How Jesus Became God:
Process Theology and Bart Ehrman
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man.
-- Luke 2:52
When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there.
So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus
had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
-- John 18: 28-30
Won't you look down upon me Jesus, you've got to help me make a stand. You've just got to see me
through another day. My body's aching and my time is at hand, and I won't make it any other way.
-- James Taylor
If Jesus never called himself God,
Let's say your body is aching and your time is at hand. In the moment at hand, you ask Jesus to look down upon you, because you aren't sure you can make it any other way. You don't ask him to change things completely, but you do ask for comfort. You are seeking a friend in heaven. Is anyone listening?
Skeptics will say No. You are praying into a vacuum and there is no one - no God and no Jesus -- to hear your prayer. You might as well be praying to yourself, and in fact you are.
But as a process theologian I want to say Yes, because there is a deep listening, everywhere at once, who receives prayers and is affected by them. This deep listening is God. And I want to add that Jesus is indeed a person, somehow dwelling within the very heart of this deep listening, whose ears have become God's ears, listening with tender care. Jesus is not simply a man who lived a long time ago; he is a real person, with spiritual ears, who appeared to his disciples after he died and has now ascended into heaven, where he listens and still today.
Bart Ehrman says that this is how many of the early Christians saw things, and this is how some of us influenced by process theology see things. The early Christians believed, and many process theologians believe, that Jesus survived his bodily death, reappeared to his disciples, and then ascended into heaven.
As a historian Ehrman remains neutral on the question of whether the appearances of Jesus after his death were collective hallucinations or Jesus himself. But those of us influenced by process theology go a step further, albeit in a spirit of hope. Influenced by the cosmology of Whitehead, we believe that the universe has multiple dimensions, that the psyche is not identical with the brain, that people can people can and do continue in their journeys after they die, and that God is present in them in the next life as in this life, as an indwelling lure to grow into a perfection of love. We also find it plausible that, after they die, people can reappear to their loved ones for a time, in what the Bible calls resurrection appearances; and that as they do they can offer consolation and hope. For us all of this is not so much supernatural as it is deeply natural. It is the way the universe works. Thus, for us, there is nothing wrong, and perhaps a lot that is right, about asking for help from Jesus.
For my part, I suspect that Jesus is more prone to receive our requests today than he was when he lived on earth. After all, we are all on spiritual journeys and so is Jesus. If he is indeed alive, it seems to me that he has grown from being, in the words of the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, a Jewish preacher who expected an immanent end of the world, and whose ministry was primarily to people in the house of Israel, to a friend in Heaven whose healing ministry extends to the whole creation, and who now realizes that the world he hoped for can only come about through our help. Ehrman calls this the exaltation of Jesus, but in the spirit of process theology I will call it the creative transformation of Jesus. I don't think Jesus was born with full divinity, and I'm not sure that even today he is of one substance with the Father, as the Nicene Creed puts it. But I suspect that he is closer than he was. Metaphorically, he sits at the right hand of the Father.
Please understand. I am not talking about how our perceptions of Jesus changed; I am talking about a change in the very life of Jesus a transition from a beautiful but narrow love into a wider love that is partly precipitated by our faith in him, partly precipitated by God's spirit which dwells in his heart, and partly precipitated by choices he himself makes.
It probably began when he was on earth. You see it occurring, for example, when he was challenged by a woman to reach out to people beyond his sphere of familiarity and realized that, in fact, she was worthy of his love, too. He was creatively transformed by her faith and grew wider in his own understanding. Here is how the story goes in the gospel of Matthew.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’
It seems to me that, in this story, Jesus' own awareness of his mission grew more expansive through his interactions with her and she was his teacher. My proposal is that, after his death, the process continued until he grew still wider; and that even today he is being creative transformed, so his life is not yet complete. He is waiting for us to share in his faith and walk in love. He thirsted on the cross and he thirsts still today. We can help him.
I hope my speculations are interesting, but they are not as important as walking in love itself. There are many dimensions to a walk in love, and all are important. When we love truth we are walking in love; when we love beauty we are walking in love; and when we love our neighbors as we love ourselves we are walking in love. We are also walking in love when we feel drawn toward a loving presence who is deeper than the world and deeper than our own hearts, to whom we reach out in prayer and song, bewilderment and longing. We walk in love when we love God.
But an inward love for God and a kindly love of neighbor is not enough for a walk in love. A walk in love also has a social dimension, and it was this dimension to which Jesus was especially attuned when he lived on Earth. His aim in life was to help his own people -- people of the house of Israel -- prepare for and embody a new kind of community in which people shared with one another and washed one another's feet in a spirit of compassion and humility. We might call it a shalom community. In our time we best imagine it as a community which is creative, compassionate, equitable, and ecologically wise with no one left behind.
Walking in love is by no means limited to Christians. People of all faiths and no faith can walk in love. Gandhi walked in love but was not a Christian. This does not mean that Jesus is irrelevant. Remembering Jesus as he lived on earth, and having a relationship with him as he lives in heaven, can help people walk in love. But the Way is love and Jesus is one way into the Way, but not the only way.
