a low-rent Richard Dawkins, full of logic and superiority, sneering at those benighted souls who believed in God. I thought that if you couldn’t understand something clearly in human terms, then it didn’t exist. I had no patience with the mysteries that arguably form the heart of human life.
Over the years, I came to believe that I’d been wrong. There are all kinds of realities that we don’t understand, and that we might be unable to understand. But they still exist. However vaguely, we can sense their presence beckoning to us from beyond the cosmos. We can also talk about them, but since we don’t understand them, we shouldn’t expect to make much sense when we do talk about them.
So I’m perfectly at home with the idea that some realities transcend human understanding. At the same time, Christians seem to think they’re saying things about Jesus that are quite literal and definite, not vague and metaphysical. Can I make any sense of what they’re saying?
For example, take one of the central tenets of Christian belief: “Jesus is the son of God.”
That was a controversial idea in the early years of Christianity, but it’s now accepted as a defining belief.
If you tell me that William is the son of James, then I understand what you’ve said. William and James are human beings with physical bodies. They stand in a certain biological relationship as well as a social relationship. I know what that relationship is.
But if you tell me that Jesus is the son of God, it’s not quite that easy.
That kind of statement made more literal sense in ancient times, when people believed that gods had physical bodies and often visited earth to cavort with human maidens. However, if God is conceived as an immaterial, infinite, transcendent, incomprehensible Being, it’s not at all clear what you mean when you say that someone is His son.
I’ll go further than that: As far as I am able to determine — and perhaps someone will correct me — the statement has no literal meaning. It’s a metaphor that suggests ideas different from the literal meaning of its words.
I think what it actually means to Christians is this:
- Two millennia ago, there was a Jewish man named Joshua (referred to as “Jesus” by the Greeks).
- He was able to perceive the love of God more profoundly and completely than other people could.
- Because of that, his character and his teachings reflected how God wants us to live.
More generally, not specific to Christianity, I think that saying one believes in God means:
- There is a transcendent moral and spiritual dimension to our lives and our world.
- That dimension is benevolent and is based on love.
- We commit ourselves to live according to the loving and benevolent nature of that dimension.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to Christianity and theism than I’ve discussed here. But it seems to me that those are two of the most central issues.
Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.