THE HUMANITY OF CHRIST
Contributions to a Psychology of Jesus
by Romano Guardini
Translated from the German by
A Division of Random House
NIHIL OBSTAT Joannes M.T. Barton, S.T.D., L.S.S.
IMPRIMATUR + Georgius L. Craven
WESTMONASTERII Die 12a Septembris 1963
Copyright, 1964, by Random House, Inc. and Burns & Oates Ltd.
Published in New York by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.,
and simultaneously in Toronto, Canada, by Random House of Canada, limited.
Manufactured in the United States of America.
Library of Congress catalog card number: 64-11806
Originally published in German as “Die Menschliche Wirklichkeit Des Herrn.”
Copyright 1958 by Werkbund-Verlag, Wurzburg
To The memory Of Karl Neundorfer
I. THE SETTING AND THE LIFE
. The Historical Situation
. The Kind of Life
. The Basic Figure
II. ACTIONS, CHARACTERISTICS, ATTITUDES
. Jesus’ Thought
. Jesus’ Volition and Action
. Jesus and Material Things
. Jesus and Men
. Emotion in the Life of Jesus
. Jesus’ Attitude towards Life and Death
III. THE PROBLEM OF THE STRUCTURE OF PERSONALITY
. General Remarks
. The Structures of Growth
. Temperament and Behavior Structures
. Jesus Is Unique
IV. JESUS’ MODE OF EXISTENCE
. The Person and Existence of Jesus
. His Achievement
V. THE UTTER OTHERNESS OF JESUS
. The Absolute Otherness Affirmed
. Jesus’ Originality
. Jesus’ Being Come
. Jesus as Teacher, as Power, as He Who Is
This book is an essay gathering together the results of many years of
study. While the problems treated here would certainly seem to require
still further elucidation, their manifest timeliness leads me to follow the
suggestions of friends and publisher and to present this essay as it
stands, in the hope that further discussion may benefit thereby. The work
goes out now in the shape it acquired about ten years ago as a series of
I should not like to put forth this book, however, without first mentioning
how the problems have been approached, and how they relate to the general
picture of theological thought in our time.
We view with mixed feelings the pre-eminence which the science of
psychology claims in our day. The procedures of observation and analysis
seem to intrude into every sphere of life. They choose above all to focus
on the structure of personality, not excluding–indeed rather preferring–
the structure of those personalities we call great. While the achievements,
no doubt, merit attention, we must bear in mind that both the methods and
the results of psychological research are determined, even more than are
those of other sciences, by the motives which lie behind them. We have,
therefore, every right to be skeptical, for these motives, whether
acknowledged, half acknowledged, or unacknowledged, are multifarious and
frequently quite unacceptable.
Psychological analysis may well be motivated by the desire to improve our
understanding of the nature and destiny of some personality and to assess
it more accurately–to give it, that is, the honor due to it. It may,
however, just as well spring from the will to insert both personality and
man as such in a merely natural context, thus confounding him with an order
inferior to him. Were that effort to achieve its aim, the result would be a
triumph at the cost of reverence.
Motives of both kinds have always exerted their influence and are doing so
today. Those of the second kind, however, have been greatly strengthened by
certain contemporary trends. Democracy of the truly radical sort will not
tolerate gradations of rank among men. Positivism and materialism both deny
any essential difference between the spiritual and the animal, between man
and beast. According to totalitarianism the business of science is not to
discover what actuality is, but to change it and make it what it should be.
In practice this means placing men at the disposal of power. All this
enables us to understand why those who care about human worth and dignity
distrust psychology, especially in instances where what is at stake is the
worth and dignity of a great man, and why they feel that some destructive
force is at work, some technique of laying violent hands upon what has a
claim to be reverenced.
Inestimably greater, then, are the misgivings bound to arise when the
subject of a psychological enquiry is none other than that One who not only
surpasses all the great men of history but, indeed, completely transcends
everything merely human–none other than Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, we must not forget that he called himself the Son of
Man, a name which, all things considered, is much more than a mere term
designating the Messiah, which he had taken over from the prophets. Jesus
Christ is man, more unreservedly man than anyone else can ever be; for to
realize human nature as he did was an achievement possible only for one who
was more than mere man.
This point of view is in sharp contrast with the modern tendency to
interpret man in terms of a lower order: to see in his present state a
stage in an uninterrupted, steady ascent from the pre-human, and in his
structure an admittedly more complex, but essentially identical, ordering
of the same elements as in that of the animals. The contrary is true: man
can be properly understood only in terms of what is above him. The final
word on the meaning of the biblical text: “God created man in his own
image” (Gen. 1. 27) was only spoken by “the Word made flesh” (John 1. 14).
Seen in this light, the problem of a psychology of Jesus appears to be one
of the most urgent tasks confronting theology.
Early Christology sought, as its first task, to establish, beyond any
shadow of doubt, that Jesus of Nazareth was more, and other, than a mere
creature. Our minds, dulled by everything said and written on the subject,
can no longer comprehend the passion with which for centuries the early
Christians fought out the issues of Christology–a passion which can, in
spite of its many all too human features, yet be called holy. In the end,
the declaration affirming Christ to be the eternal, consubstantial Son of
the Father was established as a pillar of truth never again to be shaken.
The second phase came when the Christian mind saw clearly that this Son of
God had truly become man in Christ. It was not that he had come merely to
dwell in a man: he came as an actual member, indeed, as the crucial and
all-important member, in the whole history of the human race. He was
completely within human history, yet at the same time quite independent of
it. Indeed, the very reason for the uniqueness, the redemptive force of his
entry into human history, is to be sought in the fact that he came from the
freedom of him who is above all history and above the whole world. This is
what he meant when he said, as St. John reports: “I have power to lay down
(my life), and I have power to take it up again” (John 10. 18).
Thus the divine rigor of this true incarnation had to be purified from
every notion which, while apparently affirming a maximum of incarnation, in
fact destroyed its reality, because it substituted for a personal event one
which, in spite of the appearance of sublimity, still remained at the
natural level: namely, the confusion of the natures. A being in whom the
human blended with the divine in a single, undifferentiated substance would
be a myth. And so arose the concept of one person in two distinct natures,
a concept which exceeds the capacity of the human mind, to be sure, but
which guarantees the integrity of the God-Man.
The reality of the divine nature in Christ was now unassailable, his true
humanity was likewise established, as was also the indissoluble unity of
the two natures in the person of the Logos: a unity which constituted the
basis for the historicity of Christianity a unity which we may perhaps
even say made God himself historical. In saying this, we mean, of course,
something very different from the pantheistic processes of the Absolute.
And so, we now have these truths before us in a form which is both sublime
in purity and rich in content, both truth and mystery together: they have
And then the spirit began to ask further: what was the place in history of
the Son of God made man. This led to attempts to merge the unique
historicity of Jesus in the universal historicity of human life; and this
resulted in all those images of Christ which represented him as sheer man–
even though a most extraordinary man–or, on the other hand, as an idea, a
myth, the content of an experience.
We know that these ways are wrong. Alerted by the attitude of the Church,
theology is able to ward off all such attempts. But this resistance–if I
interpret it correctly–has remained essentially negative. It has told us
what is not. Now a positive task must be undertaken. We have seen how the
existence of Christ proceeds from an event which resists any attempt to
identify it with universal historical concepts. We have seen also that we
cannot penetrate the heart of his personality, not merely empirically,
because we lack the necessary means for such an insight, but in principle.
For, to achieve this, we would have to be able to reduce the absolute
reality of the divine nature and the relative reality of human nature to a
common denominator–which is impossible.
But something else is possible: the fact can be brought home to us that the
existence of Christ was a real earthly existence, taking place within the
framework of actual history. He had his own inward and outward experiences,
his encounters with men and things, his decisions and actions to be
constantly taken and performed, and so forth. All this took place within
the realm of being and event, that is to say, it can be understood. Hence
the questions what, how, why, wherefore, whence and whither, can properly
be asked and answered; and so also can the psychological questions, but–
and it is an important but–they must be asked with regard to a fact which
prescribes both an attitude and a method. This fact is the one already
mentioned: the incomprehensibility for us of both the origin and the heart
of Christ’s personality.
So this psychology is going to be of a peculiar kind. If the word means, as
it generally does, an analysis of personality and individual circumstance,
then there can be no such thing as a psychology of Christ. The eternal
decree that he was to become man, no less than the existence of the Logos
in human flesh, resists any attempt to induce it to a psychological
concept–or to an historical one, for that matter. On the other hand, the
decision of the Logos to become man embraces everything that is essential
to human nature, including the possibility of being understood. All the
circumstances which determine human existence–body, soul, mind, society–
attain their fulfillment in the being and life of Christ. Basing ourselves
on these circumstances, we can, it is true, come to an understanding or, in
other words, a psychology, but we are going to find that, owing to its
inherent limitations, this psychology will be baffled at each line of
approach towards precisely these circumstances which we try out. And, it
must be repeated again, this defeat results not from any lack of material,
from any dullness of insight or deficiency of method, but from the very
nature of the object being investigated. The more complete the material,
the more penetrating our insight, the more thorough our method, the clearer
and more decisive becomes the impasse in the conviction forced upon us that
our undertaking simply opens out on to the incomprehensibility of God
How little justice was done to the figure of Christ by the historical and
psychological method of the liberal school of theologians! The
repercussions of this tendency in Catholicism, known as Modernism, have
been overcome. We know not only that a watered-down version of Christianity
is erroneous, but also that it is not even worth while wasting energy
trying to provide it with an intellectual basis. The self-commitment of
faith only makes sense when directed towards the one complete,
unadulterated revelation with its suprarational appeal.
Yet, on the other hand, it is evident that Christology must go a step
further. Not merely because of the logic of theological development, but
for the sake of Christian life. Prayerful meditation requires an approach
which will lead it deeper into the heart of real reality. The same thing is
true of life and action as well. We are accustomed to think of the
Christian life as a “following” or “imitation” of Christ. But what do we
mean by that? In what sense are the person and life of Jesus normative for
us? If we are to go any further than the usual abstract applications; if
Christ’s actions, sufferings, behavior and attitude are to illumine and
guide our human existence; if the idea of the “new man” who “is being
changed into (the) likeness (of the glory of the Lord)” (2 Cor. 2. 18) is
to acquire a definite, inspirational content, then this image must be made
more concrete than is usually the case.
This is the task, essentially, of a “theological psychology”, the sort of
thing I referred to in my short work on “The Mother of the Lord” (1955),
and which I tried to provide, very tentatively, in my book, “The Lord”
In this connection, we may dwell for a moment on the phenomenon on which
research might well try itself out and from which it could perhaps deduce
many of the concepts it will need. This phenomenon is the saint and the
life of his soul.
Hagiography has followed a course of development not unlike that of
Christology. The history of the way it dealt with its subject shows that it
first elaborated an abstract ideal of the supernatural, then created more
individual but still typical figures, and only finally succeeded in
grasping the concrete, historical person. The picture of the saint appears,
at first, in the highly stylized form of the icon, to become gradually more
and more concrete and individual. In the process it runs the very real
danger of having all its originality leveled out to accord with
preconceived historical or psychological patterns, until we come to the
final stage of treating sanctity as a pathological manifestation. At this
point the work of destruction is complete.
If the saint is what the Church knows him to be, then his figure, too,
contains a heart which defies all analysis: the “Christ in us” of which the
Epistle to the Galatians speaks (2. 20). Now, this Christ does not exist as
a separate transcendent entity above the man, Augustine, for example, or as
an alien body enveloped in some inaccessible depth of his soul; he
penetrates his genuine humanity and historical life. Furthermore, Christ
has become identified with the essential self of the man, so that the
Pauline text: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”, can
be completed by another: “and now for the first time I really am becoming
my true self”. The basis for a psychology of sanctity is to be found in St.
Paul’s thought on Christ’s in-dwelling and the “emergence of the new man
within the old”; but, as far as I know, this idea has not yet really been
exploited. If we think of the saint in these terms, we learn, I think, much
about the way we ought to view the reality which is Christ.
We can see St. Francis of Assisi, for example, as he is revealed to us by
the biographies of Thomas of Celano or Bonaventure. They greatly overstress
the supernatural aspect of his character and the image they create remains
remote from the world of men. Again, we can see him as Sabatier portrayed
him. Here we have a concrete picture of his life, it is true, but the
essence, the heart of the saint has vanished. This is because Christ has
gone out of the picture too. For, along with Francis of Assisi, Christ also
is classified as one of a series of individuals belonging to the same
psychological type, that of the “homo religiosus”. This train of thought
finally becomes lost in the rationalism and lyricism of a Henry Thode,
Hermann Hesse, or Nikos Kazantzakis. We are today engaged in the task of
penetrating to the true nature of Francis, who lived in the mystery of a
likeness to Christ such as, perhaps, no other individual has ever achieved
in such charismatic exactness. For that very reason he possessed so
definite and so unique a human personality that he was able to influence
history as few others have been able to.
Finally, we must go into the question of method, for this sums up the whole
difficulty. In view of the confusing variety of images of Christ current
today, we must ask the further question: Which Christ have we in mind?
If we answer: The one who brought us the fullness of revelation and
revealed himself therein, then another question must be posed: Where is he
to be found? There is only one answer to this: In the New Testament. But
this means, in the complete New Testament, in all its books, and from their
first to their last sentence, and this brings us to the heart of the
The reality of Christ has been made known to us by means of the words, i.e.
the recollections, of the apostles, of all the apostles from Mark to John.
But this does not mean that the genuineness of the figure Christ diminishes
the further the witness is removed in time. The interval in time between
Luke and Mark does not mean that the theologian must be wary of the later
Gospel. It is even likely that the passage of time will have allowed the
writer to gain a fresh insight into the nature of Christ. As a result of
discipleship, prayer and meditation on his sayings and acts, a new
experience of his reality will have been gained, so that when he proclaims
Christ’s message he will be able to say things which before were impossible
When research comes back from St. John’s Gospel to an examination of the
earlier ones, this does not mean that it discovers forthwith more
authentic strata of the reality of Christ, but only ones that were
perceived earlier. On the other hand, if, as we proceed from the earliest
to the later statements about him, we find the emergence of strata in the
picture of Christ which show evidence of riper reflection, greater
metaphysical comprehension, and a more concrete appreciation in terms of
contemporary problems, the message proclaimed does not become less genuine;
but factors do emerge and impose themselves precisely because of the
general situation and the stage reached in the progressive unfolding of the
Were we in a position to disregard all such accounts and gain an immediate
impression of Jesus Christ as he was on earth, we would not be confronted
by a “simple” historical Jesus, but by a figure of devastating greatness
and incomprehensibility. Progress in the representation of the portrait of
Christ does not mean that something was being added to what was proclaimed;
it means that we are witnessing the unfolding step by step of that which
“was from the beginning”, on the supposition, of course–and this is
fundamental–that as God willed the revelation of the redeeming truth of
his eternal “Word” in Christ, so he also willed and brought it about that
this truth should, in fact, be handed on to later generations; and handed
on in such a way that it could be included in the simplicity of the act of
faith, and need no specialized knowledge to extract it from the text of the
We have said that the source for our knowledge about Christ is the memory
of the apostles, of all the apostles and throughout the whole time that
they were proclaiming the divine message right up to their death; that is,
from the day of Pentecost until the death of John. These were no mere
individual reporters, each one of whom would be credited only to the extent
of his personal abilities. They spoke as apostles, that is, as “pillars”
and members of the Church. The Church, that is, the sumtotal of local
communities, their faith, liturgical life, prayer, etc., is not something
existing alongside or apart from them, so that it would be legitimate to
make a distinction between a valid original witness and a secondary
“theology of the community”. The apostles are themselves the Church. They
are the Church in her earliest kerygmatic phase, when she derives her
commission and authority directly from Christ and the Pentecostal
enlightenment. This phase, as we have said, extends from the author of the
first logion to the writer of the Apocalypse.
It is obviously pertinent to ask what kind of picture of Jesus they painted
in the various historical stages of their preaching. A particular interest
attaches to the question of the picture found in the very earliest
preaching. The search for these strata, however, must not be dominated by a
suspicion as to the validity of that preaching which would tend to assume
that it became less and less reliable as the first century wore on. Our aim
must not be to “get behind” the apostolic preaching in order to reach the
authentic Jesus, thus freeing ourselves from too close a dependence on the
“temporal limitations” of the apostolic message. The authentic Jesus is
revealed to us by the apostles, by them alone, and by all of them together.
The attitude we are criticizing would be, not “scientific”, but agnostic.
It would amount to a volatilizing of the only specific object of
theological investigation, and, consequently, of the whole scientific
character of theology. The different ways in which Paul, as compared with
Mark, and John contrasted with Matthew, recount the Gospel message are an
element of their apostolic mission. The fact that they were impelled (or
enabled) to fulfill their task by the changed circumstances of the later
period in which they lived and worked is due just as much to the Spirit of
Christ as was their enlightenment at Pentecost. So the picture of Christ
which is transmitted by the later preaching of the apostles is as
authoritative for the reality of Christ and as much an object of faith as
is the content of the earliest preaching. By the same title, it
constitutes, as readily as the former, the valid object of theology as a
The attitude described earlier also closes its eyes to the full reality of
Christ in terms of method. It begins with the assumption that the first,
“historical” Jesus was the “simple”, unmetaphysical, purely human
individual, and that his true greatness lay in his human genius, the depth
of his religious experience, and the power of his teaching. Thereafter, it
is affirmed, this primitive reality was metaphysically inflated in the
course of the first century, was assimilated to the mythical category of
the “Savior” and adapted to suit the religious needs of the communities
which felt the need of a cult figure. To admit this is to abandon at the
outset everything that could merit the name of “revelation” in the true
sense of the term, namely, the communication of a reality not conditioned
by man, but sent to him from God in order to judge and redeem all mankind.
At the same time, it abandons at once everything which the passage of time,
the increasing remoteness from the original event, the development in
historical circumstances, and the tradition that welds all that together,
can contribute to a disclosure of the “beginning” of that Reality which is
the foundation of redemption and the controlling force of history. To
repeat: the contrary of that premise is true. If we could get back to the
“original”, that is, if we could work our way back to the picture of Christ
as it existed before it had been turned over in the apostles’ minds or
elaborated by their preaching, before it had been assimilated by the
corporate life of the faithful, we could find a figure of Christ even more
colossal and incomprehensible than any conveyed by even the most daring
statements of St. Paul or St. John.
The Christ who interests the scholarly theologian and the faithful
Christian alike is the figure which comes to us from the whole of the
apostolic preaching. And this is so, not because that preaching is
concerned with the “Christ of faith” as distinct from the “Christ of
history”, for that would mean that the Christ of faith existed only by
virtue of a religious attitude towards him and was not existent and real by
himself. Later accounts would then be nothing more than idealized versions
of the various experiences of Christ; evidence of the various ways in which
the apostles and their hearers had seen him in the course of the first
century, preliminary drafts for the way in which the faithful of later
generations would view him.
To make sense we must see things the other way around. The Christ whom
serious believers believe in is the original reality. The statements of the
apostles are guides to him which never quite do justice to the fullness of
his divine-human nature. The apostles never state more about the historical
Jesus than he actually was; it is always less. Consequently, everyone who
reads the New Testament aright feels that every sentence is pregnant with
meaning regarding a reality which surpasses all that is said about it.
As opposed to the rationalist approach, true biblical theology must now
accomplish a kind of “Copernican revolution”. Its scientific purpose must
not be to isolate from supposedly over-emphasizing representations, as
likewise supposedly simple original reality; its object must be to bring
out clearly all the elemental greatness of the original, on the basis of a
whole series of representations, all of which are valid, but all of which,
in spite of a gradual deepening of perception somehow fall short.
It is this elemental greatness of the original which has been at work in
history, has built up the Church, and has furnished the irrepressible
impulse towards activity and transformation, which is a matter of past as
well as present experience. This is what “is, and was, and shall be”. This
is the only source of salvation.
This is the Jesus Christ we intend to study in this work. The psychology of
which we are speaking here is no kind of analysis of a merely human
personality who was an initiator, for there never was such an individual.
Rather does it try to understand the figure which emerges from the whole
apostolic preaching of the first century and which in each phase of its
proclamation points back to an original reality which towers above them
We are perfectly aware that both the object and the method of our
undertaking will be called “dogmatic”, in a derogatory sense, by that
theology which calls itself “critical”; that this school considers such a
subject matter to be chimerical and its method unscientific. In fact,
however, the attitude of this school is based upon a false premise, namely,
that the person of Jesus and its historical witness must be treated in
exactly the same way as any other historical phenomenon.
True theology must open its eyes to that peculiar taboo of recent times,
the spirit or principle of “scientism”, which claims to be universally
applicable, but in fact belongs to the spheres of the natural sciences and
history, and which, even in those spheres, has assumed a purely positive
and quantitative character. There has been a widespread inclination for
theology to accept this limitation, and as a result much harm has been
done. It is high time theology freed itself from this influence and
appealed to standards consistent with its own nature. We need hardly add
that this does not mean that we are underestimating or ruling out any of
the exacting demands of philology or history.
1. It should be noted here that the literature of spirituality,
which is too often neglected by systematic theology, has
anticipated many of the insights in this matter. It would be
useful, therefore, to investigate the writings of the Fathers,
the masters of the spiritual life and the mystics, for the light
they can shed on all this.
2. It passes understanding how any study of the biblical texts
which does not take into account this supposition, but treats
them like any other historical source, can merit the name of
theology. Such an approach presupposes a vagueness about basic
principles which is quite inadmissible in the realm of
scientific thought. We have to do here, however, with a
perversion of the idea of science which can be observed in other
domains also. Science is the study of a subject by means of the
method required by this subject, not by means of some generally
applicable method which undermines its specific character.
3. Theology can be called a science precisely because it uses,
not the methods of general history or psychology, but the method
demanded by the nature of the object being investigated, which
in this case is revelation. This nature is not something purely
personal which the student subjectively attributes to his
subject, and which then has to be discarded as soon as the
investigation becomes scientific. Theology is rigorously
scientific only when it accepts the nature of revelation as the
determining factor in its choice of method. It is obvious that
this consideration recognizes in the phenomenon a special
complication, and that the processes of research require a
special competence in the student’s eye to enable him to
identify unerringly his object, and in the dialectic which will
serve him in its conceptual elaboration. Only to the extent in
which theology fulfills these conditions can it be regarded as
THE HUMANITY OF CHRIST
I. THE SETTING AND THE LIFE
1. THE HISTORICAL SITUATION
Almost everything we know about Jesus comes from the New Testament, above
all from the Gospels. These are not historical narratives in the modern
sense- They do not even set out to provide edifying biographies written
according to a unified scheme. They are a holy message.
Without attempting to achieve sequence and completeness, they record
events, sayings, and actions in the life of our Lord, presenting them
according to their significance for the proclamation of the message of
salvation. Thus, from the standpoint of historical biography, the facts
which we learn from the Gospels about the life of Jesus are at once
accidental and precious.
The scene of Jesus’ life is Palestine. because in the later and more
important part of his life he moved about with considerable freedom, the
story takes us to widely different regions. First there is the immediate
homecountry–Galilee; then the capital with the surrounding province of
Judaea; the solitude of the wilderness and the banks of Jordan; Samaria and
the Syrian frontier. It is true that the account shows no interest in
things which are not immediately connected with the holy message of
salvation, and yet it throws light now and again upon the conditions of the
country; upon the peculiarities of the different regions with the tensions
which exist between them; upon occasional geographical and historical
points of interest.
The time limits of Jesus’ life are determined by certain statements in the
Gospels. He was born during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Quirinius being
governor in Syria, and Herod, the King of Galilee, under Roman vassalage.
We cannot fix the year exactly (Luke 2. 1-2; Mat. 2. 1). His public
activity began after the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
i.e. after the year 28; for it was in this year that John the Baptist began
to preach, and Jesus appeared after that. Jesus was then about thirty years
old (Luke 3. 1-3, 23). He died, at the latest, before Easter of the year
35, for his death occurred while Pontius Pilate was in office, and by
Easter 36 Pilate’s term was over (Mat. 27. 11-26 et par.). Jesus lived,
then, between these extreme dates. More exact dating depends upon how long
we allow for the Baptist’s and his own ministries, and how we interpret the
statements of the various Gospels concerning his journeyings to Jerusalem.
The highest reckoning puts the duration of Jesus’ public life at about
three years; the lowest at a little over one.
The reigns of Caesar Augustus (29 B.C.-14 A.D.) and Tiberius Caesar (A.D.
14-37) form the historical framework of our Lord’s life. All the world,
from Gibraltar to Mesopotamia, from Britain to Ethiopia, was a single
political entity. A multiplicity of local cultures was held together by
strong unifying forces, above all by a view of life which blended
Hellenistic intellectualism with Roman practicality. Greek and Latin were
spoken everywhere. Political ordinances, a uniform administration, and
commercial intercourse guaranteed a constant interchange between the
different parts of the Empire. The religious scene presents a vast
diversity; but the separate pagan cults had long since lost their sharp
dividing lines. All of them had become imbued with certain tendencies,
notably a predilection for myths and mysteries. A deep longing for
redemption was felt everywhere, and this led to all kinds of syncretism.
The rulers of Palestine were the sons and heirs of Herod the Great (d. 4
B.C.). Judaea and Samaria were ruled by Archelaus (4 B.C.-6 A.D.) until his
banishment, when Judaea was made a Roman proconsulate under Quirinius.
Herod Antipas (4 B.C.-39 A.D.) ruled in Galilee and Peraea. Philip (4 B.C.-
34 A.D.) ruled in the North-east, but his area, too, was destined to come
under immediate Roman rule. The country’s political independence, won by
the Maccabees in the wars of freedom (167-142 B.C.), and upheld by the
Hasmonaean dynasty, had been brought to an end by Pompey. From 63 B.C.
onwards Palestine was a Roman province. Herod the Great himself had been a
Despite this political dependence, however, a considerable spiritual
independence persisted. The form of government was still the old theocracy,
exercised by the high priest assisted by the supreme council of the
Sanhedrin, composed of seventy-one members.
Supreme jurisdiction in matters involving the death sentence and crimes of
a political nature was reserved to the Roman governor, as was taxation.
Religious life was founded on a tradition which had withstood all change.
At the same time, a whole series of Greek and Asiatic influences had made
themselves felt. The danger of hellenization may well have been warded off
by the Maccabean wars and the country safeguarded for Judaism; but
Palestine, too, was affected by Hellenistic culture, as well as by a
religious movement which stirred the whole Mediterranean world, revealing
itself in Palestine principally as a fervent longing for the Messiah, an
expectation which was not purely religious but also strongly nationalist
and political in tone.
