Book Club: Why Does Jesus Need To Be Divine?

Andrew Sullivan —  May 4 2014 @ 8:30pm

A reader writes:

Question: If there is no God, what becomes of Christianity?  I think for many religious people, if there is no God, they would feel that there is no point.  No point to life.  No point to religion.  Christianity would lose its meaning and significance.  It would become a sham.  People have a strong desire for some ultimate meaning, for “truth,” for a final reward or punishment, for an afterlife, and in their view, these things require a deity (how else could they exist?). And if there is no God, then the core attraction of religion is gone.

But just the same, as a thought experiment, let’s imagine there is no God.  Nothing supernatural in the universe.  Let’s imagine that hatchescross.jpgJesus was not the Son of God, but merely a charismatic and radical teacher of a new form of love and compassion who so inspired his followers that they were willing to die for him. Let’s assume that the scriptures were not divinely inspired writings, but merely the product of the greatest authors over a millennium of human history.  Let’s say that all of the awe inspiring cathedrals, the soulful hymns and music, two thousand years of Christian paintings and sculpture, let’s say all of that was the product solely of the human heart and mind.  No help from the outside.  And finally, let’s imagine that all human acts of amazing sacrifice, generosity, bravery and compassion (even if the person was inspired by religious belief) were entirely and exclusively humans acts.

Where would this leave Christianity?  Would it be any less?  Would its teachings be false?  Would the strength and inspiration it provides be any less real?  Somewhat to my surprise, when I engage in this thought experiment, I find it uplifting.

Christianity becomes not some gift from God, but instead a wondrous example of human potential.  What thoughts we can have!  What beauty we can create!  God doesn’t get the credit – we do.  Rather than exalting Jesus, if you take God out of Christianity, you end up exalting all of humanity.

And the nice thing is, this understanding easily accommodates all of the bad aspects of religion too.  All the manipulation and abuse, all the false pretense and religious justification for horrible behavior.  Pretty much everyone agrees that those are human distortions of “true religion.”  Nobody blames God for that.  Humans take the blame (rightly so), so why don’t we get the credit when things go right?  No guessing about when it’s God will, or human distortion – it’s always us.  We get the credit, we get the blame.

Seems like a pretty conservative notion to me.  In the end, we, humanity, are the responsible party.

Yes, and we have a lot to be proud of. But doesn’t this accretion of cultural genius and human love point back, at the end, to something more perfect? As we ascend from the lowest forms of our nature, do we not chart a trajectory beyond it? Does this experience not help us understand the meaning of the word “divine” – to be human and yet not to fear death, to be human and yet to choose love over hate, to be human and yet be at peace with everything? “And all will be well. And all will be well. And all manner of thing will be well.”

Jesus, Christianity teaches, was very much human. But wasn’t his transcendence of so much of that humanness something that, in retrospect, his friends and disciples also believed to be divine? It’s the sacramental mixture of the two that captures the essence of Christianity, and its eternal mystery. There is something about humanity that intimates the divine.