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The Man Who Belongs to the World

by Jaroslav Pelikan

Dr. Pelikan is Sterling professor of history and William Clyde DeVane lecturer at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 25, 1985, pp. 827-831. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

The following article is excerpted from the concluding chapter of historian Jaroslav Pelikan’s book titled Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, scheduled for October publication by Yale University Press. The book examines the impact of Jesus on the cultural, political, social and economic history of the past two millennia. Studying the images of Jesus cherished by successive ages -- from rabbi in the first century to universal man in the Renaissance to liberator in the 19th and 20th centuries -- Pelikan suggests that the way a particular age depicted Jesus is an essential key to understanding that age.

Nazareth was what is known in colloquial English as a hick town, an insignificant village. It almost sounds like a proverbial saying when in the Gospel of John, Nathanael asks (John 1:46), "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’’ Thus Jesus of Nazareth was a villager and a provincial. Whatever may be the historical status of the story of his flight to Egypt as an infant with his parents, he never as an adult traveled beyond the borders of the Levant. As far as we can tell, he did not command either of the world languages of his time, Latin and Greek, although both are said by the Gospel of John to have appeared in the inscription on his cross (John 19:20). The only reference to his having written anything in any language, when he stooped to write with his finger on the ground, comes in a passage of dubious textual authenticity, which most manuscripts include somewhere in the Gospel of John (John 8:6, 8). He spoke of how "the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them’’ (Matt. 20:25), but as of a phenomenon belonging to a world far removed from his own. And even when, in an appearance after the resurrection, he is represented by the author of the Acts of the Apostles as having referred to the outside world, it was as a provincial might, dividing the world into the immediate environs and everything that was elsewhere: "Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria -- and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Therefore his cosmopolitan detractors in the Roman Empire were able to sneer that he had put in his appearance "in some small corner of the earth somewhere," and not (to borrow a modern phrase that seems appropriate) out here in the real world.

Jesus of Nazareth may have been a provincial, but Jesus Christ is the Man Who Belongs to the World. By a geographical expansion shattering anything that either his cosmopolitan detractors within paganism or, for that matter, the author of the Book of Acts within Christianity could have imagined, his name has moved out far from that "small corner of the earth somewhere" and has come to be known "unto the uttermost part of the earth." In the words of the paraphrase of Psalm 72 by Isaac Watts.

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run,
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on his love with sweetest song.

When that hymn was published in 1719, the most dramatic growth in the extension of his influence ever known was just beginning. Because of that quantum increase, the best-known history of Christian expansion in English devoted three of its seven volumes to the 19th century alone, calling it The Great Century (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity [Harper, 1939-45]). The sun never sets on the empire of Jesus the King, the Man Who Belongs to the World.

Not coincidentally, the great century of Christian missionary expansion was also in many ways the great century of European colonialism. As in past centuries of Christian conversion, the missionary and military sometimes went hand in hand, each serving the purposes of the other, and not always in a manner or a spirit consonant with the spirit of Christ. The medieval method of carrying on Christian missions was often to conquer the tribe in warfare and then to subject the entire enemy army to baptism at the nearest river. That pattern continued to appear in modern missions, despite the many differences between their methods. Consequently, although Jesus himself had lived in the Near East, it was as a religion of Europe that his message came to the nations of the world and the islands of the sea -- a religion of Europe both in the sense of a religion from Europe and, often, a religion about Europe as well. Indeed, at the end of the "great century," and on the eve of the First World War, the provocative aphorism was coined, apparently by Hilaire Belloc: "The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith" (Europe and the Faith [Paulist. 1921], p. viii).

The identification of Europe and "the faith" implied, on the one hand, that those who accepted European economic, political and military domination and who adopted European civilization thereby came under pressure to undergo conversion to the European faith in Jesus Christ. It likewise implied, however, that faith in Jesus Christ must be on European terms, take them or leave them, and that the forms it took -- organizational, ethical, doctrinal, liturgical -- must be, with as much adaptation as necessary but as little adaptation as possible, the ones it had acquired in its European configuration.

Although it has become part of the conventional wisdom in much of contemporary anti-colonialist literature, both Eastern and Western, it is an oversimplification to dismiss the missions as nothing more than a cloak for white imperialism. Such an oversimplification ignores the biographical, religious and political realities running through the history of Christian missions during the "great century" and long before, as missionaries have, in the name of Jesus, striven to understand and learned to respect the particularities of the cultures to which they have come. It should be noted, in addition, that there was historically a sharp difference on this count between the missionary methods of the Eastern and the Western churches. When Constantine-Cyril and Methodius came as Christian missionaries to the Slavs in the ninth century, they translated not only the Bible but the Eastern Orthodox liturgy into Slavonic.

