Historical Jesus or Cosmic Christ – July 2013

Question: Which is more important, the historical Jesus or the Cosmic Christ?

Publication Month: July 2013

In order to answer relatively simply, I will understand the Cosmic Christ to be what, in the prologue to John’s gospel, is called the Logos. That identification answers the question. The Logos is more important. It is one with God, and there is no creation apart from the Logos. Life and intelligence are singled out as the work of the Logos. In Whitehead’s language, the Logos is the Primordial Nature of God. No creature can be comparable in importance.

If we take Jesus seriously, we must assert the primacy of the Logos. Jesus points to God and calls on us to love God with all our being. Jesus is aware of the importance of his mission, but not in a way that is independent of the primary importance of God. In other words, the importance of the historical Jesus is not in competition with the importance of the Logos.

However, the prologue of John’s gospel is written to stress the importance, not of the Logos, but of the historical Jesus. The primacy of the Logos is not in competition with the importance of Jesus. When we identify the Logos with the Cosmic Christ we are recognizing how intimately the importance of these two very different kinds of realities is bound together. This unity is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Of course, there are those who affirm the Logos without attributing any special importance to Jesus. And today there are many who recognize the importance of Jesus in human history without affirming the reality of the Logos. From a Christian point of view one might ask: Is more lost by ignoring Jesus or by ignoring the Logos?

My answer to that question would be: It all depends. Let us suppose that, on one side, we have people who believe in some cosmic ground of order, but whose belief in that order is not influenced by the biblical tradition. Then, on the other side, we have people who try to be faithful to Jesus, but do not share Jesus’ belief in God. What do these groups lack that more traditional Christians find valuable?

Today the first group could include those who simply sense that the physical world is ordered by necessity rather than chance. Very little moral and spiritual significance is likely to attach to that idea if it is not connected with some tradition other than contemporary science. However, historically the idea of the Logos is associated especially with Stoicism. In that context, it had important meaning for the whole of life. To ask what Christians find missing in classical Stoicism would require another essay. Similarly, we could study the traditions of India and China, finding ideas in many of them that resemble the Logos, and we could ask similar questions. Today, we can be greatly aided in this examination by the extensive work that has been done with respect to the great wisdom traditions.

The most demanding discussion would be with Judaism. Jesus was a Jew. His teaching was, in his own view, fully Jewish. But of course the Jewish tradition had many elements, and much depended then and depends now on which is treated as central. Jesus was emphatically in the prophetic tradition, viewing both the priestly and the legal traditions from that perspective. The implications of his message shattered the boundary between Jew and Gentile. The total result was to create a Jewish sect that was clearly different from what continued as the Jewish mainstream.

Perhaps most important was the inevitable change introduced by the large inflow of Gentiles. Although they accepted the Jewish scriptures, they read them quite differently. The overall historical results have been that many Jewish ideas have become widely accepted beyond the boundaries of Judaism and that distinctive ideas have been developed for good and ill.

Jews will not, I think, dispute the historical importance of Jesus. Their appraisal of the value of the consequences of his life, however, is quite another matter. The terrible acts of Christians over the centuries are indisputable. Spelling out the positive effects of the historical Jesus that would probably not have occurred without him is an important and valuable activity for Christians. Of particular importance is clarifying the unique contributions that faithfulness to this historical figure can make today.

On the other side there are those who are profoundly impressed by the historical Jesus and his teaching without affirming the Logos or the God of Israel. People like Schweitzer and Gandhi show what wonderful effects can have. From a Christian perspective, what do we consider that they lack?

In Schweitzer’s case, my judgment is that, like many Christians who have surrendered to modern atheism, much of his thinking had originally developed in a theistic context. Like many other Christians in this situation, he was able to maintain much of the distinctive value we associate with the historical Jesus without consciously sharing his belief in the One Jesus called Abba. The question for me is how much of this can be transmitted from generation to generation without the theistic context that was part of its origin. My personal judgment is that these people are wonderful examples of how life can continue for some time in the limb of a tree severed from its trunk.

The situation with Gandhi was quite different. He was nurtured by Hindu traditions. These allowed him to see in Jesus’ teaching a wisdom that could profoundly enrich Hinduism. The Hindu understanding of the divine was quite different from that of Jesus but still adaptable to framing Jesus’ message. How well it can work in this way without itself being transformed by what it incorporates I do not know. My guess is that in its new context over time it loses a good deal. But some aspects become deeply rooted.

Obviously, I share with many Christians the view that Jesus’ understanding of the Logos as Abba and his person and teaching are a coherent whole. We believe he uniquely embodied the Logos. This wholeness has often been lost or distorted in the Christian community. For example, the centuries-long celebration of violence as faithfulness was totally contradictory both to Jesus’ teaching in general and to his understanding of the Logos, but Christians must acknowledge that, too, to be part of the importance of Jesus in world history. The same must be said of millennia-long teachings about Judaism and much else. Nevertheless, I believe that the greatest hope for saving the world from the terrible self-destruction in which we are now immersed is the clarification and celebration through faithfulness of the historical Jesus and the Logos that he incarnated.