Fixing Jesus

In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a ghostly theologian has found himself at the very edge of heaven, having taken a bus from hell. He is invited to remain, though doing so will require that he leave behind the imaginary world of the unreal (hell), and take on the difficult task of being truly what he was created to be. The conversation has an interesting moment when he describes his latest project: thinking about what Jesus might have accomplished had he not died so tragically young. The proposition is comic, on its surface, a misunderstanding of Christ’s work so profound as to be silly – except that it’s not. “Fixing Jesus” is a very apt metaphor for the task that secularized Christianity has set for itself. And, that I might be clear, every Christian in the modern world is tempted, at some level, to secularize his faith. We all want to fix Jesus.

As much as Jesus is admired in our culture, even quoted on occasion, He remains a bothersome and uncooperative figure. He healed the sick, but seems to have left no lasting plan or program for their long-term care. I’ve even heard the question, “Why didn’t He heal everyone?” Indeed, there is a puzzlement that He still allows us to suffer disease, and is given credit for the deep injustice of sickness itself. Why do children get cancer and Nazis live to old age in the backwoods of Brazil?

Jesus clearly spoke of justice and care for the poor. But He established no guidelines for a just economy, nor did He challenge the economic systems of His time. Sometimes He seems to have avoided the topic on purpose.

Among the most useless pronouncements in our modern culture are the statements, “Jesus never said anything about…[fill in the blank].” This is always said by people for whom what Jesus actually said already carries no weight. “Jesus never said…” means that you may not say it either, except as an example of bigoted traditionalism.

The deep drive of modern secularism has been to tame Jesus, to make Him serve the purpose of the modern project in the construction of liberal democracy. That project requires that all creeds be held in private for the greater public good. Indeed, the modern project would suggest that all religions essentially say the same thing – that liberal democracy and its prosperous peace is the goal of human progress. Inasmuch as Jesus might have done something to contribute to that project, He is useful and good.

This is much more than a culture critique, for that which we can see in the culture has also been written deep within our hearts. It is a worldview we imbibe simply by being born in this time and in this place. That worldview generally sees the world as existing for its own sake (and our lives as existing for their own sake as well). Even when those things are married to some notion of a “greater good,” that good is generally about the world for its own sake. Those things that disrupt the public good are seen as troublesome (at the very least) and needing modification.

Of course, the public good is measured only by this world for its own sake, for its wealth and our general health. Happiness (that fleeting and ever-changing thing) is the common goal of us all.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Jesus is focused on some world beyond this one. He is decidedly here-and-now (Matt. 6:34). Indeed, secularism would not exist without Christianity having preceded it. For it is in the teaching of Christ that attention is drawn directly to that which is at hand rather than to life elsewhere. In Christ’s teaching, “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). What we see today as secularism is a heresy, a false reading and distortion of the Christian tradition. It is the world, in and of itself, as a substitute for the Kingdom of God. A world without depth or meaning apart from its own self.

Christ does not abolish the world (the one that we call “secular”). Instead, He reveals it to be what it is. This material world in which we dwell, to which we are inseparably united, is shown to be the gate of heaven, the bread of life, the medicine of immortality, and so on. For all of these things are not made known to us apart from, nor in spite of their material aspects. Fr. Alexander Schmemann said quite rightly that the sacraments do not seek to replace the material: it shows material to be what it is. In St. Basil’s epiclesis we pray, “And show this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord, and God, and Savior, Jesus Christ…” In the hands of Christ, all bread becomes what it is meant to be, that which alone can truly feed us.

The world does not exist in and of itself, nor is its value and meaning in and of itself. But neither does its true existence, value, and meaning exist somewhere else of which it is a non-participant or an empty shadow. The material world is the locus of the marriage of heaven and earth. In that sense, Christ draws attention to the created order in a manner without precedent. It is the de-coupling of that attention from Christ Himself and the deeper reality that underlies the created order that has given us our present delusion. It is as though all our attention were on human bodies – without souls. As such, we are the dead among the dead.

