Chapter 11: Prof. Wilson’s Home — Friday Evening

Doubting Thomas: Christology in Story Form
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 11: Prof. Wilson’s Home — Friday Evening

Dr. Colletti introduced the young man to the group. "This is Robert Crawford. He has recently joined our church, and he told me some weeks ago that if there were ever any opportunities for serious theological discussion he would like to be included; so I told him about tonight. I hope no one minds."

They all assured Mr. Crawford that he was welcome. Mrs. Wilson withdrew admitting that she didn’t care much for theological discussion. And Prof. Wilson opened the conversation.

"Thomas, here, came to see me quite distressed that his Christology didn’t fit with his new experiences. We had a good conversation, but I told him he needed expert counsel. That’s why we’ve invited the two of you."

"Thanks," said Dr. Colletti. "Evenings on theological conversation have never been frequent, but they seem to get rarer. I know I’m rusty, but I’ll help if I can. Fortunately, Dr. MacDonald is on top of the newest ideas!"

Dr. MacDonald was a little embarrassed, but she just said, "What’s the particular problem, Thomas."

"I went to Prof. Wilson," Thomas explained, "after visiting the Buddhist student group. In talking with them I realized I had nothing to say to them, no reason to offer them to turn to Christ. That made me wonder whether I was a Christian anymore at all. After talking with Prof. Wilson I feel much better. I see it’s not a question of giving up my Christian faith but of reconstructing my theology. That’s challenging, and I hardly know where to begin. Prof. Wilson thought you could help me."

Dr. MacDonald was intrigued. "How can we help?"

"Well," Thomas answered, "if you believe somehow in the unique nature and importance of Jesus Christ and yet are interested in other religious traditions, I would like to know how you do it. Who was Jesus, and what did he do? What salvation did he bring? That sort of thing."

"I’m not sure I can answer those questions directly," Dr. MacDonald replied. "But I can tell you about a book that shaped my whole approach to theology in the context of religious pluralism. It was written by H. Richard Niebuhr half a century ago now. It’s called The Meaning of Revelation."

"That’s a fine book" Prof. Wilson commented. "It helped me, too, but I had almost forgotten about it. Remind us of Niebuhr’s major points."

"Niebuhr distinguishes outer history from inner history. For example, he contrasts the account of the American Revolution in the Cambridge History with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both have their truth. Our inner history provides us with the meanings and values by which we orient ourselves and shape our lives. Outer history provides us with accurate information about the public world. We need to draw facts learned in outer history into our inner history to enrich it and check its distortions."

Thomas was interested, but impatient. "What does that have to do with Christology?"

"We certainly can’t build a Christology on that distinction," Dr. MacDonald admitted, "but it does help us to see where Christology comes in. Christians have an inner history, too, the story of the Jewish people and of Christianity as this is remembered and celebrated in the church. For example, we talk about how our forefathers were delivered from slavery in Egypt, even though our blood ancestors may have been in northern Europe at the time. That’s quite different from the way secular historians or sociologists write about us. We need to learn from what they tell us, but as believers we’ll incorporate that new, and often critical information, into our own story, our inner history.

"The center of our story is Jesus. It is in light of Jesus that we appropriate Jewish history as our own. And it is in light of Jesus that we read about his followers and appraise the history of the church. For us Jesus is the basis for all our judgments of meaning and value."

"And is that what you mean by calling Jesus the revelation of God?" Thomas wanted to know.

"Yes, it is. The longer I live with Niebuhr’s way of putting it, the truer it seems to me. I keep learning to remember the story differently. Elements that were once important have drifted into the background, and others have come forth as crucial. Women play a much larger role than they once did in my Christian story. But I find that each change I make is determined by the centrality of Jesus. And the unity of the whole I find in him."

This was too much to grasp all at once, but Thomas saw promise in the idea. "What does that mean in relation to other religions. Should I have tried to get those Buddhist students to look at everything in the light of Jesus?"

