Right now I'm reading Philip Hallie's Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. It's the story of the Huguenot village of Le Chambon, France, which, under the leadership Pastor André Trocmé, managed to save the lives of thousands of Jewish children during the Nazi years. Its introduction has me thinking about how we interpret the phenomenon of love and goodness. Hallie's first "fan" letter was from a person who told him that only vast forces make history, that a few pacifists who did nothing to stop Hitler's armies weren't that significant, and that the "obscurity" and "miniscule" number of Trocmé's followers ("equally eccentric kindred-spirits," the writer calls them) should offer an insight into what is objectively significant (xiv). Yet for another of Hallie's fans, his book had given her hope in the face of facts about the Holocaust that had driven her to despair over humanity (xv). Here is the frustrating point: the most obvious acts of goodness can be dismissed.
I suppose what I find theologically interesting about this has, once again, to do with Jesus. The stats tell us that a third of the planet identifies as Christian. If there is any movement of world-historical significance, here it is. And yet both among the Church's own members, and between the Church and the world, there is a rather stark and puzzling contrast in how Jesus is perceived. The Jesus of deism in the eighteenth century paved the way for the Liberal Protestant Jesus of the nineteenth century. This tradition, which created the cultural vocabulary of doubt now popular in the West, found the Cross, which has always sat at the center of mainstream Christian piety, to be totally revolting. To one body of observes the Cross looks like the supreme instance of love--God becomes Man out of love for his creatures and forgives them who nonetheless spat in his face, tortured, and killed him. Yet to another body of observers the Cross insinuates the worst about human beings (that we are really so bad as to be in need of such a costly forgiveness from God), and it perpetuates a primitive and barbaric notion of sacrifice. How is it that the same thing can be interpreted as the pinnacle of beauty or the depth of primitive depravity? A recent atheist-turned-Christian writer has described her transition from one view of the Cross to the other in this way: "This theme—of love as sacrifice for true good—struck me. The Cross no longer seemed a grotesque symbol of divine sadism, but a remarkable act of love. And Christianity began to look less strangely mythical and more cosmically beautiful."
I puzzle over these entrenched differences of perception regarding the person of Jesus. And yet part of what is involved in perceiving Jesus is that we perceive other peoples' contrasting perceptions of him. To know Jesus is to also know this effect he has on others. This is no more than what Isaiah said (which I posted about a few weeks ago). The fore-ordained character of humanity's divided perception does shed light on this situation, but it does not take away from the oddness of experiencing my own Faith given an (often elaborate) interpretation by various Christian and non-Christian critics that is entirely beside the point: I look at the Cross and see a simple, indivisible, primordial point of love. No doubt this love gives rise to complex reflections, but I don't think you need a complicated sociological, psychological, or evolutionary meta-theory to understand the simplicity of my faith. What is it that prevents someone (and not a few of them) from entering sympathetically into the experience of millions of believers and saying "I can see why they find this attractive"? Let's use Occam's razor. Maybe it is just as simple as the Gospel being about love, and that people find that love attractive. Alas, that type of simple reasoning is too much to hope for on this side of the veil, which is why I can't help but think Isaiah was right.