Tête bicéphale: French, “having two heads” (or being oriented in two different, contradictory ways at the same time).
Last post I highlight how, faced with situations where non-Christians question or especially challenge it, the Christian faith does not simply impose additional constraints upon its followers but a new orientation: a new primary goal (truth-telling and truth-preserving) and a new understanding of ethics and feasibility. The tough part is that these run counter to the senses of effectiveness, ethics, and feasibility that would typically govern our actions in everyday situations of disagreement or conflict.
Specifically, effectiveness becomes what preserves or promotes God’s truth, ethics becomes what best respects / serves God, and feasibility becomes what would be most broadly endorsed by their Christian community. The result of being faced with two, contrary orientations toward similar problems—an everyday orientation and an overtly Christian orientation—is experiencing tension.
Yet in such situations the Christian’s role appears clear: tell God’s truth and act to preserve it. So Christians can hope that these non-Christians (outsiders) will see the ‘truth’ of the Christian position and accept it, but they also expect a “hardness of heart” or even a “blindness” that prevents this. In any case, under such circumstances seeking a win-win solution that validates overtly non-Christian perspectives can only be seen as being unfaithful: “selling out” or “being worldly.”
This presents a “boundary-focused” approach in a much different light. This approach does manage the competing needs of growing the community’s membership while preserving its identity and values, both of which are important for Christian communities. Yet it does so by holding a particular understanding of truth, how it is acquired, and the Christian’s role relative to truth (truth-telling); a particular understanding of “outsiders” and how Christians should be oriented toward them; a particular understanding of love (and loving both neighbours and enemies); a particular understanding of tensions (and how to respond to them).
In my next series of posts I will argue that the preceding understandings are, variously, under-formulated or misformulated, overly narrow or exaggerated, and ultimately needing to be de-contextualized in order to be set in their proper context (and thus properly related to one another). For the remainder of this post I want to examine the origins of a boundary-focused orientation.
So where does it come from?
My guess is that it represents an attempt by Christians to model themselves after the conduct of Jesus. For example, Jesus is accepting of children and open to the poor and downcast. Jesus is compassionate to outsiders who seek him (in granting the Syro-Phonecian woman’s request) and embraces outsiders who recognize him (in praising the centurion’s faith). Yet Jesus is decisive—even merciless—against the religious eliteand the various Judean powers of his day.
Yet even as Christians aim to “do what Jesus would do” we must always consider not only the nature of Jesus’ actions but their context. And this context is at least threefold: Jesus’ knowledge of the truth, Jesus’ power to act on that knowledge, Jesus’ understanding of his own mission (or his self-understanding within that truth). Let’s consider these three more closely.
Jesus’ knowledge was thus divine without being omniscient (or, it was sufficient for him to carry out his mission). Jesus power to act on that knowledge was complete without being boundless (or, it was directed in a specific, limited fashion toward being a clear sign and indicator of his authority without being an overwhelming effect). Jesus understanding of his mission and his role therein was entire without, in itself, guaranteeing the success of his mission in advance.
Thus in the fullness of his knowledge, power, and self-understanding Jesus exemplifies God, and yet he also—and more so—offers a model to humanity by the bounded, incomplete nature of this same knowledge, power, and self-understanding and thus in his reliance on God the father as essential to his identity and the success of his mission.
So what does this mean?
Essentially, while Jesus needed far less from God than we do (for, being God, he had far more to begin with), his dependance and reliance on God are exactly the postures that Christians need to emulate, while being very circumspect and trepidatious about assuming that we can imitate Jesus when it comes to our knowledge of various situations or motives, our power to carry out God’s calling, and our self-understanding / understanding of that calling in a given context. For if we attempt to imitate Jesus in this regard we risk idolatry: declaring equality with Jesus divinity rather than simply finding consonance with those aspects of Jesus that mirror—and are mirrored in—our humanity.
In short, a desire for Christians to model themselves after Jesus is certainly proper and valuable. However, Christians must always be careful not to extend this modelling too far: we are to be Christ-like in character but cannot be so in nature, for Jesus’ nature was also divine. Further, we must be aware that where the Holy Spirit acts to enable us to become more like Jesus, this spirit does so in the same, character-oriented manner.