“Who do you say that I am?”
—Jesus (Matthew 16:15)
The world’s most influential person was born 2000 years ago — something we know because we have dated our calendars by his life for centuries — and art, literature, music, philosophy, religion, and society have never been the same. There have been nearly twice as many books written about Jesus of Nazareth as about the next most written-about human being (Shakespeare). No other religious figure has inspired as many films as Jesus. The greatest artists in history — from antiquity to modernity — have also been inspired by Jesus.
And people of many major religions (and among our friends and loved ones are people who follow each of these!) — including Buddhism (with the Dalai Lama acknowledging Jesus as a bodhisattva and a wise teacher), Hinduism (with many Hindus viewing Jesus as a sadhu or holy man), Islam (whose central religious text the Quran mentions Jesus 25 times, while the religion’s own founder Muhammed is mentioned only four times), and Judaism (with many Jewish people, including Albert Einstein, “enthralled” by the “luminous figure” of Jesus), in addition to Christianity — have acknowledged Jesus, and merged Jesus into their world views. Interestingly, while the other world religions made room for Jesus, the other religious founders combined did not have a similar impact on Christianity.
What does Jesus’s life mean to you? Who do you say that he is? With the annual celebration of Jesus’s birth coming in four weeks (December 25th), what better time to begin to focus on what Jesus has meant to the world at large and to you personally? That’s the whole point of Advent, which kicks off today (November 27th).
“The Christian of the future will either be a mystic, or will not exist at all,” said Karl Rahner (1904-1984), one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. He predicted that people will either have a genuine experiential relationship with God, or will cease to have faith. Recent statistics seem to bear this out. In the 1960s, when Rahner made this statement, 98-99 percent of Americans believed in God, while only one in five American adults reported having had a mystical or religious experience. By the late 2000s, belief in God had fallen to just 92 percent while nearly half of all Americans reported having had a mystical or religious experience. As belief in God was reported in June 2022 to have fallen to 81 percent among Americans, there are some signs that mystical and religious experiences have continued to rise. An increasing number of prominent people have made public their own powerful firsthand spiritual experiences and devotion to Christianity, from late night host Stephen Colbert to actor Denzel Washington to Harvard Business School professor Roy Schoeman.
The unprecedented-in-our-lifetime shock of a global pandemic with its devastating human toll changed all of our lives, but perhaps each of us in different ways. In the United States, it hit us in New York City earliest and hardest — so confined to lockdown as of March 2020, we both found ourselves unexpectedly praying more than we ever had before in our lives. And an extraordinary thing happened: As we turned to God, we found in turn that God began to reveal God to us. Two-and-a-half years later, we don’t believe in God so much as we now know that God is real and alive in our everyday lives. God has shifted from a concept to a lived experience, becoming present everywhere from our interior prayer to our daily interactions in the world.
Simultaneous to discovering deepened prayer lives, we began to study God in earnest. Our book group of about a dozen of us took to Zoom every Tuesday night to read and discuss spiritual books in the Christian tradition. The books we’ve studied together since then, and another weekly Bible study group, have provided us with a deepened, more mature understanding of Christianity — which is wilder than any sci fi adventure film, with higher highs and lower lows, and without a doubt is The Ultimate Love Story for the Ages.
While we were both baptized as babies, while we were growing up, Andrew’s family never attended church — and while Karen’s family attended church every Sunday, she was never taught about Christianity to any level of true comprehension. But today, we’re both in such awe and wonder that we hope to help others understand what we regret having never really understood all our lives.
God is so far beyond what our human minds can comprehend that God will always remain at least in part a mystery. However, we’ve come to understand that even though we can never know God in full, we can absolutely come to know aspects of God. And we now know that God dearly wants each and every one of us to know God. There are many means of doing so that we were not aware of until recent years — and other aspects of the path to fullness in (or union with) God that are still not known to many if not most Christians for reasons we still don’t fully understand.
We look forward to sharing with anyone “with ears to hear” all we’ve learned, and more importantly to pointing out other trusted sources of knowledge we’ve searched far and wide to find, which we hope can help to inform your own. And trust us — things are just getting good! As bestselling author of Person of Interest J. Warner Wallace, the former atheist cold-case detective who investigated Jesus as a historical figure and then converted to Christianity, puts it, “The promise of Jesus is much greater than a pledge to transform literature, art, music, education, and science. It’s a promise to transform the status and heart of every believer….Those of us who recognize the truth about Jesus can accept his offer to reunite us with God….Those of us who are willing to trust Jesus, accept the offer of forgiveness, and follow him will be forever reconciled to God. That decision matters, and it ultimately leads to a life that matters. I’m a Christian today because Christianity is true. Demonstrably true. The evidence of history screams Jesus from every significant human achievement and every meaningful aspect of culture.”