The world’s efforts to “fix” Jesus are invariably directed towards either removing Him from this world, or placing Him in the world as a manageable object. Just as the world turned St. Nicholas into Santa Claus (he’s so cuddly!), so Christ becomes a religious mascot of whatever worldly value we want to promote. Solzhenitsyn, in his famous Templeton Lecture, described this process of secularization in profound terms:

More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty-million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.

Secularism is the forgetting of God, or remembering Him in a manner that is truly less than God. This is the cause of all injustice. Indeed, it is the great injustice: that human beings forget their Creator and the purpose of their existence. When we forget God, everything is madness.

Jesus, have mercy on us and fix us.

28 comments:

  1. Father Stephen,
    Not only the secular world, but “churches”
    attempt to change Christ into something manageable too. When I have looked into cults in the past it seems that all lower Christ into something lower than God, usually just a created being, no matter how high they may try to later elevate Him. He definitely is not the God of classical Christianity. I am reminded of the book by Phillips I read long ago, “Your God is too Small.” He said many good things in it which spoke to me at the time. Yet God still remained too small for me. It was only in Orthodoxy that I found Christ, highly exalted, as Isaiah saw Him, high and lifted up in the temple. Yes, Christ unites heaven and earth… as physical realities, such as bread, wine water and oil are shown to be so much more…that which can truly feed and heal the world. Without this reality of the two united…spirit/ matter, the truth of the Incarnation never really shines through. And here too Christ is diminished.

  2. Dean,
    Ironically, in creating the concept of a secular world, the world in itself, for itself, by itself, modernity created a diminished world, a smaller place. Tragically, the secular world is ever so much smaller than the human heart. As a result, it is only by diminishing what it means to be human that people can live secular lives. Little Gods produce little people.

  3. I have been watching a TV series called The Orville, a sort of hipster Star Trek. It’s mostly fun, but a significant theme is that leaving “God” behind is progress. Reason over superstition.

    There was even a line in a recent show in which a character said, “I have seen you bleed. A god cannot bleed!” They have no clue how wrong they are.

    Only the true God does bleed.

  4. William in NY, glory to God! I give you the same advice I was given when I became a catechuman: Orthodoxy is hard. But it is full of joy as well. May God bless and hold you close!

  5. This speaks to my heart and I will be reading it again and again as I walk my path towards God and shine that light (out from under the bushel basket) in the world and with my patients. It is the fellowship I find here that is helping that light burn just a little brighter. I am asked hard questions by people who are so invested in this secular world and the wisdom I read here and in the Word help me so much to keep that light burning. God bless and keep you, my brothers and sisters.

  6. This. Is very helpful. Thank you, Father. I should read it every day, but I know I won’t. I would make a note that says, “. . . because we have forgotten God,” and keep it on my screens, if I knew how to do that. But It’s easy to remember, and I shall.

  7. What remains to be said on this most important subject can only be an elaboration on what you have so accurately put forth in this most timely article. I suspect its “timeliness”, is such that it is for all time because, “men have forgotten God”.
    I have heard it said that the worst thing that befell Christianity is that it became “respectable”. Still persecuted to be sure but even more insidiously so by a climate of ideas inimical to a life in Christ.
    “Thine own of Thine own on behalf of all and for all” contains within it the realization of a radical transformation if only it were heeded.
    Thank you Father .

  8. “ This material world in which we dwell, to which we are inseparably united, is shown to be the gate of heaven, the bread of life, the medicine of immortality, and so on.”

    Thank you, Father!

  9. This is among the most insidious things about the “Two-Storey Universe.” We agree to cede the whole natural order over to secularism and put God upstairs. You can never truly find an “upstairs” God. Only the God who has come down to us can be known. This world is the meeting place. It belongs to Him. The earth is His footstool. I refuse to give it away.