By contrast, when Augustine had come to the English in 597, he had brought with him not only the message of the gospel and the authority of the See of Rome but the liturgy of the Latin mass, and he had made the acceptance of this a condition of conversion to faith in Christ. While Greek-speaking missionaries like Cyril and Methodius did not teach their Slavic disciples to read Greek, Western missionaries had to provide the nations they converted with the rudiments of Latin and the means of learning it. In the Carolingian period, "the use of Latin was everywhere and irrevocably narrowed down to liturgy and the written word," and Latin became a "purely artificial language." Nevertheless, it was also the ‘‘sole medium of intellectual life’’ and could become again, incidentally to the process and quite unintentionally, a way of access to the heritage of pre-Christian Roman culture and classical Latin literature (Erich Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages [Pantheon. 1965], pp. 120-21).

The most celebrated instance of the Christian understanding and respect for a native culture, however, was in the work of a Roman Catholic rather than of an Eastern Orthodox missionary, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, in China. He has been called by a modern English historian of Chinese culture "one of the most remarkable and brilliant men in history" (Joseph Needham, in Science and Civilization in China, 2 vols. [Cambridge University Press, 1961], 1:148). The first generation of Jesuits, under the leadership and inspiration of Francis Xavier, made the mission to China a major item on their agenda. But in carrying out the mission, the Jesuits had followed the medieval pattern of the Western church, introducing the Roman Catholic liturgy of the mass, forbidding any of the Chinese vernaculars in worship, and enforcing the use of Latin. With Ricci’s arrival at Macau in 1582, that strategy underwent drastic revision. Ricci adopted the monastic habit of a Buddhist monk, then the garb of a Confucian scholar, and became a renowned authority both in the natural sciences and in the history and literature of China.

This erudition enabled him to present the person and message of Jesus as the fulfillment of the historic aspirations of Chinese culture, in much the way that Jesus had been presented by the early fathers as the culmination of the Greco-Roman faith in the Logos and by the New Testament as the fulfillment of the Jewish hope for the Messiah. The Chinese, Ricci maintained, "could certainly become Christians, since the essence of their doctrine contains nothing contrary to the essence of the Catholic faith, nor would the Catholic faith hinder them in any way, but would indeed aid in that attainment of the quiet and peace of the republic which their books claim as their goal" (quoted in Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci [Viking. 1984]. p. 210).

Already in his lifetime and even more in the years of the "rites controversy" over the legitimacy of "accommodationism" that followed his death in 1610, Ricci was accused of having compromised the uniqueness of the person of Christ. But the upsurge of interest in his work has made it clear, on the basis of such theological works in Chinese as The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven of 1603, that Ricci was and remained an orthodox Catholic believer, whose very orthodoxy it was that impelled him to take seriously the integrity of Chinese traditions. Although with a less dramatic involvement in native thought and culture than Ricci’s, both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the 19th century often managed to combine a commitment to evangelization in the name of Jesus with a deep (and ever deepening) respect for the native culture and indigenous traditions of the nations to which they had been sent.

As in the past, Christian missions in the 19th and 20th centuries have involved many social changes as well as changes in religious affiliation. Perhaps the most important of these changes for the future cultural development of the nations was the close association between the missions and the campaign for world literacy. A monument to the importance of that achievement for the history of the Slavs is the very alphabet in which most Slavs write, which is called Cyrillic, in honor of Saint Cyril, the ninth-century "apostle to the Slavs," who, with his brother Methodius, is traditionally given credit for having invented it. . . Not only among the Slavs in the ninth century, but also among the other so-called heathen in the 19th century, the two fundamental elements of missionary culture for more than a millennium have therefore been the translation of the Bible, especially of the New Testament, and education in the missionary schools.

In one after another of the nations of Africa and of the South Seas, Christian missionaries found, upon arriving, that none of the native languages had been committed to writing, and that therefore it was necessary, for the sake of the translation of the word of God, to reduce one or more of those languages to written form. In many cases, therefore, the first efforts ever at a scientific understanding of the language, by native or foreigner, came from Christian missionaries. They compiled the first dictionaries, wrote the first grammars, developed the first alphabets. Thus it came about that the first important proper name to have been written in many of these languages must have been the name of Jesus, with its pronunciation adapted to their distinctive phonic structure, just as it had been in all the languages of Europe. The Protestant missionary Bible societies, especially the British and Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Society, owed their origins to Christian missions in the 19th century. During the 19th and 20th centuries, they have put at least the Gospels, and sometimes the rest of the New Testament and of the entire Bible, into more than a thousand additional languages, which averages out to more than five new languages per year.

