A God of our Own Contrivance

 

Fr John Cox

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Pick any online news source and randomly select an article about Christianity. Now, skip to the comments section. If you’ve done this before you know to expect some variation on the following:*

Sincere Granny: What a wonderful article. I’ve been a Christian for 50 years and I can tell you the author is telling the truth!

Snarky Girl: Thankfully, it’s mostly old people who still believe in angry invisible people living in the sky. It’s a new day, granny!

Zealot Boy: @snarkygirl: You’ll believe too when you’re on your face before God at the Great White Throne judgement! Accept Jesus as your savior or face eternity in hell! #turnorburn

Condescending Man: LMAO! Hey ZB, can you even prove Jesus existed?

*Punctuation and grammar results may vary

What Zealot Boy will often do next is try to answer that challenge; to prove that Jesus did exist. What he almost never does is challenge the question. But he should. The search for the “historical Jesus” was all the fashion in 20th century theology. Scholars enamored of the German theologian Adolf Harnack set out to “rediscover” Christianity using historical-critical methodologies in all the relevant disciplines. Other scholars of a more “traditional” mind set out to defend old-fashioned Christianity using the same disciplines. The result was a lot of tenured faculty and an endless debate over the interpretation of data. This is a warning in itself but the real mistake among the defenders of old-fashioned Christianity was in accepting the terms of the debate in the first place. Proving the historical Jesus for the sake of a skeptical audience is a lose-lose endeavor for the Christian for two reasons.

1. You are probably going to lose even if you win. Why? Because most of the time the motives of the questioner aren’t honest. The movie, To Kill A Mockingbird, evokes this truth quite nicely. Throughout the film we hope that Atticus Finch will be successful in convincing a white, Alabama jury of his black client’s innocence. He does his job convincingly but the jury finds Tom Robinson guilty anyway. The men on the jury weren’t interested in the truth. They had already decided how this was going to end.

In this there is an echo of an older, sadder story:[Then] Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face… Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”… So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him. (John 11:43-49, 12:9-11)

This story serves as an example of unfortunate truth we all have to come to terms with eventually: people tend to believe what they want to believe. When truth, integrity, or any other virtue collides with desire, desire is almost always going to win. So when someone demands you prove Jesus existed you can be pretty sure they’re not going to change their mind even if you are successful. But what if they do?

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2. If you are successful in persuading someone that Jesus did exist, what have you persuaded them of? You have convinced them that in ancient Palestine there lived a Galilean Jew named Jesus who had a brief career as an itinerant teacher, who claimed to be the son of the Jewish God, and was unceremoniously executed for this audacity by the local Roman government at the behest of the Jewish religious leaders. You have convinced them of Jesus the man – Jesus as a historical fact among the facts of the world. What you have not convinced them of is that Jesus is also the Son of God. Why not? Because it is logically impossible. To demonstrate a fact is to identify some subset of the world which itself can be defined as the totality of facts.[1] The Christian God revealed in Jesus the God-man is not only present within the world, and thereby a fact of it, but also the Creator of the world, and therefore other than it as a potter is other than the cup he makes. In the anaphora prayer we say our God is “ineffable” – not able to be exhaustively described by human language – and “inconceivable” – beyond our comprehension. These assertions render any successful demonstration of the historic Jesus a pyrrhic victory. Any God that can be demonstrated, that fits inside the definition of the world is not the Christian God but a god of our own contrivance. It is not worth getting out of bed on Sunday for such a god.

So the next time someone asks you to prove your God, challenge the question. What good is a factual god bound within this prosaic finitude? The only God worth believing is one who is within and without; a divine alchemist who knows what it is like to be lead but can also change lead into gold.


[1]  “The world is all that is the case. The world is the totality of facts and not of things.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Proposition 1.

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