"That might be okay," replied Dr. MacDonald, "but that’s not Niebuhr’s point. To take an analogy, we live by an inner history as a nation, too, but we know that other nations live by different inner histories. We can tell them our story, and we should listen to theirs. We’re not trying to get them to use ours. I think for Niebuhr the same is true for us as Christians, at least initially. We should tell our story to all who will listen. We’ll be very pleased if others join our community by appropriating our story as their own. But conversion is not what it’s all about. It has more to do with understanding one another and learning from one another. We need to hear their stories, too."

"Does that mean that we assume that there are many paths up the same mountain?" Thomas asked.

"I think Niebuhr leaves that an open question," said Dr. MacDonald. Maybe so, maybe not. We can only find out by listening. The main point is that the revelatory power of Jesus does not predetermine the truth or falsity of other inner histories. They may or may not have revelatory centers. We can witness passionately and confidently to the truth of our faith while leaving completely open the truth of other faiths. That’s what I find so liberating."

Dr. Colletti entered the discussion. "I appreciate your enthusiasm for that book, Cynthia. It gives us a way to speak fully and honestly about the work of Jesus without implying anything pejorative about other communities of faith. That’s a great achievement. But Niebuhr doesn’t help when we ask about the person of Jesus. I’ve always thought that was the Christological question par excellence. How are you thinking about this, Thomas?"

"In the past, Dr. Colletti, I’ve tried to keep the person and work together. I’ve begun with a theory of the atonement, like Anselm’s, that requires that the savior be both God and a human being. So I’ve stressed the utter supernatural uniqueness of Jesus’ person. Recently I’ve become much less sure of all that. Most of the people I’ve talked to don’t think of Jesus’ work in Anselm’s way as paying the price of human sin, and other ideas do seem at least as fruitful. But I need a lot of help. If we think of Jesus’ work apart from traditional atonement theory, what happens to the doctrine of Jesus’ person?"

"That’s a big topic," Dr. Colletti answered. "I knew the literature quite thoroughly once — when I was writing my dissertation, but I’m much fuzzier now and out of date besides. My main conclusion was that there is indeed a close connection between ways of thinking of Jesus’ work and person. But my thesis was that every way of speaking of Jesus’ work that was at all adequate to Christian faith required a way of thinking of Jesus’ person that generally followed the Chalcedonian pattern. Jesus is both divine and human."

Thomas found that reassuring in a way but troubling in another. "But if we affirm Jesus’ deity, don’t we give up the open-endedness with regard to other religions? Or do we allow that their founders may also have been God?"

"My opinion," Dr. Colletti replied, "is that, depending on the view of Jesus’ work, there can be affirmations of Jesus’ divinity that leave us quite open to hearing the claims of other religious traditions without prejudging them. But there is one point in your formulation to which I object. You seem to imply that to assert Jesus’ divinity is to assert that Jesus was God. Many people think that is an orthodox doctrine. Maybe it is, but I don’t believe it, and I want you to know that’s not what I’m calling for."

Thomas was startled. Dr. Colletti had sounded quite orthodox, and yet now he was heatedly denying that Jesus was God. "But what can it mean to affirm Jesus’ divinity if not that Jesus was God incarnate."

Dr. Colletti was ready for that one. "To me there is a big difference between saying that Jesus is God incarnate and saying that Jesus is the incarnation of God. ‘God incarnate’ sounds like God has taken on human form while remaining God. That’s certainly the way a lot of Christians have thought and taught. But as I studied the Christological councils, it seemed to me that notion was rejected. Jesus was a truly human being in whom God was incarnate."

Thomas remembered now Prof. O’Connor’s explanation. She had distinguished the Logos assuming humanity from the Logos dwelling in a human being. She had been more neutral between the two images than was Dr. Colletti. But at least Thomas got the idea. To say that Jesus was the truly human being in whom God was incarnate was more like saying Jesus was the man in whom God dwelt. He wondered whether Dr. Colletti liked Donald Baillie’s formulation. "Do you like Baillie’s idea of modeling the paradox of incarnation on the paradox of grace?" he asked.

