Jesus in the World's Faiths: Leading Thinkers from Five Religions Reflect on His Meaning. Edited by Gregory A. Barker
Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 568–571, May 2009
How to Cite
Jung, K. (2009), Jesus in the World's Faiths: Leading Thinkers from Five Religions Reflect on His Meaning. Edited by Gregory A. Barker. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 568–571. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_54.x
- Issue published online: 7 APR 2009
- Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
Pp. ix, 19 , New York , Orbis Books , 2005 , $18.00.
Gregory A. Baker has assembled a group of esteemed writers who not only possess the academic acumen to discuss the meaning of Jesus in light of different religious traditions, but they also share a passion for inter-religious dialogue and experience. Because it would be impossible to discuss each contribution (a total of twenty) I have chosen to focus on the introductory essay for each respective faith tradition.
Jose Ignacio Cabezon notes that Christianity's influence on heavily populated Buddhist countries was minimal until the advent of the ‘military and financial power of European colonialist regimes.’ (p. 15) The past fifty years, however, has witnessed the healing of these ‘wounds’ and inter-religious dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism has began to take on new meaning with more positive images of Jesus. Cabezon, who was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cuba, provides an Indo-Tibetan interpretation of Jesus in light of five images: social activist/critic, magician, teacher, God, and Messiah.
First, as a social activist/critic the author compares Jesus with Buddha and finds parallels with ‘their reformist tendencies and recognizes the former ‘as the more radical and far-reaching.’ (p. 18) Second, concerning the notion of Jesus as magician (miracles, exorcisms, healings) Cabezon views these feats as historical, extraordinary, and yet ‘neutral’ because they may be ‘accomplished by Buddhists and non-Buddhist alike.’ (p. 19) The author does, however, highlight Jesus' altruism as a primary source for these events. The third image of Jesus is a teacher. Cabezon affirms teachings such as the beatitudes and others (love, charity, simplicity), but identifies ‘gaps’ in Jesus' ‘concern for the welfare of living beings other than human beings,’‘systematic path to salvation,’ and ‘attainment of personal wisdom (or gnosis).’ (p. 20) In addition, Jesus' teaching regarding God's kingdom and the ‘utter finality of the Christian apocalypse’ (p. 21) are seen as problematic to Cabezon. Fourth, in his treatment of Jesus as God the author highlights two objections: (1) ‘the Christian characterization of the deity whose incarnation Jesus is said to be, and (2) the claim that Jesus is unique in being an incarnation.’ (p. 21) Cabezon's objections are based on moral (The God of the Hebrew Bible is far from perfect) and philosophical issues (a creator God, a being who is pure from eternity, theodicy, ability to secure salvation by a volitional act). Fifth, the idea of Jesus as Messiah is rejected by Cabezon in light of his Buddhist understanding. In brief, various ‘Buddhist doctrinal presuppositions’ such as personal suffering (not original sin), personal liberation (not a savior), an infinite time for one's liberation (not one human lifetime), and ‘radical mental transformation’ for one's liberation (not ‘instantaneous belief’) ‘make it impossible for Buddhist to accept a messianic creed of the traditional Christian sort.’ (p. 24)
Reminiscing about her childhood faith in Roman Catholicism, Mary C. Grey notes several impressions of Jesus (hero, miracle child, of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Revolutionary and Liberator). Questions concerning Jesus' identity began to acquire Grey's attention as well. Despite the complexity surrounding the person and images of Jesus, one idea remained – to love Jesus ‘meant action, the action of commitment to poor people and their communities.’ (p. 50) Although she attempted to remain faithful to the traditional picture of Jesus (divine and human), Grey soon realized that maintaining such a view became problematic. The author identifies three reasons: (1) the church's vision of Jesus' kingdom became a symbol and impetus for Western colonialism; (2) feminist theology challenged the notion of how a male could save females; (3) Jesus treatment of the environment (cursing the fig tree, casting demons into swine, importance of humans over sparrows) called into question his Lordship over creation. Grey also highlights the importance of the quest for the historical Jesus, but finds the Christian community as the key expression of Jesus' inspiration and presence.