The guardians of the nationalist-conservative tradition were the Pharisees.
They were the purists, those who remained faithful to the Law. They were
vigorously against all that was foreign and pagan; and they were the
bitterest opponents of Hellenistic culture. And yet, for all their national
consciousness, they were not really in touch with the people, but looked
down on them as a despicable, confused, and ignorant rabble.
Opposed to them was the party of the Sadducees who were cosmopolitan and
supported Hellenistic culture, seeing themselves as the enlightened,
rationalist opponents of all that claimed to be above the senses or beyond
Their image merges with that of the Hellenizers, the group that adapted
traditional Jewish ideas to the popular philosophy of the times, and whose
attitude to the Law was determined by this adaptation. The Sadducees were
related also to the Herodians–members of the courts of Herod’s heirs, who
had no interest in serious issues but sought only power and pleasure.
A number of other well-defined groups stood out from the mass of the
Most conspicuous were the Essenes, a sect of a decidedly mystical and
John the Baptist’s disciples seem to have had much in common with these
people and while some of them adopted their masters attitude to Jesus,
others continued as a separate community.
Besides these, we must take note of that little band that remained firmly
within the ancient tradition, but drew its inspiration rather from the
Prophets and the Psalms than from the Law- These were men and women of
deep, quiet spirituality like Zachary and Elizabeth, the parents of John
the Baptist; or the two prophetic souls who greeted the Child Jesus in the
Temple, Simeon and Anna; or the family at Bethany, Lazarus, Martha and Mary
Finally, there were the Samaritans, a racially and religiously hybrid
group, the descendants of colonists who had been transplanted there at the
time of the Assyrian conquest- They tried to hold themselves aloof from
both Jews and pagans, but were unable to do so because of the confusing
forces all about them. They were despised by their Jewish neighbors.
2. THE KIND OF LIFE
In this environment is set the figure of Jesus; here he lived out his life.
His ancestry is traced back to the ancient royal family, both in the
genealogies and in isolated remarks (Mat. 1. 1 ff.; Luke 3. 23 ff)- This
royal line had now lost all its power, possessions and significance, so
that this late descendant lived in complete obscurity.
He grew up, not in true poverty, but in humble circumstances nevertheless,
in the house of a simple craftsman–a carpenter- Jesus general behavior
bears witness to the fact that he was accustomed to great simplicity,
though we must not forget that he feels quite at ease among well-to-do
people, and shows, for example, what he thought of the behavior of Simon
the Pharisee, who had invited him but did not think it necessary to extend
him the least token of hospitality (Luke 7. 44 ff).
We do not hear of his having had any special intellectual training. The
puzzlement expressed on several occasions over where he got his knowledge
of the Scriptures and his wisdom shows that he cannot have had any formal
education (Mat. 13. 54; Mark 1. 22; Luke 2. 47; John7. 15).
Jesus’ way of life is that of an itinerant religious teacher. He goes from
place to place as outward occasion–a festival pilgrimage or spiritual
necessity–his “hour”–demands. He often stays in one place for quite some
time, visiting the surrounding district and then coming back to it again.
Thus, for example, at the start of his ministry, at Capharnaum (Mat. 8. 5
and 9. 35), or at its end, in Bethany (Mat. 21. 17–18; 26. 6). This
pattern of life derived from the nature of his mission, not from a personal
wanderlust. We can deduce this from the answer he made to the scribe who
said he would follow him: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have
nests: but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mat. 8. 20). From
his audience he gathered around himself a band of the more receptive whom
he instructed in the deeper meaning of his message. From among these,
again, he made another selection of the Twelve. The importance of this
selection is underscored by the fact that the chosen are mentioned by name
(Mark 3. 14 ff. et par.); and it is also recorded that he spent the
previous night in prayer (Luke 6. 12).
The small inner circle, called “the Twelve” for short (Luke 8. 1, etc.),
are especially close to him. We may recall the intimate bond which existed
in ancient times between the philosopher or religious teacher and his
disciples. The Twelve are always about him. Wherever he is invited, they go
too. He shares food and lodging with them. After he has spoken they cluster
around inquiring into the meaning of what he has said. And he tells them
expressly that all is made clear to them, whereas the multitude will have
to be content with parables (Mat. 13. 11 ff.). He sends them out to test
their strength; he tells them what to preach, what to take with them, and
how to conduct themselves on their journey; and he gives them power to
perform signs. On their return he calls for their report, and the whole
scene reveals how deeply he was involved in their activities (Mark 6. 7-13,
30-l; and cf. Mat. 10-11. 6, 25-9; Luke 10. 1-22).
Within the band of the Twelve there is a more select group still,
consisting of the Three: Peter, James and John. They are present on all
important occasions, such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the
transfiguration on the mountain, and at Gethsemane (Mark 5. 37; 9. 2; 14.
33). There was a specially close link between John and his Master, so close
in fact that he was able to describe himself as the disciple “whom Jesus
loved” (John 3. 23; 19. 26).
A number of women can be discerned within the wider circle of disciples.
They are those whom he has helped in bodily or spiritual ills, or who have
attached themselves to him for religious reasons (Mat. 27. 55-6; Mark 16.
1; Luke 8. 1-2). Some are well-to-do and look after his material needs.
St. John’s remark that one of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, kept the common
purse (John 12. 6), answers the question: What did Jesus and his companions
live on? Each member of the group no doubt contributed something to the
common upkeep; but in addition those who were impressed by the Master’s
message helped out as well. We learn, too, that alms were dispensed from
the common purse (John 13. 29).
Besides this we learn that Jesus had friends with whom he could stay.
Considering his manner of life and the highly developed hospitality of the
East, this was only natural. He had especially close ties with the
household of Lazarus, Martha and Mary of Bethany (Luke 10. 38 ff.; John
A characteristic element in Jesus’ circle is constituted by the “publicans
and sinners”, people ostracized by the accepted standards of society
because of their way of life. With him, however, they find understanding
and love, and they, in turn, are especially devoted to him. His association
with them, however, caused the shadow of suspicion to fall on him in the
eyes of the devotees of the Law and of respectable citizens (Mat. 9. 9 ff.;
11. 19; 21. 31; etc.).
We now approach the question: What attitude did the various strata of
society and groups in the land adopt towards him?
It was the common people who from the first responded enthusiastically to
his person and his message. They could see that he did not speak “like
their scribes”–formally, technically, incomprehensibly–but with vitality,
from observation and experience; not theoretically, but “as one having
power”, so that they felt the dynamic power of his words and the mysterious
Reality which lay behind the words (Mat. 7. 28-9; Luke 4. 32). They sensed
also that his attitude to them was different from that of the members of
the influential classes. In the eyes of the Sadducees, they were just a
rabble; to the Pharisees, they were the despised masses who “do not know
the Law” (John 7. 49). By contrast, the attitude of Jesus made them feel
that his concern for them was genuine. Words like those of the Beatitudes
in the Sermon on the Mount have a primarily religious meaning. But they
were in marked contrast to the standards of the wealthy, the powerful and
the educated, and were therefore interpreted by the people as signs of
sympathy for the distressed, the oppressed and the ignorant. This feeling
was strengthened by the fact that Jesus was always ready to help the poor,
the suffering and the outcast. Sayings like “Come to me, all who labor and
are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11. 28) have reference
first of all to his Messianic mission, but they also express his boundless
readiness and power to be of service.
On the other hand, Jesus is no popular hero in the narrow sense of the
word; certainly not in any sense of his being a champion of the lowly and
simple against the wealthy and the educated. Certain sayings which seem to
suggest this (Luke 6. 24 ff.; 16. 19 ff; Mat. 19. 23 ff.) in reality have
nothing to do with social attitudes of this kind; still less do they imply
any tactics of rousing the people against their rulers. In the same way,
his relationship with the “publicans and sinners” does not mean that he is
in revolt against law and morality, or that he favors moral decadence. His
championing of the outcast is stressed because no one had ever done such a
thing before. The reason for it lay not in any inner fellow-feeling but in
the fact that “they that are in health, need not a physician, but they that
are ill” (Mat. 9. 12), and because they, too, are “sons of Abraham” (Luke
19. 9). Jesus is moved by the spirit of One who knows that he is sent to
every man, regardless of his condition. But once this has been made clear,
it must also be admitted that Jesus has a special tenderness for the poor
and the outcast. This flowed from the ultimate purpose behind his entire
mission, which was to upset all systems based on the standards of the
world, in order to proclaim the unknown God and his kingdom. The poor, the
suffering, the outcast are, through their very existence, forces of
discharge capable of shattering the established order.
Furthermore, he did not allow the people to draw too close to him, and
withdrew when the approaches were too pressing. He knew that the religious
motives which inspired such enthusiasm could be confused, shallow and
earthly, and that they might cause his message, especially his message
concerning the Kingdom of God and redemption, to be seen in a false light
(John 2. 23 ff; 6. 15ff.).
Among the ruling classes, the Pharisees, who were in closest touch with
public life and all its manifestations, paid immediate attention to him. At
once they became suspicious and began to work against him. They sensed the
thoroughgoing contrast between him and them in spirit and mentality, and in
their attitudes towards God and man. He himself often treated them openly
as adversaries. This is obvious everywhere, especially in the famous
invectives (Mat. 12. 22 ff.; 15. 1 ff.; 22. 15 ff.; 23. 13 ff.; etc.). Yet,
his struggle with them was not one of uncompromising opposition. He
recognized their function (Mat. 23. 1-3), appeared before them too as their
Messiah, and, whenever they showed a glimmer of understanding the truth,
received them (John 3. 1 ff.).
For a long time the Sadducees took no notice of him. Only at the every end,
when a crisis was imminent, did they become sufficiently disturbed to join
forces briefly with their former despised enemies in a common action
against him (Mat. 22. 23 ff.; Acts 4. 1; 5. 17 ff.).
We read that Herod had heard of the new teacher and taken an interest in
him (Luke 9. 7-9)–besides, he always had shown his interest in anything to
do with religion, e.g. in his dealings with John the Baptist (Mark 6. 20
ff.). Then he became suspicious and Jesus was informed of his intention to
kill him, whereupon Jesus indicated clearly enough what he thought of him
when he called him “this fox” (Luke 13. 31 ff.). Jesus did not come into
personal contact with him until the trial, and then the meeting went badly
enough (Luke 23. 6 ff.)
At first the Roman governor was completely unaware of his existence. He,
too, was first forced to concern himself with Jesus at his trial. John,
with his customary eye for involved human detail, has given us an
impressive account of their meeting (18. 28 ff.).
We still have to emphasize the peculiar sympathy which Jesus showed for
pagans. This was made clear, for example, when he met the Roman centurion
or the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mat. 8. 5 ff.; Mark 7. 24 ff.); likewise, in
what he had to say on Tyre, Sidon and Sodom (Mat. 11. 20 ff.). Even his
behavior towards Pilate has a frankness unspoiled by any kind of prejudice.
The same is true of his attitude towards the half-pagan Samaritans–as
indicated by his parable of the man who fell among thieves, or his story of
the ten lepers (Luke 10. 30 ff.; 17. 11 ff.), or his reprimand to the two
disciples who wanted to call down the vengeance of heaven upon the
inhabitants of a village of Samaria because they would not give hospitality
to the travelers. As this last instance shows, he certainly did not intend
to reject the Samaritans (Luke 9. 51 ff.).
Something must now be said about his personal habits.
He had no fixed teaching center either near the temple or in a rabbinical
school, but moved about from place to place. We have already noted that
this way of life was not a manifestation of wanderlust. The instructions he
gave the disciples he sent out may safely be taken to reflect, with certain
limitations, the kind of life he himself led and the experiences he had
gained by it (Mat. 10. 5 ff.). He taught wherever opportunity arose–in the
synagogues, where, moreover, every adult Jew had a right to speak (Mat. 4.
23, etc.); in the porticos and courts of the temple (Mat. 21. 21 ff.; 21.
21-24. 1); in market-place and street (Mat. 9. 9 ff.); in houses (Mark 7.
17); at the well where people came to draw water (John 4. 5 ff.); by the
seashore (Mark 3. 9); on hill-slopes like the one that has given its name
to the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5. 1 ff.); in the fields (Mat. 12.1); in
the “wilderness”, that is, in uncultivated places (Mark 8. 4), and so on.
When he was invited to a meal, he accepted (John 2. 1 ff.) even though his
host was not kindly disposed toward him (Luke 7. 36 ff.). He healed the
sick wherever he encountered them, and also went to their homes (Mark 1. 29
But then he would withdraw once more from the crowd, even from his
disciples and nearest friends, to retreat into solitude. His public
ministry began with a long fast and communing with God in the wilderness
(Mat. 4. 1 ff.). Time and again it is recorded that he went off alone to
pray (Mat. 14. 23). He did this particularly before important events like
the choosing of the apostles (Luke 6. 12 ff.), the transfiguration (Luke 9.
18, 28), and at Gethsemane before his Passion (Mat. 26. 36 ff.).
In all matters relating to custom and ritual, in the first place, he
conformed to the Law like everyone else.
At the same time, however, he definitely set himself above the Law. He did
this not merely in the sense that he expounded the Law more intelligently
and more spiritually than the fanatics, as we see in his clashes on various
occasions over the law of the Sabbath (Mat. 12. 9 ff., etc.), but
radically. He looked upon the Law as something over which he had power:
“The Son of man is lord of the sabbath” (Mat. 12. 8), and if Lord of the
Sabbath, then Lord of the whole Law, of which the Sabbath was one of the
most important parts. His anticipation of the Paschal meal by one day is
likewise a sign of this lordship over the Law. At the Last Supper itself,
this claim is made even more forcefully: not merely because he introduced
into and instituted in this sacred rite himself, but because he annulled
the rite itself and with it the whole old Covenant and announced the “new
Covenant” and the new memorial feast (Luke 9 9. 20).
At this point we might ask about Jesus’ outward appearance and manner. This
is a difficult question to pose.
To ask what someone looked like, how he spoke or acted, is to presuppose a
detachment which in fact we never find anywhere in the atmosphere which has
surrounded the figure of Jesus for nearly two thousand years. When the
question has been raised, however, as for example in connection with the
various traditions concerning his true image, it seems to have had very
minor importance. The question is also hard to put because the records,
which are interested in quite other matters, make no direct comment on
these details. They are concerned with Christ’s importance in God’s
economy, his importance for the salvation of man. They concentrate on the
absolute in his nature, compared with which all that is relative must
yield. Thus, the image of Jesus has always been severely stylized. Any
personal note we may discover is in each case attributable to an individual
who has made it his interest. It will be found to reflect a particular kind
of religious experience, or a special ideal of human perfection represented
by some person or period as realized in the Redeemer. We need only point,
in this connection, to the works of religious painters and poets.
So we shall not attempt to offer any solution, but will merely suggest
where perhaps it might be found.
What sort of general impression does Jesus make if we compare him with the
great figures by whom God revealed his will in the Old Testament, with
Moses or Elias, for example?
The first thing which strikes us is his great calmness and meekness. We are
apt to associate a certain weakness with these words. Was Jesus weak? Is he
a figure of that tenderness which belongs to a late period in history when
contrasted with the moods of earlier ages? Does he seem like some highly
sensitive, vulnerable character of a later age, restricted by his very
depth of understanding, so different from the creative and aggressive
figures of early times? Is he merely the kind one, the all-compassionate
one? Is he only the one who suffers and patiently accepts the burden of
destiny and life?
Unfortunately art and literature have often presented him in some such
guise; but the truth is quite otherwise.
The impression which Jesus obviously made upon his contemporaries was that
of some mysterious power. The accounts show that all who saw him were
caught, and indeed shaken, by his nature. They felt that his words were
full of power (Mat. 7. 29; Luke 4. 36). His actions–apart from special
occasions–reveal a spiritual energy which marked itself off completely
from all human standards, so that, when describing his nature, men turned
to the familiar concept of the prophet (Mat. 16. 14; Luke 7. 16). But on
occasion this energy burst forth in an overwhelming display of power, as in
the episode with Peter after the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5. 8), or
during the storm on the lake (Mat. 8. 23 ff. et par.). There is not a trace
of hesitant reflection, sensitive reserve, diffidence, or passive
spinelessness. He was filled with a power capable of any outburst or
violence; but this power was controlled, nay transformed, by a moderation
which took its source in his innermost being, by a deep goodness and
kindness, and by a sublime freedom.
We could express the idea thus: Jesus is the personification of a
marvelously pure “humanity”, not in spite of his enormous spiritual power,
but precisely because of it.
This unity of power and humanity–taking the word in its purest sense–is
one of the most prominent features of the figure of Jesus, especially as it
emerges in the accounts of the first three Gospels. His willpower, his
awareness of mission, his readiness to accept its consequences, and finally
the mighty power of the Spirit–all this is translated into pure humanity
so completely and creatively, that we can describe his significance by
saying: He is able to bring men to understand and put into effect what is
meant by true humanity, even though–or because–he is more than a mere
To put it another way: unobtrusiveness is of the very essence of the
“happening” we call Jesus.
We have only to compare his outward activity with other biblical or non-
biblical happenings to see how the mighty word, bold gesture, powerful
deed, fantastic situation, and the like, are alien to him. Strange as it
may seem, the character of the extraordinary is missing even in his
miracles. These are certainly great; many of them, like raising the dead,
feeding the multitude, or walking on water, are tremendously impressive.
But even these have something about them which makes them seem, one might
almost say, “natural”. This “humanity” of which we spoke reappears as
Jesus’ manner must have been very simple, his attitude so natural that
people hardly noticed it. His actions proceeded quietly from the needs of
the situation. There was nothing incredible about them. His words, too, had
this unobtrusive quality about them. If we compare them with the words of
an Isaiah, or a Paul, they strike us as being extremely moderate and brief.
Compared with the sayings of a Buddha, they seem brief to the point of
bluntness, and almost commonplace.
Admittedly, we receive this impression only if we think of his words in a
purely philosophical, aesthetic or contemplative sense. If we consider them
in the situation in which they were uttered and take them seriously, we
then realize the power revealed in them, which goes far beyond “depth”,
“wisdom”, or “sublimity”: they touch the chords of existence itself.
3. THE BASIC FIGURE
The more a man reveals his uniqueness as an individual and the greater the
influence he exerts on history, the more significant becomes the question:
What is the basic figure on which his personality and his life are modeled?
For over a thousand years the West has seen in the person of Jesus purely
and simply the sole canon of perfection; and for a great part of mankind
today that is still the situation. Even where this meaning is denied, the
denial itself is affected by it. If we examine the attitude of Friedrich
Nietzsche, for example–to cite only one of the most typical cases–we see
that both the general scheme and special features of the picture of man
which he paints are a contradiction of the conventional picture of Christ:
“Zarathustra” is, in fact, an anti-Gospel figure. The same thing holds true
of the war against Christian values in most sectors. Indeed, we might well
ask if any view of man could be possible in Europe for a very long time
yet, which was not colored in some way by Christ. And so our question
becomes all the more pertinent. To understand it better and to focus our
thoughts on what is essential, let us first of all consider some lives
which have come to be accepted as exemplary.
We shall begin with the man who has had more influence on determining the
Western image of the “spiritual man” than almost any other person–
Neither birth nor wealth was responsible for his fame. Intellectually, he
was a product of self-training and of the most remarkable cultural milieu
ever assembled in so small a space–the Athens of the fifth century B.C. He
was spurred on by an irrestrainable longing for the truth; he had a
powerful intellect and an extraordinarily keen critical faculty. In
addition, he had a great influence on younger men, which was felt by his
followers to be something uncanny. He was a religious man, with an
unquestioning consciousness of being led by God. While he tried to replace
traditional mythical notions by a system of contemplation enlightened by
philosophy, he nevertheless retained such a profound feeling for the
mystery of things that he did not openly rebel against his environment, but
remained faithful to its beliefs.
In this way, he lived a long life devoted to philosophical research and
inquiry, a life spent in awakening and training men’s intellects. This
activity sprang from his own inner nature; it also took on the consecration
of a divine commission, for, as he acknowledged at the end of his life
before the supreme court, he knew that he had been called to such a life by
Apollo, the god of light and mind. Moreover, this mission bore fruit. He
could see its good effects all around him. In the constant struggle with
his adversaries he displayed his own superiority and he could rest assured
that the future would belong to him. He was surrounded by a host of
disciples, one of whom was Plato, a man of genius, to whom he had imparted
the best of his knowledge over a period of ten years. Finally, the inner
logic of his vocation led him to take his ultimate decision. At the age of
seventy, surrounded by his close friends, he died; and the manner of his
death set round his being and his work a final halo of unsullied light.
The figure of Socrates can be compared with that of another personality,
also from Greece, who belongs, not to history, but to legend. Nonetheless,
he expresses very clearly that elemental zest for life that is so typical
not only of the Greek but of universal man. The figure we have in mind is
Achilles was no thinker; he was a man of action–handsome, fearless,
passionate, skilled in all warlike pursuits and filled with a consuming
desire for glory.
He had once been asked whether he would prefer a long, but uneventful life,
or a short life which would make him the greatest in the hall of fame. He
chose the latter. His life was thus a blazing flame soon extinguished; but
for that very reason it was glorious, a symbol of that beauty which comes
to flower, not through plodding enterprise and care, not through labor and
endurance, not in any wide-stretching, fully traced arcs of life, but all
in the extravagance and transience of youth. As Homer depicts him–the poet
whom the Greeks regarded as more than a mere poet, rather as a teacher of
things divine and human–Achilles was the very expression and
personification of this zest for life.
The life of a Socrates or an Achilles proceeds directly from its own deep
point of origin and fulfills itself with a necessity which is at the same
time freedom, according to the law of its own nature. Everything that
influences it from without has to serve the creative purpose dictated by
the inner image. In contrast to this pattern we must cite another type of
existence belonging to the antipodes, as it were, of ancient life–
Epictetus, or, more precisely, the man whom Epictetus regards as a model,
that is, the Stoic.
Both Socrates and Achilles experienced existence as something bound up with
their own inner nature as something familiar. And so events and influences
which affected them neither introduced any alien elements nor distorted the
shape of their personalities as they unfolded. With the Stoic, on the other
hand, things are radically different. He is neither venturesome nor an
extrovert, neither borne along by a powerful urge nor protected by a hard
shell. He tends to be a contemplative, and certainly has a sensitive and
vulnerable nature. The processes of history, his fate, strike him as alien,
even hostile, and he has the greatest difficulty in coming to terms with
them. And so he retreats within the shell of his own nature, there to
become master of his fate, or at least to learn how to put up with it.
He does this, indeed, by saying that fundamentally nothing affects him at
all. This results in his thrusting his deepest self so far into the
background that not only outward events but even his own individual nature,
which is subject to change and decay, appear as something alien. He says
not only to fate, to possessions, family, power and honor, but even to
health, state of mind and basic endowments: “I am none of these . . .” What
remains as his ultimate true nature can scarcely be called an “image”; it
is more like a mathematical point, the focal center of his being, a
completely colorless self, invulnerable and indestructible. Everything that
happens to it is regarded as mere occurrence, as something completely
alien, something emerging from the realm of the unknown, uninvited and
meaningless, and with which one’s true nature must not be allowed to come
in contact. For the Stoic, the basic process of human life is not
unfolding, but affirmation and conservation. It is true that,
involuntarily, a genuine figure is produced by this very process; a grim
and solitary form, outwardly calm, but ablaze inside with hidden passion,
desperately courageous and virile to the point of madness.
Between the extremes of pure self-development in a context of related
contingencies on the one hand, and sheer self-assertion in the face of a
hostile world on the other, we have the attitude which Virgil describes so
well in his picture of Aeneas. Here, fate is what determines the content
and meaning of personal existence.
Aeneas’ ancestral home, Troy, was destroyed, a frightful disaster of which
he felt all the horror and pain. But at the same time he received the
assurance that, in spite of, or rather out of, this misfortune, he was
being called to found a new city and inaugurate a new glorious period in
history. And so he set out to face dangers and trials of every kind; not–
like Odysseus–to roam the world and taste its marvels, but to find the
spot where, according to divine decree, the new race was to be founded. His
life was that of a warrior, but his aim was not, like Achilles, to win a
warrior’s renown, but to reach the place where his destined task was to be
fulfilled and the foundations laid for the future.
His personality had neither the creative power of a genius, nor the
brilliance of a hero’s swiftly consumed flame, nor the grim courage of the
man who stands alone. It was narrow and restricted, but it was capable of
feeling, kindly and brave, and had an inflexible power of perseverance and
doggedness. What made up the life of Aeneas was not the self-expression of
his inner nature or the challenge of the world’s glory, in the form of
discoveries or great deeds, but a divine vocation–fate, in the true sense
of the word. That is why he was called “pious”; because he was capable of
understanding and accepting the contingent as a divine command. Aeneas was
the mythical ancestor of the most realistic power in the ancient world, the
Roman empire. The consummation of this was reached in Augustus, the first
“emperor of the world”.
Finally, to these figures from the Graeco-Roman world, we can add another
from the Far East, a religious figure–perhaps the greatest of all time,
and the only one who can seriously be mentioned along with Christ–namely
Buddha is curiously impersonal. His being is marked neither by a creative,
self-expressing urge, nor by daring deeds and the kind of activity which
makes history. He was dominated by an inexorable logic. We might almost say
that he was a law of being assumed into an inflexible will. If we
disregard, for the moment, the question of the truth of his message, we get
the impression that in his life the world reached transparency, not in the
positive sense that the world’s totality was being revealed, as in a
microcosm, in a single human life, as in Shakespeare’s plays for example,
or–in a different manner–in Goethe’s genius, but in the form of a
discovery, a lifting of the veil. It became apparent that the world was
pain, guilt and illusion. Its deepest law was uncovered so that it could be
Buddha grew up as a king’s son in a privileged position. His education was
such as to make him the perfect prince: he did and enjoyed all that makes
life worth living. Then one day he came upon those things that make a man
think: old age, suffering and death. These made him realize how meaningless
his former life had been. He therefore withdrew from everything and
embarked upon the search for reality. He went through the whole course of
ancient Indian yoga exercises, including this domain also in his universal
quest, and found that these things, too, did not lead to freedom. Finally,
he arrived at the knowledge that all existence is but an illusion arising
out of the will to live, and thought that he had found a way by which to
abolish or annihilate existence itself. This knowledge did not come to him
from some encounter with external things, nor yet as a grace from on high,
but was the final consequence of the fact that he is as he is and has done
what he has done; that means that his present life is the result of
countless previous incarnations. Thus Buddha closed the circle of
knowledge. He gathered a group of disciples about him, taught them so that
they would be able in their turn to hand on his doctrine, and organized
their communal life. Then, when he had had time to regulate everything, he
died at a ripe old age surrounded by his followers, a death that appeared
as the perfect consummation of his life.