Thank you to those of you who are curious and open enough to join on this Advent journey, as we post regularly throughout the season…May your Advent be blessed! (Sunday, November 27, 2022)
“Who do you say that I am?”
There are only a few possible answers to this question, and every human being must decide among them. And yes, we do need to make a decision, because to decide not to decide is in itself a decision.
Atheists may claim that belief in God goes against reason. Other may say that belief in God is simply a matter of personal faith. But while we are each entitled to our personal religious beliefs, we are not necessarily intellectually justified in holding them.
For those who struggle to believe in any God, let alone to believe that Jesus Christ is in fact the one true God, we can step back for a moment to share that for 50 years, the brilliant British professor Antony Flew was outspoken in championing atheism — so when in 2007 he came out with his award-winning book There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, it caused an uproar among atheists. Flew shared how his commitment to Socrates’ maxim to “follow the argument wherever it leads” led him to four lines of evidence that convinced him — and a belief in God as Creator. Time and time again, it was new scientific evidence that led him to reconsider his point of view.
Indeed, for the scientifically minded, there have been a number of excellent books synthesizing the new evidence in a compelling way. In 2010’s New Proofs for the Existence of God, author Robert J. Spitzer responds to contemporary popular atheism by examining the considerable evidence for God that has come to light from physics and philosophy over the prior four decades. Last year, New York Times bestselling author Stephen C. Meyer came out with Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe — in which he “demonstrates how discoveries in cosmology and physics coupled with those in biology help to establish the identity of the designing intelligence behind life and the universe….Meyer argues that theism — with its affirmation of a transcendent, intelligent and active creator — best explains the evidence we have concerning biological and cosmological origins. Previously Meyer refrained from attempting to answer questions about “who” might have designed life. Now he provides an evidence-based answer to perhaps the ultimate mystery of the universe. In so doing, he reveals a stunning conclusion: the data support not just the existence of an intelligent designer of some kind — but the existence of a personal God.”
Who is that personal God? Jesus Christ is the only major religious leader who ever claimed to be God. A mid-19th century Scottish Christian preacher named John Duncan characterized the “trilemma” He posed: “Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.” In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis posed these as the “LIAR, LUNATIC or LORD?” question.
In his 2017 book Yes, There Is A God, John Bergsma raises a fourth option, the idea that Jesus might have been a LEGEND, and that “maybe people just made up stories about a magical hero who claimed he was God and worked healings.” But he quickly dismisses the explanation, based on four biographies (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and the testimony of Paul plus the most important historian of the time, Joseph Flavius (aka Josephus). Bergsma writes, “We have more information, from more people, about the life of Jesus than about almost any other ancient figure. If we are going to start calling Jesus a legend, are we going to do the same with Socrates? Confucius? Cleopatra? Alexander the Great?”
Cold-case homicide detective and former atheist turned Christian J. Warner Wallace makes the case for Jesus’s humanity and divinity in his bestselling books Cold-Case Christianity (2013) and Person of Interest (2021) using an innovative and unique approach based on the tools he used to solve real missing-person murder cases. We’ve gifted them to people we know enjoy reading good mysteries, but if a more historical approach is more to your liking, you might appreciate Brant Pitre‘s 2016 The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ.
In his 2021 book Introduction to the Spiritual Life, Pitre reflects on Jesus’s first teaching that stresses the importance of meditating on Scripture in his famed answer to a Jewish scribe’s question about which of the biblical commandments is the greatest. Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30) Pitre points out:
“At first glance, his answer looks like standard Jewish teaching. However, as any first-century Jew would have noticed, Jesus also does something remarkable. He adds a new command: ‘You shall love the Lord your God…with all your mind’ (Mark 12:30). This line is not present in the Hebrew Scriptures. The word Jesus uses for ‘mind’ (Greek dianoia) refers to a person’s ‘intelligence’ or ‘understanding.’ In other words, Jesus expects his disciples to love God not only with their heart, soul, and strength but also with their intellect. He expects his disciples to love God by thinking about him.”
Advent offers us the opportunity to think about God, and to engage God with our intellect. As Antony Flew’s decades-long journey attests, reason alone can lead us to God. Picking up any or all of the books mentioned in this post can provide an illuminating start. (Monday, November 28, 2022)
“The Word of the Father…has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.”
We have some really interesting conversations at the soup kitchen where we volunteer every week, but some of the most interesting ones have been about religion. Today, it was with a Jesuit-educated guest who claimed that to believe in God without “peer-reviewed scientific evidence” was “delusional.” Further, he asked, why would the Creator of the entire universe have to come to earth and be born of a woman? Karen told him she’d read something interesting on the subject, but he said he wasn’t interested in hearing about it. However, we thought some of you might be interested — and so we’re writing this post:
During the Summer of 2021, our weekly Book Group was trying to decide whether to take the summer off, or to spend it reading a book edited by Julia Roller called 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, which is a well-curated collection of classics, for which a summary and representative excerpts were provided. We decided that if we were able to get a volunteer to read each summary and summarize it for the group, we would proceed. The volunteers volunteered, our discussions proceeded, and our lives were changed by what we read and learned.
