The Everlasting Man – Part 2, Chapter 2: The Riddles of the Gospel

Everlasting ManIn this book, that really is a reductio ad absurdum argument this chapter takes that approach and applies it to Jesus.  In the first part of the book we have found that if man is just an animal then that leads to both the absurd (why would there be religion of any kind then?) and contradictions (why is there art?).  In this the second part we see if Christ is just a man, taking the same approach.  Now the difficult part about using reductio ad absurdum is that one must only follow the premise.  Chesterton does this by (just as he did with man) looking at Christ through a secular point of view until it contradicts itself.

Overview of Chapter:

Who is Christ?  What do we do with Him?  These questions have been the hounds from which we run from.  It seems that the light is so bright that we must dim it by putting Christ in a specific box – yet it is the plethora of boxes that confirm that He is more than the sum of the parts we try to put him in. When we look at the gospel we see weird things happen (remember this is from a secular point of view): riddles, statements that make no sense – even to the Jews, stories, the praising of the meek during a military occupation, and so forth.  Let us begin the journey to see if Christ was just a man…

Outline of Chapter:

Since the words of Christ are recorded in the Bible, let us take a look at that.  Now if the Bible was constructed by man with no inspiration from God then there is something that needs to be explained, let alone the followers who martyred themselves and the confirmations of all the Jewish prophecy or way all the pieces come together, there is something else that requires an answer: the riddles.

“Now the first thing to note is that if we take it merely as a human story, it is in some ways a very strange story. I do not refer here to its tremendous and tragic culmination or to any implications involving triumph in that tragedy. I do not refer to what is commonly called the miraculous element; for on that point philosophies vary and modern philosophies very decidedly waver. Indeed the educated Englishman of to-day may be said to have passed from an old fashion, in which he would not believe in any miracles unless they were ancient, and adopted a new fashion in which he will not believe in any miracles unless they are modern. He used to hold that miraculous cures stopped with the first Christians and is now inclined to suspect that they began with the first Christian Scientists. But I refer here rather specially to unmiraculous and even to unnoticed and inconspicuous parts of the story. There are a great many things about it which nobody would have invented, for they are things that nobody has ever made any particular use of; things which if they were remarked at all have remained rather as puzzles. […] But whatever be the answer, the Gospel as it stands is almost a book of riddles.”

The Bible (the Word of God) does not fit any of the answers of the philosophers (man’s attempts).  Man uses simple phrases to win favor – easy answers that are true because they are truisms.   Like if I say the red sky is red- by definition that sentence is true – but it does not mean anything to the outside world (the world outside the circle of the truism).  Yet Jesus never spoke things that made people nod and say ‘those are nice words’ – in fact it was the opposite.

“First, a man reading the Gospel sayings would not find platitudes. If he had read even in the most respectful spirit the majority of ancient philosophers and of modern moralists, he would appreciate the unique importance of saying that he did not find platitudes. It is more than can be said even of Plato. It is much more than can be said of Epictetus or Seneca or Marcus Aurelius or Apollonius of Tyana. And it is immeasurably more than can be said of most of the agnostic moralists and the preachers of the ethical societies; with their songs of service and their religion of brotherhood. The morality of most moralists ancient and modern, has been one solid and polished cataract of platitudes flowing for ever and ever. That would certainly not be the impression of the imaginary independent outsider studying the New Testament. He would be conscious of nothing so commonplace and in a sense of nothing so continuous as that stream. He would find a number of strange claims that might sound like the claim to be the brother of the sun and moon; a number of very startling pieces of advice; a number of stunning rebukes; a number of strangely beautiful stories. He would see some very gigantesque figures of speech about the impossibility of threading a needle with a camel or the possibility of throwing a mountain into the sea. He would see a number of very daring simplifications of the difficulties of life; like the advice to shine upon everybody indifferently as does the sunshine or not to worry about the future any more than the birds. He would find on the other hand some passages of almost impenetrable darkness, so far as he is concerned, such as the moral of the parable of the Unjust Steward. Some of these things might strike him as fables and some as truths; but none as truisms.”

There is another riddle.  Christ did not base his views on things of his age, nor did he base them on social issues – yet He did not claim that everything was an illusion.  The words that he spoke were timeless, in fact they are the only words that are timeless.

