Saturday I had a conversation a neighbor. This neighbor, P., is a man perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties, tall and thin, with a full shock of curly, white hair and a well-trimmed beard framing an attractively rugged face. Like many in the Powderhorn neighborhood in South Minneapolis, he lives a simple, down-to-earth lifestyle. He likes talking to and sharing with his neighbors. He drives a car that's falling apart but gets him where he needs to go. He loves gardening, even in the rain. He is a self-described political progressive, and does not think of himself as particularly religious. Nevertheless, our conversation turned somehow to the topic of Jesus, and not in the usual way of such conversations.
P. proceeded cautiously, asking a few questions to feel out my own views on the topic. I think it came up in the context of my mentioning that I had just finished a semester of teaching at United Theological Seminary. He started out by mentioning a few books he had read recently about Jesus by John Dominic Crossan and Matthew Fox. He wanted to know if I was familiar with their scholarship, and what I thought of them, and what I thought of Jesus.
I told him more or less what I said on the last day of my American Religious Histories class this past Thursday, when one of my students asked me to discuss my personal thoughts about religion and history. I said that history as an academic discipline can only ever scratch the surface of reality. What we can know of God, we can learn best only directly and personally, and until we have that view, we can understand only dimly the relationship between the world of spirit and the mundane world apprehended in the academy. It took me a bit of ambling about in that vein to finally work up the courage to flatly state, "I believe Jesus is the Son of God, and the Savior of the world."
P. listened attentively and respectfully. I asked him about his interest in the topic, and he casually let drop that he himself had had some recent personal encounters with Jesus that had motivated him to want learn more about him. That raised an eyebrow or two on my part. I asked him if he would elaborate. What exactly did he mean by "encounters" with Jesus?
He seemed hesitant to go further. He was worried he might offend me.
"If you knew my full story," I explained, "You'd know there's nothing you can possibly tell me that would shock or offend."
He proceeded to tell how he was a practicing Wiccan. While at "Witch Camp," he had sensed the presence of Jesus. Jesus, P. explained, had been quite insistent, insinuating himself into a setting that had explicitly intended to exclude him. P. described Jesus as "gentle but persistent." Among other things, he imparted a message of love, and had urged P., among other things, to start reading the scriptures to learn more of him.
Up to this point, though P. had read books by modern Jesus scholars, he had not yet gotten around to reading the Bible itself. He confessed that he didn't actually even own a Bible. He asked for advice about which version of the Bible might be most readable for someone who had little to no experience with the good book. I told him the version didn't particularly matter, that he should just start reading it, and that if he didn't own his own copy, I was happy to give him one as I had a few extra.
He then wanted to know what he should start reading first. He'd already decided he might not be able to handle most of the Old Testament. I seconded his instinct to start with the New Testament, specifically the Gospels and the Book of Acts. I told him that once he'd read at least that much, it might be worthwhile to read at least parts of the Old Testament. I encouraged him to start with Genesis, and then, if he was up to it, Isaiah.
Because his desire to read scripture stemmed from a personal experience with Jesus, we started talking about the scriptural witness of the resurrection. I told him something of my own experience, and I told him about an Episcopal priest I once worked with who had witnessed the risen Christ. I told him about Joseph Smith. And I told him that the oldest texts in the New Testament are the Pauline epistles, which include the oldest direct, first-hand accounts of Paul's experience with the risen Christ, and Paul's descriptions of other first-hand accounts. By the time we were done, he seemed eager to read any account of Jesus he could, so in addition to giving him one of my spare Bibles, I gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon (showing him where he could find 3 Nephi) and jotted down some bibliographic information for texts where he could get a hold of other non-canonical gospels like Thomas, Phillip and Secret Mark, as well as re-constructed texts like "Q" and the "Signs" gospels.
When we finally shook hands before he went his way, he commented how odd it was that at just the moment when he had been thinking about these things, somehow "the Universe" had arranged for him to run into me. I always enjoy how that works.
But more fascinating to me is how I have experienced in my own life or witnessed in the lives of others God working very directly and personally with us. God speaks to us in a language and in a way that can reach each of us exactly where we are, and can guide us in a way that is specifically tailored to our individual life experiences and needs. I can't imagine missionaries of any denomination taking it upon themselves to go seek converts at "Witch Camp." But obviously Jesus himself didn't have a problem with it.