  10. Well said, Fr. Stephen! Both the post and your 9:06 PM comment. Priceless.

    I sometimes forget how easy it is to forget God – if that makes any sense. While secularism is perhaps the greatest threat, I can forget God while carrying out what I think (at the time) are actions intended to serve Him. What I am doing insidiously starts becoming about me until I’m not really relating to God anymore.

    Praise Him Who mercy is without end. May He keep coming back and knocking on my door…

  11. Mary, and yet He always seems to be there to tap us on the shoulder to bring us to rememberance.

  12. Wonderful as always Father; thank you.
    What is true of nations and time periods applies to me as well: When i reflect upon the downs in my life, they’ve all been times when i have forgotten God and the purpose of my existence.
    And yes, Jesus, have mercy on us and fix us. And give us the sense to realise that we need fixing, realise that we cannot fix it on our own, realise that only You can fix it and that there is nothing beyond Your fixing. And may our brokenness lead us towards being kind to others.

  13. “Secularism is the forgetting of God, or remembering Him in a manner that is truly less than God. This is the cause of all injustice. Indeed, it is the great injustice: that human beings forget their Creator and the purpose of their existence. When we forget God, everything is madness.”

    Thank you for this post and for these words especially. Being raised in a protestant church that became more and more involved in social justice, both at the local congregation and on the nationwide/synodical level, exposed me to the injustice you describe here. It is ironic that such a church is actually committing injustice because it has not only forgotten but effectively removed Jesus and replaced Him with the latest cause or concern. The same problem happens within the church’s walls and its ministries, a problem I know too well because that is where I removed Jesus from my own faith life and replaced Him with concerns involving church politics and worship roles and procedures. Lord, have mercy.

    From this personal experience, I can say that it all does lead to “madness.” Thank God that it can also lead to Truth and Light, as this was one of the major reasons that pushed our family out of that church and towards The Orthodox Faith. Even amidst such darkness and madness, Christ’s Light shines brightly on and for us sinners. Glory to God!

  14. Father Stephen,
    Before I state my confusion, I must say…that picture at the head of this post couldn’t be more appropriate for your title, Fixing Jesus. When I first saw it I thought ‘what in the world is that (picture on the right)?!’ After a search, and reading the post, I see that any attempt to fix Jesus, even with the best of intentions, creates something that is ‘another Jesus’…beyond recognition…even bizarre.
    But I am confused. I think I may be reading too much into what you are saying.
    Given the effect of secularism (which is not reality, but a lie, therefore in a sense nonexistent but yet exists, falsely) and the fact that it has an effect on all of us, Christian or not…and given that I understand Christ has turned this world back from moving toward nonexistence (death), and redeemed it back to Himself, does this mean that I am forgetting God when I as a Christian struggle, in my brokenness and because of the tension in living in a world that has forgotten God, that has told Him ‘we do not want you, we do not need you’? I would like to know how to get off the roller coaster…the roller coaster of peace at one time and despair in another. By some of the comments I can easily come away with the thought that the only reason I struggle is because I have forgotten God. I do not understand. And I tell you, when I am in this state of mind (really, a sickness of soul) the last thing I want to hear is I have forgotten God. I don’t think so, as He is all I have. I am very aware of the fragmentation of our souls…I can see the results of this “individualism” in myself…it is a terribly lonely existence. It is futile. People do not regard life anymore. You see it out there. And we see it in our very soul. There is such a disconnect. I would agree, that the extent of our fragmentation prevents a full union with God and neighbor. So what do I do with that, Father? I have not forgotten God. I am just caught in a quandary.

