Northrop Frye (A hero of mine) writes in his book Anatomy of Criticism, “… the full metaphorical statement ‘Christ is God and Man’ is orthodox, and that Arian (the belief that Jesus was not god but the highest creation of God) and Docetic (Jesus only appeared to be god but was in fact only a virtual god) statements in terms of simile or likeness (are) condemned as heretical.” The heresy is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable (and safely controlled). Certainty is the opposite of faith not doubt.
Frye in precisely right! Whether we are motivated by fear or by laziness, to consider Jesus to be anything less than the full metaphor is inadequate and frankly, from my experience, lifeless. I was fortunate to have professors that were also believers. While using the critical skills of the enlightenment, they also knew that such inquiry was mute at the boundary of faith. The wisdom of this passing age contends that Jesus is a great teacher, traveling cynic, political revolutionary, which says more about the writer than about Jesus. The problem arises when this speculation is accepted as the very truth of the Gospel and clergy having accepted uncritically this speculation go out into the vineyard unprepared for facing the overwhelming spiritual hunger of people.
Unfortunately, those of us who labor in the vineyard of the Lord have degrees in viticulture, understand theories of how grape juice become wine and examine the organic structure of complex sugars; but when faced with the one who turned water into wine at that reception in Cana of Galilee are embarrassed by the mystery. We have Masters of Divinity degrees that are religious Masters of Business Administration. We are credentialed more than educated, produced more than formed. The supernatural becomes superstition and we are always prepared for God to do nothing! This is a tragedy and clergy burnout a symptom of the bankruptcy of the enlightenment.
That is not to say that a retreat into a literal fundamentalism is the answer? Responding to classic liberalism of the early 20th Century by embracing a religious version of the No Nothing Party and hurling salvos at a failed point of view is also soul killing. The 1950’s or the 12 Century are not the golden ages to be reconstructed. The golden age never existed this side of Eden and will not until the day of Christ’s appearing. The letter of the law kills. Grace is more than a hymn is it is the energy for the healing our souls. A retreat back toward Eden (where we are banned, by the way) is a detour we cannot afford. The cloud leads us forward not backward.
I have come to wonder if both extremes represent a loss of nerve. The endless quest for certainty produces simile but shies away from the risky uncontrollable metaphor. What is foolishness the left is a stumbling block to the right and standing or sitting they fight, fight, fight! What people want is to experience God and nothing else will do. They want the wine in the cup to be what it is, the cup of salvation. Nothing else will do. We are too anxious, wounded and famished to settle for more junk food for the soul.
Late in the game, I have set myself the task of digging deep into the writings of the first five hundred years of the Christian experience called the Church Fathers. I am interested in the classic faith expressed in the creeds. I plumb the depths of 2000 years to find the practices that hold the promise for feeding us now. Above all I see to experience God.
I will persevere in getting out of the way of people meeting God. Finally, what we need is a sewing guild stitching up new wine skins. Our old ones are threadbare and the give is gone. Picking grapes is ever so much more fun than a virtual harvest of abstraction. It has come to my attention that a delivery of new wine is on the way. The sewing guild is working over-time and well they should. When it comes we may well be drunk but it will not leave a hangover. The experience of God has consequences but it is the salvation of our souls. JWS