The essence of his being cannot, perhaps, be better characterized than in
the three names constantly given him in the texts: the Vigilant, the
Perfect, the Teacher of Gods and Men.
The personalities we have been describing are quite different from each
other, but they have one thing in common: greatness. Where we are dealing
with this category, terrible things may indeed befall a man–one has but to
think of Atreus or Oedipus–but, nonetheless, his whole life is on the
princely scale and shines bright, no matter what the horror. He may suffer
humiliation like Hercules, but he will still wrestle his way through to
triumph while still in this life. The stature of his life is measured by
the standards of worth. He does not have to face everything possible, but
only what is fitting. And if, as in the case of the Stoic, “everything
possible” can befall him, then it is regarded simply as non-existent and is
pushed aside by the inner core of self. Even when things are at their worst
the rule of congruity still applies. Only one who is no true man, who is at
the mercy of the commonplace, a mere slave, has to suffer anything
But what about Jesus? We note simply that he himself claimed unquestionably
to be the one who was sent, the bringer of salvation, the exemplar of the
true life; that Paul declared him to be the manifestation of God (2 Cor. 4.
4; Col. 1. 15; Heb. 1. 3), and John described him as the Word made flesh,
both meaning thereby that his was the most meaningful and purposeful life
that ever was.
If ever a life was normative in character it was his. What was the pattern
of his life?
As we have said, Jesus was born the latter-day descendant of a once royal
line. His birth, however, brought him no privilege, power, property or
education. It served only to emphasize the more his social status as that
of an impecunious artisan. In particular, it was of no positive value to
him later in life. He neither relied upon it as a pretext to claim
anything, nor did he seek to restore its ancient power. Furthermore, it did
not in any sense form a background to give greater relief to a life of
self-abnegation. And yet his royal lineage was significant in the sense
that because of it Jesus is most intimately bound up with antecedent sacred
history; and its stored-up heritage of attitudes and reactions were
expressed in his life, chiefly, by making his position ambiguous and
causing his true character to be mistaken.
The first thirty years of his life were spent in complete obscurity. All
that we hear about them is the short episode of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem
at the age of twelve, when he became for the first time subject to this
obligation. The whole period is marked neither by deep study, significant
encounters, nor great deeds. We hear nothing about any great religious
events. The only historical event recorded is the pilgrimage; all the rest
that we find in apocryphal sources is mere legend. All we can say is that
he led the life everyone else in similar circumstances led.
Then his public ministry began. He preached that the kingdom of God had
arrived and was clamouring for admittance. He preached the renewal of life
in the Spirit; that a revolution in history through God’s creative power
was at hand, a revolution whose nature had been foreshadowed by the oracles
of the prophets; but that everything depended upon acceptance of the
message by the Chosen People. At first he was successful: the people,
including many who were influential, turned to him. A band of disciples
began to follow him, men who, humanly speaking, had nothing at all
extraordinary about them. Soon, however, a serious crisis arose. His
various opponents, formerly at loggerheads with each other, began to unite
in a common front. He was accused on the basis of a complete
misrepresentation of the whole tenor of his teaching. The self-
contradictory charge was made, on the one hand, that he was blasphemous;
and, on the other, that he was preparing a revolt against Caesar. The trial
was conducted in utter disregard of legal forms and ended in his
condemnation. Certainly no more than three, possibly less than two, years
after the start of his public ministry, he suffered death, an agonizing
death, and of a kind to discredit him for all time.
The catastrophe was so complete that the crowd whom he had helped and who
had shown such enthusiasm for him earlier, abandoned him, as did also a
great many of his disciples. It was actually a member of the closer circle
of the Twelve who betrayed him. At his arrest they all fled. The disciple
whom he himself had called “the Rock” and regarded as the first of his
followers, denied him–before a despised slave-girl of a portress,
moreover, and even confirmed his denial by an oath.
After the death of Jesus, there occurred the event that broke all
precedents, namely Easter. Humanly speaking, however, it in no wise made
good the destruction of all his work. Though he had won through to glory
and power, he did not seek to avenge himself on his adversaries, or crush
those who had opposed him; nor did he triumph over those elements which had
rejected him. The event simply served as a great turning-point in history:
it was the starting-point for a whole new historical process which was to
be set in operation at Pentecost.
Then at length, in the name of this figure and by the power of the Spirit,
the final conquest of the whole world for God was set in motion.
How, now, can we characterize this life?
Was it the kind we have described as the unfolding of some great figure?
Quite obviously it was not. What happened had nothing to do with any
“unfolding”: the concept is not appropriate. Nor did any “figure” emerge,
to use the term in its proper sense. This concept is equally inappropriate.
Nothing happened which in any sense opened up vistas of final
“accomplishment”. We witness, rather, a movement towards disintegration.
We have only to imagine what it would have been like had Jesus lived
longer–fifty, seventy, or even ninety years! As things were, after the
peaceful period of childhood, youth and early manhood, there were left to
him only three years or perhaps a little more than one year of activity and
Was his death the climax of a life of heroic deeds? No; it had neither the
character of a mighty assault against an overwhelmingly powerful foe, nor
of a fire which consumes by its ardor a man’s very substance. Still less
was it a case of an over-generous spirit dashing itself in vain against the
triviality of its environment. Christ knew and declared that the
fulfillment of his goal was possible–but only through a free response on
the part of those who were called: and the latter withdrew or even opposed
him, not because he was asking more than the times could comprehend, but
because they were unwilling to make a definite religious and moral
Can his life perhaps be regarded as an example of self-assertion amidst a
storm of opposition? No, because what happened to him was totally at
variance with the nature of the Son of God; many things, such as the story
of the fish and the didrachma (Mat. 17. 23, 24-26), illustrate this. It was
distressing, unworthy and incomprehensible. The issue must not be allowed
to become clouded as a result of the later significance which his life
acquired. The cross has been placed upon the crowns of kings, but it was
once a sign of death and ignominy. There were motives enough for adopting a
stoic attitude; he did not do so. Jesus never made the slightest gesture of
detaching himself from a hostile, degrading, senseless world; of repelling
what he could not avoid, as having no part in him, or of retreating within
himself. What he had to contend with was wrong in every way, but he
accepted it and, indeed, took it to heart, we might even say.
His attitude is one that had never been seen before, and one that cannot
exist except where the norm of his person is accepted.
Aware that he had been sent by the Father, and filled with a desire to obey
the Father’s will in all things, he accepted everything that happened to
him. We see in action a union with the will of God that drew everything
that happened into the deepest intimacy of the love of God. By the very
fact that everything became an expression–or, more precisely, an
instrument–of this love, earthly things acquired for God himself a meaning
of which no myth had ever dreamt.
What of the kind of life exemplified by a man like Aeneas, who felt that a
divine commission was being fulfilled in a long life of patient suffering
and struggle, and that life was a blend of adventure and action determined
by that mission? This type is not that of our picture either. From the
point of view of the ultimate goal to be reached, the events in the life of
Jesus were not in the least necessary. His goal could have been achieved
equally well–and from the viewpoint of worldly considerations, much more
logically–by other means. True, Jesus was charged with a mission of utmost
importance, but what were its terms of reference? In the last analysis, all
we can say is that he was to come among men and enter our historical world
as the One sent from God, to take upon himself the burden not only of his
personal existence, but of existence itself, and live it out with a
transparency of knowledge and a depth of feeling which could have no other
source than this mission received from his Father. He was to set reality in
motion and thus release all the potentialities inherent in it. He was to
bear the consequences of his incarnation and thereby create a new starting-
point for existence. In the final analysis, it would not be of great
importance what actually did happen, so long as it was the proper thing
required by the situation at that precise moment.
We could turn the statement round and say that, no matter how much blame
attaches to those who caused Jesus to suffer what he did, for Jesus himself
it was the right thing, ordained by God and, therefore, eternally right.
Jesus himself expressed the matter in this way: Woe to them by whom
offenses come! Woe to those who create the conditions which lead to the
misrepresentation! But for Jesus himself, “offense” is the very situation
in which he must fulfill the Father’s will. He expressed this idea by
referring to his “hour”. Jesus’ life was not the expressing of a
“personage”; he did not live according to some divinely constructed plan
spread out before his eyes, but by the will of the Father as he encountered
it at every step he took in going to meet his “hour”. Those steps were not
taken following a definite program, but were, in each case, the result that
followed from what had gone before and from the attitude taken up by the
various people involved. Thus, union was achieved, at each stage, between
the directing will of the Father and his own obedient will, and from this
union his own actions followed.
As soon as Jesus’ nature becomes clearer to us, we see that the category of
“personality” does not fit him at all. Personality is a figure, in the
sense of a man “modeled in the round” both as regards the basic structure
of his nature and the actual course of his life: it is both the foundation
and limitation of existence. Modern interpretations of Jesus have tended to
turn him into a “personality”, with the result that they completely lose
sight of his most characteristic feature. He was something quite different.
That is not to say that Jesus was a disintegrated person without either law
of being or place in existence. This is not to say that he was a mere piece
of flotsam to which anything could happen because his life had no distinct
bearing of its own; mere human rubbish at the disposal of any power that
tried to use it for its own purposes. It means, rather, that Jesus was
clearly above and beyond any “figure”. The various patterns of human life
begin only on the hither side of his pattern of life.
Granted that there is a logical thread running through the life of Jesus,
it is one that is at variance with all accepted norms; one that makes
manifest what is wholly “other”; one that reveals the mind and outlook of a
religious reality so different from all worldly values that it proclaims
itself precisely in its exploding of all worldly standards. The reality
which it stands for is represented by the Beatitudes, or by the joy which
Jesus felt when the apostles returned (Luke 10. 21 f.). To say this is, in
the last analysis, only to repeat what has already been said, that the
nature of Jesus was no ordinary “figure”, in the accepted sense of the
Following the same line of thought, we may say that the life of Jesus is
“Truth”; it is pure life without reservation or subterfuge; it is absolute
harmony with the living reality of God. This identification with Truth was
also an identification with the power of Truth and compelled those who
encountered him to reveal their thoughts without reserve, to “disclose the
secrets of the heart”, as Simeon said at the presentation in the temple.
What can happen, then, in a human life which is determined by all this? The
answer must be: Anything and everything. The question as to what can or
cannot happen can never be answered by asking in turn what would be
intrinsically great or small, proper or improper, constructive or
destructive, fulfilling or frustrating. Everything can happen, even that
which at first sight seems to be utterly inconsistent with holiness or
The reality of Jesus is of the kind which orders existence, literally
conditions it, to reveal all its potentialities. For this reason it is not
confined to one special form of existence, but is capable of appealing to
every form, of entering every form, of transforming every form of
1. One might well ask if we have not in him, purely and simply,
an example of the tragic figure of the prophet. This must be
denied categorically. His figure was not like one of theirs. To
begin with, it is striking that, unlike the Old Testament
prophets, Jesus did not establish his authority by appealing to
his calling. It is even more significant that he boldly claimed,
unlike any of the prophets, to be the one model, rule standard
and way. Hence his mighty: “But I say unto you . . .” instead of
the typically prophetic: “Thus saith the Lord.”
II. ACTIONS, CHARACTERISTICS, ATTITUDES
What then are we to make of the psychology of Jesus? Having prepared the
ground, we now ask this question aware of the difficulties involved. It is
obvious that we are not concerned here with experimental psychology or the
psychology of the conscious, or with any kind whatsoever of scientific
analysis of the psychic processes as such, but with an attempt to
understand, or to discover, the structure of the particular personality, to
see how it works, how it acts, and, above all, what its inner motivating
But even this is problematic when we are speaking about the person called
Jesus. Psychology is embarrassingly inquisitive. It seeks to probe those
things which the guardian-like inner personality prefers to keep hidden
because they are sensitive and deserve respect. Psychology is indiscreet
and tries to drag out into the open what modesty prefers to keep covered up
because it may cause shame. A secret urge to destroy is at work in
psychology and it knows that personality–a unique and inexplicable thing–
is in danger of falling apart once it is translated into universal concepts
This is true of every human person, especially of great and unusual
figures. But there is a type of mentality which cannot abide the
intellectual power and nobility of the great figure, and attempts to use
psychology against it. This is specially true of this figure who affects so
profoundly every man who encounters him. Psychology can be used as a means
of destroying his claims. We need only recall the painful attempts to
interpret Jesus as a pathological case. The scientific and literary works
dealing with the psychology of Jesus in this vein should be a warning to us
of the worst that can be done along these lines.
It need hardly be said, then, that our essay has nothing whatever in common
with such tendencies. We are prepared to confront something which is
greater than ourselves, and which, moreover, calls us to account, even
though we may not be able to stand up to the test.
2. JESUS THOUGHT
Let us begin with the psychic process most amenable to analytical
How did Jesus think? Of what kind are the thoughts he expressed?
If we compare his thoughts with those of other religious leaders, they
seem, for the most part, to be very simple, at least as expressed in the
Synoptic Gospels. It is true that if we take the word “simple” to mean
“easily penetrated” or “primitive”, then this impression is dispelled on
closer analysis. The thought of Jesus is neither analytical nor synthetic:
it states basic facts; and states them in a way at once enlightening and
confusing. Very seldom, and then for the most part only in St. John, do his
thoughts reach a metaphysical plane. Even then they do nothing more than
state a plain fact. The only thing is that he happens to be speaking of the
sublimity and hiddenness of the existence of God, speaking of the mystery
of the Christian life. For the most part, the thought of Jesus, as
expressed in his sayings, remains close to the immediate reality of things,
of man and the latter’s encounter with God. It is solidly realistic; but
the realism is that of the man who is stripped bare by the judge of God and
made new by his grace.
And so, Jesus speaks neither of the origin nor of the nature of the
universe. He takes it for granted that the universe was created by God and
finds its meaning in him; that it lies cradled in the hollow of his hand,
and that he is guiding it towards a blessed future.
Nor does Jesus speak expressly about the nature of God. He presupposes what
had been said about him in the revelation of the Old Testament, and passes
on to its fulfillment by making known the way in which God is a Person, the
way in which he can say “I” and “Thou” within himself. He does this, not
speculatively in philosophical or theological language, but in a concrete
way. He takes his stand within this divine life and speaks from it, as each
successive occasion arises. Jesus spoke with greatest conviction about the
Father, not revealing the ultimate mystery of this Fatherhood by explaining
how we ought to think about it and how it is related to human fatherhood,
but by telling us how this Father thinks and acts, and how man is to
interpret God’s Fatherhood seriously. Man will then achieve a real,
existential encounter with God and come to the possession of the divine
nature. His last word on the Father was said in the form of a prayer. A
prayer is not doctrine but a guide to action. It exists, not to be thought
about, but to be acted upon. If this is done. the worshipper begins to
understand more clearly the nature of the One to whom he has turned.
Jesus was for ever speaking about Providence–again, not speculatively but
with direct reference to reality; so much so that we are almost tempted to
interpret his words as the simple pious man’s philosophy of life, or even
as a kind of beautiful childish fairy-tale (cf. the image of the birds and
flowers in Mat. 6. 26, 28). The truth of the matter is that he presupposes
the whole Old Testament view of the relationship of God to the world. It is
a profoundly serious view and, for us today especially, of far-reaching
significance. Jesus totally disregards questions about the possibility of
God’s providence, or about the precise relationship between the existence
of God and the course of world history. He adopts a different approach: he
provides us with a guide to the workings of providence, telling us in the
Sermon on the Mount: “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God and his
justice; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mat. 6. 33). This
is no theoretical statement but a guide to the starting-point for action, a
signal to start off, and a promise that strength will be given us on the
way. And once a man has committed himself, he soon discovers that he is
caught up in a process which demands nothing less than the complete
reorientation of his whole life. To the extent that he does this, he
achieves a true vision of reality.
Much more could be said about Jesus’ conception of man, his moral teaching,
and so on. Theoretical questions about the nature of existence play no part
in his thinking–as the latter is expressed in his words: what lies beyond
is unknown to us. It plays no part, not because it does not exist, but
because Jesus’ thoughts are oriented towards reality.
His thought was not intended to be a research course, a scheme, a mere
intellectual construction or system, but to proclaim something which did
not yet exist but was to come–namely, the kingdom of God. It pointed to a
new reality and declared that it was meant for us. It made men cognizant of
the fact that in view of this new reality events had been preparing which
were now on the point of coming to pass. His thought is pre-speculative;
but in a way different from the child or primitive man who has yet felt no
need of facing the problem of truth in all its profundity. His thought is
demonstrative, somewhat like that of the scientist who says: Here is a
process in operation, something which has not yet been known, a possibility
you have not yet grasped, powers which have not yet been at your command–
be on the watch for them. Going deeper, we see the issue in another light
as something still more fundamental. This reality can only be created by
him, that is, by the Father through him. For example, the relationship of
being a child of God is made possible solely because of the existence of
Jesus. So then, he places himself at the very first movement in the
creation of this relationship. His words are therefore authoritative in the
fullest sense of the word. They are gift-bearing. Only because he lives,
acts and speaks, does what he is speaking about exist. Only then can we
begin to reflect about what has been discovered, about its nature and its
relation to what we already knew, and so on. What he does is prior to all
speculation because speculation is possible only as a result of what he
All this makes it quite clear that his thought eludes psychology. All we
can say is that it is clear, concise, utterly responsible, with no trace of
self or superfluity, concentrated solely on what is essential. He says–and
says because he has brought it about: This is so. This is happening. Do
this; power to do it has been given you. If you do this, things will turn
out thus, and so on. There can be no “psychology” about this sort of thing,
because it cannot be categorized. We are dealing with a revelation which is
initiatory and creative and therefore incapable of being made an object of
analysis. It is only from within this revelation, as for example about the
manner in which it is experienced or effected, that some kind of analysis
3. JESUS VOLITION AND ACTION
What about Jesus’ willing and doing?
There are men whose interest is to know truth, to examine it thoroughly,
and to explain it to others. Jesus was not one of these. He was concerned,
as we have seen, with a reality that was not yet complete but was destined
to be: with the reality of the sacred history of God and man; with the
fulfillment of a divine decree and the consummation of an eternal destiny;
with the coming of a new order of existence, that is, with willing and
doing. But how did he will? How did he act?
It is not easy to answer these questions either. Once again our only way
out is to make distinctions. Jesus did not exercise his will like a soldier
making an attack; nor like an engineer drawing up his plans, weighing the
possibilities, seeing and using all the means at his disposal; nor yet like
a reformer with a guiding principle and a practical program, or a workman
who has his task and performs it step by step. And we must distinguish,
too, when it comes to the means that he applied. Jesus did not use force
by, for instance, gathering men around him and going ahead. He employed no
hypnotism which, with his tremendous personality, he could easily have
done. He did not operate by making promises of any sort, holding out the
prospect of advantage in order to win agreement to his policy. He neither
threatened nor bluffed. He appealed neither to appetite nor imagination….
How, then, did he will and act?
His will was of great power. It was perfectly at one with itself, without
fear, prepared for anything that might happen, conscious that the stake was
the one thing of supreme importance–the decisive moment for the whole of
existence. It knew also that, in the absolute sense, the “time” had come.
At the same time it was completely calm, unhurried, not to be pressed. And
while his heart may have been filled with pain at the destruction of that
infinite possibility, this did not affect his behavior.
Jesus’ will was in perfect union with the will of his Father who guides
sacred history and fixes the appointed “hours” for things. The basic
mystery of sacred history is this: God wills the coming of his kingdom and
his will makes all things possible. But this will addresses itself to man’s
freedom and so can be rejected by man. As a result, the opportunity given
only once can be missed; guilt and misery can arise, and yet all things
remain encompassed by the will of God. This mystery permeated the volition
of Jesus. He was aware of the infinite demands of the moment and did all he
could to fulfill them. But the possibilities were measured not by human but
by divine standards; and so there was no anxiety, no uneasiness, no excited
activity. On the other hand, this resignation had nothing fatalistic about
What was wrong remained wrong, and the missed opportunity was not offered
again. Yet appeal is made to a mystery which permits us to hope for all
things, because in it love and almighty power are one and the same.
This will is firmly oriented towards its goal. It follows no program that
has to be carried out: what must be done at each moment arises of itself
from the situation which develops at each step, depending upon the “hour
which has come” (John 2. 4; 7. 30; 8. 20). This will is so compelling that
Jesus says, in St. John, that it is like hunger for the food which
maintains life (4. 34). At the same time, he fully respects man’s freedom.
He never does it violence, by suggestion or inspiration, fear or surprise.
The responsibility of the listener is always elicited and guided to the
point where it must pronounce its own Yes or No.
Jesus was governed by a mighty, unerring, indomitable will, but he had
neither “aims” nor “intentions”. This will arose from no urge to create,
dominate, reform; it was rooted in that reality of which we have spoken
before. A work of God had come to maturity: “The kingdom of God is at hand”
(Mark 1. 15). His will is to open up the road to this, but with the help of
the truth of God which would be obscured by every act of mere human will,
and with the help of man’s freedom which would be compromised by any act of
Will is inclined to isolate itself in its act of willing, to wrench reality
away from truth and dominate it by force. No such thing happened with
Jesus. His will was merely the obverse side of his knowledge, and his goal
was truth alone.
Here, too, must be sought the source of Jesus’ fearlessness. This is not
merely an expression of individual temperament. It does not mean that he
had strong nerves, that he was cool-headed, resilient or enterprising; that
he viewed danger as an intensification of life or felt himself to be
carried along by fate. His fearlessness lay in his calm identification with
He presented reality, this reality which is sacred truth, each time it was
necessary, as the occasion demanded. He did so without fear, being himself
hidden in that reality, because all that he desired was that reality, and
he was ready to make any sacrifice for its sake. He did this, however, not
like some enthusiast or fanatic who fails to see the consequences of his
acts. He knew exactly what was going to happen. His courage came, rather,
from the fact that in him will and truth were one, so that the greatest
crisis which courage ever has to face, namely, when what is willed loses
all meaning and the will sinks into the void, could never arise for him. He
might suffer unimaginable torments; but the identity of his will with the
meaning of it all, with truth, could never be destroyed.
What has been said thus far still does not enable us to understand the
meaning of those words on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou
forsaken me?” (Mat. 27. 46). To penetrate them we have to probe behind the
question and ask in what sense he can be said to have felt the burden of
responsibility for the guilt of the world on his shoulders and what
relation that gives him to divine justice; but we cannot go into this
We are now in a position to get some light on another question: Was Jesus
well-advised in his behavior?
In any case, we can affirm that he displayed no kind of mere cleverness.
There is no trace of any kind of tactics, no playing one man off against
another, no seizing an opportunity offered by a situation, no deliberately
concealing some things while exaggerating others or making inferential
remarks, or so forth. And this reveals something very significant about the
elevation of his personality. Cleverness is proper in its place: but it
does not seem to be a part of true greatness, especially in the
spiritually-minded, and, above all, the religious man.
Jesus’ way of life displays none of those methods which men employ to
protect themselves in the battle for existence and to gain their ends, by
pitting subtlety against strength, cunning against superior power,
experience against great resources. In the sphere of Jesus’ life there were
no peripheral values, but always and only the one sacred issue, the “one
thing necessary”–the glory of the Father and the salvation of the world.
Must we say, then, that Jesus’ life was determined by noble and lofty
Offhand we would be inclined to answer Yes; but then we might begin to be
assailed by doubt. These doubts certainly do not imply that there was in
Jesus’ life anything mediocre or base, any concession to weakness,
cowardice or indolence, any departure from his absolute ideal. Even so, we
cannot classify his character as noble or lofty in the sense in which we
might apply these epithets to a hero or idealist.
For example, if “honor” is the strong, inexorable, yet sensitive and
vulnerable thing which it is in the lives of men who are characterized by
it; if it is a law which places men in a higher category than other men,
but at the same time exposes them to the continual danger and probability,
even, of total failure and disaster, then this is certainly not the
determining factor in the life of Jesus, as his behavior in its concluding
phase shows. But this is not because he is found wanting in honor in any
sense; it is because what is the decisive thing for him left honor far
behind. There was indeed “honor” in his life; but it was his Father’s
honor, which gave rise to demands and entailed consequences which could not
possibly be measured by the common view.
The same sort of thing is true of the values of greatness or graciousness
or, indeed, any of the other aspects of “magnanimitas”. Closer analysis
always proves that, in him, these values have not the importance they have
in other personalities dominated by them. And this is because the thing
which is decisive for him not only soars above the levels of this world,
but confronts this world and its values, judges them, and reveals the new
order of the unknown God, the “kingdom of God”.
We cannot say, therefore, that lack of “prudence” or “cleverness” on the
part of Jesus revealed the noble folly of the perfect hero. He had nothing
in common either with Siegfried or with Parsifal; not because he was less
than they in any sense at all–an average, drab personality–but because he
lived at a depth which makes even these great luminaries appear somewhat
immature. Compared with him their brilliance pales.
1. See below, “Structures of Growth” Chap. 3, Part 2 ff.
4. JESUS AND MATERIAL THINGS
What attitude did Jesus adopt towards material things?
Did he even notice them? Obviously he did. This is proved by his parables
about the “lilies of the field” (anemones), the birds of the air, the
farmer and his kinship with the soil, the shepherd and his flock, the corn
and the threshing floor, bread, and salt, and lamps. They also show that he
was not indifferent to these things. He understood and appreciated them.
We must, of course, discount the sentimentality of legends and pious
writers. In order to understand his relation to material things we must go
back to the Old Testament views about God’s creation. Things do not
constitute “nature” in the modern sense. They are God’s handiwork, and
anything that happens is not some spontaneous natural process but proceeds
from the power of God. Jesus was always referring to this creating and
ruling God, completing the picture, however, by presenting him as the
Father, and showing that God’s activity was the work of the Father’s
Providence. This thought explains his attitude towards things. To him they
were not merely scientific, poetic, or cultural data; they were the
materials and tools of Providence.
