ChristologyPhilosophyPolitics and Current Events

Could Liberals and Conservatives Follow the Same Christ?

If you worship the Jesus-Who-Lived, you end up voting like a liberal Democrat. To become a conservative Republican, in contrast, it helps to worship the Jesus-Who-Died and/or -Is-Coming-Again. That is what I argued last time. Today, I’d like to explore four possible paths for achieving political unity.

First, if we could prove that the other side’s Christ was a fraud, we might be able to convert them to our political point of view. Second, if we could demonstrate that the three Christs were one—even without reinterpretation—we might be able to blend our two sides together. Third, if we could find some new principle for reinterpreting all three Christs, we might be able to move everyone to a new side. And fourth, if we could show that one Christ was key to reinterpreting the other two, we could undermine the other side and perhaps get them to adopt our way of voting.

Let’s start with option 1.

1. Proving a Fraud

If we could show that the Jesus-Who-Lived simply does not exist, the conservatives would win and we’d all have to join the Republican party. If we could show that the Jesus-Who-Died simply did not exist, however, we would undercut the worries about immorality and divine judgement behind so much of the Republican “values voter” platform. To do either, we would need to appeal to Scripture—at least if we are going to satisfy sola scriptura Protestants. We would need to show that you just don’t find one of these three Christs in the Bible.

Unfortunately, however, each Christ has a pretty well-defined home in Scripture, as we saw last time. All three are interpretations of well-attested biblical data. We might be able to get rid of the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again, since it relies so heavily on the book of Revelation and that book is both historically-contested and notoriously-difficult to interpret. But even if the Church Fathers debated whether it really belonged in the Canon,1 we seem stuck with it now.

Instead of throwing out one book, of course, we could follow a certain strand of “Higher Criticism” and reject the historical reliability of the entire New Testament. With the primary scriptural bases for all three Christs gone, however, most of Protestant Christianity would disappear and I’m not sure how erstwhile Protestants would vote. We tend to think of those who leave mainstream Christianity via “Higher Criticism” as theological liberals, but I’m not sure if that branch of liberalism is connected to the political variety.

2. Uniting the Three

We might, therefore, want to try the opposite approach. Instead of throwing out one or more of the Christs, perhaps we should add the other side’s Christ(s) to our own. The Jesus-Who-Lived had to come from somewhere and go to somewhere, after all, and the Jesus-Who-Died (and thus -Who-Was-Born), gives us that.

Even if we combine multiple Christs into one, however, we still are left with the question of how to tell the story. What was the moral? Was Jesus born in order to show us how to live, even though this new way of life got him killed? Or was Jesus born in order to die, and had to live thirty-three years waiting in between?

When I think of using personal history to unite the three Christs, I tend to think of Thomas Reid’s objection to John Locke’s theory of personal identity. The objection goes roughly like this:

Locke believes that memory is what makes a person the same person over time. If you can remember your earlier life, then the person who lived that life is the same as you. So, if you-as-an-adult remember being a child, then your child self is the same as your adult self. “A = B.” And if you-as-a-senior remember being a younger adult, then your younger adult self is the same as your senior self. “B = C.” But what if you-as-a-senior do not remember being a child? In that case, it seems that your child self is not the same person as your senior self. A = B, and B = C, but A ≠ C.2

That’s a technical objection to one philosophical theory, but compare it with how we often think of musicians. “If you want to hear what they really sound like, you have to listen to their albums before x; x was their first album on a major label—after they sold out.” We do the same thing with our heroes when we find out they “went bad” at the end—and thus conclude they were not really worthy of our respect all along. And we do the opposite with political leaders and loved ones when we excuse their past actions in light of “the person they have become.”

In our attempt to follow the full Christ, in other words, we would slide quite easily into debates about which phase of Christ’s personal history was the real Christ. You might say we could treat all three Christs as coequal, but I don’t think this is possible, given the incompatibilities I discussed last time. In trying to put the Christs together, we will be forced to reinterpret at least one of the three to create a coherent whole. It’s time, therefore, that we ask what principle we ought to use to interpret our various Christs.