So where do we go from here? According to Grey, we begin with different questions about Jesus. Leaving aside ‘answers that divide, separate, reject, and reassert the dominant position of Christendom,’ Grey believes we should long for ‘the sacredness and holiness of life,’‘justice and peace,’ and ‘be open to truth as lived by diverse traditions.’ (p. 53) Observing that God desires for human beings to be in ‘right relation’ with one another, Grey contends that we need to understand how Jesus ‘embodied this relational power, the power of mutuality-in-relation.’ (p. 54) For Grey, the cross of the crucified Jesus demonstrates this mutuality-in-relation, his solidarity with those who are oppressed, experience injustice and violence (liberation movements, Untouchables of India, women). Thus, Jesus' death is not a glorification of suffering, but rather becomes reinterpreted ‘as the consequence of his struggle for love and injustice’ and ‘never be seen in an anti-Judaistic manner.’ (p. 57)
In developing her Christology, Grey draws from the insights of Sallie McFague, who refers to the world as ‘the Body of God.’ (p. 57) Noting that ‘bodily health and well-being are the very thrust of salvation,’ Grey awakens us to the ‘urgency that all shall be fed’ and notes that Jesus' resurrection has ‘to do with God's promise of a qualitatively different kind of life.’ (p. 58) Moving from an exclusivist view of Christ, the author endorses the role of the Spirit, ‘the breath of the world as God's Body,’ who is ‘the agential mode of Divine presence.’ (p. 58)
Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad begins his essay on Hindu views of Jesus by placing the discussion within the boundaries of divinity and diversity. According to the author, while Hinduism acknowledges brahman as the ultimate reality most Hindus tend to focus on ‘specific and personalized forms of the divine.’ (p. 82) On the one hand, a choice of one's personal God may lead a person to conclude that other forms of divinity are not as powerful or less revelatory; yet for many, the choice of one's worship (due to family tradition, interest, circumstance) does not lead to a ‘hierarchy’ of gods ‘because it is taken that the divine is ultimately the same.’ (p. 82) Like Buddhism, Hinduism has also had negative experiences with the Christ of Christianity due to colonialism, which sought to ‘critique and destroy’ Hindu religion. The author then highlights several well-known Hindu interpretations of Jesus including Raja Ram Mohun Roy (‘an ideal human being’), Keshub Chunder Sen (‘God becomes manifest in humanity through the life of humans’), Swami Vivekananda (‘realized soul … he and God were one’), Radhakrishnan (‘realization of oneness’), and Gandhi (‘the embodiment of sacrifice.’) (pp. 83–84) Modern views of Christ include Advaita Vedanta and non-Advaitic interpretations; the former maintaining that each human person is itself divine (though usually not realized) and the later contending that while human beings are distinct from God they, nevertheless, possess some element of divinity within themselves.
Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad then addresses two important theological differences between Hindus and Christians. Regarding the incarnation Jesus is not unique because Hinduism contends that the divine manifests itself ‘constantly and in many forms and ways’; Jesus is ‘God-in-man, not God-as-man.’ (p. 88) Concerning the atonement Jesus is not unique because Hinduism rejects the doctrine of sin and understands his death on the cross by some as ‘being an ideal of self-sacrifice, love, and suffering.’ (p. 89) Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad concludes his essay with acknowledging Christ's uniqueness within Hindu thought: Jesus should be interpreted as similar to Vishnu, ‘the most spiritually apt and emotionally satisfying and ethically fulfilling manifestation of divinity.’ (p. 91) Consequently, Jesus is unique, but not exclusively unique.
Mustansir Mir's essay begins by highlighting different portraits of Jesus. As a healer, Jesus is able to ‘cure the illness of a lover's heart.’ (p. 115) In addition, the Jesus of mystic literature is the ‘embodiment of affection, tolerance, charity, and humility’ and ‘typifies a lifestyle marked by spirituality, devotion, asceticism, and poverty.’ (p. 116) Mir's discussion focuses on (1) Jesus as a prophet, (2) his teaching and style, and (3) uniqueness.
