"Jesus was a failure" - an anonymous missive on the possibility of faith in the modern world

Note from the editor: Gentle readers, some of you may be old enough to remember what a transom is. For those of you who are not, it is a window above a door (pictured) that one could leave open--even while closing the door--to encourage air circulation inside a building back before the advent multi-million dollar HVAC systems. Editors used to occasionally enter their offices and glance at the floor to find that some authorial hopeful had pushed a manuscript over the transom. Well, the electronic version of such a thing happened to me with the below post. It was submitted anonymously for reasons that will become obvious when you read it. What we have here is an account of coming to a personal theological reckoning with dialectical theology. I have decided to publish it in accordance with the author's wishes in the hopes that it will encourage others of you who may be in similar situations. The author has greater facility with classical Greek than do I; I have discerned that this piece of Aristotle has to do with how even though we love both the truth and our friends, love of truth must take precedence.* - WTM

"Δόξειε δ᾿ ἂν ἴσως βέλτιον εἶναι, καὶ δεῖν ἐπὶ σωτηρίᾳ γε τῆς ἀληθείας
καὶ τὰ οἰκεῖα ἀναιρεῖν, ἄλλως τε καὶ φιλοσόφους ὄντας· ἀμφοῖν γὰρ ὄντοιν
φίλοιν ὅσιον προτιμᾶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν."
-- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Public Domain,
via Wikimedia Commons
Jesus was a failure. Of this I am sure. He was a first-century apocalyptic prophet who died still believing, albeit naïvely, that some mythical construct in the sky would intervene and save him. The disciples, unable to emotionally or spiritually accept the death of their teacher, convinced themselves that he had somehow defeated death, his body had been resurrected, and that he would come back one day. But they were wrong. And they spent the rest of their lives bracing for something that never did come.

There is no other way I can reconcile what I read in the bible with the world around me. Dead refugee children are washing up on beaches; people of color continue to be murdered by law-enforcement officers; there are still millions of people around the world without access to clean water or food; and to top it all off, the highest office in the land is occupied by a womanizing white-supremacist who couldn't care less if the people I just listed above lived or died. If Jesus' vision of the world to come was even remotely successful, then the world wouldn't look like this.

My believing all this is well and good, except that I know it won't preach on Sunday morning to the people who call me Pastor. There is no doubt in my mind that the congregation wouldn't approach these thoughts of mine with sensitivity and compassion, but with shouts of heresy and a call for my removal from my post, regardless of the fact that I still consider myself a Christian. For the longest time, I didn't know how I was still a Christian, but regardless of the conclusions I had come to theologically and historically, I still believed that somehow Jesus was the victor.

And then there was a moment of clarity, an opening of my mind to the truth. It was in this moment when I realized that faith wasn't something I could let go of, even if I wanted to. I came to the realization (or the realization came to me!) that I am not the subject of faith, but the object. Just as when we don't know how to pray and the Holy Spirit prays within us, the same is true of faith: When we cannot go on believing, the Spirit believes in us. I no longer understood faith as something I made happen, but it was something that happened to me.

Upon this "happening" in my life, I came to a place where I necessarily had to give up my career-long diatribe against Rudolf Bultmann, and embrace his program of demythologization. Faith was holding onto me, now. I could no longer live under the illusion that I had control of the kerygma; I merely had control of the myth. My experience is much like Wittgenstein's story of the bleeding statue: A statue is supposed to bleed every year on such-and-such a day. Someone discovers the priests with little vials of red ink. "You're a fraud," they say, "but nevertheless, the deity uses you."

Once I finally embraced this understanding of the Christian faith, I started to discover little vials of red ink everywhere. I no longer needed to insist that Jesus' body rose from the grave or that he was born of a virgin. I no longer needed the reassurance of a conscious afterlife or that God was some supermundane existence above the clouds. And yet, Easter is true and God is real. The myth is ultimately fraudulent, but nevertheless, the deity uses it.

This was a scary process, and it was one I dreaded for a long time. Having to let go of the security of the myth was uncomfortable. But for the first time I knew that even if I let go of Jesus, he wouldn't let go of me. And that was the most comforting thing of all.

*The intrepid Scott Jackson has tracked down the following translation of this passage from Aristotle: "Yet it would perhaps be thought to be better, indeed to be our duty, for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, especially as we are philosophers or lovers of wisdom; for, while both are dear, piety requires us to honour truth above our friends" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1096a14-17; trans. by W.D. Ross for Oxford University Press, 1931).


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