In the memoirs of Asian and African leaders who were graduates from these schools it has become almost obligatory, as part of an attack upon white Christian colonialism, to express bitterness and recrimination about the loss of native roots that came as a by-product of missionary education and of imperialist schools both in the mission field and in the home country. Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, becoming, in his own eloquent English phrase, "a queer mixture of the East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere’ and sensing a profound alienation between himself and the religion of the common people of India -- an alienation from which he never quite recovered (Toward Freedom: Autobiography [Beacon, 1958], pp. 236-50). Nehru could have been speaking for several generations in many nations, some of them committed Christians and others merely deracinated Asians or Africans, who were "out of place everywhere, at home nowhere." Thus it was with a grim literalness that there was fulfilled, in the life of entire cultures and not only of individual families, the alienation described by the saying of Jesus in the Gospels: "I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household’’ (Matt.10:35-36).

Significantly, Jesus was seen as a Western figure, and in the early religious art of the "younger churches" he often continued to be represented as he had been in the evangelical and pietist literature of the missionary movements in Europe, England and America. Beginning already with Ricci and even earlier, however, Christian art in the mission field recognized the need to present the figure of Jesus in a form that was congenial to his new audience

Yet evangelicals and pietists, too, early recognized, sometimes far more explicitly in the mission field than at home, that it was not enough to bring pictures of Jesus, even pictures of Jesus with native features, or words about Jesus, even words about Jesus in the native vernaculars, to the non-Christian world. It had not been enough in the days of Jesus, either, and so he had come as a healer and not only as a teacher. Similarly, the mission of his followers in the second and third centuries had been one of help and healing, not of evangelization alone. For the word "salvation" -- soteria in Greek, salus in Latin and its derivative languages, Heil in German and its cognate languages -- meant "health."

In an age in which the healing of the nations from the ravages of hunger, disease and war has become the dominant moral imperative, Jesus the Healer has come to assume a central place. It was an emblem of the central place of Jesus when, under the terms of the Geneva Convention of 1864 for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick of Armies in the Field, the international organization created to carry out that moral imperative took the name ‘‘Red Cross Society"; its symbol, based on a reversal of the colors of the Swiss flag, is a red cross on a white background. Yet the connection between evangelization in the name of Jesus and the mission of help and healing has also been an issue for debate, especially in the 20th century. This debate, too, comes as a commentary on the literal meaning of a word in the Gospels: "Whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward" (Mark 9:41).

It has almost seemed that in every epoch there were some who were primarily interested in naming the name of Christ, clarifying its doctrinal and theological meaning, and defending that meaning against its enemies -- but who named the name without giving the cup of water. Yet it has seemed possible for others to give the cup of water, to provide the healing, and to improve the social lot of the disadvantaged -- but to do so without explicitly naming the name of Christ. Does that saying of Jesus mean that each of these ways of responding to his summons is only a partial obedience to this dual command? In the answer to this question, much of the debate over the primary responsibility of Christ’s disciples in the modern world has concentrated on the disjunction between the two components of the imperative.

A growing feature of the debate has been the stress on cooperation rather than competition between the disciples of Jesus and those who follow other ancient Teachers of the Way. Those followers of Jesus who advocate such cooperation insist that they are not less committed to the universality of his person and message than are the advocates of the traditional methods of conquest through evangelization. But the universality of Jesus, they have urged, does not establish itself in the world through the obliteration of whatever elements of light and truth have already been granted to the nations of the world. For whatever the proximate and historical sources of that truth may have been, its ultimate source is God, the same God whom Jesus called Father; else the confession of the oneness of God is empty.

Criticism of many of the elements of historic Christianity, especially of its dogmatism and cultural imperialism, led to the suggestion that it had much to learn, as well as much to teach, in its encounter with other faiths. Jesus was indeed the Man Who Belongs to the World, but he was this because he made it possible to appreciate more profoundly the full scope of the revelation of God wherever it had appeared in the history of the world, in the light of which, in turn, his own meaning and message acquired more profound significance. In the paradoxical formula of Archbishop Nathan Söderblom’s Gifford Lectures of 1931, "the uniqueness of Christ as the historical revealer, as the Word made flesh, and the mystery of Calvary," which are an "essentially unique character of Christianity," compel the affirmation that "God reveals himself in history; outside the Church as well as in it" (The Living God [Beacon, 1962], pp. 349, 379). The most complete statement of that position was the thought-provoking and massive report, Re-thinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years, published in 1932 by a Commission of Appraisal representing seven American Protestant denominations.

