Main Menu  

   

This article was published in the January 1994 issue of The Journal.

CHALLENGES TO JESUS

The theme of the Swanwick 1993 Annual Conference of the English Association of Interchurch Families was "Challenges". Fr Bernard Brady, a priest of the diocese of Nottingham, formerly Catholic chaplain to Nottingham University and now engaged in counselling work, was asked to speak on "Challenges to Jesus", in order to help participants reflect on how they, as interchurch families, should respond to challenges.

Brian Thorne is a person-centred therapist who has written a beautiful book about Jesus called Behold the Man (1991; London: Darton, Longman and Todd), in which he uses the Passion story to illustrate the personality of Jesus. I am greatly indebted to it for some of the ideas I venture to offer you in this paper.

My own interest in the world of counselling and therapy now occupies me full time. I work at a therapeutic centre which specialises in men and women of faith who are troubled or who are in pain. I work also in the secular world of counselling where I continually see good people who are distant from the churches, but who are seeking a spirituality.

The challenges to Jesus, therefore, will be much influenced by how I understand personality, and as Jesus was human, his personality will have developed along the same lines as yours and mine.

First, a little theology.

Christ a man
The present Pope speaks unambiguously of Christ as a man, so putting aside the theology which used to tell us that, while Jesus had a human nature, he could not strictly be called a man, since the subject of his being is the second person of the Trinity. This led to a one-sided picture of Jesus which I think has done great harm in its time to our spirituality, especially with its emphasis on an overly spiritual understanding of it, and an unconscious down-playing of our physicality. This can be seen most clearly in our attitude to sensuality and loss of the sheer pleasure and delight of our bodies. Christian attacks on permissiveness seem to be based on the Manichean heresy of the inherent sinfulness of the flesh, on the rejection of passion, and of the erotic, a violent separation of soul and body which is alien to the New Testament. This, I may add, is not confined to men and women and children of faith, but is also found in the secular world. Therapists meet deformed humanity every day of the week.

Fr Edward Yarnold, SJ, in his book, The Second Gift - a study of Grace, argues strongly that Jesus must have had a normal human psychology, otherwise how could he be a model for us? The choices that Jesus needed to make are similar to the choices that other men and women have made and still make, which are the options for truth, integrity, and justice. None of these choices is made without suffering and anxiety.

Many Christians are happy to think of Jesus as a man until they realise more clearly that this implies seeing him as someone who thinks the way we think, and feels the way we feel.

If Jesus had a genuine human psychology, then he had to learn about himself, just as we do, through love, crises, experience of life.

Life stages
Let us look at the three basic stages of life.

(i) Infancy and childhood - you do not have to go all the way with Freud to accept the crucial bonding links between a baby and its mother, and later its father. If a baby does not get its needs met to be wann, dry, fed, touched, loved then many would argue that the fonnation of the ability to trust is greatly impaired. When that child senses the panic of its parents at suddenly becoming refugees in another land and culture, the later normality of Jesus pays great credit to the "good-enough", to use D.W.Winnicot's phrase, the "good-enough" parenting of Joseph and Mary

As the child grows, so it experiences its first glimpses of sexuality - the little boy loving his mother and seeing his father as a rival. I wonder how old Jesus was when Joseph died? Psychologists tell us that the ability to trust develops at this stage. If children's early emotional growth is stunted, then they may find it difficult to trust either their family or people outside it, with painful consequences for later relationships. Clearly Jesus had a loving childhood, as we can see from the relationships of love and friendship which he formed in his adult life.

(ii) Adolescence brings many challenges to young people ­ the challenge to independence, the challenge of an awakened sexuality, the body in some turmoil, the need for peer group support, the struggle with authority.

Jesus leaves his parents in great sadness and worry when he stays behind after their journey to Jerusalem. How often do parents say, "Tell me where you are going." Is there a touch of rebellion in the words of Jesus when asked about causing this parental worry: "I must be about my Father's business." Taking on the Temple authorities, testing himself the way all adolescents do against their parents, their teachers, their church, preparing to be able to cope with the opposition that will come, without being browbeaten by those in higher authority do we not know the same challenge in our own lives when we need to affirm our needs and express our disagreements with our employers, our bishops. our Pope, our God? How often and how easily we can become compliant children or rebellious teenagers.

Once his parents had respected that degree of needed independence, Jesus learnt how to respect the authority of others "and Jesus was subject to them".

The challenge to interchurch families is how to assert your needs, your sensitivities, to the Hierarchy, saying that you too must be about your Father's business. It means doing so assertively, and without aggression, enabling others to hear your pain and what you have to say to them. Avoiding the dialogue of the deaf is one mark of adulthood.