"Yes. I do, although I can’t follow all of what Baillie says. He seems to assume that Jesus. the real historical man, was always perfect. But our historical knowledge can’t possibly support such extreme views and it’s pointless to bring faith in to fill gaps in historical knowledge. We don’t know enough about Jesus to specify his ‘sins’ or ‘imperfections,’ but we certainly don’t know enough about him to deny that he had any. At that point we moderns simply have to part company with the early church fathers."

A sinful Jesus, Thomas thought, now I’ve heard everything! Yet Dr. Colletti seemed really to care to get the old puzzle of the unity of the deity and the humanity straight. Thomas was genuinely puzzled. "If you follow Baillie in general and then say that Jesus was imperfect, there’s not much difference between Jesus and ourselves is there?"

"If you think of the difference as a matter of degree, you’re quite right, Thomas," Dr. Colletti replied. "I don’t think Baillie meant to do that, but he didn’t make it clear how we can avoid it. When I read about Jesus in the New Testament, he seems different from me. And the difference doesn’t seem to be just that he was wiser or more loving or more in tune with God — though all of that seems to be true, too."

"What is the difference, then?" Thomas asked.

"Jesus seems more like the prophets than like me. He seems to know what God wills and wants to say without learning it from books. Yet there’s a difference there, too. The prophets pass on the word they receive from God. Jesus speaks for God out of his own immediate awareness. God is present in all of us, no doubt, but even St. Paul did not speak as Jesus did. He experienced some kind of struggle between his own self and God working in him as ‘Christ’ or ‘Spirit."’ Jesus sometimes struggled with himself as in the Garden of Gethsemane. But much of the time God’s presence in him seemed to be one with his very selfhood. I think that’s what the creeds are saying — or should be saying, if they aren’t."

"That’s an interesting speculation, Dr. Colletti," interjected Dr. MacDonald. "but does it really make any difference what was going on in the interior of Jesus’ experience? Isn’t it what Jesus does for us that matters — and that only? And doesn’t that depend on how he was perceived and imaged rather than on Jesus’ private life with God? I’ve been persuaded by those who say we just can’t know enough about him historically to make those judgments. We can be sure that believers found God in him, but I don’t see how we can say more than that."

"You may be right," Dr. Colletti replied, "but I’ve never been satisfied with that position. I think it has always been important to Christians to believe that God was really acting differently in Jesus. It hasn’t been enough to know that believers were specially affected by him. Indeed, I’m not sure the effects would have occurred as they did apart from the belief about how God was acting in Jesus himself. Even today, if we give up on the doctrine of the person of Jesus, I wonder whether we will continue to accord his teaching and his deeds the full authority they deserve."

"Thomas," Prof. Wilson broke in, "I think you can see why I wanted you to talk with the theologians. Even they can’t agree, and these mysteries are quite beyond me. I like to say I’m a historian and don’t have to come to my own conclusions. I do like to see how similar issues arise in different religious traditions. For example, Buddhist orthodoxy is quite opposite to Christian orthodoxy on the analogous point. It insists that Gautama was a human being and that we can all be enlightened just as he was. But Buddhists throughout the centuries have been enormously impressed by the difference. In their eyes Gautama became something incomprehensibly superior to them. And I don’t think that should be dismissed as a popular superstition either."

"Are you saying that Gautama is also an incarnation of God, just like Jesus?" Thomas pressed him.

"No, I don’t think so. As a historian I like to see parallels but not to set the differences aside. The Buddhists say Gautama was a Buddha, that is, an Enlightened One. I think they are right. I’ve tried thinking of Jesus as another Enlightened One. Many Buddhists would be happy to see him that way. But for me it doesn’t work. I prefer to stick with the incarnation of God in Jesus’ case. But similarly I prefer to think of Gautama as the Buddhists do — as the Enlightened One."