3. An Outside Principle

If you’ve hung around Conciliar Post for long, you will have noticed that Christendom and Protestantism are not coextensive. There are other ways of being Christian, and perhaps we could find in them a way of seeing Jesus that would revamp and reconcile the three Protestant Christs.

Catholicism

The most obvious place to begin would be Catholicism, since it is “closest to home” for Protestants. Alas, however, you find the same three Christs in Catholic history. If one Catholic tradition didn’t focus on the Jesus-Who-Died, the medieval Catholic Church could never have used indulgences or excommunication like it did. If another Catholic tradition didn’t focus on the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again, medieval Catholicism could never have spent so much blood and effort trying to impose the Kingdom of God. And if a third Catholic tradition didn’t focus on the Jesus-Who-Lived, medieval Catholicism could never have produced Sts. Benedict and Francis.

Protestantism inherits the three-Jesus problem from Catholicism, in other words. Having spent years studying in a Catholic university, furthermore, I know that Catholics also divide politically along the liberal/conservative line. If Catholicism hasn’t solved the problem of division for those inside, therefore, I doubt it is going to help us Protestants who are standing outside.

Eastern Orthodoxy

It would make sense, therefore, to turn to the East and ask for their wisdom. I’ve heard, for example, that Eastern Orthodoxy lacks the Augustinian notion of original sin—or at least, original guilt.3 That might imply that the Eastern Church doesn’t focus so much on the Jesus-Who-Died. Alternatively, it might imply that the Orthodox understanding of the Jesus-Who-Died is not that Jesus fulfilled the Law to save us from being damned for breaking the Law, but that Jesus did something else by dying. But what else?

It has been suggested to me by an Orthodox friend,4 for example, that we might choose to follow “the Jesus-Who-Heals.” Referring to Isaiah 53:5, St. Peter writes: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24, NRSV). Wasn’t healing what the Jesus-Who-Lived was all about (Matt. 4:23–24; 8:16; 9:11–13, 35; 10:1–8; 14:14; 25:35–45), and might the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again have the mission of finally healing the whole of Creation (Rom. 8:18–25; cf. Is. 65:17; 2 Cor. 5:17, 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:5)?

How would we vote if we really believed that Jesus is primarily about healing? Could we vote to repeal the ACA, for example, or environmental regulations? Would we vote to expand funding for defense, or to put the same money into the work of reconciliation (e.g., the Peace Corps; cf. Rom. 5:11, 2 Cor. 5:18–19)? How would we approach caring for mothers and the unborn? What about food stamps and low-income housing? How would we ensure the health of markets, or demand that our legal system interact with criminals?

Unfortunately, I can’t answer those questions by pointing to how the Orthodox vote here in the States. I simply don’t know enough either about Orthodox theology or Orthodox political demography. Since Conciliar Post is a forum for dialogue, therefore, I would like to ask those of you who belong to Orthodoxy for your input. If your congregations had to fill in the blank in “the Jesus-Who-______,” how would they do it? What was Jesus actually all about? And how do your fellow congregants tend to vote in response?

4. Reinterpreting the Two in Light of One

I think reinterpreting all three Christs in terms of healing is very promising. It adopts an interpretive principle that Catholics have historically been more comfortable with than Protestants,5 but it also fits with the healing-focus often seen in the Charismatic branch of Protestantism. So, it is not entirely foreign to the West.

However, while we await rescue from the East, I would like to point out one other approach to reinterpretation. This approach relies on hermeneutics, as practiced both in biblical studies and Continental philosophy.6

Where We Start Reading

Last time, I pointed out that the three Protestant Christs live in different parts of Scripture. A corollary of that point is the following: where you begin reading the Bible determines which Christ you adopt. That is, the portion of scripture through which you read the other passages determines how you understand Jesus.

Some churches start with the Sermon on the Mount and read the New Testament forward. This gives you the Jesus-Who Lived. Others start in the Book of Revelation and read backward. This gives you the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again. Still others start in the Epistle to the Romans, and read out in both directions. This gives you the Jesus-Who-Died.

Sometimes, of course, a church will start in a particular place and simply stay there, spinning its wheels. Conservative “End Times” churches do this, but so do liberal “Social Justice” congregations. However, I don’t think this is common. In my experience, churches tend to read the whole of Scripture. It’s just that if you read one passage through the lens of another, you may get something completely different out of it than a person who did not have that lens.