“The same truth might be stated in another way by saying that if the story be regarded as merely human and historical, it is extraordinary how very little there is in the recorded words of Christ that ties him at all to his own time. I do not mean the details of a period, which even a man of the period knows to be passing. I mean the fundamentals which even the wisest man often vaguely assumes to be eternal. For instance, Aristotle was perhaps the wisest and most wide-minded man who ever lived. He founded himself entirely upon fundamentals, which have been generally found to remain rational and solid through all social and historical changes. Still, he lived in a world in which it was thought as natural to have slaves as to have children. And therefore he did permit himself a serious recognition of a difference between slaves and free men. Christ as much as Aristotle lived in a world that took slavery for granted. He did not particularly denounce slavery. He started a movement that could exist in a world with slavery. But he started a movement that could exist in a world without slavery. He never used a phrase that made his philosophy depend even upon the very existence of the social order in which he lived. He spoke as one conscious that everything was ephemeral, including the things that Aristotle thought eternal. By that time the Roman Empire had come to be merely the orbis terrarum, another name for the world. But he never made his morality dependent on the existence of the Roman Empire or even on the existence of the world. ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.'”

Chesterton at this point gives all the views of a merely human Christ, and why they neglect another portion of Him.  However that is not his true point.  The real contention is that to make so many boxes to put Christ in there must have been something large, and multi-dimensional about Christ.  Something larger than any man.

“I maintain therefore that a man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ. The merely human Christ is a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man. Moreover there have been too many of these human Christs found in the same story, just as there have been too many keys to mythology found in the same stories. Three or four separate schools of rationalism have worked over the ground and produced three or four equally rational explanations of his life. The first rational explanation of his life was that he never lived. And this in turn gave an opportunity for three or four different explanations, as that he was a sun-myth or a corn-myth, or any other kind of myth that is also a monomania. Then the idea that he was a divine being who did not exist gave place to the idea that he was a human being who did exist. In my youth it was the fashion to say that he was merely an ethical teacher in the manner of the Essenes, who had apparently nothing very much to say that Hillel or a hundred other Jews might not have said; as that it is a kindly thing to be kind and an assistance to purification to be pure. Then somebody said he was a madman with a Messianic delusion. Then others said he was indeed an original teacher because he cared about nothing but Socialism; or (as others said) about nothing but Pacifism. Then a more grimly scientific character appeared who said that Jesus would never have been heard of at all except for his prophecies of the end of the world. He was important merely as a Millenarian like Dr. Cumming; and created a provincial scare by announcing the exact date of the crack of doom. Among other variants on the same theme was the theory that he was a spiritual healer and nothing else; a view implied by Christian Science, which has really to expound a Christianity without the Crucifixion in order to explain the curing of Peter’s wife’s mother or the daughter of a centurion. There is another theory that concentrates entirely on the business of diabolism and what it would call the contemporary superstition about demoniacs, as if Christ, like a young deacon taking his first orders, had got as far as exorcism and never got any further. Now, each of these explanations in itself seems to me singularly inadequate; but taken together they do suggest something of the very mystery which they miss. There must surely have been something not only mysterious but many-sided about Christ if so many smaller Christs can be carved out of him.”

Thoughts:

The name, Jesus Christ, has caused more division, agitation and controversy than any other name in history. If you bring up God in a coffee shop discussion, nobody is really offended. If you speak about Buddha or Brahman, Moses or Mohammed, you really don’t irritate the listener. However, the name Jesus Christ seems to cut right to the soul. Something makes this religious leader more contentious and convicting than all the others combined. What is it? Unlike any other widely followed religious leader in history, Jesus Christ made a unique claim. He declared Himself God. Not a god, not god-like, but God incarnate – the Creator of the universe in human flesh. That’s disturbing. So much in fact that we say that He just preached pacifism, or just socialism, or was just a good teacher.

C.S. Lewis, writes in Mere Christianity, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

There is no other figure in history so compartmentalized, there are countless attempts to lesson His message by putting a label on Him, yet at every turn the labels fall off – yet His Word remains. Before we put yet another label of being nice, being a social activist, being just a good man – let us actually look at what he says (not at what we would like Him to say).

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