"You mean that Buddhists are right about Gautama and Christians are right about Jesus?" Dr. MacDonald asked. "I like that. And perhaps Hindus are right about Krishna, and Muslims, about Mohammed! So we can all live and let live in mutual appreciation."

"I want to live and let live in mutual appreciation," Dr. Colletti agreed, "but I don’t want that to mean we just leave each other alone. If Gautama was really enlightened, and if enlightenment is as valuable as it seems to be, I want Christians to learn more about it from the Buddhists. The Catholics are way ahead of us here. They’re practicing Buddhist meditation techniques on a wide scale. I gather Thomas Merton led the way in this country. Most of the Protestants who are appreciative of Buddhism just talk about it."

"But is it just a matter of learning from the Buddhists?" Thomas asked. "Don’t we have something to teach?"

"Indeed, I think we do," Dr. Colletti answered. "Our task is to understand both our faith and Buddhism well enough to know what we do have to offer. We need a lot more dialogue. My own impression is that our gospel can have great meaning for Buddhists if it can be freed from some of the Western forms we have fastened on it."

"One area in which we have a lot to share," Dr. MacDonald added, "is in the social sphere. I don’t know a lot about Buddhism, I admit, but so far it has seemed to me to focus very much on the interior lives of individuals. I have been excited by Latin American liberation theology, and I doubt that anything like that will come out of Buddhism unless Buddhists are influenced by Christianity. To me it has become very important to see that Jesus identified with the poor and calls on us to identify with the oppressed of our day. In the context of the real world, that may be more important than the qualities of inner life attained through Buddhist meditation. But Prof. Wilson knows a lot more about these matters than I do!"

Prof. Wilson felt free at this point to make a confession of his own faith. "I may have studied Buddhism and other religious traditions more than the rest of you, but I’m still a novice and a generalist. Yet I do have my own convictions. I am sure that Christians have a lot to learn from others, and especially from Buddhists, perhaps. I think right now that learning from them may be more important than trying to teach them. We’ve done a lot of that — often quite insensitively — and we’ve generated a lot of legitimate resentment. Too often we’ve used the technological, economic, and even military power of Christendom to push Christian ideas on people.

"But when all is said and done, I believe that when our lives and understanding are centered in Jesus Christ, we can incorporate the truth the others have to offer. I’m not sure that the others have a center from which they can incorporate one another’s truths and ours. That’s why I think that one day, if history goes on long enough, and if we Christians can get out of the way, every knee will bow at the name of Jesus!"

"Wow," said Thomas. "I’ve said that often enough, but it sounds quite different when you say it. It doesn’t mean that I should have been able to convert those Buddhist young people back to Christianity. Maybe I need to be more concerned about the conversion of Christianity away from its narrowness. Maybe the spread of Buddhist practices in the West will even be of help to Christians!"

"That’s certainly the way I feel," said Prof. Wilson. "Frankly those Buddhists seem to be making a greater contribution to God’s total work in the world than most of the Christians I know. I support them as much as I can. That seems to be Chaplain Levovsky’s policy, too. She’s a courageous woman.

"By the way, Mr. Crawford, you’ve been very quiet. What do you think of all this?"

"It’s hard to say," Mr. Crawford answered after a pause. "It all sounds so theoretical. It’s not the kind of thing that drew me to Christ and finally led me to join the church."

Mr. Crawford had their attention. Thomas was especially eager to hear more. "What did attract you?" he asked.

"I guess the only way of answering that is to tell you something of my life history," Mr. Crawford answered smiling. "Well, I was brought up by a skeptical father and a pious mother. Mother sometimes took me to church with her, but I imbibed my father’s attitudes. Really Christianity was not an important issue to me.

"The first time I lived away from home was when I came to this college. Like a lot of fellows away from home for the first time I lived quite self-indulgently. Then in my senior year I took a course in religion — more because of when it was offered than because of any special interest. It was on the teachings of Jesus, and it was taught in a very academic style. But still it made me read, and what I read grabbed me. To live that life would mean changing everything. It would mean putting others before myself, and caring especially for the disadvantaged.