The very first featured book was On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius (297-373). Its influence on all Christian theology thereafter, East and West, ensures its place as one of the few ‘must read’ books for all who want to know more about the Christian faith.
A few highlights:
+ “The Divine Dilemma”: “Once humankind broke faith with God by disobeying and eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it opened itself to the powers of evil….God could not let his creation be destroyed….After all, we are made in God’s image. It would be worse than if we were never made at all. Simple repentance could not be sufficient to return us to God’s grace, since God could not remain true if this were the case. Drastic measures were needed — so ‘the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.’ This Word had always been with us, but was now with us in a new way. Moved by compassion for humans that death should have the mastery of us, the Word took on a human body and surrendered it to death for all. Such an act could only have been performed by God…’The rescue of mankind from corruption was the proper part only of Him Who made them in the beginning.‘”
+ Of course, another essential reason for God becoming man was so that we could know our creator. ‘For of what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?’ Although we should have been able to know God through being made in God’s image or by creation or by the law and prophets, we so successfully obscured these sources by falling prey to death and corruption that God had to send Jesus so that we could know God once again. Since humans were looking for God among the created things, earthly things, God came to us in this way, a simple means so that we could understand. But God could not come simply to die and then rise again. Jesus let himself be seen as a man, doing and saying things that showed clearly that he was not only man, but God….Jesus’s actions as described in the Bible — eating and drinking and so forth — show that he was a man, but his other actions — healing and driving out evil spirits and performing miracles — equally show that he is God.”
+ “The Miraculous, Stupendous Event That Occurred”: “The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.’ So, because of this death, all who believe in Christ shall no longer die, as was our lot by law.”
+ It was important that Christ’s death be public, so as not to incur any doubt that he was truly dead, that it occur on the cross because he who healed could not grow sick, and that it be at the hands of others so that it could not be said that he planned his own death in some special way that enabled him to rise again. As Athanasius writes, ‘A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.’
As Roller comments insightfully, Athanasius explains just why God had to become man and why God had to die. And most important, he makes it clear that Christ had to be God; otherwise he could not effect our salvation. God created us; God called us good, so when we responded with disobedience and fell so deeply into corruption that we were held hostage by sin and death, God did the only thing possible to save us: taking form in a human body so God could die. By countering the corruption of death with Jesus’s perfect incorruption, God conquered death once and for all.
Other inspiring quotes from St. Athanasius:
“Jesus became what we are that he might make us what he is.”
“Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.”
“The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”
“For of what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?”
“Even on the cross he did not hide himself from sight; rather, he made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker.”
“What Athanasius also helps to restore for us, which perhaps we can only find in a book as old as this one, is a renewed understanding of the jaw-dropping awe we should feel at the Incarnation….Athanasius can help renew in us some of the wonder we should feel at the radical act that is the Incarnation.”
–Julia Roller, editor, 25 BOOKS EVERY CHRISTIAN SHOULD READ
(Thursday, December 1, 2022)
During Advent, we’re celebrating the Incarnation — of God (spirit) becoming man (flesh) in the form of Jesus Christ (spirit + flesh), who is both 100 percent divine and 100 percent human. The chart above did a brilliant job of helping us understand the down-and-up-and-down dynamics of the Christian story: God the Father (the 1st person of the Trinity = pure spirit) sent down Jesus the Son (the 2nd person of the Trinity = spirit + flesh), who died and rose from the dead and ascended up into Heaven so that they could send down the Holy Spirit (the 3rd person of the Trinity = pure spirit) to transform everyone who is baptized.
So many Christians have been poorly taught about Christianity, without a spiritually mature understanding of it — and it’s hard to know whether that is simply the nature of trying to translate the ineffable into words, which has too often involved metaphorical descriptions that are difficult to follow in the 21st century.
We have personally found using contemporary analogies to be helpful in deepening our own spiritual understanding. For example: 1) We find it helpful to imagine that with Jesus’s Incarnation, God created a new strand of DNA that allows spirit to be transformed into flesh. And 2) We also find it helpful to imagine that with Jesus’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, God created a 2nd new strand of DNA that allows flesh to be transformed into spirit. And finally 3) What differentiates Christianity from any other world religion is that those two new strands of DNA are grafted into every human being who undergoes baptism (with water, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”), implanting in each of them the potential for eternal life in a human/divine hybrid version of the body they have on earth.