Where Should We Start?

So, where should we start reading the Bible? Which passages ought to be the lens through which we read the others? You might say we ought to read each passage on its own terms—but this cannot mean reading without context. And you might say that we ought to start with the whole of Scripture—but our finite minds mean we always enter the Bible at a particular spot. So, we must choose our entry point carefully.

I think starting in Revelation and reading the Bible backward is obviously wrong. However, any good Aristotelian will tell you that you have to understand a thing’s end in order to properly comprehend it.7 I similarly think that starting in Romans and reading out is wrong. Romans is an interpretation of the data provided by the Gospels, and interpretations are secondary to data. However, any good biblical scholar will tell you that Romans was written before the Gospels,8 and any good philosopher of science will tell you that your interpretations can also determine the data you collect.9

In spite of all this, I can’t escape the feeling that when reading Scripture, you should begin at the beginning, either of the Old Testament or of the New. Since we Christians are Christ-followers, specifically, I think this means we ought to start with Matthew. We should then read the Old Testament the way Jesus did, and read the Pauline and Johannine literature through the lens of the Gospels.

That is, I side with the Jesus-Who-Lived. Where I depart from those who would exclusively follow this Christ is in insisting on the inescapability of the other two. It’s just I think those Christs have to be reinterpreted in light of the Christ who came to give us life more abundantly (John 10:10). I think Jesus came to usher us into a new way of living that begins now (Luke 17:21) and reaches its perfection when Creation is renewed. Tying the Jesus-Who-Lived to the Jesus-Who-Is-Coming-Again then gives us a context for interpreting the Jesus-Who-Died. Ethics—understood in an Aristotelian sense10—of entering into the life of Christ (cf. Gal. 2:1920), taking his yoke upon us (Matt. 11:28–30), lays the groundwork for soteriology.

Conclusion

The approach I suggest is, in essence, a reinterpretation of the notion of eternal life (cf. John 17:3), which extends it backward into the present and forward through the resurrection.11 To cite my sources, I believe it is an approach inspired by Thomas Aquinas,12 C. S. Lewis,13 and N. T. Wright,14 on the one hand, and Aristotle,15 Kant,16 and Nietzsche17 (surprisingly), on the other. In making life its principle, furthermore, I think it works well with the suggestion we saw before: that Jesus was primarily about healing.18

However, I know of no single systematic theology text that has adopted this point of view—perhaps N. T. Wright has written one?19—so I do not know how viable it ultimately is. And that means I do not know how convincing it could be made to anyone who does not already feel its pull. Until I have the time to read the rest of Wright’s works, or the money to get a second Ph.D. from a seminary and write the required text,20 therefore, I welcome your input and suggestions. If we are ever to achieve theological and political unity, surely it will be through dialogue.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

  • TJ Humphrey

    Why do we need political unity? What is to be gained by conflating liberalism with conservativism (such terms are so relative to begin with, are they not?)? What would be lost if this synthesis was achieved? Can unity be achieved intellectually (confession ally) to begin with? Does conceiving Christ in exactly the same ways foster unity, or does something else?

    Forgive me, these are all questions that I have. I am not convinced at this point that total harmony around one restrictive Jesus narrative (and subsequent metaphors) will grant us the unity and peace that we are looking for.

    • These are excellent questions. Reading St. John (John 17:11) and St. Paul (1 Cor. 1) make me think that theological unity would be nice. And reading St. Paul makes me think that Christians being “at war” with each other in public spaces (1 Cor. 6) is not a good thing. But I’m wary of totalitarianism and homogeneity.

      • TJ Humphrey

        Thanks for your reply. I still wonder if something would be lost in the process of trying to merge things too much Christologically. The tension that accompanies divergent views often sharpens us all as we dialogue, whereas uniformity often dulls us. Granted, there is such a thing as coloring too far outside of the lines (which is where the creeds and ecumenical councils come in as correctives). We certainly need boundaries, but I fear, that in emphasizing synthesis, we may lose the ability to embody the faith in our own unique ways and in our own unique contexts. Perhaps this is too easy for me to say since I am an Episcopalian and we are kind of all over the map on all sorts of issues. But, that is kind of the beauty of it, though. Christ is bigger than our ability to fully articulate him.