  15. Paula AZ,
    Paula, I am sure Father could answer you well. Here is a little of my take. You certainly have not forgotten God. You struggle, you feel at times that you are on a spiritual roller coaster, trudging uphill with despair and then coasting down with a certain peace. Forgetting God is putting Him on a shelf, trying to make Him manageable, taking Him down when seen advantageous, keeping Him in the upper storey, not letting Him have room in your life, with certainly no control over you. That does not describe the Arizona Paula I have known here for some few years. We have just gone through Nativity with all that that entails. I believe you live on a farm alone. Not long ago you lost a beloved horse. You, I think, attend liturgy regularly. Really, I do not know much more. But you do love Christ and His Church. He does call you to Himself. When you are wounded, it is Christ who pours healing oil and wine over you, who picks you up and carries you to the inn of the Church, who says to put all the cost of care upon Him. Oh yes Paula, it is our sweet Lord who loves you, who gives you of Himself without measure, grace upon grace. You have not forgotten God, Paula, nor He you.

  16. Paula it doesn’t sound as though you have forgotten God in your struggles. As I understand it we can be in a stretch of aridity or stress for minutes or years and not sense God’s presence. In these circumstances we could delude ourselvesand and allow ourselves to think we are forgotten. But the experience is a kind of stage in our spiritual development to remain faithful and to be at peace. God has not forgotten us. Neither in such aridity have we forgotten Him. We continue to abide in Him as long as we strive to keep the flame of faith alive in us. And in such struggle if we come close to despair, to remember He has given us a ‘life boat’ in the storm. And that is His Body and Blood in the Eucharist and His Bride, His Church.

  17. Oh Dean…you well describe my situation. Thank you so very much for your kind words. You know, in the midst of my icons I have an enlarged framed poster of Christ on the Cross, full facial view only. I first saw the picture when Father used it on a blog post several years ago (the artist’s name is Cimabue). His face…oh…all I can say is that He knows our suffering. He knows. I had to have that picture. I talk to Him all the time. He knows.
    And now, believe it or not…this is one of those “coincidences”…but when I searched for info on that picture, the wiki article gave the full name of the artist…Cenni di Pepo or Cenni di Pepi. Well, my last name is Pepe. Of coarse, we’re both Italian.
    I think I was meant to have that picture. Found it right here at dear Father’s blog!
    And thanks again Dean. That was very kind of you and much needed.

  18. Oh goodness…thank you too, Father and Dee. Your words are a balm, especially when my thoughts are so distracting. But yes, I do stay on that life boat Dee…surely it is a life boat.
    And yes Father…need to dust myself off and “do a rope” !
    Thank you all. You are all very dear.

  19. does this mean that I am forgetting God when I as a Christian struggle, in my brokenness and because of the tension in living in a world that has forgotten God…I would like to know how to get off the roller coaster…the roller coaster of peace at one time and despair in another.

    Paula, I tend to also think in terms of “getting off the roller coaster” as you said. Father gave a wonderful response in a former comment (from God and Self; Dragons and the Treasuries of Grace) to this:

    My own confessor has advised me that when I fall, get up immediately (!!!), and do a rope, give thanks to God, dust myself off and give it no more thought. It is effective. Often it is our shame that binds us to the struggle. We sin, feel ashamed, cannot bear the shame, and become enthralled by the effort not to do it again. It would have been better to rejoice in the fact that God will accept praise even from the worst sinner.

    I have been trying this, especially the refocusing on thanksgiving to God, and it is a wonderful change, even when I am weak (which is often).

  20. Oh Byron…now that’s funny! Are we not all connected?! This is a blessing. And now I am going to copy, paste and save that whole paragraph you posted. The bold printed words are especially so full of grace.
    Father…I’m saying…God bless you….

  21. After you started down the road of Schmemann pointing out that the sacramentalnpoints to the true reality of nylon hr material, I thought that you were going to go down the road of Christ sanctifying the Jordan at Theophany. It wouldn’t be a bad follow-up article…

  22. Hi Paula AZ
    Surely you don’t need my comments with all of the better ones already posted – but it may help me to post them as I think while writing. The way I have come to see myself is that I can only remember God if He helps me remember Him – just as I can only believe if He helps me, I can only pray (and want to pray) if He helps me, and so on.