Not only was Jesus perfectly at ease with all things; because his will was
at one with his Father’s, he felt himself to be Lord of all things. He was
the one who had been sent. His will was not for his personal interests; it
was devoted entirely to the purposes of his mission. And so through
obedience to this mission, “all power in heaven and on earth” was given to
him, a power as great as that of the Father himself. This is a staggering
thought, but it is the view of Jesus. Yet this power is never apart from or
contrary to that of the Father: it is always joined with it, in obedience
to it. “My Father worketh until now; and I work” (John 5. 17). The saying:
“If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this
mountain, Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove” (Mat. 17. 20) is
not a mere description of the limitless faith which his followers ought to
have, but of his own faith too, only we cannot speak of his having “faith”
in our sense of the word. He possesses, rather, that which evokes faith in
us and makes it possible, namely, his essential identification with the
truth and the will of the Father. That is why all things obey him.
When we look at his miracles in their true light, they reveal the peculiar
contact in reality that the will of Jesus has with material things. This
contact is not established through something in the way of “powers” of a
higher order, but flows from obedience, from his union with the Father’s
will and the mighty course of sacred history, working itself out from hour
to hour. At the point of contact between the exercise of the Father’s power
when he is forming the world that is to be, and the faith of men which
links them with Providence, Christ is at work.
What value did things have for Jesus? What use were they to him? Did he
enjoy them or prize them?
First of all, we must assert that he was not insensitive to the attraction
of things. Had he been so, then an experience like that of the temptation
in the wilderness (Mat. 4.
ff.) would not have made sense. “The kingdom
of this world” could be used as a temptation only for someone who was aware
of their “glory”. Jesus was no ascetic. He said so himself in connection
with John the Baptist’s way of life. Jesus fully recognized this way of
life; but he himself lived otherwise. Did they not even call him a “glutton
and a wine-bibber” (Mat. 11. 19)? An account such as that of the marriage
in Cana reveals anything but a contempt for things; and the same is true of
the story, also in St. John, of the anointing with precious oil at Bethany
(John 2. 1 ff.; 12. 1 ff.).On the other hand he himself mentions his lack
of a home and possessions (Mat. 8. 20; 19. 21). Nowhere does he show any
special interest in the value of things. Indeed, he warns us against the
danger of this, especially in his sayings about the rich, in the parable
about the needle’s eye, and in the story about Lazarus the beggar.
We would, no doubt, be nearer the mark were we to say that he was
completely detached from things, not as a result of self-discipline and a
more spiritual view of things, but by nature. To him, things were simply
there, part of his Father’s world. He used them when it was necessary to do
so, and took pleasure in them without making any special fuss over them.
Things represented no danger to him, as they do to men. But he does not
demand of men that they should dispense with all things, as any ascetic or
dualist system would. He asks men to free themselves from the thraldom of
things. This idea is expressed most tellingly in the story of the rich
young man (Mat. 19. 16 ff.). In answer to the question about what he should
do in order to have eternal life, Jesus told him to keep the commandments,
that is, to use things properly in obedience to the will of God; then all
would be right. However, as soon as the desire to do even more is aroused,
Jesus accepts this and even enters into the relationship of “love” for it.
This is not because a man wants to be rid of evil things, but because he
desires to attain greater freedom and love. And now Jesus says: “Go sell
what thou hast and give to the poor.” Jesus does not by any means demand
that everybody should be poor. Many are to be: those, that is, who “are
able to take it”. Among men, such people are to be witnesses to the
possibility of becoming free from all things; and as such they are to be a
help to those who retain possessions, enabling them to maintain freedom
while using them.
5. JESUS AND MEN
What was the attitude of Jesus towards men and women?
The New Testament shows him in various relationships: as a child to his
parents; as an adult to his widowed mother; as a kinsman to his relations.
He was the one awaited by his precursor, and the Master to his disciples.
The band of Twelve are marked off from the other disciples and live on
terms of special intimacy with him. Within the Twelve, the three who were
present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, and in
Gethsemane, are even closer to him than the rest. These are Peter, James
and John. The last of these is “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13.
23; 21. 7).
He was bound by a special tie of friendship to the family at Bethany, and
within that family he was particularly attracted to Mary (Luke 10. 38 ff.).
He had another equally close attachment with Mary of Magdalen, who is found
beside his grave at Easter (John 20. 11 ff.).
Then there is the crowd: the people with their needs, their longing for
salvation, unreliable and changeable. A whole series of individuals can be
singled out from among them: those whom he had helped, such as the deaf-
mute, the cripple, the blind man, the grateful leper, the centurion and his
servant, and the woman with an issue of blood.
And there were many enemies, among whom, again, were such individuals as
the inhospitable Pharisee. There were people who wanted to embarrass or
hinder him, the disciple who betrayed him, and the individuals who took
part in the events of his last two days.
That is to say, there were human relationships of all kinds, which gave
scope to all kinds of different feelings of sympathy, attachment, animosity
and strife. Can we find some characteristic attitude of Jesus in all this?
He approached men with an open heart. He was almost always to be found in
the company of people. He had no house of his own where he could be alone:
he was a guest wherever he lived. We might almost say that he had no
“private life” at all. He was sensitive to men’s needs and full of an
inexhaustible readiness to help them. We recall words like these: “Come to
me, all you that labor and are burdened; and I will refresh you” (Mat. 11.
28), or: “And seeing the multitudes, he had compassion on them; because
they were distressed and scattered abroad like sheep that have no shepherd”
(Mat. 9. 36); or the parable of the shepherd who had lost one animal from
On the other hand, he was reserved towards men, even towards his closest
friends. He always remained peculiarly detached. John says: “Jesus would
not give them his confidence; he had knowledge of them all, and did not
need assurances about any man, because he could read men’s hearts” (John 2.
24-5). He wanted nothing from men. Between him and men there was no
community of mutual interests, not even one of common work. We never find
him portrayed attempting to clarify an issue in common with his companions,
or seeking with them a way to become master of some situation. We do not
even find him working together with them. Apart from occasions devoted to
common worship, like the Paschal meal, he is never even seen praying with
them. And the only time he did look for comfort of human companionship, he
did not find it: “Could you not watch one hour with me?” (Mat. 26. 40).
And so a continual solitude enveloped Jesus. There were always men about
him, but among them he was alone.
His solitude arises because no one understands him. His enemies do not
understand, the multitude does not, but neither do his disciples. The depth
of this lack of understanding is revealed by a series of incidents. For
example, there is the shattering experience described in Mark 8. 14 ff.
They are together in a boat on the lake. He had been speaking about the
leaven of the Pharisees and they assume that he is talking about the
provisions they had forgotten to bring with them. So he says plainly: “Why
do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet know or
understand? Have you still your heart blinded? Having eyes, see you not?
And having ears, hear you not?” Then he reminds them of the recent miracle
of feeding the multitude. “How do you yet not understand?” Or, we can
recall the scenes when he was arrested and put to death; or the sense in
which they understood his message about the coming of the kingdom of God
right up to and including the time after Easter (Acts 1. 6).
This lack of understanding constitutes to a decisive degree Jesus’ fate. To
see how deep that misunderstanding was, we have only to note the radical
change which took place in the attitude of the disciples after Pentecost.
Thus, the life of Jesus is lacking in every presupposition for being
understood. It is well to be quite clear in our minds just how much this
We gain the impression of a rigid isolation; a muteness in spite of much
speaking. For life only begins to unfold before us from the heart of the
other; and the word we speak is only perfected in the ear of one who
understands. It is this isolation of Jesus which St. John tries to express
in his Prologue in terms of the barrier which is raised up between him and
the world: “And the darkness did not comprehend it (the light). . . He
came unto his own and his own received him not” (John 1. 5, 11). Connected
with this is the impression we get of the futility, in the ordinary sense,
of the activity of Jesus. With most religious leaders in history, their new
message usually began to be felt, after a period of struggle, within their
own lifetime. By contrast, Jesus was to see no return at all; we are
reminded of the picture of the grain of wheat which must die before it can
bring forth fruit (John 12. 24); even in his disciples. This
misunderstanding did not arise merely because his message was too lofty,
but because it came from a God whom no one knew, and because between his
message and mankind there lay the indispensable revolution in values which
the Gospel calls “metanoia” (repentance). For this reason understanding
could only come through the Holy Spirit who was to be sent by that selfsame
It might now be asked why this Spirit had not come sooner, in Jesus’ own
lifetime; or why he who supported Jesus’ being–see the account of the
baptism–and accomplished his words, had not been transmitted to his
audience. This is a circle which we are unable to break. People do not
understand because the Holy Spirit has not come to them. He does not come,
because they are not ready for him. Yet this very preparedness is itself a
gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, normal thinking can find a way neither in
nor out. This is the mystery of the new beginning in God himself, and as
such it is inscrutable. But this much is certain: Jesus’ message fell on
It was his existence, even more than what he said, that remained
misunderstood, for it and his message were one. What his message was if we
consider it as doctrine and proclaimed potentiality is that he himself was
as an existent being. Let us take the concept of the focal point of
existence. This is the spiritual fulcrum on which men balance their lives,
the point of departure from which they approach both men and things and to
which they return from them again. The greater and more exalted the
personality, the deeper lies this focal point. Whether or not a man
understands other men depends upon his capacity for observation and
sympathy, upon his power to see things as a whole, and penetrate them; but
most of all it depends upon the extent to which his own depth of existence
is equal to or greater than that of others. We will have more to say about
the nature of Jesus’ existence later; but we may say here that the
starting-point from which he looked upon, judged and confronted men,
rejoiced and suffered, are obviously unfathomably deeper than that of his
environment. For Jesus there was no such thing as a “we” in the sense of a
direct community of existence, but only in the sense of a sovereign love
which loves before others are capable of loving, and without their being
capable of reciprocating the love shown them. Scarcely a single act of
genuine communal existence is recorded in the Gospels; scarcely one true
“we” in the strict sense of the term. Not even in prayer is it ever
expressed. The resume of his message from the Father, and the basis of the
proper relationship to him, were given by Jesus in the prayer, Our Father.
The subject of the Our Father is the “we” of the Christian: but Jesus never
repeated this prayer with his disciples, never included himself with this
“we”. There is no place, as far as I can see, where he took the lead in
joining together with his disciples in prayer. Where he himself is seen to
pray, as for example at the end of the Last Supper, and still more
strikingly, in the Garden of Olives, he speaks and adopts an attitude which
no other man can imitate.
6. EMOTION IN THE LIFE OF JESUS
Another equally instructive question is that concerning the part played by
feeling in the life of Jesus.
In him we observe various kinds of emotional reaction. These show us that
he was not cold and aloof, either by nature or by self-discipline. Thus we
learn that he had pity on the people because of their suffering (Mat. 9.
36); that he “looked at and loved” a man in whom something special was
going on (Mark 10. 21); that he was irritated by the hypocrisy of those who
watched to see if he would heal the sick on the Sabbath: he looked “round
about on them with anger” (Mark 3. 5); that he expressed anger at the
stupidity of the disciples: “Do you not yet know or understand?” (Mark 8.
17); that he “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” at the return of those whom he
had sent out (Luke 10. 21), and so on. Obviously the sick and the suffering
would never have come to him with such confidence; children would never
have approached him for a blessing had they not felt a warm sympathy
emanating from him. And the accounts about Gethsemane and Golgotha indicate
anything but an unimpressionable nature or the attitude of one who was a
stern ascetic, above all emotion.
And we could cite many other examples. In spite of this, however, the
impression we have of Jesus’ nature is one of complete calm under all
conditions, a calm which has the same origin as his fearlessness.
This is revealed most clearly in connection with his mission. He proclaimed
publicly that the kingdom of God was about to come openly and that the
transformation of history, awaited by the prophets, was about to come to
pass. This depended, however, upon the acceptance of his message by those
who were being called. And so, it might be assumed, he must have been
experiencing great excitement, wondering whether this would happen. In
fact, we find no trace of this at all. His words and acts are not one whit
different from what they are at every moment, as dictated by the will of
the Father. When the moment of decision urges, Jesus does nothing to alter
the course of events or to ease their effects. This attitude is made
particularly clear once the decision has been taken. For example, the scene
at Caesarea Philippi shows that it does not arise from any lack of feeling
(Mat. 16. 21 ff.). When Jesus began to speak of the terrible things which
were to happen to him and Peter tried to remonstrate with him, we are told
that he turned and upbraided him (Mat. 16. 23). It was as though he could
not bear to hear anything that might upset his decision, and one feels how
his inner calm was being threatened by the horror of what was to happen.
All the more impressive, therefore, is the way in which his calm continues,
the way it lasts through all his experiences and enables him to go on
teaching and helping men, strengthening him never to allow himself to be
deflected by one hairbreadth from the perfect course of his mission, but,
moment by moment, to perform all that that mission requires.
Let us stress once more, however, that in all this there is no trace of the
imperturbability of the Stoic or the renunciation of a Buddha. Jesus is
fully alive, fully sentient, fully human. His deep calm and human warmth in
a situation which was becoming increasingly hopeless revealed what John
meant when he wrote: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you; not
as the world giveth, do I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled;
nor let it be afraid” (John 14. 27). These words are all the more
significant because they were spoken on the last occasion when he was with
his friends, just before the end.
7. JESUS ATTITUDE TOWARDS LIFE AND DEATH
Now we must touch upon another topic which also throws light on the life of
Jesus: his attitude towards life in the obvious sense of the word.
In the total economy of human existence it is the spirit that makes it
possible to venture forth from the immediate world of things and one’s own
nature and become creative. However, the growth of the spirit is not
without its dangers: it can cause difficulties in one’s adaptation to life;
be a hindrance to bodily development and also to the unfolding of the
emotional life. Genius can lead either to the utmost limit of human
development or beyond it to a sheer pathological state. Religious genius is
no exception. We have, for example, the man with extraordinary religious
gifts who dies young. In such cases we refer to an early maturity or say
that he had an unearthly quality about him. Or there is the man who seems
to be a borderline case, the visionary who enjoys very poor health, the
mystic with a dangerous penchant for suffering, the man threatened by
demons, and so forth.
What is to be said about Jesus in this connection?
Is he a man in whom the spirit loomed so large that his very constitution
was devoured by it so that he died, as it were, from inside? Not at all.
Jesus gives an impression of perfect vigor. When he died he had, humanly
speaking, immeasurable possibilities left which could have been realized
had there been time and opportunity.
His personality and life are in no respect those of one who attains
perfection and then dies in the flower of youth; his life was destroyed
from outside, by violence. Jesus constantly gave the impression that he was
infinitely more as a being than was apparent on the surface; that he could
do more than he did, that he knew more than he revealed. His death showed
that he possessed incalculable reserves of strength and life.
What of the second type? Is Jesus one of those religious persons who are
borderline cases and, for that very reason, are able to comprehend and
perform the special tasks entrusted to them?
He is not this type either. In him we find no trace of that biological and
psychic instability we encounter so often in religious psychology and
pathology; nor of that oscillation in emotional states between an
extraordinary and unhuman exhilaration and a weakness and depression far
below the normal. The only scene that might suggest such a state is
Gethsemane, but this has a totally different meaning.
Nor can we induce this kind of psychic structure from his eschatological
consciousness, holding, for instance, that he first lived in expectation of
a colossal upheaval in the power of the Spirit, but that when this failed
to materialize he went to the other extreme and fixed his hopes upon a
dialectic of annihilation, hoping to gain through destruction what had not
been attainable the other way. Such an explanation would make sense only if
we could suppose a nature it would suit: and there is no trace of this at
all. The eschatological awareness of Jesus was of a totally different kind,
not to be explained in terms of the presuppositions of religious
The essential character of Jesus shows no hint of melancholy, that
commonest of all pathological religious symptoms. He never knew a moment’s
real depression. His repeated retreat into solitude was not the escape of
the melancholic from man and from the light of day: it was the result of a
longing for peace in the presence of God, especially at times of momentous
decision; and even more than this, it was the entry into that exclusive
relationship in which he knew he stood to him whom he called his Father.
Jesus was no visionary either, visited by apparitions of the supernatural
or the future, oppressing him at least as much as they exalt him. Nor was
he an apocalyptic so acutely conscious of God’s threatening wrath that
everything around him, even his own life, seemed in imminent danger of
He gave the impression of perfect health. We never hear of his being ill or
having to be nursed, or of his being weakly or overworked and needing a
respite. He led the arduous life of an itinerant preacher, and there is no
hint that he ever had to exert every ounce of his strength in order to
carry on. The account which tells how he was too weak to carry the beam of
the cross to the place of execution (Mat. 27. 32), taken in conjunction
with what he had just gone through and with what was taking place within
him, does not contradict this fact. On the contrary, we cannot comprehend
how he was able to bear so much. The same is true of his rapid death (John
19. 33). As a rule it was a long time before a crucified person died; but
we do well to remember that death comes not only from the body, but also
from the spirit.
We have still to deal with the question of Jesus’ relationship to death.
What is said here presupposes, of course, that the Gospels do not indulge
in fantasies. That they should have done so seems absurd, for they would
have had to choose either to portray a mythical figure, in which case the
unreality of the figure would have been immediately apparent, for mythical
figures have no psychology and are mere idealizations, whereas Jesus is
full of the most concrete life–or to invent a pattern of life quite
unknown to men, in which case improbabilities would occur at every turn.
If, then, we accept the Gospel narrative as true, we must admit that the
thought of death was not present in the mind of Jesus in the way in which
it is in our minds. Each time he spoke of his dying–he did this five
times–he connected this with his resurrection.
For us, death is simply the end. Our immediate awareness of life does not
penetrate beyond that. True, we say that the essential thing about our life
cannot come to an end with death. We express this in various presentiments,
metaphors and hopes; and the hope of eternal life is assured by faith in
revelation. With Jesus, however, the matter was quite different. He knew
that he was to die and accepted death: but he viewed it as a passage to an
existence involving both soul and body which would immediately follow after
death: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to
Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and scribes and chief
priests; and be put to death, and the third day rise again” (Mat. 16. 21).
These are no casual words: they proceed from a general attitude, from an
original and unique mode of being in life.
To regard such sayings as retrospective explanations in the light of the
later Paschal experience of the disciples would be to distort everything.
For Jesus, the concept of death and resurrection which they express is
fundamental to his whole person. As soon as this idea is removed from the
picture it is not a real man who is left, much less the truer one one might
have thought would emerge when stripped of his mythological trappings–his
whole nature and reality vanish. The span of life of which he was directly
aware did not end for him, as it does for us, at the approach of death,
thereafter to be resumed again tentatively; it passed with perfect clarity
right through death. For him, death was not the end but a point of
transition; and not at all–to make the point quite clear–in the sense
that nothing led beyond death but hope. The way in which Jesus felt himself
to be alive, spiritually and bodily, was of such a kind that it reached far
beyond death. It saw this as an event within life itself. This total view
of life has, of course, nothing in common with any mythology or esoteric
certitude: it derived from the reality of God, the beginning and end of all
The Christian conception of life, death and resurrection is based on Jesus’
knowledge of life. It is something more than an assurance of spiritual
indestructibility. It is the hope of an eternal human existence in God
himself. But the reality in and with whose accomplishment it is found to be
possible is Jesus’ sense of life. Here again the decisive thing is not what
he says but what he is.
All this leads us to the conclusion that he lived and died in a different
way from us. And this reveals, in all its greatness and clarity, what we
have already met before when talking of his “health”; it is something more
than mere natural vitality or the spiritual will to live. It is a quality
of his psychosomatic existence for which there is no standard of measure
based on our natural knowledge.
We can perhaps get some hint of what this means from the power to endure
and to suffer, which can spring from personal love, or from the spirit’s
pure will to create; or from a truly religious sense of duty and will-
power. In mere men, however, this “health” has to assert itself in spite of
the disorders and malformations which are found even in the healthiest of
us. But in Jesus there was nothing like this whatever. He was utterly sound
and alive, but in a special sense. An animal can be healthy in terms of its
own nature. Man who has turned from God would like to be healthy but he
cannot be. He was created to exist in dependence on God: this is his
health, which he lost once and for all by sin. That “health”, by contrast,
which we commonly speak about, is altogether a problematic thing. One is
even tempted to say that it is more enigmatic than sickness; for what is it
after all but sickness so entrenched as to have become normal? The
ontological sickness of the fallen creature which disguises its own total
disorder under cover of a relative order? There is nothing like this in
Jesus. In him is the fullness of that which this confusion has upset:
existence from God, directed to God, life in the Pneuma of God. Therefore,
our notion of health, worked out inevitably on the basis of our experience,
does not apply to Christ. His state is altogether beyond our notions of
sickness and health.
It is St. John again who analyses and puts plainly into words what appears
in the Synoptics as a simple, and hence elusive, reality. In St. John’s
Gospel our Lord says to the disciples: “I am . . . the life” (14. 6); and
to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me,
although he be dead, shall live” (11. 25). This is a theological expression
of what the Synoptics present as an objective fact.
“Psychology”, however, can do no more than indicate that we are in the
presence of something very special, of a state of affairs which is
expressed not merely in conceptual propositions, but in a living attitude;
in the way, that is, in which personality and life are built up; by means
of words which are the double of an existence or form of life to which
nothing in any other man corresponds.
Further than this psychology cannot go. It can only point out a direction
to follow and show how this human-superhuman reality, once accepted by
faith, appropriated in love, and put into practice in deed, makes possible
an attitude to life which man could never have achieved by himself. That is
to say, psychology can try to exhibit the Christian sense of life and
death. If it does this, it will once more reach its limit at the point
where the believer’s “Christ in me” emerges, the point at which the real
“synergeia,” accomplishment in and with Christ, begins.
The nature of Christ cannot be deduced from a study of the psychology of
the religious man in general and the Christian in particular. The Christian
can exist only in terms of a Christ who eludes psychological analysis as
long as this is honestly pursued. If it is not honestly pursued, however–
and as a general rule it is not–then it makes no sense at all and becomes
merely another tool in the hands of self-glorifying man who uses it to
prove that there never was a God-man.
III THE PROBLEM OF THE STRUCTURE OF PERSONALITY
1. GENERAL REMARKS
In order to understand a man intellectually we must know what the
structures or patterns of his personality are. By “structures” we mean the
various types according to which it is possible for a man to be a man,
those patterns of human existence that embrace more than any single
individual and less than the concept of human nature as such: for example,
the “melancholic temperament”, the “youth”, the “artist”, and so forth.
It is worth noting, however, that, in fact, there are no such things as
pure structural patterns, but only compounds in which, while one aspect
tends to predominate, all the rest are present in one way or another. No
artist is merely an artist: he is always influenced by some theoretical or
economic factors as well, but the latter are subordinate to the former and
to a certain extent conditioned by it.
In any concrete personality we will always find different structures
according as we view it from different angles. Thus we might say about a
certain man that he was an artist in terms of talent; melancholic by
temperament; inclined to be a mystic in religion; an idealist or activist
with respect to the hard facts of everyday life; gregarious or a lone wolf,
a revolutionary or a sound citizen, socially; normal or manic-depressive
medically speaking; and so forth.
Then there are differences with respect to historical period, race,
religion or age. If we take all these things into account, the structure of
a concrete personality becomes a highly complex thing, always specified,
however, by certain dominant features.
Strictly speaking, any intelligible association of forms may be termed a
“structure”. Every element in such a structure is always related to the
other elements: each element is determined by those around it and it in
turn reacts upon its surroundings. In other words, the single element is
related to the whole, and the total context in turn is related to the
single element. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, what we mean
when we say that a particular individual has such-and-such a makeup or
personality. Understanding the term in this sense, it is not difficult to
reply to the question whether the personality of Jesus has such a
structure. The obvious answer is that it has. This amounts to no more than
saying that his nature is not chaotic.
Here, however, we are concerned with the special meaning of the word, i.e.
with those typical figures of human existence which are the key to our
understanding of the phenomenon of man as such.
2. THE STRUCTURES OF GROWTH
We shall begin with those structures which have a bearing on the growth of
a personality. Can we discover in Jesus any typical form of character
evolution, of psychological development?
The idea of “evolution” is a widely accepted notion today, but we do well
to remind ourselves that it is only recently that this has become so. In
general it is connected with the new awareness of history which began with
the Renaissance and became dominant in the nineteenth century. According to
this concept, life, when it begins, is a very simple form, full, however,
of potential variations, not just any variations, but those that are
determined by the natural law governing the living thing in question. These
potentialities unfold, according to the conventional picture, in the sense
that the inherent forms emerge and become differentiated and the thing
becomes more specifically distinct and more complex until maturity is
reached; then it stops, and gradually decline sets in. Progress from the
state of potentiality to manifest fullness is felt to be something natural
and even beautiful, a real disclosure of creative energy. The Middle Ages
thought otherwise. The men of those days held that a perfect existence
would have to be endowed with the fullness of developed life, with
consciousness and maturity, from the beginning. We feel today that this way
of looking at things is contrary to nature. We accept as axiomatic that
self-development and self-fulfillment are part of the essence of life.
However, crises occur along the path of development. Its course is not
always or necessarily a smooth one: it may proceed by characteristic stages
like the ages of man, for instance. These stages of development begin,
unfold and reach their final stability while the next phase is already
beginning to take shape beneath them. So they struggle together, disturb
and interfere with one another until finally the new phase asserts itself.
But we can also have aberrant developments, hypertrophies or fixations,
deviations which have to be overcome–sometimes with great difficulty.
Otherwise they may harden and establish themselves permanently.
What kind of growth do we encounter in the life o£ Jesus? More basically,
is there any “evolution” to be observed in him at all?
The question is not an easy one to answer because the span of his life
covered by the biblical texts is so very brief and the information so
meager. A few bare facts can be gleaned from Luke about his infancy and
boyhood; about his youth and early manhood there is nothing at all. We have
details only for the period of his public ministry, which was of short
duration. Moreover, the evangelists are not interested in biographical
details. They are not writing a “Life of Jesus”, but recounting events,
acts and situations which have a bearing on the message of salvation. Thus,
innumerable facts and circumstances which would have been interesting to us
from the standpoint of the spiritual biography of Jesus are passed over in
The accounts about his birth and early life lay very great stress on the
fact that the child’s character was far different from that of ordinary
men. The true nature of his extraordinariness is seen, however, if we
compare these authentic reports with those to be found in the apocryphal
Gospels or other, later, legends. The latter depict Christ as an already
mature and superior being who is childlike only externally, but otherwise
stands quite apart from the rest of mankind.
By contrast, the extraordinariness revealed by the biblical accounts is of
quite a different kind. The child is presented as fully human in every
respect, a perfectly normal individual, even to the extent of having his
life endangered by the ferocity of an angry king and of being subject to
the authority of his parents. Yet, right in this normality and utterly
without anything the least bit miraculous, there shines a depth–or a
height–of consciousness which, like some new sensory center not definable
in terms of normality, brings normality itself into a new perspective.
