Beginner's Mind... of Christ

Monday, March 23, 2015

How Jesus is Like Ice Cream

My mother was one of the all time great enthusiasts. She could find something extraordinary in the most everyday experience. Countless times, I would watch her take a drink of ordinary water on a hot day, close her eyes for a moment, and then exclaim, "Matty, this is just about the most delicious water I've ever tasted!" And she meant it!

Any mundane thing could trigger her exultations: a taste of ice cream; a distant bird song; each and every one of the countless drawings her five children brought home from school. When something tickled her, it was never "That's very nice, honey." It was "That is quite possibly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen!"

Her responses to my writing - equally out of proportion to reality - formed the inflated presumption that I - and I suspect every writer - needs in order to share my writing with the world: the outlandish presumption that anyone would care what I have to say. Most writers have probably had an early reader like my mom. Her exclamations formed within me the secret notion that I might just be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. After all, she thought so - and she knew me best!

Later, of course, the sting of reality began to leave its mark, and I came to realize that my mother's ecstatic pronouncements were not to be taken literally. I came to see that certain relationships - love relationships, to be precise - evoked exclamations that were not exactly true: "Wow, you are the most beautiful woman on the planet!" "I could listen to you talk all night!" "I will love you 'til the day I die!"

The same is true about our language about God. Most of our language about God, found in the Bible or in church - is love language. One prayer after another begins with ecstatic exclamation: "O God"; "Almighty God"; "Gracious Father." These are the words of a people in love; people who have left behind the ordinary, descriptive language of newspapers and how-to manuals for the language of exultation; the language of love poems; the language of transcendence and ultimacy and devotion.

In the same spirit, we declare Jesus as the "only son of God"  In the ecstatic vocabulary of devotion, we mean it.  This is the most delicious ice cream in the world!  How could a better ice cream possibly exist?!  But when we say things like that, we also know that these are not words to be taken literally.  

Theologians, preachers, and everyday church-goers often seem desperate to prove that Christianity is superior to any other religion. They quote ecstatic statements from the Bible as their "proof." Sorry to say, they have misunderstood the nature of devotional love language, and like the know-it-all atheists they condemn, they commit violence against the gorgeous poetry of devotion.  

And may we all, some day, come to learn the difference between love poems and news stories.

Paul Knitter, in his excellent book Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, makes this point beautifully:

"...What do we do with all the “one and only” language that so lavishly populates our Bible and our liturgies? Let me offer a suggestion. Such language, as scholars of the New Testament point out, is “confessional” language – the way of speaking the early communities of Jesus- followers used in order to put into words what they felt about this man who had so affected their lives. Or, in more ordinary terms, it was “love language.” And like all love language, it made spontaneous and abundant use of superlatives and exclusives: “You’re the most beautiful person in the world.” “You’re the only one for me.” But – and here’s my point – such language is meant to be used in situations of intimacy, not in the presence of other people who have their own spouses or lovers.

"Now, “situations of intimacy” for the Christian communities are their liturgies or services where they share their commitments and sing their faith. I’m suggesting that our traditional love language that speaks about Jesus as “the one and only” be reserved for “internal consumption only” – for use within the Christian communities, or within one’s own personal prayer. It should not be used in our relations with others. It’s the way we Christians speak among ourselves to share our faith and commitment to Jesus and the gospel; it’s not the way we speak with others, for that would possibly belittle their faith and commitments. This corresponds to the original purpose of such confessional, one- and- only language about Jesus in the New Testament: it was meant to extol Jesus, not to put down others."

Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian (London: One World Publications, 2009) pp.124-125.

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