Having carried out an extensive survey of world missions, particularly in Asia and in Africa, the authors of this "laymen’s inquiry" reviewed, in seven volumes of data, the state of evangelization and Christian world service, recommending far-reaching revisions not only of specific strategy but of underlying philosophy. They concluded that the stress upon the particularity of Jesus and the absoluteness of his message had been, though perhaps necessary, a temporary element in the program of the missions. As one historian of missions has summarized the position of Re-thinking Missions,

The task of the missionary today, it was maintained, is to see the best in other religions, to help the adherents of those religions to discover, or to rediscover, all that is best in their own traditions, to cooperate with the most active and vigorous elements in the other traditions in social reform and in the purification of religious expression. The aim should not be conversion -- the drawing of members of one religious faith over into another or an attempt to establish a Christian monopoly. Cooperation is to replace aggression. The ultimate aim, so far as any can be descried, is the emergence of the various religions out of their isolation into a world fellowship in which each will find its appropriate place [Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (Penguin, 1964), p. 456].

So drastic a revision of the traditional Christian understanding that "there is salvation in no one else than [Jesus]. for there is no other name under heaven [than the name of Jesus] given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12) would inevitably evoke vigorous discussion and extensive controversy, especially coming as it did just when the theology of Karl Barth was emphasizing again the uniqueness of Jesus and the centrality of his claims.

In connection with the World’s Columbian Exposition held at Chicago in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, there was held a world parliament of religions, whose purpose it was to draw the religious implications of the discovery that the human race was not exclusively European and therefore not exclusively Christian, but global and universal. Despite the phenomenal successes of Christian missions during the 19th and 20th centuries, it seems incontestable that the percentage of Christians in the total world population is continually declining and therefore it seems inconceivable that the Christian church and the Christian message will ever conquer the population of the world and replace the other religions of the human race. If Jesus is to be the Man Who Belongs to the World, it will have to be by some other way.

Perhaps the most remarkable document to come out of this deepening sense of a new universalism was not Re-thinking Missions of 1932, but a decree published a third of a century later, on 28 October 1965, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate, of the Second Vatican Council. In a series of succinct but striking paragraphs, the decree described the religious quest and the spiritual values at work in primitive religion, in Hinduism, in Buddhism and in Islam; and in a historic affirmation the council declared:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in those religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (John 1:9). Indeed, she proclaims and must ever proclaim Christ, "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men find the fullness of religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.

The two passages from the Gospel According to John quoted in the decree clearly identify the issue. For it is in that Gospel that Jesus speaks of himself as "the way, the truth, and the life" and says that no one comes to the Father except through him. And yet that same Gospel provided the epigraph for the universalism of the Enlightenment’s portrait of Jesus; for the Gospel of John declares in its prologue that the Logos-Word of God, incarnate in Jesus, enlightens everyone who comes into the world. By citing the authority of both passages, the Second Vatican Council sought to affirm universality and particularity simultaneously and to ground both of them in the figure of Jesus.

A special issue at the Second Vatican Council and throughout Christianity, especially since World War II, was the relation between Christianity and its parent faith, Judaism. The Holocaust took place in what had been nominally Christian territory; moreover, the record of the churches in opposing it was not the noblest page in Christian history. Among both Roman Catholics and Protestants in Germany there were those who, as the New Testament says about the apostle Paul’s involvement in the martyrdom of Stephen, were "consenting to the death" of the Jews (Acts 8:1), and many more who were (as it seems now, by hindsight) blindly insensitive to the situation. The Second Vatican Council "deplores," it declared, "the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source," which would appear to include the official sources of the church’s past. And it condemned any attempt to blame the death of Jesus "upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, or upon the Jews today," insisting that ‘‘the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God."

It was in 1933, the beginning of the Nazi era in Germany, that there appeared, also in Germany, the first volume of one of the most influential biblical reference works of the 20th century, the multivolume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel. Probably the most important scholarly and theological generalization to be drawn from the hundreds of articles in the Kittel Dictionary has been that the teaching and language of the New Testament, including the teaching and language of Jesus himself, cannot be understood apart from their setting in the context of Judaism. It was once again in the Gospel of John, despite the hostility of some of its language about Jews, that Jesus, speaking as a Jew to a non-Jew, was described as saying: ‘‘We [Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews’’ (John 4:22). Directly he went on to say, in the very next verse: "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers [which, obviously, refers to both Jews and gentiles] will worship the Father in spirit and truth." Once again the theme is universality-with-particularity, as both of these are grounded in the figure of Jesus the Jew.

By a curious blend of these currents of religious faith and scholarship with the no less powerful influences of skepticism and religious relativism, the universality-with-particularity of Jesus has thus become an issue not only for Christians in the 20th century, but for humanity. As respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. For the unity and variety of the portraits of "Jesus through the centuries’’ has demonstrated that there is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, his person and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a "beauty ever ancient, ever new," and now he belongs to the world.

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