St. Luke’s account of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve
years old (2. 41 ff.) continues the story of the circumcision and the
presentation in the Temple (2. 21 ff.). Just as he had fulfilled the Law in
the former instance by means of his parents, so he now fulfills it in
person by making the customary Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the
first time at the age of twelve. The account also continues what we have
been told about his conception and birth in 2. 1 ff.: that he indeed had a
human mother, but that his father was God himself. The incarnation thus
goes back to a special creative act on the part of God, to the intervention
of the Holy Spirit. We are, then, told that the boy was already aware that
he belonged immediately to God. Until this time he will presumably have
lived like any other child, and as far as the following years are
concerned, we learn at the end of the account that “he went down with them
and came to Nazareth and was subject to them”. Nevertheless, in the depths
of his spirit he is detached from his earthly environment and from parental
authority. His true home is not Nazareth but the house of his Father in
heaven, the Temple; and the true guide of his life is not his earthly
parents but the will of his Father, compared with which even the greatest
care of his nearest and dearest must take second place.
There is nothing miraculous about the scene itself. The annals of religious
biography can show examples of vivid spiritual awareness and a definite
feeling of belonging to God at ages much below Jesus’ twelve years. What is
unique is the content of Jesus’ awareness. Comparing it with that which he
later had as an adult, we see that there was no qualitative difference
between the child’s relation to the Father and that of the adult to the
Father; while his remark about his Father as a twelve-year-old differs from
the way any other twelve-year-old would speak about the heavenly Father, in
the same way that the Father-relationship of the Master differs from the
belief in Providence of any adult believer.
This has a double significance for our inquiry. It shows that we cannot say
anything about the time when, or the way in which, this awareness began.
The recorded experience itself cannot be explained as an irruption into his
consciousness of his belonging to the Father; as though the child, who had
lived hitherto in the manner of any other pious child of his age and
environment, now suddenly discovers his relationship to God, being
impressed and moved by the Temple and its worship, by the sight of the
capital and its history, by the piety of his parents and the great crowds
of people; as though he should become aware of himself as God’s child and
at the same moment become what he knows himself to be. There is not the
slightest hint that this is what took place. There is no indication that
there was any irruption of a new awareness; on the contrary, the account
demonstrates the existence of a relationship which has its source in the
certainty of an already existing awareness. The decisive factor in the
personality of Jesus was already there. On the other hand, we must see this
relationship as one completely consistent with a person of his tender
years, for verse 52 states, explicitly, that he advanced from then on to
youth and manhood.
The awareness of his relationship to the heavenly Father; the fact that in
the center of his being he had become a stranger to all the relationships
of family and environment; his immediate reference to the Father, running
like a constant through everything–all this is perfected within the
framework of a psychology appropriate to boyhood, but is not reducible to
the terms of such a psychology.
There already exists, in other words, a sense of belonging to and of being
guided by the heavenly Father, which contains within itself the whole
essence of what will come later on. But this awareness is thoroughly
imbedded in the pattern of experience appropriate to his stage in life, so
that there is continuous growth. It is, in fact, a growth “in wisdom, age,
and grace”, not merely before men, but also “before God”, as the text
Neither here nor later is there any break-through into ultimate reality.
Such things only occur if one imposes a preconceived pattern of religious
evolution on the events in the life of Jesus, and interprets them
It is typical for a great religious personality to undergo a revolution in
his relationship to the world and to himself, what is called “conversion”
in the psychology of religion. Before this occurs, the individual in
question was caught up in the stream of life and behaved like anyone else,
perhaps he even manifested a more passionate devotion to the world than
others; then suddenly, a spiritual change takes place, which may have been
caused by various things: a chance meeting with some impressive religious
personality, meditation on the vanity of all earthly things, the impact of
some terrible event. This helps him to become aware of the true meaning of
life as compared with the illusions of the world; gives him a sense of what
is ultimately important and urgent so that all else seems trivial and
superfluous; shows him what his life ought to have been and so makes him
realize how fruitless, wicked and even disastrous his previous life has
been. The holiness of God lays bare the desolate state of man. His
encounter with destruction and new creation causes him to regard himself as
another person, the true man at last, who has been endowed with a new
principle of life and a new type of existence.
Some have tried to interpret in this light the baptism of Jesus in the
Jordan which reaches a climax in the sentence: “This is my beloved Son, in
whom I am well pleased” (Mat. 3. 13 ff.; Mark 1. 9 ff.; Luke 3. 21 ff.). In
point of fact, however, there is no evidence that anything was making its
appearance now which was not present before. The statement concerns, not an
“experience”, a psychological reaction, but a reality. It is not Jesus who
“experiences”: it is the Father who declares. He declares not what Jesus
now becomes, but what he already is. “The Spirit” does not transform a
devout man into the Messiah, by descending upon him: he fills with his
whole power him who is by nature the Messiah, at the moment when he grants
the Old Dispensation its last due and inaugurates the New. Again, it does
not mean that Jesus had previously been a stranger to the Father and to the
Spirit. Had that been the case, John, who was “filled with the Holy Ghost
from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1. 15) would have been greater than he whom
he preceded. What we really have here is a description of a divine coming
and in-pouring, for the psychology of religion has no standards of
comparison, for the very good reason that in this way for the first time is
revealed he who until then had been the unknown God. We can find out what a
real experience of break-through is like by comparing the biblical text to
other accounts, for example, those describing the experiences of Buddha or
If the texts are allowed to speak for themselves and are not altered in
form or meaning or general feel by having a preconceived pattern imposed on
them, we are obliged to admit that there is no evidence in the New
Testament that Jesus ever became what he had not yet been in his essential
relationship to God his Father. On the contrary, his character, attitude
and behavior make it clear that he was at the beginning the same person
that he was at the end. We can speak of an “evolution” of his personality
only in a sense that does not contradict this fact; more precisely, in a
sense that presupposes it. That is to say, such an evolution must be
thought of as growth within a pattern which from the very beginning is
fully significant. The assertion that such a process is a psychological
impossibility is not only no objection to the fact that we have to do here
with an existence of a very special kind, but proves this very fact.
The question whether Jesus was subject to any kind of evolutionary process
at all and how, brings us to a further matter. We have already seen that
development does not necessarily proceed at a smooth pace; it may go by
fits and starts; the pattern of one phase may come into conflict with that
of a previous phase and be obliged to assert itself, against opposition;
crises of different kinds may develop in this way, perhaps particularly so
in the case of the religious man, because he is subject to acute tensions
and must make a great effort to discipline himself. It is legitimate to
inquire, therefore, how Jesus fared with regard to this kind of
There are three events in his life which have to be considered here: his
temptation and sojourn in the desert after his baptism, his transfiguration
while on the final journey to Jerusalem, and the hour he spent in the
Garden of Gethsemane, whose full meaning was only revealed in the
experience of abandonment on the cross.
The story of his temptation (Mat. 4. 1 ff.; Mark 1. 12 ff.; Luke 4. 1 ff.)
might be explained as a typical first crisis in the life of one who was
conscious of having a religious mission, somewhat as follows: First of all,
in times of stress and spiritual crisis, tensions are increased, powers are
at their maximum and spiritual content is matured. A new and more perfect
personality is born at such times. The question then has to be debated:
Shall this personality subordinate itself to the mission it has received,
or shall it dare all alone, confident in its extraordinary powers? The
temptation in the Gospels is heightened by the fact that it is conjoined
with the experiences of elevation and power and with the feeling of a
growing attenuation of surrounding reality which are readily induced by a
prolonged fast. The crisis is finally and successfully overcome, the attack
thwarted by a mighty exertion of Jesus’ will.
If we examine the biblical texts of the temptation more closely, however,
we see that they have a totally different meaning. There is no trace in
them at all of “temptation” in the ordinary sense of the word: of an
upsurge of desire, a revolt against law, a confusion of values. Nor does
the person who is attacked appear to be under any strain. If “temptation”
means that the enticement causes an echoing response in the soul of the
person being tempted, because of some secret inclination to revolt lurking
there, then we have no trace of temptation here. And if “victory” means
that there must be some inner struggle, then there was no victory either.
The attack simply glanced off. The purpose of the incident is not to show
how Jesus vanquished an attack of Satan, but to show how completely he is
removed from the sphere where temptation operates and how powerless Satan
is against him. This is exactly what he declared later, when he said: “For
the prince of this world cometh; and in me hath not any thing. But (he will
try his will) that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the
Father hath given me commandment, so do I” (John 14. 30-1). The events just
described do not relate to any real temptation at all: the incident is a
revelation of the absolute unity of the will of Jesus with that of God.
Such unassailability might, indeed, create the impression that Jesus was a
lifeless and unreal being. But the opposite is the case. This person so
divinely sure of himself is very much alive, very human–but once more we
are beyond the limits of psychology, strictly speaking.
His transfiguration on the mountain (Mat. 17. 1 ff.; Mark 9. 1-7, 2-8;
Luke 9. 28-36) and the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mat. 26.30 ff.;
Mark 14. 32 ff.; Luke 22. 39 ff.) are closely related events. Both took
place after a decision had been made: the first on the way to Jerusalem,
the second in Jerusalem itself. One is tempted to interpret these events,
psychologically, in the light of the man with a mission, as instances of a
great upsurge of mental and bodily powers which was then followed by utter
depression. The explanation might run somewhat as follows:
He was transfigured “on a high mountain”, representing the unity of inner
experience and external environment. His whole figure and clothing were
radiant–this is symbolical of the highest potential of mental and physical
powers. Two prominent Old Testament figures, Moses and Elias, appear and
talk with him about his death–an indication that he had the approval of
the Old Covenant and that his impending death was sanctioned in heaven.
Finally, the Father’s voice itself is heard, declaring, shortly before his
death, what he had declared reassuringly at the time of his baptism and
commanding the disciples to heed his words. It has been decided that he is
to die, so he goes to Jerusalem where the end is to come, filled with a
willingness to sacrifice himself and a firm confidence in his resurrection
(Mat. 16. 21; 17. 22-3; 20. 17 ff.). In spite of, or perhaps because of,
the absence of any possible alternative, his sense of special mission is at
Then comes the collapse, hastened by the shock and exhaustion of the
hopeless struggle during the last days in Jerusalem. After he had given his
disciples the utmost of his wisdom and love at the Last Supper–had
actually given them himself when he instituted the “new covenant in his
blood”–he went out into the darkness of night and, alone among his
disciples, there occurred the inevitable reaction. He fell into an agony of
despair to the extent of revealing pathological symptoms, as the statement
about the sweat of blood shows.
He begged for mercy and then pulled himself together and once more felt the
reassuring union with the will of God. In some such way as this would
psychology interpret the events. But an explanation of this kind would
destroy the whole meaning of the events recorded in the Gospels.
This becomes clear if we compare these accounts with others in the Bible
which do deal with periods of crisis in the course of a religious mission.
The best example is that of Elias, described in the Third Book of Kings.
There we read of the tremendous tension accompanying the judgment of God,
the subsequent sentence imposed on the priests of Baal, the miraculous
appearance of the rain, and his running before the king’s chariot in
ecstasy; then we learn of the prophet’s collapse in the wilderness, his
strengthening by an angel, and the great revelation made to him on Mt.
Horeb (chaps. 18-19). One thing is clear: the actions described exceed the
capacity of the man who performs them. In the performance of the actions he
rises far above himself, only to sink down afterwards lower than any normal
man. It is not the prophet who does these things, but a power that takes
hold of him, and then leaves him limp when it departs. This is perfectly
obvious in the case of Elias; but it is also more or less true in all other
experiences of this kind. With Jesus, on the one hand, the situation is
completely different. He always remains himself whatever he does or
suffers. Whatever he does is never beyond his ability to do it, but appears
as the logical outcome of that ability. His experiences on the mountain and
in the garden, for example, were not, in themselves, abnormal; they were
the revelation on a grand scale of what was ever present in him: the
meaning and power of himself and his mission, and also the awfulness of the
sacrifice which the Father was demanding of him.
Another thing needs to be stressed here, too. The existence of the prophet-
-and that of the apostle too (cf. 1 Cor. 4. 9 ff.) contains “a priori” the
necessary inadequation between mission and being, between office and
ability. Mission and office are imposed on him, and to make him capable of
fulfilling his task, strength is given him. In his case there is an alien
element intervening which has to be accepted and assimilated, and the
psychological process consists in the reconciliation of this dichotomy. But
with Jesus things were quite different. Mission and being, task and will,
office and ability, were all one. He is what he signifies; he desires that
for which he has been sent; he is able to do what he has to do. And so the
basis for any mighty upsurge and let-down is absent, as well as for any
appropriation of what is not due or any desire to rebel against the given
task. He is always himself. There is no split discernible in his character.
Indeed, we always get the impression from his behavior that Jesus possessed
great untapped reserves of strength, that he was actually much more than he
appeared to be on the surface, and that he was capable of doing much more
than he actually did.
Obviously, there was no “crisis” in his case, but the expression of a
tremendous experience. Yet this experience was in conformity with his being
and, therefore, “natural”, revealing itself in the deep calm, self-
possession and control which he possessed at all times, in spite of the
terrible things that he had to endure.
In Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus we encounter the sentence: “And
about the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying: ‘Eli, Eli,
lama sabachthani,’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'”
(27. 46). Mark has almost the identical words (15. 34). At first glance, we
might be inclined to interpret this cry as an expression of utter despair,
as a sign of the collapse of his entire ego at its very core, his
relationship with his Father. The “loud cry” which came later would only
serve to enhance this view.
But against this interpretation, we must point out that Luke’s version of
the death scene does not contain any sentence referring to his abandonment,
although the overall picture of the passion and death is the same as in
Matthew and Mark. Hence Luke cannot have intended to convey a different
impression from the others. Where the other two mention his “crying with a
loud voice”, Luke has the sentence: “Father, into thy hands I commend my
spirit” (33. 46). And thus the “abandonment” in no sense disturbs the mood
of deepest trust but unites with it to form a whole attitude. And this
attitude obviously conforms to the pattern of the bursts of prayer in the
Garden of Gethsemane, in which anguish and pleas for mercy were combined
with a perfect submission to the will of the Father; for the death of
Christ on the cross cannot be dissociated from the scene in Gethsemane but
must be seen as its logical conclusion or consummation. The important
decision was made in the garden, it was merely implemented on Golgotha.
The significance of Christ’s death and his attitude when dying must be
understood in the light of his attitude towards life and death in general.
This is disclosed by his remarks on his forthcoming passion, in which death
and resurrection are seen to be bound up together in an indissoluble whole
which it is beyond the grasp of men to penetrate. He who said that he was
destined to die and on the third day rise again (Mat. 16. 21), and repeated
this frequently, thus indicating that it was a matter of great importance,
was not one to give way to despair.
The cry on the cross is no more an expression of despair than his behavior
in Gethsemane was a sign of depression. A real feeling of despair at the
moment of death would have shown itself in some other way, and a genuine
collapse of this kind, at the critical moment, would certainly have begun
to manifest itself earlier.
The cry on the cross cannot be explained in terms of the psychology of
religion; it points to the serious reality of an existence that is beyond
our comprehension. We must look into this matter more closely.
1. “Development” means self-emergence from a generative milieu.
But it is possible to conceive of another type of growth
according to which the living thing is only partly determined by
what is inside it. For the rest it reacts against stimuli
received from its environment and by so doing forms itself into
something new. Thus a living principle could absorb from without
or produce from within something entirely new, and do so to a
limit that is “a priori” indeterminable. But we cannot pursue
this thought here.
3. TEMPERAMENT AND BEHAVIOR STRUCTURES
In addition to structures of growth, there are also the others, those that
determine form of personality, many-sidedness of temperament and
originality of behavior.
Let us begin with those which pertain to sex.
Jesus was emphatically a man. The fact must not be allowed to become
obscured either by certain conventional ways of portraying him in art or by
the types of piety or devotion which give rise to this portraiture. Jesus
is made to appear as a tender, passive, half feminine individual, but this
is due to a fatal misinterpretation which empties the notions of Jesus’
“gentleness”, “humility”, or “self-sacrifice” of all meaning. It would be
equally erroneous, it must be admitted, to conceive of his masculinity
exclusively in terms of the man of action, the aggressive type, or the man
who is concerned with superficial notions about honor.
Jesus’ manhood was strong, deep-seated, and inspiring; but, typically, it
was not governed by any passion or impulse: it was ruled entirely by the
spirit. This is revealed most clearly in the very center of his existence,
by the way in which he fulfilled his primary task, his mission. He had been
charged to proclaim the kingdom of God, to announce its claims to the world
and to see that those claims were made effective, if necessary, against the
will of the world, yet, in the logic of the redemption, for and on behalf
of the world. His task was to take hold of reality and raise it to the
realm of grace. He accomplished this mission with such objectivity and
subordination of his own will to the task–a subordination which,
nonetheless, did not suppress or trammel but liberate his personal will–
that he succeeded in realizing thereby the fullest essence of true manhood.
The same thing is shown by the calm fearlessness, arising out of his
dedication to his mission, with which he carried out his task to the very
end. He neither recoiled from it, evaded it, nor threw himself into it
arrogantly; neither yielded nor overreached himself. Again, there was his
utter kindness yet fairness; his respect for human freedom; the play he
accorded to existence; his way–which only slowly became apparent–of
saying, not everything, but the right thing calculated to set life in
motion, and so on.
On the other hand, an unbiased examination of the evidence shows clearly
that his manhood was without trace of any of the baser passions. This is
not because the evangelists were at pains to cover up such failings; nor is
it because he had no feelings at all like other individuals, or because he
was an ascetic and overcame them. A primordial warmth and fullness of life
pervaded his whole personality. But his masculinity was completely
integrated in his whole religious personality, more precisely, in a center
which lay deeper and was mightier than the spiritual or religious center to
be found in man. His manhood had been taken over by the divine power of
love, understood in the purest sense of the word, and permeated by it. The
manhood of Jesus was transformed into perfect, selfless, divine love.
The same sort of thing can be said about his ethnic structure.
The way in which men respond to Christ, the way, indeed, in which his
contemporaries felt about him, is curiously contradictory. He was taken to
be the son of David, and in the course of the events of which he was the
center, claimed for himself the promises that had been made to David. He
was a product of the Old Testament, and its concepts and atmosphere are
presupposed by all his sayings. On the other hand, he overstepped the
bounds of this world in a very decided way; but not by adopting a
cosmopolitan or completely unattached, purely spiritual attitude. There was
nothing in common between him and the Sadducees or Herodians. He firmly
upheld the Law and held scrupulously to the place which his Father had
assigned him in history. This even set certain limitations to his own
inclinations. Hence it is just as wrong to view him merely as a figure
typical of the Jewish way of life as it is wrong to separate him from it
drastically. His descent was more by way of the spirit than by blood; and
again, the kinship was more religious than cultural.
We can understand his position only if we realize the deep cleavage in Old
Testament history. The significance of this was both great and fateful. The
life of the Jewish people ought never to have been the expression of a
merely natural national temperament; it should have been a continuously
manifested act of faith in divine guidance. The Jewish people’s historical
existence ought to have let itself be modeled from within by the Spirit. In
fact, however, it was a continual rebelling against this destiny, and a
thwarting of the realization of its own potentiality as shown it by God. In
Jesus, God’s plan was perfectly realized, bringing about the final,
complete laying bare of the state in which the people of the Covenant found
itself. Jesus’ genealogy is that of the “spiritual Israel”. He belonged to
the lineage of promise and faith and prophecy, and had nothing to do with
the lineage of self-assertive national consciousness. What the Jewish
people should always have done, but actually did so seldom, i.e. ascend by
faith above immediate, tangible nature to the realm of the mind and spirit
so as to become what God desired them to be, had finally been accomplished
in Christ. In him the natural people of Israel–St. Paul’s “Israel
according to the flesh”–had finally been overcome. And so, we understand
that those who would not co-operate with him in achieving this purpose saw
him as a betrayer of the people and their hopes, whereas those who were
prepared to co-operate recognized him without difficulty as one of their
However, there is in Jesus something more which lies deeper than “spirit”
and “faith”. A situation has now been created which cannot be understood in
terms of Jewish or non-Jewish, racial or universalist categories. I refer
to the element which makes it possible for every man to see him as the
Redeemer. Every man can understand Christ by what he knows of himself,
without having to identify him ethnically with his own people or on the
other hand, to deny his people for Christ’s sake.
Our relationship to him is founded on this fact. It is, therefore, at once
completely distorted and upset if we insist on trying to see Jesus in a
purely national light, or speak of a Jewish, European, African, ancient or
4. JESUS IS UNIQUE
There are other structures that condition the spiritual life.
We have the philosophically inclined man, the practical man, the
artistically creative man, the man of action, etc. But these categories do
not seem to be applicable to Jesus. It is not that his nature proves them
wrong; they simply do not fit.
It would seem more appropriate to speak of the human type that is
immediately interested in man as such, and in the course and ordering of
his affairs. Subdivisions of this type give us the helper, the educator,
the reformer. But these categories do not really fit either. Things of this
kind were not important enough for Jesus to allow us to characterize him in
this way. It is true that he loved men, sympathized with their trials, and
was anxious to help; but not in the manner of a philanthropist or social
reformer. This becomes perfectly clear when we realize that we could say
the very opposite; that, basically, Jesus was not concerned to make men
happier or improve their earthly lot, but to proclaim the sovereignty of
People have seen the “Kingdom of God”, which was his greatest concern, in a
purely ethical or spiritual sense–or even as something idyllic. It has to
do, in reality, with something of absolute religious significance: with
God’s claim to sovereignty. For his kingdom Jesus abated not a whit of the
demands made by the prophets. Here too, then, we find our habitual
structures cut across by something which transcends them.
It would be instructive to ask whether Jesus could be called a “genius”.
A man’s intelligence can be of many varying degrees, from the purely
negative through the average to the extraordinary. Genius means that a
particular endowment, a power of knowledge or creativity, action or
feeling, is so intense, so productive, so utterly obedient to its inner
controls, that it ploughs remorselessly through received convention until
it reaches original, primordial truth. Whatever it may produce is marked,
not by a quality of mere superiority, but by the authority of essential
truth in the strict meaning of the words. In other words, genius is that
disposition in man which makes it possible for the fundamental processes of
mind, for the basic powers of mankind, for the tendencies of history and of
the cosmos, to come fully into their own. Whatever term we may use for it,
genius is always the disclosure of some gift, a gift not merited but given;
and it presupposes a corresponding disposition for hard work and self-
denial. By the same token it can be a risky thing. Mediocrity is safer.
Genius is a marginal state, exposed to the dangers of all such states. This
may be seen when we consider the relation of the genius to his environment
or to himself; for example, in the crises connected with his development,
in his tendency to overwork himself, in the frequent maladjustment of the
various elements which go to make up his psychosomatic complex, in the
appearance of wastage phenomena in domains not immediately connected with
his creativity, etc.
The question whether Jesus was a genius was once considered very important
and was instrumental in causing his real significance to be pushed aside as
a matter for psychological interpretation. But it is a misleading question.
Not even his action on history, let alone his redemptive significance, is
an effect of genius. If we use the word in its ordinary sense, we may
question whether he was a genius in the psychological or cultural sense at
all. He certainly showed no signs of being subject to the crises or
turmoil, the phenomenal output or, on the other hand, the wastage
associated with the usual image of the genius. Our conclusion, therefore,
is that the evidence has been misinterpreted in this regard. But this is
not all. We must add at once, so that the deeper truth we are trying to
convey may be made plain, that neither as man of ideas nor as man of
action, neither in his outward manner and inner reactions nor in his
destiny, did Jesus give the impression of being an extraordinary person in
the sense in which a genius must be extraordinary if the concept genius is
to have any content at all. In Jesus we come face to face with a very
special kind of significance. What is it exactly?
We shall perhaps be able to make some progress if we link this question
with another. Can Jesus, properly speaking, be classified as belonging to
the type known as the religious man? Was he a religious genius?
Religion is the relation with the “other”, the “numinous”, the mysterious,
whatever word we use to describe that which is quite unlike everything
else; unlike it and distinguished from it, not merely as truth is
distinguished from goodness, or the realm of physics from that of biology,
but in a very special sense. Whereas all other things belong to the present
sphere, and are, as it were, “on this side”, religion belongs to another
sphere, to the “other side”: the former are “earthly”, the latter is
“unearthly”; the former natural, immediate, close, penetrable, the latter
strange, mysterious, remote, and so on. To have a religious personality is
to have a specially acute awareness of these values and realities, to be
highly developed both in experience and action with reference to these
things, so that the shape of the personality is determined by them. We are
dealing, of course, with a disposition like any other disposition. This
particular one shows in a given individual the different characteristics
and appears in varying degrees of originality and intensity. We must hasten
to add at once, that from the point of view of revelation, of our relation
to the living God and the business of redemption, this religious
disposition has potentialities which can be positive or negative.
Revelation and faith are not at all the same thing as the religious quality
of a given person with its concomitant experiences, and they can be
endangered by the latter as well as helped by them. In the case of the
religious genius the religious disposition achieves that capacity for
creative vision and molding, that closeness to the fundamental reality of
things which we mentioned above. That is to say, there are certain inherent
dangers present in him which may endanger his own as well as his neighbor’s
life. The dangers are greater for the religious genius than for other forms
of genius because religion has to do with the fundamentals of life.
The personality of Jesus and the course of his life are not marked by any
of the crises or danger-signs associated with the religious genius. He does
not give the impression of being a man who risks himself in order to
disclose some new value. He is sane and self-assured at every point, in
control of himself and even of his fate. If we consider his words, actions
and destiny, and compare him with persons who were undoubtedly geniuses and
“homines religiosi,” we cannot possibly conclude that he is to be classed
as a religious genius. Compared with the works of the great mystics or one
of the great sermons of Buddha, the Sermon on the Mount appears almost a
commonplace thing. The works of the mystics appear to be more profound,
more powerful, more moving, more sublime–whatever term you prefer to use
to describe that unusualness that is the hallmark of genius–until we
realize that a judgment of this kind is not applicable to Jesus.
His true significance is not bound up with what he said, or did, or what
happened to him–as one of a type among many others of the same brand–but
in what he is. His words and deeds are but sparks emanating from something
much deeper, something immeasurably greater than can be described in words.
Again, we must not conceive of this being as noteworthy in the usual way,
as a mighty, pure, or living personality; as remarkable in a special way
that is unlike any other and hard to express in words. In the final
analysis, it was not what Jesus did or stood for as a religious figure, but
what God accomplished through him that matters; not what he said about God,
but the way in which he brought God to us; not that he taught us how to
find God, but that God was made present in him. Jesus’ place is not on the
side whence the act of religion comes; his place is on the side whither it
tends as to its object; he must be ranged, not among the pious and devout,
but with the end to which the devout address their piety.