Jesus was simply the prototype of a new creation: divinized human beings, which is the reality of what Christianity offers: the opportunity to become literal sons and daughters of God for all eternity, starting here on earth. Baptism implants the seed (via the Holy Spirit). Using one’s free will to then imitate Jesus and to follow Jesus’s teachings [i.e., to LOVE; e.g., by 1) loving God and 2) loving neighbor] waters and nourishes that seed so that it can grow to full maturity. Just as an actual seed in nature requires the Sun to grow, reaching full supernatural spiritual maturity requires God’s Grace — and we have to will to receive it freely, and to cooperate with it.
While divinization (aka deification, or theosis in the Orthodox Christian tradition) was apparently standard Christian teaching from its earliest days until the Reformation, for some reason it hadn’t been widely taught over the past five centuries. But there has been a rebirth in its teaching over the past five to 10 years — including books like Union with God (the best $3 you’ll ever spend!), Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification by David Meconi, SJ, and (from an ecumenical Christian perspective) With All the Fullness of God: Deification in Christian Tradition edited by Jared Ortiz. These are highly recommended to understand the historical and theological framework of divinization. For a step-by-step program to pursue it, we highly recommend the various courses offered by Matthew Leonard at ScienceOfSainthood.com — which offers a free two-week trial not requiring a credit card, which is plenty of time to complete its intro course Catholic Mysticism and the Beautiful Life of Grace, which has an excellent accompanying workbook covering topics like how deification happens, the power of love to divinize, the beauty of Grace, and our formal participation in God. (Saturday, December 3, 2022)
“…As you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways — in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels….On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube….The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life, and that may begin any time — tonight, if you like.”
–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
We owe our thanks to Karen’s fellow Harvard MBA Steve Auth (author of Pilgrimage to the Museum: Man’s Search for God Through Art and Time) for first introducing us to Salvador Dali‘s “Corpus Hypercubus” at The Met three years ago, which has since become Karen’s favorite painting at the museum. We were first drawn to it intuitively, and then it led us to study Dali and his curiosity about the fourth dimension which helped inspire it, as this BBC article touches on.
Learning this sequence of dimensions
— i.e., point (0D) => line (1D) => square (2D) => cube (3D) => hypercube / tesseract that unfolds into a Cross (4D) — seemed to point to a new mystery of the Cross.
Karen was fascinated to discover Notre Dame-educated Catholic Brown University mathematics professor Thomas Banchoff
’s work on the fourth dimension, and the Brown.edu website
that argues that many if not most of the miracles in the Bible could be explained from a 4th-dimensional perspective: Loaves and fishes? 3D bread and fish sliced on a 4D angle apparently yields an infinite number of slices, according to the website. Entering and exiting a locked room? Fully possible for a 4D being to do so in a 3D world. Ascending into heaven? That’s what it would look like from the perspective of our 3D eyes of a 4D being returning to the 4th dimension.
“Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the Sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions: open your eye once again and try to look steadily.”
–Edwin Abbott Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Karen reread the 1884 Edwin Abbott Abbott book Flatland
(in which a square living in 2D encounters a 3D cube and imagines him a god), which influenced aspects of C.S. Lewis
’s brilliant Mere Christianity.
(When Jewish atheist New York Times
columnist David Brooks admitted he was “Christian-curious,” his readers sent him 300 books. One hundred of them were copies of Mere Christianity
— so we figured we’d better read it. It indeed took us a leap forward in our own understanding of Christianity. We also love the whimsically illustrated “Doodle videos” of this book on YouTube.). We’ve also watched a couple of YouTube TED-Ed videos on the 4th dimension to better picture how those miracles — such as Jesus’s resurrected body which was said to have been seen by 500+ witnesses — might appear visually in 3D: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=C6kn6nXMWF0
“You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying….God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on — the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man [who prays] is being caught up into the higher kinds of life — what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.”
–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
C.S. Lewis also points out that when it comes to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side: “If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favorites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favorites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.”Other sciences use external instruments, but the science through which we are able to see God is our whole self: “And if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred — like the Moon seen through a dirty telescope….God can show Himself as He really is only to real men. And that means not simply to men who are individually good, but to men who are united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another. For that is what God meant humanity to be like; like players in one band, or organs in one body.”
“…And then, after they had been formed into a little society or community, they found God somehow inside them as well: directing them, making them able to do things they could not do before….Theology is, in a sense, an experimental science.”
–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
“If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not,” asserts C.S. Lewis. “We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”
Christianity is complex. That’s why our Advent posts are only beginning to scratch the surface of its Truth, its Fact, its Depth, its Wonder, its awe-inspiring Good News. And every reader is coming from a different place, set of experiences, and mindset, so every one of you will have a different set of questions. However, we can assure you that the journey to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ is the one to which the God of Abraham who created the universe has called every human being in His invitation to make us all His divinized children. How will you respond to this invitation this Christmas season? (Sunday, December 4, 2022)