Jesus is the flash point for a religious debate that is currently as hot as hellfire
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGERDecember151997
IS JESUS REALLY GOD?
Jesus is the flash point for a religious debate that is currently as hot as hellfire
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
In the translucent glow of a stained-glass window, Jesus hovers, larger-than-life, behind the pulpit where Rev. Bill Phipps prepares to address his congregation on the first Sunday of Advent. The dark-stained oak pews are full. And the 300 members of Scarboro United Church in Calgary wait with more than their usual anticipation to hear what their minister has to say. Only a few weeks earlier, Phipps—the newly elected moderator of the United Church of Canada—caused an uproar when he denied that Jesus is God and that he physically rose from the dead. “Some say I am a heretic,” the genial pastor tells his flock. “And I’ve even got the wrong stole on for Advent,” he condesses, pointing to his unseasonably green vestment. Pur-
ple is the proper color for Advent and for penance. But Phipps is unrepentant. In a 20-minute sermon, titled “I Believe,” the moderator, with well-measured passion, explains his controversial beliefs. “The truly remarkable thing,” he declares, “is that there are literally thousands of conversations taking place—at the dinner table, in the workplace, wherever people gather—about Jesus.”
Jesus is the flash point for a religious debate that is as hot as hellfire. Believers and non-believers alike are asking how a leader of a Christian church could publicly question Jesus’ divinity. Phipps has stated that he does not believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead, and that in fact, Jesus merely embodies all of the divine that can be embodied in a human being. Those statements have forged a rift in Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, and the United Church is feeling the heat. But the controversy is also forcing millions of Christians, often accused of losing the true meaning of Christmas—the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ—to re-examine their faith. The furor, coming after decades of waning church attendance, raises dire prophecies of a “post-Christian” era. Meanwhile, some scholars are challenging the notion of a whiterobed Christ who walks on water, proposing, instead, a portrait of a more human Jesus, with dubious supernatural powers.
The crisis has hit hard for many Christians, already feeling beleaguered in Canada’s increasingly secular, pluralist society. Followers of Eastern religions and parareligious organizations more than doubled their numbers between 1981 and 1991, according to Statistics Canada. During that same period, while the population grew 12 per cent, evangelical Protestants increased by 82 per cent. But overall Protestant ranks still declined by 1.4 per cent, fuelled by a stunning 18-per-cent free fall in United Church membership. Roman Catholicism—the country’s largest Christian denomination—grew by a modest eight per cent, partly as a result of recent immigration. Some clergy are making the provocative suggestion that Christians should abandon the idea of “one true faith” altogether. “We don’t have a monopoly on God’s truth,” says Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham. “Jesus encountered people of other faiths respectfully.” In his just-published book, Mansions of the Spirit, the Vancouver cleric calls for a new vision of a God who reveals himself in all the great religions. Adds Ingham: “The task for Christianity today is to remove some of its inflated claims for itself.”
Phipps may have already started the job with his recent assertions about Jesus. Liberal theologians and thinkers insist that, as Ingham says, to remain vital the church must “embrace diversity and healthy dialogue.” In the wake of Phipps’s remarks, the bishop says: “I have received many calls and letters from people saying, ‘If the church is going to open up, I am going to come back.’ ” Others argue that spiritual searchers are looking for certainty. It’s like climbing a mountain to seek advice from a guru, asserts Toronto author Ron Graham. The pilgrim finally reaches the top and poses the question: who is the true Jesus? “ft the answer is, We are debating that,’ ” says Graham, “people will look somewhere else. What Phipps signals is that, at the very top, the church doesn’t know what’s true. People might go to something more traditional, like the Catholic Church —or leave.”
North Americans have been wearing their spiritually needy hearts on their sleeves for decades. And many, even nominal Christians, are favoring more worldly, less demanding gurus than Jesus. Promises of peace, energy and enlightenment have, for some, more appeal than life everlasting and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus, long associated with strict commandments, may have an image problem—but there are signs of a make-over in the works.
“There are accusations of a watering down of dogma,” says Thomas Bandy, head of the United Church’s evangelization ministry. “But everybody is trying to make Christianity more relevant to contemporary culture.”