Jesus' place is one of equality among the other prophets including ‘Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Job, Jonah, and others.’ (p. 117) He is, in the words of Mir, ‘not an exception to the prophetical paradigm’ and ‘presented the same essential message that was presented by many prophets of Israel before him and by Muhammad after him.’ (p. 117) According to the Qur'an, Jesus believed and exhorted people to worship the one and only true God. The author also notes that any reference of Jesus speaking in phrases such as ‘my Father’ or ‘your Father’ are acceptable as long as the meaning ‘carried no implication of the biological relationship of father and son.’ (p. 118) The notion of the afterlife plays an important role in Islam with special attention given to Jesus. According to Islam, the doctrine of the afterlife was becoming ‘marginal’ in everyday Jewish living. Jesus birth, however, highlighted this teaching: ‘the very birth of Jesus was seen in Islam as proof of the hereafter.’ (p. 118) Jesus' life stands as a sign of contradiction to the here and now. According to Mir, ‘[Jesus] lack of involvement in the worldly matters and his conscious dissociation from the pleasures and possessions of the world constituted a protest-comment on worldliness.’ (p. 119)
The second focus on teaching concerns Jesus' commitment to prayer (salah) and almsgiving (zahah) and the two virtues of compassion and humility. The former is ‘equivalent of the Qur'anic injunction to establish salah and pay zakah’ while the latter ‘qualities … have endeared Jesus especially to Muslims’ (p. 119) The third focus addresses Jesus' uniqueness. Was he divine, divine/human, or human? Mir offers three reasons for rejecting the idea that Jesus was/is divine. (1) The Qur'an teaches that Jesus is human (‘abd’ means ‘creative,’‘servant,’ or ‘slave.’) (p. 120) (2) Jesus' miraculous powers are attributed to his God's power. (3) The virgin birth of Jesus does not imply that he was/is the Son of God. Having addressed these three issues Mir concludes with a brief section on Muslim-Christian relationships and suggestions for building bridges between two religions.
In her essay on Judaism, Susannah Heschel first notes that it was not ‘until the last two centuries [that] Jews actually paid relatively little attention to the figure of Jesus.’ (p. 149) Within Jewish circles the portrait of Jesus was ‘one of mockery’ with regard to the source of his miracles and his character was highly suspect. For works aimed outside the world of Judaism Jesus was ‘a pious Jew who made no claim to divinity.’ (p. 150) When Jesus was depicted positively, he ‘was a devout Jew’ but no founder of a new religion because Christianity's existence is due to Paul and the church father's ‘theological distortion.’ (p. 151)
With the ‘Jewish entry into a secularized Christian society,’ Heschel observes a late eighteenth century attitude change towards Jesus. Situating the discussion in Jesus' Jewishness, Jesus became ‘a tool to justify Judaism.’ (p. 151) This trend was first approached with caution, but several Jewish theologians were able to enter the theological debate because the quest for the historical Jesus had placed Jesus' Jewishness on the theological agenda. Although this would build a ‘bridge’ between Judaism and Christianity the author observes that Jewish historians were ‘developing a counterhistory of the prevailing Christian theological version of Christianity's origins and influence.’ (p. 152)
Heschel then discusses the significance of Abraham Geiger's work. Three observations are worth noting. First, Geiger maintains that the Pharisees (liberal) and Sadducees (conservative) represented ‘two tendencies in early Judaism.’ (p. 153) Second, Geiger believes Jesus was a Pharisaic Jew who was part of a movement that sought to ‘liberalize and democratize halakha, Jewish religious law, to make its practice easier.’ (p. 153) Third, noting that the Christian faith was founded by Paul, Geiger seeks to discover where ‘Jesus' faith’ is today. According to Geiger, Jesus' faith may be found in Reform Judaism. Heschel points out that Geiger's works should be understood ‘as an attempt to subvert Christian hegemony and establish a new position for Judaism within European history and thought.’ (p. 154)
Heschel includes a section on Zionist writings and interpretation and observes the complex meanings of Jesus for the Jews of Eastern Europe during the twentieth century. For instance, ‘In a Carnival Night,’ Jesus comes down from the cross ‘to become one of the martyrs’ among the beatings of either other Jews. (p. 156) In the painting ‘White Crucifixion,’ Jesus not only does not provide neither solution nor help to ease the suffering. Rather, he is also responsible for creating it. Another nuanced reading of Jesus comes from Wiesel's Night, where God's death is proclaimed by Jews at Auschwitz and yet communicated with the cross of Christ. By the time of the Holocaust the portrait of Jesus moved beyond mere ‘Christian supremacy and Jewish subordination’; he became to represent ‘the degeneracy of the Christian religion and its wanton destruction of Jewish lives.’ (p. 158) Heschel closes her essay with a poignant remark: ‘What Geiger claimed is that it is not the Jew who desires Christianity, but the Christian who requires a myth of Jewish desire in order to legitimate Christianity.’ (p. 160)
Jesus in the World's Faiths represents the dynamics involved in inter-religious encounter and provides the reader with insight from other faith members. This fact alone makes it worthwhile because Christians, in general, have focused more on winning Christological debates rather than listening to the other parties in the discussion. Another aspect of Barker's work concerns the identity of Jesus. Rather than being a point of contention, Jesus becomes a person of inspiration for different religious traditions.