This is shown in various ways: in his relation to faith, for example. He is
for ever speaking about faith: he asks for it; he arouses it. Faith is not
one kind of activity among others: it is the lively response of man to the
coming of the kingdom of God. And so, correctly speaking, faith is simply
the content of what Jesus calls for, but he himself does not “believe”. The
word cannot be used with reference to his own existence. He stands, not in
the world of men who believe, but in the world to which their belief
stretches out. To be more precise: he makes faith possible. Something
similar can be said of his relation to his Father. Jesus teaches us to use
the Christian “we” when we address the Father. He unites all the faithful
in one fellowship, enabling them to say, appropriately, “Our Father”. But
he himself does not use this “we”. He says “I” (Mat. 11. 25; Mark 14. 36;
Luke 23. 46; John 11. 41). This “I” does not occupy the same place as the
“we” taught us in the Our Father. It is not the singular form of that “we”.
The “I” which he uses cannot become absorbed in the “we” which he taught
men to say: on the contrary, it forms one with the “thou” whom he
addresses, in a totally different realm of being. Jesus does not believe,
but makes it possible for men to believe. He is not pious, but engenders
piety. He does not strive to reach the Creator and Father of all,
encouraging men to follow him: he shows us the Father’s face and enables us
to address him.
Let us return once more to the question being considered. Religious natures
can be classified according to certain types. There is the ascetic type in
which the religious spirit exhibits itself as a heroic victory over the
world. This is often combined with that of the mystic, in whom the vacuum
created by this victory over created things is filled up anew and the
reality of holiness becomes a matter of immediate experience. There are
other types too: the scholar, the wise man, the teacher, etc. There are the
reformers, the doctors and educators, the heroes, warriors, conquerors,
wonderworkers and poets. Does Jesus fit into any of these types?
In each case there are certain features which may remind us of him. But the
moment we examine them more closely, look at the complete picture and
compare this with the complete picture of Jesus, we see how completely
different he is from any of these types. Especially, anything that might be
called religious quest, response, conversion or commitment, is altogether
absent from his nature. More important than this, from the very core of his
being there streams forth something which you will never find in any of
these other religious types and which absorbs his whole “structure”. This
“something” is the presence in him of “God with us”. This being with us is
not just the universal immanence of God the Creator and Preserver of all
things; nor is it the presence of God in the soul of the man who is
spiritually alive: he is with us in a sense that can be fully and clearly
understood only in terms of the Old Testament. The unique quality of what
happened in the Old Testament is this: not only did God create all things,
not only does he preserve and govern all things, but he declares that he is
on his way, coming to mankind. He is the God who is approaching, and his
approach draws ever nearer and nearer. Finally, he arrived–in Jesus,
plainly, for all men to see. He did not come privately, as a gracious
condescension for the benefit of some, or in a spiritual sense only, but in
a way that involved a “step” which was fateful for the destiny of God
himself, since he had now made the destiny of man his own.
God’s coming to be with us in Christ is of a special kind. He lives among
men as the “Son of God”.
The relationship of man to God is constantly portrayed in religion in terms
of the relation between son and father. Strictly speaking, of course, it
transcends any relationship whereby one man may be linked to another. But
these relationships are so important in human life that they are simply
transposed to the religious sphere and serve as patterns for the experience
of religious reality. This is proper, too, for our relationship to God is a
relationship to him who is Life itself. Hence it follows that in him the
essential forms of life do not only become effective; they find in him the
plenitude of ultimate meaning. So then, many things about life suggest the
appropriateness of this son-father relationship as an image of man’s
relationship with God: the relationship of begotten to begetter; of younger
to older; weaker to stronger; the rising, immature, possessionless,
inexperienced, untried generation compared with its established predecessor
endowed with power and possessions. The relationship is one based upon
authority, love, obedience and confidence. It also, of course, contains the
seeds of rivalry on both sides. But this pattern of the relationship which
finds expression in the most varied ideas about the fatherly majesty and
power of the Divinity, and the reverence and trust in God of man, this
pattern which, in certain mythological conceptions about the divinity makes
no attempt to conceal the latent conflicts it contains, is quite inadequate
even to interpret the Christian’s relationship with the revealed Father in
heaven, let alone the relationship in which Christ himself stood to him
whom he called his Father.
The pattern we have been discussing is based on the fact that the father
gives being to the son and so has both authority over him and
responsibility for him: and on the converse fact that the son has received
being from the father and therefore has a claim to care from his father and
also a duty of reverence towards him. Son and father both grow older; but
this does not mean the same thing to each of them. The son becomes
stronger, the father weaker. The son grows towards the future, the father
retreats into the past. The whole process gives rise to resentment as well
as to trust, to mistrust as well as to solicitude, to revolt as well as to
reverence. Thus a deep conflict remains latent within the father-son
relationship, and this must be settled somehow, either openly or in a
veiled manner. The son runs a double risk; he may either maintain his
relationship to his father, continuing to live his life as a son–but this
will entail the neglect of his own life and his never reaching maturity; or
he may develop his own life, become a father himself and in so doing break
with his father, usurping his place or abandoning him.
The ultimate psychology of Jesus, or, more exactly, the point where all
psychology must admit its inadequacy, is reached when we come to see how
this relationship was expressed in his case. His whole existence was
founded on his relationship to his Father. It was from him that he had
received his mission and the fullness of power (Mat. 12. 27 ff.; John 13.
3); he loved him and was obedient to him (Mark 14. 36; Luke 2. 49; John 5.
30); he regarded as the sum and substance of his whole work the advancement
of the kingdom of the Father (Luke 22. 29; Acts 1. 7). No sayings at all
can be cited which might suggest that he was seeking a kingdom of his own,
that he wanted an independent existence, to make a start for himself, or
that he felt cramped by the Father and wished to abandon him or revolt
against him. He never departed at any time from the attitude of a son. He
preserved this attitude right to the very depths of his personality, it was
the very heart of his mission, the very first movement of his most
spontaneous feelings. Being a son was his very existence. John expressed
this by using the word “remain” and painted the background of this notion
in the Prologue to his Gospel, in which he tells how the Son was “with–
turned towards–the Father” from all eternity, how he was “in the bosom of
the Father”. In so being, however, he was in no sense deprived of anything
by the Father, kept from maturity, or relegated to a humiliating
There is no human analogy for this relationship, even in the sphere which
is little more than man’s great self-portrayal and, at the same time,
justification of himself, that of mythology.
Jesus is once and for all and for ever the Son, but a Son who in his
Sonship enjoys the perfection of freedom. There is in him no trace of
infantilism or rebellion, weakness or resentment, degeneracy or ambition.
We can define his Sonship with reference to its most sensitive point, the
point at which conflict seems to lie just beneath the surface: his
obedience is equal in dignity to the command which he obeys. He is simply
the one who obeys as the Father is the one who commands.
1. This would be the place to carry out an investigation into
the meaning of the various theogony stories: the unmanning of
the son gods by the fathers, the overthrow of the father gods by
the sons; but this would necessitate too long an excursus on
IV. JESUS’ MODE OF EXISTENCE
1. THE PERSON AND EXISTENCE OF JESUS
To the questions already asked we must now add another concerning his
mode of existence. I do not claim to be able to say anything
fundamentally new on this point; but we may be able to see where the
crux of the matter lies.
Man is not only an individuum like a plant or an animal, but a person.
This means not merely that life appears in a separate, organized form,
but that an individual soul together with the body it informs is there
as a single, independent existence.
“Person” does not denote any kind of make-up, e.g. bodily condition,
spiritual power, mental energy, endowment, educational attainment, etc.
It is not something which can be expressed in terms of make-up or
psychological content: it is the manner in which all these things
subsist. Person is at once something obvious and yet logically
incomprehensible. It is person that imparts the essential character to
all that goes to make up a man, not merely by inhering in this or that
individual, but by belonging to the “ego” in such a way that it makes
the latter belong to itself. In this way, it becomes evident not only
who the subject of these attributes, actions and relations is, but
further, that an “I” exists which has a claim upon them and is
responsible for them. In what sense, then, can we say that Jesus is a
Let us look more closely at those acts in which the factor of
independent, personal responsibility is particularly apparent, for
example: when Jesus is obeying the Father: when he commands men; when he
gives himself to those who believe in him and demands devotion from them
These acts have a special air of perfection about them. This does not
spring from the fact that the thing commanded or performed is especially
or unusually right, or that it is done in a particularly noble and
disinterested manner, but from the way in which it belongs to him who
The quality of the act of command and of the act of obedience, of the
giving of self and of the receiving of devotion in return, depends upon
the freedom of the performer of the action. He is able to command only
to the extent to which he is at one with his own will, which
presupposes, of course, that his will is in harmony with the norm of
right willing. He is able to obey to the extent to which he can answer
for himself. He is able to give himself to others to the extent to which
he is in possession of himself. He is able to accept others to the
extent to which he is in himself. That is to say, he can perform all
these things to the extent to which he is a person and fulfills his
With men this is only partially true. Even the greatest and most perfect
of men is not more than approximately himself. He is not fully at one
with his own will but is striving to become so. He is not able to answer
for himself without reserve, but knows that he should be able to do so,
and tries to come to his own support. He does not possess himself, finally
and truly but is searching for himself and struggling to obtain himself. He
is not in himself but is on the way to becoming so. All of which points
again to the fact that ultimately he is not really truly himself, nor in
possession of what belongs to him, but is a freedman who needs the strength
and support of the master who has set him free.
For this reason, human freedom is such a problematical thing. A man is
free, and yet he is not. It is rather that he is becoming free than that he
is already free. That is why, if we consider things properly, we see that
his commands are both hesitant and arrogant. Hence too, his obedience takes
the form of submission to superior authority, and yet–the inevitable
counterpoint–he is ever ready to rebel. That is why he gives himself, yet
at the same time cannot really let himself go: he hankers after himself
again or becomes a burden to the other. And when the other gives himself,
he is unable to accept him and keep him: the other, when he draws near,
comes in to somebody who is not at home in his own house. Or else he does
accept him but not as a free person; he enslaves him and subjects him.
In this respect, there is in Jesus something radically different from other
men; not only in important things, but in little things as well, in mighty
deeds as well as in the small gestures, not only in substantive matters but
in the whole manner of his behavior.
In whatever way we view Jesus’ relationship to various factors, material
objects, possessions, desires, power, work, history, destiny–in all these
things it is clear that he succeeds in preserving a manner of being himself
which is entirely his own. His is a freedom that is unique. The manner in
which he obeys and orders; the manner in which he gives of himself in his
acts, his teaching and his mystery, and also receives in return the self-
oblation of those who trust him and believe in him, reveals that his
activity proceeds from a unique kind of freedom.
Not only is he freer than others, less a slave of inhibitions, more
resolute in his decisions, impelled by deeper and stronger motives; there
is something here that goes to the root of his being and provides the basis
for a new character. This manifests itself, not in any extraordinary
performance or behavior, but in a fundamental tendency, an air of
sovereignty which is perceptible in everything and imparts to his whole
life and bearing, his speech and his actions, a peculiar existential
It is very difficult to describe what I mean, but this is an attempt:
He gives a special stamp to his obedience to his Father. If we collect all
his sayings about the will of the Father and his relation to that will, we
see that he identifies his obedience with that will. John 6. 37 ff. may
serve as an example of many such sayings: “All that the Father giveth to me
shall come to me; and him that cometh to me, I will not cast out. Because I
came down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him that sent
me. Now this is the will of the Father who sent me; that of all that he
hath given me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again in the
last day. And this is the will of my Father that sent me; that everyone who
seeth the Son and believeth in him may have life everlasting; and I will
raise him up in the last day.” Obedience as such is placed on a par with
command. It does not arise from the relationship of weaker to stronger, or
of purely factual to normative, but is itself “qua” obedience, as strong
and valid as command. It is the complying good, as the other is the
commanded good: the two are united in having the same root.
The same attitude dictates his own tone of command in the Sermon on the
Mount: “You have heard that it was said of them of old . . .”, through the
Old Testament revelation, that is, through God who is his Father, “But I
say to you.” This “It was said to them of old, but I say to you” expresses
the underlying spiritual attitude of the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5. 21,
22, 27, 28, 33, 34, 43, 44). “Heaven and earth shall pass; but my words
shall not pass” (Mat. 24. 35).
Once again it is St. John who expressed this thought in final form. When
referring to what his life with Jesus had enabled him to “see, touch and
handle”, he put it this way: “I am the light . . .”; “I am the way, and the
truth and the life . . .” (John 8. 12; 14. 6).
The same underlying assumption leads to the special manner in which he
gives himself, a manner at once unheard of and convincing: he instituted
the mystery of the Eucharist “for a memorial” of himself. St. Luke says:
“And, taking bread, he gave thanks, and brake: and gave to them, saying:
THIS IS MY BODY WHICH IS GIVEN FOR YOU. Do this for a commemoration of me.
In like manner the chalice also, after he had supped, saying: THIS IS THE
CHALICE, THE NEW TESTAMENT IN MY BLOOD, WHICH SHALL BE SHED FOR YOU
22. 19-20). This is still further intensified in the promise of the mystery
as presented by St. John: “I am the living bread, which came down from
heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread
that I will give in my flesh, for the life of the world . . . As the living
Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, the
same also shall live by me” (John 6. 51-52, 58, 59). To give his disciples
his own Body and Blood as food, and to say that this was being sacrificed
for them in atonement for sin, is, humanly speaking, the most appalling
nonsense and an example of morbid “hubris”, apart from being disgusting.
How could this unheard-of thing hope to be understood and accepted; not
only by infatuated disciples who, one might argue, had succumbed to the
spell of his overpowering personality and lost the use of their reason, but
by men of alert and clear minds and intellectual honesty, drawn from all
strata of society and from all degrees of human and spiritual culture, from
every time and place?
Precisely because of its enormity, Jesus’ giving of himself must be proof
against all attack; it must be possible in the nature of things and called
for by some inner need of man, otherwise it would surely have failed before
the indignation of mankind. Such a gift could only be given because the
giver stood free, far removed above the realm of human limitations: free
from all that is evil, arid, unnatural and vain, but also, and most
important of all, free for himself. He who thus gave himself was not on the
way towards finding himself: he was already present, by right, in his own
home. He was not seeking himself, he had himself. He had complete and final
possession of himself. That is why he could give himself, to be the
sacrifice of redemption and the food of new life. Apart from this freedom,
every word, every gesture, would have been intolerable.
The uniqueness of this freedom is the expression of the uniqueness of his
personality. Jesus was free in a special way quite his own, because he was
himself in a special way quite his own.
Being the person one is; being in oneself, living and acting by oneself;
going out towards things and then once more withdrawing from them into
oneself–in Christ all that was different from what it is in a human
existence. The difference is not that it was stronger, greater, calmer,
more perfect; it is a qualitative difference. This gives rise to the
obviousness and withal strangeness that are so typical of him. From it
comes his authority, the like of which is to be found in no other being.
From this derives the fact that, in a unique way, he is the origin, acting
out of his own fullness and answering for himself. Those who hear him can
entrust themselves to him for life or death, good or ill, in terms of what
we call “faith”. Not only would they be right in doing so, they are
altogether justified in doing so. The problem of faith is not just that of
having to submit to him who makes the revelation: it is the problem of
finding him about whom we can be confident that he is equal to the task of
proving in the long run that he really is the one in whom we have believed.
We trust Jesus. He is equal to taking charge of life and existence.
Within the brief statement, “I am”, or “thou art”, or “he is”, lies hidden
everything that can be predicated of a man. But the statement is not true
of Jesus in the same sense as it is of other men.
That is why absolutely everything is different when applied to him. He is
made of the same stuff of life as we are: he eats, sleeps, dresses,
rejoices, sorrows, travels, talks, lives and dies; and yet everything has a
basically different character, by virtue of a distinction constantly at
work which we have no hope of grasping directly but which may be gradually
narrowed down. There is nothing miraculous about all this; yet everything
is turned upside-down and transformed.
His whole existence is a “marvel”, an intrusion into the world’s framework,
so that we can say: Such a life is impossible according to all known
earthly standards. This leads us to a broader consideration. His existence
is a sign, a proclamation of the divine, an epiphany. This is the import of
that saying reported several times by St. John: “. . . that I am he”. Thus
he tells his enemies (John 8. 28): “When you shall have lifted up the Son
of man, then shall you know that I am he.” Clearly the evangelist is
acknowledging the epiphany of the Lordship of Christ: “We saw his glory,
the glory as it were of the only-begotten of the Father” (John 1. 14).
2. HIS ACHIEVEMENT
Jesus is a person in a different way from us. It is not only a matter of
degree: he is different in an absolute sense. It is not simply that he was
more clear-minded, had greater will-power, was morally better, or of
greater religious fervor. The person in him which said “I” is another–and
indeed, with reference to God, other than we are. He belongs, and belongs
in a way we can only call extravagant, to God, exists from him, to him and
In this fact is rooted, not only the unique dignity, but also–if the word
may be used–the “achievement” of Jesus.
The value of his being-in-the-world is determined not by what he said or
did or by what happened to him, but by what he is. More precisely, by the
manner of his being; the manner of his being himself. It is only this that
imparts their real significance to his words, his actions, his sufferings.
All of what we can say about a man is supported and determined by that
essential content of significance indicated by the word “I”. The special
force which this word has in Jesus determines the virtue and value of his
Above all, this means that the whole personal life of Jesus is unique: not
just stronger, more highly developed, more intelligible, but different in
quality from other lives.
When he used the word “I” it contained no element of that “it” that causes
the I to be absorbed in the anonymity of universal human nature; no element
of the one, which would submerge the I in the impersonality of the crowd;
not even an element of the we in which every I, in spite of its essential
individuality, is inevitably involved in itself and again as the I of the
moment, and which is the basis for counting the uncountable. Jesus’ “I” is
truly and completely I, in all the uniqueness, insistence and inimitability
which the word signifies.
As a result he is capable of addressing men exactly and of being addressed
without the slightest risk of confusion with another.
He can defend to the utmost the cause of what is based on this I; nothing
escapes this responsibility; nothing merely passes through the I or
“occurs” in it. He is equal to the responsibility, desires it and does not
relinquish it. He will not fail either through weakness or through
In essence he is the one who has been “sent”: to the world as a whole, to
existence as such. Jesus nowhere has a private character, or a personal
work of his own to do–not even in the sense in which the most duty-bound
worker has it. He is never concerned with upholding his own honor.
Nor is he in the slightest degree concerned with his Own good. It is
important for us to observe that in Jesus’ mind there is not the slightest
concern about his personal welfare: he cares only for his mission. This
mission is not just one task among others in the world. In essence it has
the whole world for its object, the leading of all existence back home.
Hence his responsibility is towards all creatures, and he is capable of
carrying out this responsibility.
Because of this, too, Jesus’ experiences and trials assume a peculiar
character of their own.
There are several ways by which hardship can be alleviated. One can attack
or ward off the thing which threatens: shut oneself up against it or flee
from it; talk it out of one’s consciousness by some kind of suggestive
hypnosis: confine it within certain superficial layers of pain, and so on.
The most effective technique is no doubt to sidestep it inwardly, or
capitulate before it, jump right into it, or in some way or other adopt an
impersonal attitude and let the thing pass beside or over one.
The ultimate question is: Does the man remain himself through everything?
Whether he does not tells us nothing about the intensity of the experience,
the liveliness of the imagination, the tenderness of the feelings–all
things that depend on the nature of each individual. It does, however, tell
us a great deal about the character of his bearing under hardship, whatever
be the temperament that determined this bearing. The distinction is made
clear, for example, by the different ways in which the child and the adult
endure pain. The child perhaps feels it more severely because he does not
see beyond the present moment so that the whole of his life span is filled
with the pain. The adult, on the contrary, rich in his experiences, stands
firm with the determination of the mature man–in so far as he is one for
adulthood is not merely a matter of age but also, and principally, of moral
depth and spiritual maturity.
Here we have an analogous experience, though on a different plane. The
experience of Jesus is that of an adult and has a depth by comparison with
which every man we know is but a child–unless it be that the fact of sin,
with its inveterate hardness of heart and unfeelingness, demand that we
give a different explanation.
V. THE UTTER OTHERNESS OF JESUS
1. THE ABSOLUTE OTHERNESS AFFIRMED
It is now maintained with almost dogmatic certainty that the original Jesus
did not claim to be more than a mere man like other men. The claim to
divinity is said to have first arisen in the minds of the faithful whose
community life felt the need of a figure to worship. To provide this they
deified the simple Jesus of history and out of him made the Christ of
Meanwhile, it is said, hidden factors were at work, seeking to tone down
the claims of Jesus. “I am what you are too; so, do what I do. I am the
first to be called; now I pass the call on to you: follow in my footsteps.”
The faithful are said to have substituted a new relationship for this one.
The new idea was: “You are a different sort of being from us. You are God,
and worship is your due. We are not able to do the things which you could
do. We call upon you, and do you bring about in us that redemption which we
are not in a position to accomplish by our own effort in God’s sight.” The
New Testament “theologians”, Paul and John, formulated this idea, it is
said, and refashioned the picture of Jesus in terms of it. Does this make
What St. Paul says about the “Lord of Glory” (1 Cor. 2. 8); the quality and
significance which the prefaces of the Epistles to the Colossians and to
the Ephesians assign to the eternal Son of God; the manner in which the
First Epistle to the Corinthians sees the mystical “Body of Christ” as the
center of Christian life; what Jesus says in the great discourses of St.
John’s Gospel regarding his relationship to the Father; what the Prologue
has to say about the Logos–are all these things really nothing but the
inventions of a later metaphysics which obscured the original simple figure
of Jesus, altering the meaning of his person and his mission?
We have already noticed how this supposedly purely human figure, in fact,
defies psychology, once we refrain from explaining away its stature; and
that we can sense that it possesses a center of life which eludes all
comprehension. Does this not suggest a line of thought which may lead to
the possibility of decisive statements? And do not such statements actually
follow in fact? And do they not arise from an awareness of an apparently–I
emphasize apparently–“simple”, original Jesus, and not in the least from a
theological elaboration? So then, might not the Pauline-Johannine
“metaphysic” be, in truth, nothing but the unfolding of what had been
experienced; of what the disciples had seen, namely, the “glory of the
only-begotten of the Father” (John 1. 14)?
In the preamble to his First Epistle, St. John says: “That which was from
the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which
we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the word of life; for
the life was manifested: and we have seen and do bear witness and declare
unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father and hath appeared to
us: that which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you, that you
also may have fellowship with us and our fellowship may be with the Father
and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1. 1-3). What are these words but
the original reliable witness of this experience?
Several such statements, leading on from a supposedly purely human Jesus to
the Christ of the supposed cult mysticism, are to be found in the Synoptic
Three are of special importance: the jubilant redemptive cry of Jesus in
the eleventh chapter of St. Matthew; the discourse on the Last Judgment in
the twenty-fifth chapter of the same Gospel; and the words uttered at the
institution of the Eucharist, recorded by all the Synoptic authors.
We must examine each of these more closely.
The first passage is in St. Matthew:
“At that time, Jesus answered and said: I confess to thee, O Father, Lord
of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and
prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones. Yea, Father; for so hath it
seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered to me by my Father. And
no one knoweth the Son, but the Father: neither doth any one know the
Father, but the Son and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him.
Come to me, all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.
Take up my yoke upon you and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of
heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my
burden light” (11. 25-30).
This is a solemn declaration set forth in three stages.
The first (25-6) takes as its starting-point the apparent contradiction
that yawns like a chasm between the appearance and the lack of success of
Jesus, on the one hand, and his consciousness of the significance of his
person and mission, on the other. But this is the very thing which
demonstrates the truth, for there has to be such a contradiction. The
matter at issue is the redemption of a world enslaved to itself, in
rebellion against the holiness of God. This redemption can be effected only
by this world’s being driven back within its own bounds.
The “wise” and “prudent”, i.e. those who hold the world’s standards, turn
away; the “children” pay heed. To them God reveals himself in the work
which he performs through Jesus. This is none other than the work of
redemption which arises from God’s gracious will and is in harmony with his
good pleasure. Then (verse 27) the mighty words concerning Jesus’
relationship to the Father: the biblical “knowing”, the holy, communing
together face to face understanding of Father and Son.
Besides Jesus, no one else has ever had this “knowledge”, just as no one
else has possessed the holy power which is its obverse. Knowledge and
authority have been delegated to him. He gives them “to whom he will”. The
freedom of disposal which lies in the Father’s good pleasure is transmitted
to Jesus. An I-Thou relationship appears: an agreement in sovereignty. From
all this it follows that this Sonship is something other than the sonship
that is the portion of those who say the Our Father.
The third section, however (28-30), has the tremendous summons: “Come to
me, all . . .” The helplessness of the whole of mankind–he can deal with
it all. He brings rest. And then, equally staggering, we hear, not of
“God’s”, but of “my yoke”; just as in the Sermon on the Mount he does not
say “Thus saith the Lord”, but “I say to you”, founded upon his: “Learn of
me, because I am meek and humble of heart.” He does, and has, and is, all
that the Sermon on the Mount requires. And he is so “from his heart”–
completely, unreservedly, with utter purity of intention. But what does
this mean when we think also of another saying, such as: “If you then,
being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children . . .” (Mat. 7.
11)? Does the ‘you” of this saying imply that all men are evil?
Here, in the straightforward language of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus stands
in a direct relationship to his Father, apart from all mankind. No man who
had been brought up in the school of the Old Testament and accepted the
obligations of the New could ever speak in this way. He would be putting
himself outside the whole order of revelation. It would be a sacrilege
against the idea of revelation as such–revolt pure and simple.
The second passage is the discourse on the Last Judgment:
“And when the Son of man shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with
him, then shall he sit upon the seat of his majesty: and all nations shall
be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from
another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: and he shall
set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left. Then shall the
king say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my
Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the
world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you
gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you
covered me; sick and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.
Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry,
and fed thee, thirsty and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a
stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and covered Thee? Or when did we see
thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? And the king answering shall say
to them. Amen, I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least
brethren, you did it to me. Then he shall say to them also that shall be on
his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was
prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me
not to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger,
and you took me not in: naked and you covered me not: sick and in prison,
and you did not visit me. Then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord,
when did we see thee hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick,
or in prison, and did not minister to thee? Then he shall answer them,
saying: Amen, I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these
least, neither did you do it to me. And these shall go into everlasting
punishment: but the just, into life everlasting” (Mat. 25. 31-46).