"It’s particular implications for me were all too clear. I would have to stop trying to make as many girls as I could; I would have to become frugal with my money, giving all I could to meet urgent human needs; I could no longer take pleasure in the way my country bullied smaller ones; and there was this quite unpopular sophomore I would have to befriend.

"Most of my classmates just treated all this as an academic exercise, and they kept on living as they had before. I also found that even quite serious Christians paid rather little attention to Jesus’ teaching. But to me the challenge was clear. Jesus had meant it and had lived it all the way, even to the cross. I had to try to live it too."

"Was it because Jesus seemed to you divine that you felt you must obey him?" Thomas wanted to know.

"No, it wasn’t like that," Mr. Crawford answered. "It was more that his words convinced and convicted me. I didn’t think much about whether he was divine or not. But later I accepted the idea of his divinity — without much reflection — because of the power and truth of what he taught."

Thomas was moved. "How has your commitment to Jesus worked out?" he asked.

"During the rest of that senior year it was quite spotty. Sometimes I lived the Jesus-way; sometimes I fell back into my old patterns. I think I would have lost the battle had I not met Ted Hirsch. He had been a committed Christian for several years, and he introduced me to his friends who lived with him in a commune. After graduation I moved in with them. Only two of us work for pay. Since we live frugally, they support the rest of us so that we can work with the youth in the slums. It’s rough, but we’re making a little progress against dope and prostitution and gangs.

"That is a different world from the one we’ve been talking about tonight, isn’t it?" Pastor Colletti commented gently and a bit ruefully. "Why were you so eager to join us?"

"For the first months after I entered the commune," Mr. Crawford replied, "I thought the one thing needful was to live the Jesus-way. But gradually life became more complicated. There are six of us living together in rather close quarters, and despite our shared commitment we often get on one another’s nerves. We try hard to work the problems out by being honest and acknowledging our faults. But we’ve begun to see that we’ve been trying to do it all by good works and that there’s more to Christianity than that. We used to ridicule those who talked about justification by faith because that talk seemed to be an excuse for them not to take Jesus’ call to discipleship seriously. We don’t anymore. We’re sure grace is important, but we don’t understand that very well.

"Then in trying to help slum youth to find another way to live, we’ve been forced to recognize how little freedom they have. Given the attitudes of middle-class people, the economic structures of society, the way political power is exercised, and the despair of the adults around them. I sometimes marvel that they survive at all. Indeed, many don’t. We used to think all they needed was to decide to live the Jesus-way and to shape up. Now we’re beginning to think that their salvation depends on some changes elsewhere in society as well. And we know that these are issues that have been thought about a lot in the church.

"In short, we are realizing that there’s more to being Christian than we first thought and that theology is important. That led me to stop being contemptuous of the church for its lukewarmness and its compromises and to join it myself. But just going to church and hearing sermons — sorry, Dr. Colletti — doesn’t get me very far. I thought tonight might be different."

The group fell silent, sobered by its recognition that tonight had not been very different — at least in relation to Mr. Crawford’s burning issues. Dr. Colletti finally broke the silence. "Theology is a complex business, isn’t it. So many questions! Tonight we came to talk about Thomas’s problems. They are very real to him — and to us, too. I think what we’ve said has some bearing on your problems, Mr. Crawford, but we certainly have not made that relevance clear. What say we all meet at my home a week from tonight for another conversation?"

All agreed and the group broke up. Thomas went to Mr. Crawford to have a personal word with him. He had been deeply moved, The kind of radical discipleship Mr. Crawford was trying to live out had been foreign to his world. In his conservative home church it would have been dismissed as fanaticism. But when he heard Mr. Crawford speak, he knew it should not be dismissed. If Mr. Crawford had been with those Buddhist youth, he could have given a testimony that would have touched them, Thomas thought a bit enviously. "Could I visit your group and see something of your work?" he asked. They made plans, and Thomas went home, filled with excitement.