The spirit of God at work in the world, to whose animating and guiding presence Jesus tried to surrender his life, is pervasive like a gentle breeze. It cannot be contained in a single person, not even a Jewish preacher from Galilee. In the house of compassion there are many rooms. Jesus tried to live from the Spirit while on earth and we can do the same. That's how we follow him.
So who was he? As a young man I assumed that Jesus called himself God and was perfectly sure of himself throughout his life, although filled with infinite kindness and humility. I also assumed that he was a very wise person, far above the fray of the vacillating moods of his day, and that he had everything in perspective like a really wise sage or philosopher. The Jesus of my imagination was calm, kind, wise, and right about the really important things in life. He was human like the rest of us but also totally devoid of sin. He had no spiritual biography, because he was already complete. I am going to call this the Glorified Jesus.
I suspect that the Jesus who walked on Earth may not have really been like this at all. He was much more human and fallible, like the rest of us. But I also suggest that he grew into something like this when he ascended to heaven and that he is still growing today.
This has important existential implications. Imagine someone saying: "Won't you look down upon me Jesus and help me take a stand, my body's aching and my time is at hand; I just can make it any other way." I suggest that, if someone says this with a sincere heart, Jesus is actually listening and responding in love. He exists in heaven in a way that he did not exist on earth. Through his own efforts, through God's love, and through our faith, he has been creatively transformed.
I know that my proposal steps on toes. It contradicts the views of classical Christians who think Jesus existed in heaven even before he was born on Earth and that he was sinless when he lived on Earth. For them Jesus did not really grow in wisdom; he was already wise at birth.
And it contradicts the views of modern western scholars, including liberal biblical scholars, who reject all images of an afterlife as wishful thinking.
Here are some assumptions I make that are contestable to one group or another: (1) that Jesus did not exist as an agent in heaven before he was born, (2) that we can know a bit about Jesus on Earth and realize how different he was from the Glorified Jesus, (3) that he survived his bodily death and ascended into heaven, (4) that heaven exists in the first place as a place where God dwells even as God also dwells on earth, and (6) that there can be spiritual growth after death.
Nevertheless, these are some views that would have made sense to many of the early Christians, who spoke of Jesus as being exalted after his death. They are views that make sense from a process or Whiteheadian point of view, and that he been articulated in a thoroughly scholarly fashion by philosophers and theologians influenced by Whitehead's philosophy. And they are views that are compatible with the pespective of a New Testament scholar like Bart Ehrman, author of How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.
With this in mind I turn back to the image I had of the Glorified Jesus as a young man.
I got this image from friends, family, church, and popular legend. I didn't really read the New Testament during this time of my life; but I assumed that if you did your vision of Jesus would be confirmed. I realize in retrospect that this image derives primarily from the Gospel of John.
One thing that changed me was actually reading the New Testament and seeing how Jesus -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- could fly off the handle sometimes.
I had assumed that, if I read these books, I would find the Glorified Jesus. Instead I found a man who was powerful and influential but who reminded me a little more of me. He could fall short of love sometimes and also make mistakes, like expecting the end of the world to come when it didn't. At first this new Jesus seemed alien to me, especially with the apocalypticism. This Jesus was not on a pedestal but closer the the ground. I am going to call him the Brother Jesus.
I am reminded of Brother Jesus when I listen to Teri Gross interview Bart Erhman on his new book: How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. For Ehrman this Jesus is first and foremost an apocalyptic preacher, sometimes fiery and sometimes gentle, but expecting that he would be installed king of the Jews in a new age.
Jesus thought the world as he knew it was coming to an end and God was going to bring in a kingdom, a new kingdom in which there would be no more injustice or oppression or poverty or suffering of any kind. And in this kingdom, Jesus appears to have thought that he himself would be the future king. And so Jesus meant this not in the regular political sense but in a kind of apocalyptic sense, that at the end of the age, this is what was going to happen: he was going to be installed as king.
This Jesus -- Brother Jesus -- is the same Jesus to whom John Cobb refers in the column on the left. He is the Jesus who announces and embodies the possibility of a new kind of community on earth.
Jesus called us to live from the basileia theou, the divine commonwealth that contrasts sharply with every existent social order.
Jesus called us to live from the basileia theou, the divine commonwealth that contrasts sharply with every existent social order.
Ehrman also proposes that after Jesus died, it is likely that his followers experienced visions of him, which the tradition calls 'resurrection appearances.' He thinks that these kinds of appearances are really not that uncommon in history or even in our time. When loved ones die and also when revered religious figures die, there are many instances where they reappear after death. As Ehrman puts it, we can see these reappearances (1) as hallucinations which have no basis in reality or (2) as actual communications from the deceased, whose journey has continues even after they die. Ehrman does not judge them either way; leaving that to others. Here's what he says:
We know a lot about visions from modern research. It turns out that about one out of eight people among us has had some kind of visionary experience in which we've seen something that wasn't really there and were convinced that in fact it was there. That's a vision. Now the way I write my book is that I leave open the question of what caused these visions of the disciples.
Can he look down upon us and
For entire transcript, click here.