“Judgment”, in the sense of this text, is the act whereby is established
the absolute truth about human existence. It is the act which removes man
from his historical refusal of God, opens his heart and sets him in the
presence of God. It is the act which weighs his actions and thoughts and,
on this basis, confers on him his status for eternity, assigning him his
eternal fate. This judgment is, therefore, an essential and nondelegable
act of God.
The one who judges according to this text, however, is not “God” but Jesus.
The one who sits upon the “seat of majesty” is not the God who appeared on
Horeb, the unapproachable object of the prophetic theophanies, but the
selfsame speaker of these words–Jesus of Nazareth. This leads inescapably
to the alternative: either he knew himself to be in some manner or other
the God, or, though a man, he was laying claim to the prerogatives of God.
Now, in Jesus’ nature and attitude we find no trace of lust for power,
arrogance or “hubris” of any sort. Anything of that nature would run
counter to the deep horror of the Old Testament for any confusion between
the human and the divine; would not harmonize with Jesus’ own pattern of
behavior; is excluded by the limpid clarity and quintessential truth which
made up his nature. It is simply impossible that Jesus could ever have let
slip a word, an attitude, a spiritual gesture, capable of casting a doubt
upon the exclusive divinity of God. The cleverest logician can arrive at a
false conclusion; the completely just man can be deceived about his true
motives; the shrewdest judge of character can be taken in by hypocrisy; but
Jesus never uttered a single syllable which by implication or hidden
meaning violated the honor of God. If anyone thinks that such a thing could
have happened, he has not really studied Jesus.
The same demonstration is arrived at by the following question: How does
Jesus judge? What are his standards? Clearly, the rule of love–in its
supreme form as love of one’s neighbor but which, in accordance with the
“first and greatest commandment”, is the same thing as love of God.
On these terms, the judgment, according to the usual ethical norms, would
be made as follows: “You, on this side, have shown love to your fellow man.
God recognizes this and pronounces it to be the foundation of an eternal
life of bliss for you. You, on that side, have not shown love.” This fact
is made known and the sentence of eternal damnation is pronounced. But this
is not what happens: what is said is this: “I was in need of love; you gave
it to me. You others denied it me.” This does not mean simply that he, the
first-called, was anticipating the objection that love had been denied only
to this or that loved one, and was assuring the solidarity of all mankind
by declaring that he, the Master, was one with “the least of these my
brethren”. Something quite different is happening here. Jesus says: To show
love is to love me. To fail in love is to fail me.
What determines good and evil in the Christian scheme, what decides the
value of an act in God’s sight and its significance for everlasting life,
is not, as in the common view of ethics, the ethical category, but he
himself–his person. At the precise point in a moral act where, according
to other systems, there is revealed in any concrete situation the ethical
goodness of that act, here it is Christ who appears. The rational
argumentation which is the basis for every moral judgment and which points
to a norm (e.g. an action is good because it actualizes truth), in the
Christian view, leads to his person. We do not say: This language is good
because it announces the truth; we say: It is good because it affirms him–
All this means the same thing as what the supposedly late theology of the
Prologue to St. John’s Gospel tries to convey with its notion of the Logos.
It is said there that he is the creative truth of God; that the eternal
meaning of life is decided by our attitude towards him. There is,
therefore, in the ethical and practical sphere, an exact analogy with the
Logos idea in the metaphysical and ontological sphere.
The third passage has to do with the institution of the Eucharist (Mat.
26. 26-8; Mark 14. 22-5,; Luke 22 19-20; 1 Cor. 11 23-5). In St. Matthew it
runs thus: “And whilst they were at supper Jesus took bread and blessed and
broke and gave to his disciples and said: Take ye and eat: THIS IS MY BODY.
And taking the chalice, he gave thanks and gave to them, saying: Drink ye
all of this. FOR THIS IS MY BLOOD OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, WHICH SHALL BE SHED
FOR MANY UNTO REMISSION OF SINS.
To begin with, we are reading about a ritual meal which is being celebrated
in commemoration of the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt and the
inauguration of the theocracy in the Covenant of Sinai (Ex. 12. 1 ff.). On
this action a new action is grafted. Following the original closely, we
have a new institution made with a new fullness of authority, a new
sacrifice, a new covenant arising out of this; a new spiritual food; a new
liturgical tradition with a corresponding authority to maintain it. The
whole thing is a memorial of a new event which is decisive for all time to
The content of all this is not some action performed by God purely and
simply, a display of divine power intelligible in the context of sacred
history; it is the person, the act. the destiny of him who institutes it
Furthermore, in assessing the meaning of the Eucharistic celebration we
must take account of the frame of mind of the participants. They were men
of ancient times who did not think in terms of abstractions, but
pictorially. They were not men of Hellenistic culture ready to attach a
character of divinity to anything and everything; they were men schooled in
the Old Testament, with a horror of any violation of the majesty of God, of
anything sensual and dionysian, men intolerant in their rejection of any
semblance of mystery religion or mythology.
The act contains a statement about Christ which once again gives us an
equivalent of the Logos idea. What was said about Jesus in the Prologue to
St. John in a metaphysical way, and by the discourse on the Last Judgment
in a moralistic way, is expressed here in terms of liturgy and cult.
The following consideration underlines this. The founder says: “Take ye and
eat, this is my body . . . Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood.” We
are not dealing here with any mere symbol of friendship or spiritual
fellowship or sharing in grace, but with the very clear concept of eating
and drinking. What St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, and St. John reports in
the discourse at Capharnaum (Chapter 6), represents a theological
elaboration of what is reported by St. Matthew and the others. Jesus
explains unequivocally that the new existence which he preaches and makes
possible is to be nourished on his own actual life. To put it negatively:
in him there is nothing which is harmful, poisonous, destructive;
positively: the new life of the redeemed is built up on his life.
No other man dares to speak thus. No Old Testament figure–no prophet would
ever have dreamt of doing so. Nor would any New Testament figure either. No
one who was caught up in the spirit and ethos of the New Testament, or who
had in any way assimilated its thought, would have done so–the latter
least of all. The more deeply a person becomes “Christian”, the further
removed is he from any disposition which might suggest that he use such
Our final result is, therefore, the same alternative as we noticed earlier.
These three passages which are so revealing about the suprahuman
consciousness of Jesus do not stand alone, however. They merely point out
very clearly what is shown in many other places by the words and deeds of
Jesus. They cannot be eliminated, therefore. If they were removed, his
whole figure, the whole shape of his character and thought would be
What then is the upshot? If Jesus is a mere man, then he must be measured
by the message which he brought to men. He must himself do what he expects
of others; he must himself think according to the way he demanded that men
think. He must himself be a “Christian”.
Very well then; the more he is like that, the less he will speak, act or
think as he in fact did; and the more he will be appalled by the blasphemy
of the way he did behave.
If Jesus is mere man as we are, even though a very profound one, very
devout, very pure–no, let us put it another way: the measure of his depth,
devotion, purity, reverence, will be the measure in which it will be
impossible for him to say what he says in our three passages.
The following clear-cut alternative emerges: either he is–not just evil,
for that would not adequately describe the case–either he is deranged, as
Nietzsche became in Turin in 1888; or he is quite different, deeply and
essentially different, from what we are.
2. JESUS ORIGINALITY
So far we have considered and tried to understand the personality of Jesus
to the extent of our very limited abilities in the way one can consider and
understand the greatest of human personalities. Now we must gather our
findings together and complete the picture. But all we can say is that
there is no such thing as a psychology of Jesus. We cannot do with him what
we can do with any other man, i.e. understand him in terms of our general
knowledge of the life of the human soul, determine his inner spiritual
structure from an observation of his speech and behavior, his actions and
destiny; discover from such observations what alterations have taken place
in him in the course of his life, what is innate in him and what are
acquired characteristics, and so on. In this way we can form a picture of
the nature and life of any man, and the picture is more detailed and
sharper in outline the more acute our observation, the more vivid our
appreciation of that person’s context and background, the greater our
powers of correlation. And this possibility is intensified when the
observer is not detached but approaches the object of his inquiry with
sympathy and love, or, it may even be to a certain degree, with hatred, for
this, too, sharpens the insight.
The personality of many men is easily discernible. Others are more
complicated. And then there are the contradictory, the abnormal, the morbid
types. But psychological analysis is always possible, even with unusual
men. Sometimes, indeed, the latter are particularly good subjects for
analysis–provided the observer is competent. There is only one sphere, it
would seem, which is barred to such analysis, the sphere in which the
person is in himself and stands before God. This, however, leads us beyond
our present inquiry.
No such psychology of Jesus is possible. And yet we must be cautious.
Obviously some kind of psychological understanding of him is possible
because he possesses true humanity. Reading the story of the temptation,
for example, and learning that he felt hungry, we see the connection
between this event and the preceding fast. We understand the tension which
resulted from this and the use made of it by the subsequent temptation. But
who would attempt to give a final answer to the question of what hunger
really meant for Christ? The reality of the elementary need, the power to
work a miracle, and the refusal to use this power for his own ends; the
superiority of his inner attitude, the composure of his resistance, the
absence of any kind of struggle or over-excitement; the relationship of his
hunger and of the whole event in general to his existence as a whole; what
are we to say about all these things in the last analysis?
We read about how he loved mankind, took children into his arms and had
compassion on the suffering, how he was fond of his disciples, permitting
one of them to be called “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, how Mary Magdalen
was specially close to him, all these things obviously make some kind of
“psychology” possible in his case. Our own experience and observation of
everyday life help us to have some kind of understanding, to discern points
of contact, to feel admiration, joy and reverence. But, taking a
comprehensive view, do we understand what love really meant to Jesus? What
his love was like; how did it affect him personally? If we refuse to think
of Jesus either sentimentally or in terms of rationalist ethics, if we set
aside the banalities of popular scientific and not-so-scientific
representations, and try to see him as the Scriptures describe him, we soon
realize that this love is a mystery.
Who is able to say even with the help of every known historical and
psychological factor in the conduct of religious man–that he understands
what happened in the upper room at the Last Supper? Can he understand this
love and self-giving, this perfect self-possession, this freedom from all
strain and this tremendous purpose of giving himself to be the food of his
own people? We could understand it well enough, if we were considering a
pathological case: we would have the appropriate syndrome to guide us. But
what can we make of him to whom the word “sick” is totally inapplicable?
Anyone who says that he does understand does not know what understanding
We can try to enter into the hour spent in Gethsemane by employing the
notion of a religious genius, interpreting the event as a state of
depression; we can try to interpret his demeanor on the cross as religious
fanaticism with its catastrophic turn, or again in terms of the wise man
victorious over the world and using this means of testifying to his
teaching. All this would yield important and interesting results; but it
would not be Jesus about whom we were speaking.
In Jesus there are psychological elements, for in body and soul he is a
man. The contacts spread out in all directions with their varying contents
and laws. We can recognize them, but can follow them only so far and no
further. In the end they withdraw into a core of mystery where our gaze
cannot penetrate. And even if we study closely what is apparent, still we
cannot fully understand, because this part, too, has a character which
defies analysis. There is no character plan or psychological structure, no
type, no biography, of Jesus. Anything which claims to be such a thing is
mere muddle or deceit, for often behind the alleged analysis lurks the
desire to humanize him.
Jesus cannot be dissected psychologically. He cannot be understood in terms
of what we know about the nature of man; we cannot lay him bare or “get to
the bottom of” him (how appropriate is that phrase). All this is what we
mean when we speak of his originality.
Nor can we deduce Jesus from historical or sociological premises. Every man
can be set in his historical perspective: we can show how his life has been
determined by preceding and contemporary historical circumstances in the
political, economic and intellectual spheres. We correlate all the data:
how current ideas and literary opinions are reproduced in him; his relation
to his environment, family, friends, work, social group, nationality; how
his emotional life and his ideas are conditioned by all these things, and
so on. And having taken account of all that he has received from his
environment and from history–not forgetting the way, too, in which he has
reacted against it, often itself an inverted sign of dependence–what is
left as the man himself? Little, often so very little that we might think
that individuality is nothing but a slight variation in the elements common
to all life, or that it consists in the fact that it is, in a given case,
this person and no other who exists in the common stuff of human life.
Again, such a deduction from environment and history is quite impossible
It is true that he lived in a certain environment and bore its impress. He
was dressed in the garb of any itinerant preacher of his time. His food,
shelter, customs were those of his neighbor. For example, when we hear that
he reclined at table for the Last Supper, we can picture how he did this
from the information supplied by literary and archaeological records. He
belonged to a historical period, spoke the language of his time, used its
imagery and ideas. Previous history, that is, the history of Old Testament
revelation and the involvement of the people in it, were normative for him
as for his contemporaries, and historical study takes pains, indeed, to
examine these factors. But how far are they operative?
Granted: Jesus is involved in his environment. But every sentence of the
Gospel story shows that he was by no means absorbed by it. It was not only
that he resisted it, as does every man of moral earnestness when he
observes false influences at work in his environment, or every unusual man
when he detaches himself from his surroundings. His detachment from his
environment was much more fundamental. Those who encountered him felt a
basic strangeness in his nature. They do not know quite how they stand with
him. He disturbs and startles them. Again and again it is apparent how they
are shattered, shaken in their accepted manner of thought by him. They try
to fit him into their ordinary scheme of things, but they never succeed.
This happens not in the way it does, to some extent, with every genius who
towers above his age: it has to do with an essential transcendence. As soon
as we, in our turn, try to gain a better insight into his nature, we become
aware that we too will fare no better. He would be alien in any
environment; in educated Hellenistic society, with the cosmopolitan Romans,
or with ordinary people. It was not people of certain given cultural or
psychological qualities who were ready to accept him, but they who
possessed the disposition which culminates in faith.
This does not consist, however, in certain specific prerequisites, but in a
free opening up of the heart and will–and in the refusal of the forces of
grace to be repulsed.
The same thing applies to history. He is in history, in the history of his
people like any other man. He is part of a historical heritage–as the name
“Son of David” implies. He accepts this as his own, takes up the
responsibilities before God which it entails, carries it out to its logical
fulfillment in his own destiny. But he does all this in a way which drives
him into an ever deeper isolation than he would have known had he detached
himself from it. This isolation is seen in the time he spent in the
wilderness, in his hours of prayer on mountain tops, or in Gethsemane. None
can “watch with” him there. This is not a question of simple material
solitude, but of a qualitative, absolute solitude.
My father who is in heaven”–the “we” of the Our Father–“My Father and
your Father”. This, however, is the way in which he annuls history, breaks
its spell and inaugurates something transformed and new. He is obedient
unto death to history, in which he sees the Father’s will to lie: but even
here too he demonstrates that he is Lord of history. This is expressed in
his essential consciousness that he is its judge–and this means something
much more than that an outstanding man is judging history or altering its
course. It is inseparable from his eschatological consciousness of being
the judge of the world, in other words, from the Parousia. This is not some
sort of crowning statement superadded to something normal; it reveals what
has been inherent in his thought all along.
The fact that Jesus cannot be analyzed in terms of his environment and
history–things that provide the key to a very great part of every other
man’s nature–is indicative of his “originality”
Jesus gives rise neither to an idea nor to a myth. The “idea” is a picture
of the nature of a thing or of a relation. When we see an act of true
courage and its special quality makes a deep impression on our minds and
emotions, we know what courage is. The nature of courage is revealed to us.
This constitutes the idea. It is evidenced by a particular manifestation,
but it itself is more than this. When the mind grasps it, it understands
the particular courageous act, but at the same time it has access to all
types and grades of courageous behavior, for there are very many of these.
There are those that are obvious, those that are hidden, those that are
spontaneous, those that are performed only after self-discipline, those
that are magnanimous, those that are grudging, and so on. Whoever has once
grasped the idea of courage is able to appreciate it in its various
embodiments, and able to judge it and assess its importance for life as a
Does such an idea of Christ exist? There have been those who affirm that it
does, and they have claimed to be able to expound it–the idea of pure
humanity or perfect goodness or total attachment to God. Since the
Enlightenment there has been a tendency to see things in the light, and, as
a result, his nature has been corroded and finally eaten away.
Again, men have probed deeper and said that the relevant idea was that of
the God-man. At first, this would seem to be a brighter suggestion. But if
there is an idea of the God-man, it must be one we can grasp just like
every other idea, through experience, reflection and inner illumination: in
the world around us and within our minds. What would the God-man idea mean
on these terms? Something highly ambiguous: divinity, as we imagine it to
be: humanity, as we know it; both united in a way familiar to us, in some
such way as body and soul are united, or as consciousness is related to the
basic thought that determines it, or as the first rung in the ladder of
evolution is related to its highest peak. Whatever emerged would be
something highly contradictory, highly heterogeneous, in which everything,
the divine and the human, and the connection between them, would be
spoiled. Beings of this kind, in fact, have often been thought of–imagined
would be a better word–in the case of the ancient demigods and heroes, the
superhuman geniuses of the Renaissance and the ideal figures of eighteenth-
century classicism, the demigod of Holderlin, and the superman of
Nietzsche. But Christ has no part in any of these. When we hear it said
that he is the God-man, we learn nothing at all about him which our
experience of this world enables us to understand. The term means that he
is something qualitatively new and different, which receives its meaning
only from the inner life of God himself, and from God’s conception of and
plan for man.
A myth of Christ is lacking too, as well as an idea of him. Myths are forms
and incidents which arise in the primitive contemplative and pictorial mind
and by which it expresses the nature of the world and its own existence.
The mythology of the sun, for example, tells us about a mighty supernatural
being of light who rises in majesty and conquers the dragon darkness,
bringing light, warmth and fertility. In the course of battle with the
dragon he is, however, defeated; but only in the end to rise anew. This
myth is descriptive both of the soul and its desire for light and of the
fate which befalls it. Its expression is found in the various sun gods, and
in the sagas of heroes like Siegfried and Krishna.
Christ is in no sense the embodiment of a myth of this kind. In no sense
can we interpret him in terms of the power and the destiny of light, or in
terms of any other myth motif such as that of fertility, which springs from
the marriage of heaven and earth. This is ruled out by the very obvious
fact that he is an historical person. The mythical figures are related to
history like the horizon which ever recedes as we approach it, but Christ
stands right in the middle of history, at a clearly defined point in time,
space, and historical sequence. Take his whole figure, his attitude, his
actions, his relationship to God and to man: none of this shows the
slightest trace of the idealization which is characteristic of the myth, a
thing that is universal and yet never existed. He is the very opposite of
the myth, full of symbolism but making no obligatory demands on anyone. He
is completely non-ideal and non-symbolic. He is through and through reality
itself. He is a person and speaks to other persons. Hence that realism,
that almost banal everyday quality about him, which has enabled the
metaphysicians and the mythomaniacs to feel superior with regard to him.
But it is he who sets the person in motion and gives reality to life. His
nature is completely lacking in all the paganism which is so characteristic
of the myth, all the worldliness, and all the inability to rise above the
things of this world which we find in the myth. He shatters every mythology
and brings men through all that is tinged by the world that hinders a
relationship with a personal, holy God. Thus we can understand why all the
myth lovers instinctively hate everything that he represents.
The fact that there is neither an idea nor a myth which discloses the
nature of Jesus is a further indication of his originality.
We can sum all this up by saying: There exists no concept of Jesus. A
concept is the expression of an intelligible reality. A concept is what
human thinking attains when it has managed to become master of an object by
abstracting it from the conditions in which it exists in the world. It is
the general symbol under which the particular is subsumed. Of Christ there
can be no such concept.
Of him we have only a name–the name which God himself gave him. The words
“Jesus Christ” do not connote any general idea but express one single,
particular occurrence. They are the name of him who once came among us and
suffered a death which was our redemption. He alone can reveal what he is.
There is a parallel between one of the most important passages in the Old
Testament and Jesus’ mighty saying about himself. The former is in Exodus,
in the account of God’s revelation on Mount Horeb. There Moses saw the bush
burning without being consumed, and in the flames there appeared the form
of the “angel of the Lord”, God’s emissary, who was at the same time God
himself. From him Moses received a commission to lead the people out of
bondage. Then Moses asks: “Lo, I shall go to the children of Israel, and
say to them: The God of your fathers hath sent me to you. If you should say
to me: What is his name? What shall I say to them? God said to Moses: I AM
WHO AM. He said: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS
hath sent me to you” (Ex. 3. 13-14). Here God reveals his name. And what is
this name? Strictly speaking, it is a declining to accept definition in
terms of anything belonging to the world. It is a claim to complete
sovereignty over everything in the world. At the same time it is a claim to
possess the fullness of intelligence and being, and a claim that this
fullness springs entirely from him alone and is entirely in him alone. This
is the divinity of God which arouses in the man who is attuned to it a
response of adoration.
In St. John’s Gospel we are told how Jesus was disputing with his enemies,
and said to them: “I am he” (8. 28). These words are language which only
God could use. They express the same thought as was expressed on Horeb.
Jesus “is he”, purely and simply. He is the one who counts; the one through
whom the redemption is accomplished; the one in whom the new creation
originates. And so, when Christ says in the Apocalypse: “I am Alpha and
Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22. 13), he is
only enlarging upon this little sentence.
Truly, he came into this world and entered into history, a man with a man’s
body and soul. But he was there in a manner, and was real in a manner that
eludes every human concept.
In the genuineness of his incarnation he belongs to this world, but at the
same time he is independent of it. As such he addresses the world, lifts it
out of its falseness, and sets it on a new path, grants it a fresh start–
and he himself is its beginning.
This is what determines man’s relationship to Christ. The act by which he
comes to Christ, and the relationship with him upon which he enters, must
share in Christ’s own character. The props provided by the various
certainties he finds in the things of the world are all lacking. Christ is
the beginning, the subjective beginning, the beginning of life; and one
only reaches this beginning by actually beginning.
There are certain approaches, it is true: the longing for redemption; the
search for a liberating leadership; the questions: where from, where to,
why and wherefore? When a man who is thus prepared meets Christ, he
realizes: I can trust him; here is “the way, the truth, and the life”.
Something in him, Tertullian’s “anima naturaliter christiana”, recognizes
in Christ him who has come. But all this is, as we said, but an approach.
The step itself, which constitutes making a start, must be freely made.
In Christ there begins that which is genuinely new; thus there is no
pathway leading from the world to him on which we shall not need daring in
order to overcome the hazard represented by the “rock of offense”: by the
feeling that we may be “making fools of ourselves”.
At this point, then, it is quite clear that our description has left
something out of the total picture: the thing which enables a man to dare
all and throw himself upon Christ. We will have to say: That beginning
which is Christ himself evokes a beginning in man–liberates it, nay,
creates it. The beginning in man is the echo of the beginning, which is
The beginning which appeared corporeally in the world in Christ, and the
beginning which he creates in man, form a unity. Christ has come as our
Redeemer, in love. This means he came to us and “for us”. And so, if we may
express it thus, his Redeemership is for ever fulfilled and accomplished in
the response given by man whom he calls, to whom he offers the possibility
of entering into the new beginning and thus beginning himself.
All this is what is called “grace”. Man is to recognize Christ, decide for
him, come to him, dare all for him, make a new start from him–and yet, all
the time, this is the effect of action already taken on God’s side and
forms a unity with that which is in Christ.
The act, thus elicited by grace and directed towards Christ, in which all
that is most individual in man’s nature finds its true realization,
although it is entirely invitation and free gift, is faith. Faith, on the
human side, is the actualization of that beginning which Christ effects
through his whole being.
In all this a decision–the decision “simpliciter”–is required. The
various attempts to see Jesus in a psychological or sociological or
mythological sense all end up in the same way: they shy away from the
decision and give us nothing but considerations on universal humanity.
However important or interesting this universal humanity may be, it is, in
fact, a secondary thing. The man who makes these attempts does not see the
Jesus who originates in the freedom of God at all, but himself remains
imprisoned in the confines of this world. Jesus is truly seen only by the
man who believes in him, or who–and this is the real antithesis of faith–
finds him a stumbling-block.
Jesus said so himself. He answered the Forerunner’s question: “Art thou he
that is to come, or look we for another?” in such a way as to apply
Isaiah’s prophecy to himself and to make plain that it was being fulfilled
in him, i.e. that he was the Messiah. Then he added: “And blessed is he
that shall not be scandalized in me” (Mat. 11. 3, 6). The possibility that
people would be scandalized by him was part of his nature, for the very
reason that he is the beginning. He expected men to give up the certainties
of this world and risk everything for his sake. If a man was able to accept
these terms, then the new relationship of grace and of faith emerged and a
new life began. But if the man shut up his heart and refused, then he
rebelled against the notion that Christ was expecting this of him; and this
constitutes being scandalized.
Faith or scandal: these are the only real attitudes caused in man by
Christ. Faith sees him as the beginning and takes its stance there. It is
prepared to think and live as from Christ, to submit to his judgment and
appeal to his grace. Scandal affirms that he is the enemy of life, the
world’s adversary, and declares on him a war the like of which is unknown.
Perhaps the only clearly defined lesson of history is to the effect that
this cleavage becomes more and more pronounced. More and more obviously the
world is becoming divided into those who believe in Christ and those who
find him a scandal.
1. The category of originality is rooted in one of the prime
questions of being: in the question of origin. It plays a
prominent part in early mythological thoughts. All primitive
theogonies and cosmogonies are an answer to the question where
everything comes from; about that which itself has no beginning,
but gives existence to all else, furnishing all things with life
and energy. The question about beginning–about the arche–is
the first systematic question arising from the impression made
on us by what is, the impression that it does not exist of
itself, but is in a state of flux; that it does not explain
itself, but points back to something else. Wonder then gives
way to philosophical inquiry and evokes the counterquestion:
where is everything going? From these two questions arises man’s
predicament, theoretical and existential. Everything comes from
the origin–endowment, achievement, destiny. This, too, receives
a philosophical and scientific elaboration. The question of both
ultimates affects everything. Here we have to do with one of the
“schemata” of all investigation, perhaps the most fundamental of
2. On the character of this warfare, see the much repeated
thought in St. John’s Gospel: “You desire to kill me”, rising
to a pitch in the desire of Jesus’ enemies to kill Lazarus whom
he had raised from the dead (John 12. 10).
3. JESUS BEING COME
In what has just been written, we have discussed the originality of Jesus.
By that was meant the fact that he cannot be deduced from the things of
this world. He is not just one factor in a continuous, homogeneous
succession, no matter how vast; no, in his own utter uniqueness he stands
over against everything we know in this world. This is made clear by the
fact that there is no psychology, no sociological or historical
explanation, no idea or myth of Jesus. In this world he exists in quite
another way from this world’s own beings. He transcends all the concepts of
the way in which what is, is.