The Catholic Church is holding fast, with no intention of altering its teachings on Jesus and the Resurrection. “Scholarship continues in the Catholic Church, but scholarship begins with the creed,” says Bishop Faber MacDonald of Grand Falls,
Nfld. “When you start moving away from the foundations of faith, as the United Church is, you get on a slippery slope and all of a sudden, Jesus becomes a prophet.”
In fact, for more than a century, scholars and thinkers have been exploring Jesus’ humanity. Christology—the study of the nature and meaning of Jesus—now embraces such issues as feminism, liberation
theology, the black freedom movement, the environment and even New Age philosophy. “Every age has to answer the questions Jesus posed to Peter in the gospels, Who do you say that I am?’ ” says the Vancouver-based theologian Sallie McFague, author of Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. “That means reframing the question in terms of the most pressing issues of the day. Is Jesus Christ important for the planet or just for human beings?” For some, Christ’s gender has proved to be a barrier. But call it the Christian mystique: in the eyes of many devout feminists, Jesus is a modern, sensitive kind of god, as considerate of women as men.
It would be naïve to see the debate over Jesus as a phenomenon of the 20th century. “There have been many great schisms over Jesus,” says Michael McAteer, co-author of the 1996 book The Man in the Scarlet Robe: 2000 Years of Searching for Jesus. ‘Was he divine and human? Was he a mixture of both?” Theologians thought they had settled the issue in AD 415 when the authoritative Council of Chalcedon declared Jesus “fully human and fully divine.” But the paradox remains. “I don’t think modern people are happy with that definition,” states Pamela Dickey Young, head of religious studies at Queen’s University. “If Christianity can’t find a credible way of explaining it, thinking people will lose interest. God is ultimately unknowable, but you must know something of God to enter into a relationship with her.”
In his seminal book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906, the European theologian, philosopher and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer wrote that
looking for a human Jesus is like looking down a well. “He said we’ll never find out who this man is,” recalls McAteer. “You’re inclined to see your own reflection in the water.” Nevertheless, Schweitzer’s book launched a critical analysis of Jesus in the scriptures—a pursuit previously confined to theologians and clergy.
When McAteer, a former Catholic, peeked into the well, he found a shadowy figure, obscured by myth. Like many skeptics, he dismisses Jesus as a religious fiction. “I don’t believe in the virgin birth,” he declares. “I don’t believe in the Resurrection.” McAteer points out that the Gospels—still taken as literal truth by funda-
mentalists—are secondhand accounts, written 50 or 60 years after his death. “I would accept that somebody like Jesus existed,” says McAteer. “That’s as far as I can go. Anybody who has a definitive answer, I think, is either dishonest or disillusioned.”
The Jesus Seminar, a controversial biblical think-tank with headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif., acknowledges the existence of Christ, but questions many of the sayings attributed to him in the Bible. “For 12 years, we have been examining the Gospels to come to conclusions about which words and statements are best attested as words and deeds of Jesus,” says Robert Bater, former head of reli-
gious studies at Queen’s University and a fellow of the Jesus Seminar. Bater says that the interdenominational group did a thorough treatment of the Resurrection, with a conclusion that may have influenced Phipps. “There is a sense that Jesus’ presence was strongly felt and experienced intensely by the disciples,” says Bater. “But to say that Jesus was physically risen as if the body just got up from the tomb makes it into a resuscitation of a human corpse. Since Jesus is recorded as having raised others from the dead, this would make him just one more of the resuscitated corpses, but the New Testament teaching is that he was the first born from the dead, the first of a whole new order, which is physical as well as spiritual.” Of course, Bater adds, “the critics are scandalized and bitterly opposed to the Jesus Seminar because the findings have been very embarrassing for them.”
Since 1963, Father Jerome MurphyO’Connor has scoured the dusty archeo-
logical sites of the Holy Land, putting together a fresh picture of Jesus—a man who may be, he says, harder for a Christian to accept, but ultimately more rewarding (page 45). Nonetheless, it allows the Irish-born priest to maintain his faith as well as his academic integrity. A professor of the New Testament in Jerusalem, MurphyO’Connor paints a vivid picture of Jesus as the youngest in a large family, with four stepbrothers and two stepsisters. In looking at Jesus as the person, he believes there is a valuable message for Christians. “We see Jesus having these struggles, and we realize that everyone goes through self-doubt and anxiety. It’s natural.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.