(iii) Jesus was around thirty when he decided that it was to be now or never. In my understanding, to be adult is to live in the here and now, to own and express emotions and feelings which I actually experience now. It sounds easy enough to do, yet in practice I find it quite difficult.

Challenges
Perhaps our greatest challenge in adulthood is to be at ease with the concept of intimacy - that ability to be at one with someone, while still retaining the separateness, which together constitute our sense of who we are, our identity.

Piers Paolo Pasolini, an Italian Marxist, created the best filmed life of Christ that I have ever seen. using only St Matthew's Gospel, and he caught something of the human question who am I, and what am I about?

Jesus, very quickly in the Gospel, goes into the wilderness for forty days, to find out, perhaps, his answers to those questions: who am L and what am I about? The wilderness is inside us a sense of isolation, a love which is not returned, envy of the successful, boring work. God is not always there for us we have grey, depressed feelings, real insecurity.

In the desert experience Jesus meets the challenge of sexuality and how to express it. A Christian critique of the degrading of the flesh and of sexuality is undoubtedly needed, but only because we hold that flesh is sacred, and not through fear.

Evil is powerful only when one is attracted to it. Hugh Montefiore, when Bishop of Birmingham, aroused a storm of protest when in a much misquoted sermon he raised the possibility of Jesus being homosexual. Did Jesus experience sexual attraction? I hope so. Hc could hardly be human without this fundamental experience. We call the person without feelings a psychopath, and they can be dangerous people. Choosing not to exercise his sexuality would have required repeated decisions. and in my experience they are seldom all in the right direction.

To be attracted by good things, physical, sexual, or intellectual, is no imperfection; the imperfection occurs when we follow the attraction away from the right path.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus must have felt the pull of the easy option - and he made a fully human decision to do what he knew to be right. Just as in the dese11 experience he resisted the temptations to be a different sort of Messiah, one that would have gained him much support, political and economic, yet he chose to be a suffering Messiah. He would be a king of a very different sort.

Jesus did not know whether or not his decision was the right one - it is what we often call faith. The challenge of faith is that we never really know.

The challenge to bring up children in different traditions, not knowing what to do for the best, yet trusting that it will come right.

The challenge to speak a message of God's love for everyone, and not just for the orthodox believers who had sufficient money to be able to keep the Mosaic Law - no wonder Jesus attracted the publican, the tax collector, and the prostitute. He gave them a choice, a hope, which they could not find in the Law. Those of you who have struggled with the Canon Law may sense the attraction also.

The challenge of loneliness, and the deep fear of abandonment which lies behind it; and how real that fear must have been for Jesus, for it breaks out of him with that great cry from the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' In loneliness we are painfully aware of what we do not have.

The challenge of choice - choosing to follow a particular way when there were many other options, choosing his followers, and getting it nearly right.

The challenge of being a miracle-worker and guru, with all the subtle temptations of power and status that go with it.

The challenge of sexuality and how to express it. A Christian critique of the degrading of the flesh and of sexuality is undoubtedly needed, but only because we hold that flesh is sacred, and not through fear.

The challenge of not projecting anger on to others when really it belongs to us - the anger of confronting the institutional Church and not blaming others for our pain.

The challenge of living on the edges interchurch families can identify with that. When Jesus cured the leper, it was Jesus who had to live outside the towns, while the ex-leper could live with people again. If you free and heal people, it can be the healer who pays the price.

The challenge of living in the family of the Church, both on a global leve\ and a parochial one, where we can see all the shortcomings of our fellow Christians. Sharing the same faith can mean mixing with people who are very different in attitude from ourselves, and the temptation to scapegoat is strong. There can be a lot of cruelty and lack of love in the family.

The challenge to be fully human
Jesus remains a unique model for us precisely because of his humanity. In his inner core he always retained trust in himself and in God, he always clung to his own identity; he remained a man in control of himself, despite all his enemies could do.

Georges Bernanos wrote Diary of a Country Priest, a novel which made me think hard about my choice for priesthood. In it he wrote: "My parish is eaten up by boredom - boredom is eating them up under our eyes, and there is nothing we can do about it."

Yet Jesus offers a different vision - a challenge to be fully human, and the more human we are the closer we come to God. Meeting challenges openly, honestly, is what adulthood is about - it is what humanity is about it is the challenge that men and women of faith cannot avoid if they are to remain faithful.

May I end by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great opponent of Nazism: "God will give us all the strength we need to resist in all times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we rely on ourselves and not on him alone."

Bernard Brady