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Mark Osler

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Worshipping the Irrational Jesus

Posted: 06/08/11 12:42 PM ET

I recently heard a radio preacher explain how it was OK to be rich -- that, in fact, it was a mark of being blessed by God. It was a rational argument. It is just common sense, after all: If God likes us, we will be rewarded with money and the other things we want, and we should enjoy that. The callers to this preacher's show affirmed his view and told wonderful stories of how God had favored them. One woman, in tears, talked about the inheritance that had come to her after a period of prayer, letting her provide herself and her children with everything that they desired.

It made sense to me. I wanted it to be true. The catch, of course, is that Christ taught the exact opposite. Unambiguously and irrationally (to our minds) he said plainly that it is the meek who are blessed by God, that people should "not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth" and that "you cannot serve God and mammon." He insisted on poverty for his own followers, to the point of not even allowing the 70 followers he sent out to spread the good news to take even a change of clothes with them. Over and over, he taught that worldly riches detract from the riches of the spirit. Christ, on this point, was not rational.

So my rationality says one thing. Christ says another. This occurs over and over on a wide variety of issues: Loving my enemies, keeping the Sabbath, taking oaths. Which should I choose to believe: the irrational Christ, or the rational views of myself and my society?

In facing this conundrum, there are basically three answers, only two of which are honest (and the third of which is popular).

First, I can decide that my rational thoughts and those of others should guide me rather than the teachings of Christ, and I can stop calling myself Christian. Many people I like and respect have made this choice, and it is an honest one. They call themselves atheist or agnostic or Ethical Humanist or Unitarian Universalists.

Second, I could decide that I will set aside my own conclusions (and those of mainstream society) and follow the seemingly irrational Christ. This is an honest answer, but a very difficult one. It is profoundly humbling, hard to explain to others and may even seem anti-intellectual.

The third (dishonest) route is to somehow convince myself that Christ agrees with me, even when he taught the opposite in plain language. Under this model, I call myself Christian while putting my own reasoning above the clear teaching of Jesus. Sure, Christ said that we are not to make a public display of prayer, but surely he did not mean that, right? There are good reasons to sit at the head table at the prayer breakfast, after all, and everyone I know (besides Christ) agrees with me. On that one, he just doesn't make sense.

Too much of our own faith (including my own) takes this third path. Too often, it is our leaders who have led us down that path.

Much of American theology, high and low, seems devoted to making Christianity unthreatening to our base desires, our culture and our economy. This project is nothing less than a denial of God. If put our reasoning above the teachings of Christ, then who is on the throne of God? We are there, alone, with a flag of false allegiance over our head.

My friend and mentor Susan Stabile once summed up the root of her faith in two short sentences: "There is a God. I am not God." So much flows from that, including something very hard: allowing mystery to fill the void between our reason and the far greater knowledge of God as revealed through Christ. That chasm of mystery and humility is a sacred space, and like all sacred spaces our instinct is to conquer it in our own names, to pave it over to fit the contours of our own understanding.

As a professor, this truth is constantly humbling. My work is my intellect, yet I must constantly humble that intellect beneath a greater truth. Yes, Christ's truths seem irrational to me, many times, but should I expect anything different? If God is God, and I am his creation, then of course his ways surpass my understanding and reason. Against every instinct, I must lay down my will and come to him like a child, as a student: humbled, raw and quiet.