        I certainly believe that we should pursue unity, but I don’t think that Christology, by itself, can deliver.

        I also wonder…perhaps we should quit legitimizing the liberal and conservative options that are handed to us politically. Perhaps the division is occurring because we are trying to hard to live into a democratic system that really doesn’t align with notions of the Kingdom of God anyways (however one wants to define it). If we were to resist the system, rather than baptize it, I think we may be surprised by how clear things would become for us all. We wouldn’t feel the need to mascot Christ for our own neo-pagan political agendas.

        So many words…and I am probably wrong in everything I just said. I usually am! Thanks for your response and for the article. It has caused me to think a lot (as if you can’t tell!).

  • Greg Herr

    “Having spent years studying in a Catholic university…I know that Catholics also divide politically along the liberal/conservative line. If Catholicism hasn’t solved the problem of division for those inside…”

    With respect, please come spend more time with us. This ‘problem’ was solved a long time ago.

    The title of this piece, ‘Could liberals and conservatives worship the same Christ’ is quite precisely what we do at each Mass.

    James Joyce would not have attempted to cast aspersions if he’d not observed this very messy, lovely, unified state of worship that we inhabit as Catholics: ‘Here comes everybody.’

    Our local diocese has 1.3M Catholics. We all worship together at one altar. (I won’t attempt to disaggregate conservatives from liberals among this cohort.)

    As Colleen Carrol Campbell found in her research for The New Faithful, “I’m not liberal or conservative. I’m just Catholic – like the Pope.”

    It may take more time to fully experience this phenomenon, but that’s ^^^ us. I recognize it’s a challenge, but it may take a few decades to full appreciate how we function as a unity.

    When we worship, we’re one.

    • How do the Catholics you know vote?

      • Greg Herr

        In The OC? Likely, Republican with a few outliers. I’m a political junkie 🙂 but the question, I think, is ‘How do the Catholics I know worship?’ That question transcends the question of voting, or Left/Right sensibilities. God first. 🙂

        • I think it’s excellent that Catholics can worship together, in spite of their political differences. Having a liturgy helps! But I would note that going through the same practices in Mass doesn’t necessarily mean all participants have the same Christ in mind. Furthermore, outside the unifying practice of the Mass, the political divide in Catholicism is as deep as it is in Protestantism. Here we have it in microcosm: https://twitter.com/jamesmartinsj/status/834587834514362369?lang=en

          • Greg Herr

            Yes, I understand. From the time of the Early Church, that’s been the case. In reading the Fathers we get significantly more robust statements of disagreement than these above.

            The inherent DNA of Catholic worship (Scripture, Tradition, and the authoritative structure) is not dependent on the individual orientation(s) of 1B Catholics, globally, but on Jesus Christ. So we rely on Him and His terms for our unity of worship (John 6 is perhaps the best example, so we do what it says there, and as guided by what the Early Church established for worship). Worship—the act of being together in the presence of the Lord and doing what He said—is the question, not the variances going on inside the minds of everyone under that roof.

            The ‘same practices’ were established very early on (RE see Justin Martyr), and there was no way to read the minds of adherents then either, other than to invite assent to Jesus, eventually the Creed(s), and common liturgical participation.

            And that’s what we do today.

            If we argue that everyone in our churches has ‘…the same Christ in mind’ then unity as an issue to discuss is rendered (postmodernly) moot and unknowable. That could never be demonstrated (ie, reading minds).

            What *can* be demonstrated, however, is visible, incarnated unity, which is what the Catholic Church manifests.

            • Even in the voting booth? (If so, then we politically-opposed Protestants have a fifth possible way forward: unite our liturgies. Would be interesting to try!)

              • Greg Herr

                Do it!!!

                We can help (our parish uses “Cranmer’s Mass”, so it can be done).

                Voting: The only vote we’re concerned with here–to worship the Lord and not the world’s flawed categories–is the one where we use our two legs, or wheelchair, or carried in Mommy’s arms, and get to Mass…together.

                ‘Cause when we’re there, we’re not Left or Right, we’re Catholic. 🙂