Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 23, “Eternal Consciousness”

My dear friend from days long ago,*

It is 43 years since we graduated from boarding school. Do you think that if a group of us from the class of 1969—say, some of the regulars from the Williams House butt roomgot together and tried to reconstruct the most important events of our years at Exeter we could do so? How much would we have lost, forgotten, embellished?

Wait, we should build a more dignified analogy. Not the Will House BR—that was a pretty mixed crowd—let’s say instead, the editorial staff of the Exonian. Yes, much better. Because here’s what I’m driving at:

If Jesus had died that same year, 1969, we would now be living in the year 76 AD or thereabouts, assuming Jesus died at age 33. So it is probable that at least two, maybe three of the Gospels would have been written by now. Catholics and Protestants agree—amazing!—that the Gospel of John was written later, but most agree that the so-called Synoptics—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—would all be circulating on papyrus by now. They were as close to the events of Jesus’s life, passion, and resurrection as we are to the Andover game of November 1968 (we won, 22–12, remember?), the drug scandal of spring break 1969 (the less said about which the better), and our graduation in June.

So let’s ask the same question of the Evangelists that we have asked of the Exie staff: How much of the Greatest Story Ever Told did they lose, forget, or embellish?

There are two halves of the chapter in The Lord titled “Eternal Consciousness,” a mysterious title that goes over my head. The first half of the chapter takes up the question of Jesus’s divinity, particularly as laid out in chapters 7–10 of John. The second half is what I want to focus on here.

Having dwelt on the fourth Gospel, Guardini admits a potential problem with reading the story of Jesus in the New Testament: “He who reads the Gospels with an open heart must feel the profound difference between the three first and that of John. This difference my trouble him. He will ask himself whether the Jesus of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, is the same as the Jesus of John. Aren’t the two portraits contradictory, hence one right and the other wrong?”

Again, I love that Guardini does not shy away from these troubling questions. And this one is particularly relevant to our exchange—you the Episcopalian, I the Catholic—because there is a large segment of contemporary Protestant scholars who say that there are insurmountable problems with John, that John is nonhistorical, too theological, and at any rate very much later than the other three. Therefore John is more likely to contain errors.

Many of these scholars differ with Catholics on who John was to begin with. We Catholics say the Evangelist was the same man as the Apostle, the younger brother of James the Greater, the follower most beloved of Jesus and closest to him. I’m not sure what the consensus of Protestant scholarship says, but the Lutheran theologian Marcus Borg lays the matter out pretty clearly in his popular book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time:

“The contrast between the synoptic and Johannine images of Jesus is so great that one of them must be nonhistorical. Both cannot be accurate characterizations of Jesus as a historical figure. [I learned in the seminary that] the verdict of nonhistorical went to John. I learned that the portrait of Jesus in John’s gospel was essentially one of the Christ of faith, and not the Jesus of history.”

Here Borg goes overboard, I think, undermining the Scriptural basis of Protestantism:

“Jesus never spoke of himself as the Son of God, as one with God, as the light of the world, as the way, the truth, and the life, and so forth [as he does in John]. Indeed, he never spoke the words of John 3:16—that verse from my childhood that had summed up my image of Jesus.”

Since the nineteenth century wave on wave of scholar has been searching for the “historical Jesus.” Borg, searching for him again, is forced to throw John overboard. Guardini does not. His way of reconciling the apparent contradiction is beautiful.

First, Guardini points out that, Jesus being Jesus, no single human account could adequately cover his life, death, and resurrection. “An existence of such unthinkable depths and immeasurable proportions could never be completely portrayed by any one artist, not even by the greatest genius.”

Second, the passing of the first century AD did not have the same befogging effect on the memory of Christ that the passage of time may have had on our Exeter memories: “Little by little the eye penetrates the darkness of the mystery, uncovering increasingly richer treasure. The longer Christian experience lasts, the more complete Christ’s image will become.”

In fact, we have three sets of sources for what we know of Jesus’s life and ministry:

The Syoptics “record immediate historical experience, which views Jesus as he might have been seen by any believer.”

St. Paul probably never saw the Lord face to face; he draws Christ’s spiritual features as he has been taught by personal revelation . . .

St. John—and this is so beautiful to me, since I have spent 25 years in the field of memoir—writes as “an old man. Once with his own eyes he had seen ‘the Word‘ who is life; had touched him with his hands, as he tells us so vividly in his opening epistle. His Christ is painted from life—from the historical life in which he, John, personally participated. Since then, it has been constantly enriched by long years of Christian experience, of prayer, proclamation and struggle.

The italics are mine. That’s because this enrichment of Christian experience over time has been my experience as well—within the Catholic Church, into which I was received nearly five years ago. As one who has helped over fifty elderly people recall the events of their early lives—and as one whose own early experience in church with my parents has come back to a new and more vivid life today, in the church of Peter—I see no contradiction whatsoever between John and the Synoptics.

Take it, Romano: “The Christ of the Synoptics and the Christ of St. John are one. The more deeply we penetrate into divine truth, the more clearly we see that John speaks the ultimate word indeed; word, however, which the others have prepared.”

More tomorrow, my friend,
and for now, my best wishes,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 24

* This post continues a series of reflections on the The Lord by Romano Guardini in the form of open letters to an Episcopalian friend, a real one, from my days at boarding school. The series began here.

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