The manner of this being must now once more be examined–and according to
his own way of seeing it.
The tree we see before us in its particular form and shape came from a
seed, which in turn came from a tree of the same species. Roots, stem,
branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruit, have all formed themselves out of
the stuff of earth and air which surrounds the tree. Light has affected it,
the wind has moved it, the rain has moistened it. In due time the tree
dies; but from its seed new trees of the same kind have already sprung up.
If, then, we ask how this tree exists, how it came to be and is here now,
the answer would proceed as follows: It has grown out of the combination of
circumstances one must postulate when talking of trees. It comes out of
nature as a whole and is ultimately re-absorbed by nature. It is one factor
in the totality of life, or more exactly, of this particular species of
tree; more exactly still, of a succession of individual trees which is made
up of fruit, tree, and then fruit once more. Once this particular tree has
grown and its life-span is run, it disappears again into the totality of
Man is different. With him, too, there is much that has been produced: his
bodily organism has come from those of his parents, his mental riches from
what his environment can offer, his way of thinking from historical
circumstances. Nonetheless, there is in him an essential limit which is
set, for in man there is something which has not been produced: his
spiritual soul. His busy mind tells him that his soul comes from somewhere
else, from a realm beyond nature, bringing with it mental faculties which
create between it and nature a state of tension. Religions and systems of
philosophy interpret this relationship. Faith gives the final definition by
saying that the soul does not arise out of the context of this world but
comes, each one individually and once only, from the creative will of God.
Thus each man bears a direct relationship to God. He feels his bond with
the mystery of his created origin–at least he can feel it if he pays
proper attention to it. This bond runs through and beyond all his relations
of dependence on the world and is the foundation of his religious life.
Existence begins afresh, therefore, with every man; and so the history of
mankind is something quite different from the genealogy of a variety of
trees or the pedigree of a breed of animals. It is, rather, a continuity,
the separate parts of which are not completely contained in it, but are,
each one individually, also related to God, so that they enjoy all the
positive and negative advantages of being beginnings. This gives rise to
the dialectic structure of history; from this, too, comes the fact that
there is no ultimate finality in any historical phenomenon. There is no
problem connected with existence as such, which is ever finally settled.
Each man, in his own individual existence, must take them up again. This is
the cause of the insecurity in history: it is for every being once more
called in question. Hence, too, the ever new possibilities and fresh hope
associated with each human being.
The tree has its origin within this world; man, with his spiritual soul, is
projected into it. The existence of Christ is once more totally different
and this time in an absolute sense. In him, too, there is a produced
element: his bodily organism is derived from a human mother; he bears in
himself the heritage of an ancient line; his personality harbors the common
thought heritage of the men of his time. And in Christ too there is that
directly created thing: his mighty and holy soul which proceeded from the
creative will of God, like the soul of each one of us. But what is most
characteristic about him is something of another kind altogether. He is the
Son of God and as such has “come into the world”.
What is the significance of this for his existence?
The saying that he has come is very much his own; it expresses what was
uppermost in his mind. “I came not to call the just, but sinners”, he says
in St. Mark’s Gospel (2. 17). In St. John it forms one of the basic motifs
of his presentation, and is the thing which gives this Gospel its special
air of mystery. Thus Jesus says to Pilate: “For this was I born, and for
this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth” (18.
37). Still more impressive are his words to his disciples at the Last
Supper: “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I
leave the world, and I go to the Father” (16. 28). But the Prologue says of
the Son of God: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (1. 1
1). The opposition of the world into which he comes serves to underline the
fact of his coming.
The saying about his “coming” is no mere manner of speaking: it describes a
fact. We sense a genuine movement; the traversing of a distance along a
road, a decision which has moved someone to make a journey, and a place
from which the journey started. The statement is most revealing. It makes
it quite plain that God is not merely absolute Spirit, existing everywhere
and maintaining all things, but that he is also he who arises, sets out and
arrives. In Christ, the Son of God exists as he who has come into this
This advent is no adventure of some divine hero, but is undertaken under
commission and with power. Jesus himself says–and the saying again
expresses his most profound consciousness of himself and his nature that he
has been “sent”.
This thought, too, permeates the whole of the Fourth Gospel: “As the Father
hath sent me, I also send you” (John 20. 21), he tells his apostles after
A decree lies behind his coming: the eternal decree of the Father of which
St. Paul speaks in the Epistle to the Colossians (1. 19-20): “Because in
him, it hath well pleased the Father, that all fullness should dwell; and
through him to reconcile all things unto himself.”
This decree is present throughout the life of Jesus: it is always there
when he is speaking about the Father’s will. His coming, as his entry into
earthly existence, is balanced by his fulfillment of the Father’s will, his
obedience to him, as the constant determinant of his actions. The form in
which this holy will is expressed, as it is concretely manifested through
the facts of daily existence is “his hour”. “My hour is not yet come” (John
2. 4). This direct determination by the “will” dominates every inner and
Let us repeat: the Son could only “be sent” and “come” because he existed
eternally as a living person. He is not just some energy which emanates
from the Father: no mere enlightenment granted to a man; certainly no
ethico-religious form of self-perfection or a stage in man’s mystical
development: he is himself, a true person.
The Epistle to the Hebrews expresses this fact by saying: “Wherefore, when
he cometh into the world, he saith: . . . Behold I come. In the head of the
book it is written of me, that I should do thy will, O God” (10. 5, 7). In
St. John’s Gospel we read in the high-priestly prayer: “And now glorify
thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had, before the
world was, with thee” (17. 5). The source of this existence is finally
expressed in the following text: “No man hath seen God [the Father, that
is] at any time: the only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father,
he hath declared him” (1. 18).
This is the ultimate origin. We cannot go back any further. This is the
primal realm of God to which the Prologue to St. John refers: the love
within God himself, into which no created thing intrudes: “In the beginning
was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word [himself] was God.
The same was in the beginning with God” (1. 1-2)
This eternal Word, the eternal Son who is in the bosom of the Father, has
“come” in Christ, and is now “with us”.
These three sayings are of inexhaustible meaning: come into the world . . .
sent by the Father’s decree . . . born of the Father before all ages . . .
These describe the way in which Christ exists in the world.
We would do well to ponder these sayings in the depths of our soul, in
order to be able to distinguish what must be distinguished: plants and
animals arise out of this world; man with his personal spiritual core is
projected into it; Christ comes into it from beyond. This fact determines
his nature. The consciousness of this is alive in him. Therefore he is the
mystery we see in him and that he is. Therefore he is at once the one whom
we know and the one who is unknowable. He is truly there, but has an
infinite road behind him. He is actually in the world, but in such a manner
that the world can never engulf him.
He can never be explained in terms of the world, never be seen as a mere
component part of it. He is for ever the one who has come. For ever it is
he who gives the jolt to the world’s self-assurance. He is for ever
breaking through the world’s self-sufficiency in its unity.
And thus, too, he departs out of this world. But there is a difference here
also. The forms of trees and animals dissolve and become material from
which new forms arise. Man’s soul is called by its Creator and comes before
him for eternal judgment. Christ goes home to his Father.
His farewell utterances are full of the mystery of this homeward journey.
“Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You shall seek me, and
as I said to the Jews: Whither I go you cannot come: so I say to you now”
(John 13. 33). More plainly: “I go to the Father” (14. 13), “I go to him
that sent me” (16. 5). And very precisely: “I came forth from the Father,
and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and I go to the
Father” (16. 28). The same distinction established between the concepts of
being born. sent, and coming, and that of human entering on existence,
appears here with regard to the way in which man departs from this earthly
scene. Man dies and his soul appears before its Creator to be judged:
Christ “goes to his Father”, back to the primal realm of divine beginning,
to that place where what he prayed for at the end of his farewell
discourses is present reality: “That they all may be one, as thou, Father,
in me, and I in thee: that they also may be one in us (17. 21). And
again: “And now glorify thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory
which I had, before the world was, with thee” (17. 5).
Jesus’ existence in this world, therefore, is different from ours. It is a
coming and a returning. It is a passing through, which forges through the
deepest abyss of life and bears everything up into the holy beginning of
the redemption and new creation. And this beginning, no earthly or worldly
context can hold it back.
If this is Christ, then the world cannot comprehend him by itself. He
himself will have to supply the means for it to understand. And this is
what he says himself, on several occasions: that only those will understand
his words aright “who have ears to hear” (Mat. 11. 15; 13. 9, 16); that
only those whom the Father helps can come to him, who stands before them in
his visible, palpable reality: “No man can come to me, except the Father,
who hath sent me, draw him” (John 6. 44). St. Paul repeats this idea
emphatically: “No man can say the Lord Jesus, but by the Holy Ghost” (1
Cor. 12. 3). This means that no one is able to profess a real belief in the
Lord as Redeemer, unless God enables him to do so.
The aim of Christ’s coming is that he should arrive and be accepted. But
for this he himself has to prepare the dwelling and give it the power to
open up to him. This is faith.
Here we use the word “faith” in the sense which is usually given to it by
the New Testament, not as a name for faith as distinguished from hope and
love, as in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, or as distinguished from
prayer and good works, but as the Christian act “per se”, as the response
to revelation and redemption. Faith is the being struck by the coming of
God in Christ: a living encounter, acceptance, union in trust and loyalty.
The capacity to respond in this way is given by the very one himself who
comes. If Christ were to come while men remained what they are of their own
nature, none would recognize him, none would accept him. All would find him
an offense, a stumbling-block, as the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel says:
“The darkness did not comprehend it . . . his own received him not” (1. 5,
11). The same divine movement which is the Lord’s coming also creates faith
in the soul. His coming and our believing constitute an indivisible whole.
Thus, faith, too, is a “beginning”. It does not arise from the temperament
and capacities of the men who have it, nor yet from the contingencies of
their environment, but is generated by God. Faith is the act of the “new
life” of which the New Testament speaks. It is the sign and the proof of
new birth. For example, we read in St. John: “Jesus therefore said to them:
If God were your Father, you would indeed love me. For from God I proceeded
and came: for I came not of myself, but he sent me. Why do you not know my
speech? Because you cannot hear my word…. If I say the truth to you, why
do you not believe me? He that is of God heareth the words of God.
Therefore you hear them not, because you are not of God” (John 8. 42-7).
It is true that faith contains a host of derivative elements. A man’s faith
life has its psychology. Certain patterns can be shown to exist in every
man’s life of faith; features which are connected with his family or race;
others which are peculiar to the individual. We will find in it the same
structure as governs his whole mental and spiritual life. A man’s faith
will differ from a woman’s; a child’s from an adult’s; that of a crude
person from that of a cultured person, and so on. But the essence of faith
always eludes psychology. It goes back to God. It shares in the manner of
Christ’s own being. All faith has its social and its historical side also.
The faith of the ancient world followed a different pattern from that of
the Middle Ages or of modern times. In times of peace and economic and
cultural development, religious life is different from what it is in times
of upheaval or revolution. The man who is socially oppressed displays a
different religious psychology from the man who is a member of the ruling
class. But the core of faith in all these cases is always rooted in the
eternal. It escapes beyond all these temporal considerations. It consists
in the fact of being born of God. In the face of this fact, all mundane
distinctions fade into insignificance. They are unessential. All faith has
its own logic, too. The person who believes can give an account of the
motives which seem convincing to him, but when all is said and done, belief
eludes all logical analysis. Belief contains some of the stuff of this
world, the natural energies of body and soul and human relationships.
Everything that is intelligible about it belongs to the elements which this
world furnishes. At the same time, however, there is alive in it that
something different that is not of this world. That which was established
once and for all when the Son of God became man–God’s own being within
creation–is consummated anew in each believer through grace and
participation. Belief must be seen as an act connected with the path
trodden by Christ in his coming. It is the “place”, ever new, where the
arrival of the Son of God is welcomed.
Faith is for Christ as the eye is for the light. It is determined by him
who effected the incarnation as well–by the Holy Spirit. It is man’s
movement in response to the movement of the Redeemer. It is the obverse of
his coming, related to it as love is to love, and only together with it
forming the totality of the new life.
Faith is, if we may say so, the same sort of thing as Christ. It is in the
world as Christ was: as a starting point. It is in the world but not of it.
It neither derives from the world nor merges into it. It has a duty towards
it but is never its slave. It knows more about the world than the world
knows about itself. It carries in itself the world’s destiny more deeply
than the world itself ever can; and yet it is raised above the world and is
alien to it. This is what St. John really expresses when he says: “This is
the victory which overcometh the world: our faith” (1 John 5. 4).
And so the world looks upon every true believer as it looks upon Christ: as
a stumbling-block; not as some object to be considered, understood and
appraised but as a “sign that shall be contradicted” (Luke 2. 34). In all
who encounter him, the true believer evokes either love or hate:
ultimately, either faith or the desire to destroy.
And faith follows the pattern of Christ’s existence in this too, that it
cannot justify itself by compulsion in this world. The moment the world
shuts up its heart, faith appears to be “foolishness”, and its only course
is to appeal to judgment. But the judgment is beyond the grave. Hence the
appeal is difficult, for it has to be made and maintained in spite of its
appearance of having been disallowed.
1. This “us” is a tremendous word. It appears earlier too: “We
will come to him, and will make our abode with him” (14. 23).
4. JESUS AS TEACHER, AS POWER, AS HE WHO IS
In what figures can we best sum up what the New Testament has to say about
the person of Christ in general, his words, his deeds and his fate?
First of all, in that of the holy teacher.
He has the fullness of the knowledge of God. Not only does he know more
than anyone else, he also knows it in another way: through living vision
and being. He knows man and the world. Men are blinded by sin; he sees. He
distinguishes reality from appearance, truth from deception. He knows good
and evil. He knows the way. And his knowledge is clear and of his essence.
Thus he had the power of words: “The people were in admiration at his
doctrine. For he was teaching them as one having power; and not as the
scribes” (Mat. 7. 28-9). This shows Christ as the teacher “par excellence”,
in whose words holy and pure truth resides.
But he did more than just teach. He acted in accordance with his teaching.
His attitude of mind, his relationship to God, his whole life was behind
his words. He was able to ask his enemies: “Can any of you convict me of
sin?” (John 8. 46); and to say: “Follow me” (Mat. 4. 19; 8. 22; 9. 9; Mark
2. 14; Luke 9. 5,9; John 1. 43; 21. 19, 22).
This is the picture of the reality which is Christ that men from time
immemorial have found easiest to accept. This fact is connected with the
pre-eminent place occupied by knowledge in human life generally and in the
prevailing cultural climate of the Middle Ages and modern times. But this
does not tell us all or even the most important thing of all. The crux of
the matter lies deeper.
Standing before Pilate, Jesus said: “For this was I born, and for this came
I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Everyone that
is of the truth, heareth my voice” (John 18. 37). In his farewell
discourse he said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14. 6). In
the Prologue to St. John we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with
God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was
made” (1. 1-3). These three texts form a mighty crescendo and disclose a
relationship to truth which can be understood only gradually. Their form,
like that of all the words of Christ recorded by John, is the fruit of long
meditation. But the latter has altered nothing, for it also was in
accordance with the apostolic commission and was carried out in the power
of the Holy Spirit. St. John is looking back to “what his eyes had seen,
his ears had heard, and his hands had handled of the Word of truth” (cf. I
John 1. 1) and asks: Who was this? What was he like? What content and
attitude of mind are expressed in his words? John gives the answers to
these questions in the form of “discourses” put into the mouth of Jesus
according to the historical method of the time. So these too are
“kerygma”, message, proclaimed truth.
We must understand our three texts in these terms. “Truth” means that
the temporal acquires its real meaning for us in an eternal perspective;
that being becomes intellectually clear when it is seen in the light of
the idea and the corporality of the word. We have to seek and to find
this truth–he says: “I am” this truth. In him, being itself is seen in
the clear light of truth. Not merely in that he does not lie or that he
is honest, but in the way in which he exists. All that is, is like a
tightly closed bud that opens up in the light of the “idea”. Jesus does
not discover this “idea”, above himself, in eternity, the realm of
meaning to which he would have to raise himself. He finds it in himself.
More correctly: he is that idea. And the word, which is the means
whereby mute knowledge steps out free into the open, is not just that
elemental act of man which is proper even to him; it is something of a
totally different nature. He himself is the creative Word who alone
makes communication at all possible.
St. John says just this. He describes the existence of Christ by saying:
Christ is “the Logos”, who was “in the beginning”, that is, in eternity,
before all time and change began. He was “with God”, “towards God”, the
“Son who is in the bosom of the Father” and is “God himself”, who was
“made man” and was “among us”, visible, audible, apparent to our senses.
This is a tremendous affirmation and it forces on us that inescapable
decision which is quite simply the mark of the truth that speaks in
God’s name, the truth that is essentially at once redemption and
judgment. It points back to the eternal life of God; to a society within
his unity, a society which has the character both of primal truth and of
being the sheer foundation of all truth.
When he teaches, therefore, he is not saying something that was all
ready-made though perhaps hidden: he is uttering the truth which he
himself is and which is the foundation of all other truth. He is the
idea which makes all things true. In the sphere and light of his words,
all true statements are true.
That being so, any concept of “the teacher” which we might be able to
build up from our experience is left far behind: we have gone forward to
He is also power.
By this we do not mean that he wields an external power over men like
some man of action over his fellows in the social or political sphere.
He could easily have exercised such power. The people were ready to
proclaim him their Messiah and king. But he always refused to allow them
to do so (John 6. 15). Before Pilate he said: “My kingdom is not of this
world” (John 18. 36). When Peter wanted to defend him with a sword, he
said: “Put up again thy sword into its place . . . Thinkest thou that I
cannot ask my Father, and he will give me presently more than twelve
legions of angels? How then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that so
it must be done?” (Mat. 26. 52-4).
The power he has and exercises is of a different order.
It is most tangibly seen in his miracles–as a power over the reality of
things, that is; as the ability to take hold of them and place them at
the direct service of the Kingdom of God. This power, original and
credible, is evident everywhere in the Gospels.
The “Fioretti” of St. Francis tell how he performed one miracle after
another. Most of these are probably legendary; yet the story is correct
on one point: men were aware of an overwhelming holy power in Francis
and expressed this in the form of the stories which show how all things
bent to his will. This cannot but be the experience of all too who read
the Gospels with an open heart and mind. Even if a man were not prepared
to believe in the possibility of miracles, he would still sense the
power conveyed by these stories, and would have to face up to the
phenomenon they represent.
But the miracles of Jesus did happen. We are certain of this by faith.
Each miracle is not merely a sign that Jesus helped one or cured
another; it is a revelation of holy power, of that holy power of which
it is written: “All power is given to me in heaven and earth” (Mat. 28.
18), the full authority, that is, of him who has been sent.
Besides this, the creative power of God which is described in the first
chapters of Genesis is defined in the “Genesis of the New Testament”,
the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel: “All things were made by him (the
Logos); and without him was made nothing that was made…. He was in the
world and the world was made by him” (John 1. 3, 10). Earlier than this
it had been defined in the Epistle to the Colossians: “For in him were
all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,
whether thrones, or dominations or principalities, or powers: all things
were created by him and in him: and he is before all; and by him all
things consist” (1. 16-17). This power manifests itself here and sets
about new tasks.
There is power in his words as well. At the close of the Sermon on the
Mount, the passage we have already quoted informs us: “And it came to
pass when Jesus had fully ended these words, the people were in
admiration at his doctrine. For he was teaching them as one having
power; and not as the scribes” (Mat. 7. 28-9). This does not mean merely
that his words were strong, bold, fired with the ardor of enthusiasm. It
means much more: his words touched the heart at a depth beyond the reach
of any human words. They removed deceit and set men right in front of
God the holy one. They summoned everyone even the respectable and pious
to return to God; and they made it possible for them to do so.
His words were not just meaningful symbols: they were power–power from
God, the power of the Holy Spirit.
And in his gesture, too, there is power, in his actions, and in his
figure. We have heard how at the Passover he turned all the merchants
and traffickers out of the Temple. It was the time of pilgrimage; Temple
and city were filled with excited people from all over the world. When
he drove the dealers and bargainers away from their profits he had
neither weapon nor friends to assist him, nor did he use inflammatory
speeches to set on the mob; but with an economy of words and a few cords
twisted together he swept out the whole lot of them. What a power must
have radiated from him then I The ancient fear of God must have broken
out from him upon the people at that moment (John 2. 13-21). Or remember
Nazareth, the time when he preached in the synagogue. At first they
marveled at “the words of grace that proceeded from his mouth”; then
they felt the reproach in his words and became enraged. A paroxysm took
hold of them; they dragged him up to the brow of the hill and tried to
throw him down. He made no plea, spoke no word to free himself, made no
attack, but, we read: “Passing through the midst of them, (he) went his
way” (Luke 4. 16-30). This reveals even more power, it may be, than the
event in the Temple: this emanation of a silent power, resigned in its
trust in God, before which men simply give way and let him go free. Then
there is the great scene in the darkness at Gethsemane: Judas comes with an
armed guard and he asks: “Whom seek ye? They answered him: Jesus of
Nazareth. Jesus saith to them: I am he. And Judas also, who betrayed him,
stood with them. As soon therefore as he had said to them: I am he; they
went backward and fell to the ground” (John 18. 4-6). This is no
embroidered legend; it is the plain truth. A shock must have gone out from
him–all the more amazing, considering that soon after he gave himself up
and let them bind him.
This power pervaded all he was and did. It was the power of a colossal
personality, of a deep recollection of soul, of a completely free will,
perfectly attuned to its holy mission, in a word, the power of Presence.
Behind this lay even more power, ready to burst forth from God–so
immediate that, for example, after the miraculous catch of fish, when he
was sitting in the ship, Peter fell at his feet in fear, crying out:
“Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord! For he was wholly
astonished, and all that were with him” (Luke 5. 8-9). It was not just
amazement, astonishment, but terror, overwhelming awe, caused by the
terrible presence of God’s power–the Old Testament fear of God.
Yet even this does not exhaust the matter. There is still something else to
be said, and it is hard to say–perhaps impossible. We can but try to
express it. The ultimate and most powerful thing is Jesus’ existence.
If I say, “This is I”, I mean more than simply that there are here a body,
a spiritual being, various attributes, to which I attach the added
precision that they belong to me and not to another. I mean not only that I
have all these things, but that I also completely permeate them with my
life, I make them what they are. The proposition, “I am”, does not denote a
fragment of reality, to which the statement that it is “I” and not another
applies. No; that with which we are concerned, the reality of substance,
powers and attributes, is in act, in my act. “I am” signifies an action:
the most inward act of which I am capable, the act behind every particular
action, striving, struggling, taking, walking, eating, sleeping, thinking,
talking and working. It is that primal exertion by which I preserve myself
from nonexistence, maintain myself in reality and thrust nothingness from
me. It is an exertion which is carried on in the deepest roots of my being,
and its ultimate anxiety is experienced in all those feelings–we are today
acutely conscious of them–of constriction, loneliness, insecurity and fear
for one’s safety. When we say that a man is alive–more alive than others–
we mean, in the first place, that he is more capable of experiencing
things, more enterprising, more able to cope with the world than others
are. True aliveness, however, lies deeper. A man can be more deprived, more
oppressed, more tired than others, and still be, in the last resort, more
alive than others, if there is in him less of what is superficial, of what
is merely possessed; if in him, being is more awake, more in motion, more
complete–in a word, is more act.
These considerations help us to understand better what the word “existence”
means when applied to Jesus. He does not just happen to be–he “is”. He is
not merely made up of this and that but he “exists” it. In him the Son of
God came into the world, assuming a human form, not in order to confer a
favor upon it, to use it as a dwelling-place, but in order to “be” it. He
penetrated this human nature in all its parts, enlightened it, sanctified
it, accepted responsibility for it, dignified it utterly. This human nature
had a full living experience of God, knew him, experienced him, willed him.
He who said “I”, “was” this unity. We cannot express it.
What a statement that was when he said: “I am”! What an act this “I am”;
what a being there, standing there, self-being, self-knowledge, self-act!
No battle here against non-existence, none of the pain and danger of our
uncertainty–he is inviolable, Lord in Being. On Horeb Moses asked God:
“What is thy name?” and God replied: “I am who am” and “I am is my name”
(Ex. 3. 14). This “I am” now appears again, and St. John has a saying in
which is expressed the awareness that it is the same–we have already cited
it elsewhere: “When you shall have lifted up the Son of Man, then shall you
know that I am he” (John 8. 28). The saying of Horeb is here found on the
lips of Jesus.
The final and deepest thing is then–Christ’s existence. Everything else
merely comes after this: the power of his words and acts; his all-embracing
love; the depth of his knowledge and wisdom; his doctrine and his example;
the magnitude of all that befell him–all these things are irradiated by
that basic fact. Its consummation is Christ’s life. We sense the
terrifyingly mighty stream of this self-realization flowing unseen beneath
all we see and perceive. His words and gestures rise up out of this. It is
this from which his actions and his destiny spring. On occasion we are
allowed a glimpse into this abyss; in the temptation episode, for example,
when the adversary’s onslaught glances off the monumental imperturbability
of this existence (Mat. 4. 1 ff.); in the gladness when the apostles
returned and he “rejoiced in spirit” at the reversal of standards in God’s
sight, and called the disciples blessed, for their eyes had been permitted
to see him (Luke 10. 21-4); in the great discourses which John reports–
“Verily, verily, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (8. 58), or
finally, in the last great prayer after the Last Supper, and in the
celebration of the Supper itself (John 14-17).
This deep life of Jesus may have had its various changes; times of calm
progress, climax or decision. But we feel that words fail us and there is a
danger of our applying to him the images which are appropriate to our human
When the Son of God entered the world there occurred that event our thought
will never be able to explore fully, and of which we were speaking: he who
now existed was as no other is.
Every creature is completely governed by God; each belongs to him and
exists through him. With Christ all is different. The Logos has embraced
all things, and drawn them not only into his sphere of power, but also into
his sphere of being, into that realm where he says: “I am who am”. This is
the absolute beginning. Between him and all creation lies nothingness. By
becoming man, the Son drew the creation which he had laid hold of right
through this nothingness into the first beginning. There he performed an
act of creation; not in the sense that there had been nothing and now
something came into being; but in the sense that an existent being was, was
drawn into God’s existence, and emerged as something new.
In the midst of creation in its sinful state, a center was born which the
Son of God drew into his own being. It is there now–the starting-point of
This starting-point cannot be explained in terms of this world, but its
rays light up the whole world. From this point the Logos reaches out and
takes hold of the world, bit by bit–or else the world shuts itself up
against him, is thereby judged and falls back into darkness.