    Though this may make me sound pretty pathetic, the reality is that I am a mere child (see St. Therese of Lisieux for discussion on “spiritual childhood”). I am so grateful that I (and you and all of the rest of us) have a loving Father. He knows that we are children, that we are going to mess up and that we need His help with just about everything. And He loves giving us that help. We just need to ask Him. And even when we forget to ask Him or slip into thinking we don’t need Him after all, He comes looking for us – as any loving father would look for his lost child.

    Struggle is a sign that we haven’t forgotten God. I am reminded how some people were scandalized when Mother Teresa’s private papers came to light after her death. They interpreted her deep enduring darkness as a loss of faith. I have read those papers – and she never ceased her struggle to believe and love God despite almost 50 years of feeling no spiritual consolation, no sense of the presence of God. She continued to pray, smile, guide others in faith and serve the poor despite her personal desolation. That, to me, is true faith. (At least my roller coaster goes up sometimes…)

  23. Dear Mary…
    Mary, your words are a balm just as well as all the others…and very needful. Thank you so very much.
    Thanks for your remembrance of the love of The Father and His desire to comfort His children. And of the two St. Teresa’s…I set aside a link about St, Teresa’s “spiritual childhood”. I would also would love to read about Mother Teresa as well. She is very special. Seems she knew life is not life apart from suffering…that she experienced the isolation, or desertion, Christ experienced that we get a glimpse of through His prayer in the Garden and then on the Cross: “My God My God why hast Thou forsaken me?” But we know The Father did not abandon His Son…that could never be…and neither did He abandon Mother Teresa (nor us), though she felt the suffering of abandonment as did Christ. I think she knew it is not ‘about her’ but about the life of Christ, in Christ. He suffers with us. And rejoices with us. Yes Mary, a very strong faith indeed. It is a blessing to read about the Saints and pray to them and to know they are with us. Very comforting and uplifting. Just as is your reminder that “Struggle is a sign that we haven’t forgotten God.”
    About being a mere child of God, I had a very similar thought this morning (that makes two ‘pathetic’s’!) I had been reading a couple of books by George Marsden Father Stephen recommended, about religion in America and Fundamentalism. He describes how intellectualism has replaced tradition and how American Christianity was ‘built’ not on ancient tradition but upon modern philosophy. The founders, as I understand it, believed that ‘common sense’ reasoning, a God-given faculty every human being possess, is the proven path, on man’s part, to salvation. Universities, academies, conventions, bible study groups were founded and tons of literature produced that expound this ‘common sense’ intelligence as detrimental to apprehending the faith. Only problem was that Jesus kind of disappeared into the background…and it ended up all about the strength of man. In trying to put all this together, this morning I’m sitting here thinking…what made them think that this type of intellectual ability (which is in no way a bad thing, but a matter of how God created us, as intelligent beings) is the means by which we will know our God? How much thought (not talking contemplation here) can you put into God before you get to know Him? How many books, how many universities, how many doctrines, how many ‘infallible proofs’ from the ‘written word only’, how many opinions, how many diversities, do you need to “know” God? I thought, how old are these guys? average 40-60 y/o? Looking at that picture of Christ, I ask out loud…and how old are You? The question is as insane as trying to know God ‘intellectually’. The Omniscient! How can these founders of American Christianity think that mental reasoning provides the answer? (Worse, how did I fall for all that? I had no idea…) They thought they were going to bring the Kingdom of God to earth…through America. Ohhhh….

    Anyway, this is where I thought, no wonder Christ tells us to come to Him as little children. No wonder! We, in the great scheme of things, know so very very little! At His feet is where we belong! Go…bruised and battered and receive healing in His presence…time and time again. Better to stay there…but sometimes we wander. But like the prodigal, we are being sought…like a child…like a lost dog!

    Glory to God…for He is good and loves mankind.

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