The Ordinary Jesus: An Excerpt from Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age

Here is the question, finally: Why do Christians need to believe in the Incarnation? “The point of incarnation language,” the Catholic theologian Roger Haight writes, “is that Jesus is one of us, that what occurred in Jesus is the destiny of human existence itself: et homo factus est. Jesus is a statement, God’s statement, about humanity as such.” Humanity is the presence of God. The presence of God, therefore, lies in what is ordinary. Not in supernatural marvels. Not in a superman with whom we have nothing actual in common. Not in saints. Not in a once-only age of miracles long ago. Not first in doctrine, scholarship, or theology—but in life. Doctrine, scholarship, and theology are essential as modes of opening up that life and its meanings, and there is no separating the life of Jesus from interpretations of it. The interpretations must always be examined, and criticized. And we endlessly conjure interpretations of our own, as here in this book.

But the life is our object. The life of Jesus must always weigh more than his death. And, to repeat, the revelation is in the ordinariness of that life. His teaching—his permanent Jewishness, his preference for service over power, his ever-respectful attitude toward women and others on the social margin—is available to us because his followers passed the teaching along, which continues. His encounters with beloved friends, disciples, outcasts, antagonists, and Romans, all arranged in a story that is more invention than memory, are valued as occasions of his encounter with the Holy One—but they are typical encounters, not supernatural ones. Again and again he turned to God, and, as the tradition says, he turned into God—but that, too, occurred in the most ordinary of ways. Day by day. Act by act. Choice by choice. Word by word. Ultimately “lifted up,” as John says, on the cross which was the Resurrection. And the cross is central to this meaning not because God willed suffering but because, in Jesus, God joined in it. “The quality of the suffering,” in Eliot’s phrase, is changed. And that includes the extreme suffering of war.

Leaving us with? A simple Jesus. An ordinary Christ. One whom the simplest person can imitate, the most ordinary person bringing Christ once more to life—day by day, word by word, bread by bread, cup by cup. In all of that we see divinity, which, paradoxically, is what makes Jesus one of us. Whatever sort of God Jesus is understood to be, it must be the God who is like humans, not different. If that seems impossible, then what we think of God—and of humans— must change. This is essential to the New Testament and “the very logic of Christian faith.” And, finally, the truest argument—not proof—for the divinity of Jesus is in the one undenied fact of this history: that billions upon billions of ordinary human beings have found in this faith an immediate and saving experience of the real presence of God, “partaking” of God—becoming God. Even unto here, with these words written and read. We come to Jesus, in the end as in the beginning, only through the Jesus people.

If Christ is undiscovered now, a figure lost to many, that is in part because of scandals done in his name, by those who call out his name most loudly. In part, he remains undiscovered because of the abstractions and secrets of scholars who do not trust ordinary people with the very ordinariness of Jesus—as if the mass of believers can embrace only superstition and magic. And in part, he remains undiscovered because so much about our age has shaken us to the core, leaving us stripped of the intellectual horizon within which faith, for most of these thousands of years since Abraham, has had its resonance. Even while understanding that loss, still the conclusion of this long inquiry includes a frank criticism of contemporary culture for its ignorance of, and indifference to, the language of transcendence. The divinity of Jesus is problematic, but the blatant repudiation of the faith that constructs itself around that divinity is blind to a constellation of intellectual subtleties that have enhanced human life for two millennia. Likewise, the word “God” is problematic, but its abandonment is problematic, too.

Human life is more than material. To be rendered mute in the face of that mystery is to be less than human. And being less than human now carries dangers that simply did not exist before. Auschwitz and Hiroshima amount to the twin interruptions of history that have made this inquiry not only necessary but urgent. Auschwitz and Hiroshima, which warned not just of a capacity but of an inclination, lay bare the new actuality that confronts men and women: the dread prospect that the human species—which is the very cosmos aware of itself—will bring about its own extinction.

Even for those of us who still find a home among people who cannot let go of their affection for Jesus, belief is not what it was, and there is an unknowing for us as much as for any agnostic or atheist. Unbelief is now built into belief, since intelligent belief includes a self-critical and necessarily skeptical element. No Christendom, no hierarchy, no church—no Catholic Worker community, even—buttresses belief or replaces it. So each person makes the choice alone, even if the choice is for the solidarity of faith.

Not faith in Jesus Christ, precisely, but faith, at the invitation of Jesus, in God. Now we know, though, the limits of our language about God. We do not know “God” not because we are ignorant, but because “God” refers to one who, when it comes to certitude, is beyond categories of knowledge. The God to whom Jesus points is the God beyond “God.” We recognize in Jesus all that we need to know about the God who otherwise remains incomprehensible. And this recognition, because it is well rooted in the past, is powerful enough to carry us into the open-ended future, even extending beyond what can be imagined.

From Christ Actually by James Carroll. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © James Carroll, 2014.