Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, and a Mormon Christian Reflects on "Brother Joseph"

My fairy god daughter Daphne had to write a report based, at least in part, on her reading of this wonderful little book by Rabbi Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Doubleday, 1993).  After reading her thoughtful paper, she allowed me to borrow the book. It's a quick read. I was able to finish it in about three sittings of about an hour per sitting (about as long as it takes me to read one of Original Mohomie's blog entries).

Rabbi Neusner, in a way that is perhaps a model of respectfulness, carries on a conversation with the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew. He argues with Jesus, specifically about the Sermon on the Mount. For the rabbi, argument is a high form of respect, a form of honor. Rabbi Neusner honors Jesus by arguing with him. He takes Jesus seriously enough to think deeply about what he has to say, and to reflect on the implications of what Jesus has to say for him and his family and his nation. And ultimately the rabbi disagrees with Jesus. He explains to Jesus why, after all, he will not follow him, why he chooses instead to let Jesus go his way, while he returns home to his wife, children, dog, and garden, and goes on with his life as he had lived it before.  Rabbi Neusner hopes that at least one effect of this encounter is that it will encourage Jews to be better Jews and Christians to be better Christians.  He hopes for greater respect between Christians and Jews.  But he does not expect ever to become a Christian.

I encourage folks to read this book.  It seems timely, especially for Mormons, given that high profile Christian leaders are accusing us of belonging to a "cult."  I suppose we're long used to the slur that we are not "Christian," or rather, the denial that we are "Christian" being used as a slur.  (It's one thing to acknowledge that Mormons are not Christians in the same way as Protestants and Catholics, and another thing to defame us by denying us the Christian label we apply to ourselves.)  I think Rabbi Neusner's book is a model for how people of differing beliefs and values can talk to one another about their differences.

The rabbi's argument hinges on Jesus' statement, in the Sermon on the Mount, that he came "not to abolish [the Law and the Prophets] but to fulfill them."  Rabbi Neusner thinks that Jesus does in fact abolish some fairly important aspects of the Law and the Prophets (the Torah).  Jesus' teaching, he argues, has no place in it for the "we" encompassed in the revelation of the Law on Mount Sinai.  Jesus' morality, he argues, is a too-individualistic morality of the heart.  It includes teachings that are potentially profoundly anti-social ("do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth...").  His abolition of the holiness code, the rabbi argues, makes irrecoverable any sort of sacred "now" in a Kingdom of God on earth.  Yes, he accuses Jesus of other-worldliness, of looking too much forward to a Kingdom of Heaven after death, rather than a this-worldly Kingdom of holiness.  ("Holiness" for the rabbi means emulation of God in the here and now.)

For me, however, the most electrifying part of Rabbi Neusner's argument came when he insisted that it is ultimately impossible to separate any evaluation of Jesus' theological positions from Jesus' claim to divinity.  More shocking, the rabbi came to this conclusion through a close reading of the Sermon on the Mount.  There has been a tendency, the rabbi acknowledged, to want to separate "the historical Jesus" from the dogma of the Church.  Many people -- Jewish and liberal Christian alike -- hold the view that Jesus must obviously have been a "great moral teacher," but that he could never have actually made any claim to divinity.  The apostle Paul is accused, in this account of Christian history, of inventing the expiatory atonement theology that required making Jesus into a God.  Jesus himself would never have made such claims.

But Rabbi Neusner argues that if you look very closely at what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount you cannot conclude anything different than that Jesus is putting himself above the Torah.  The rabbi makes some very close comparisons of what Jesus says to some of the great commentary on the Torah from the Mishnah and the Talmud, and he acknowledges that much of what Jesus says sounds very much like what you would expect from a classical teacher of the Torah.  But there are points where Jesus makes critical departures from the Torah, departures that, he argues, undermine its integrity as a divine commandment.  And it is at those very junctures where Jesus places himself at the center of any Christian moral system.  Without a divine Jesus, there is no sense in which Jesus could possibly have come to "fulfill" the Law and the Prophets.  Without a divine Jesus, the rabbi essentially argues, Christian morality comes apart at the seams; and it certainly can make no claim on the loyalty of Jews, who must reject Jesus in favor of the Torah.

This is simultaneously the boldest and most humble part of Rabbi Neusner's argument.  He never anywhere impugns Christians' belief in the divinity of Christ.  To the contrary, he says in essence, if this is what you believe, you have no choice but to follow Jesus' teaching, even -- or especially -- where it contradicts the Torah.  But, he simultaneously points out, it is impossible to gloss over the significant differences that separate Jewish and Christian moral teaching and theology.  At some point, Jew or Christian, in evaluating the claims of Christianity you must decide what you think about the person of Jesus Christ, and that will make the difference between whether you "follow Jesus" or go some other way.

I found these arguments particularly relevant to the debate over whether Mormons are Christians.  A lot of that debate hinges on Mormons' particular beliefs about the nature of man and the nature of God, and whether Mormons believe in Christ's divinity in the same way as Nicene (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) Christians.  By Rabbi Neusner's criteria, I think it is impossible to conclude anything but that Mormons are indeed Christians, and very solid Christians at that.  That's a conclusion I find myself startled to accept.  I've always been happy to concede that Mormons, if they were Christians, were not Christians in the same way as other Christians.  (I've never particularly worried if other Christians thought we should be excommunicated from the family of "Christian" communions.)  But from the point of view of Judaism, from the point of view of the question, "Do you see Jesus as greater than the Torah, and do you subordinate all other moral considerations to the imperative of following Jesus?" Mormons most definitely are Christians in no fundamentally different sense from anyone else who claims that label.

At the same time, just as the person of Jesus forms a kind of crossroads dividing devout Jews from devout Christians, the person of Joseph Smith, Jr. becomes a similar kind of crossroads dividing Mormon Christians from every other kind of Christian.  Either Christ was divine, along with all that implies, or he was not, and there's no meaningful Christian "system" if he wasn't.  Either Joseph Smith was a prophet, or he was not.  And just as many students of Christian history, embarrassed by claims of Jesus' divinity have tried to make Christ a "great moral teacher," so many students of Mormon history, embarrassed by Joseph Smith's claim to be a prophet, have tried to make the prophet Joseph into a great "theological innovator," or a "moral reformer" who sought to reframe Christian theology for American modernity.  But, I would argue, there's no meaningful Mormon "system" if the prophet Joseph did not literally speak with and receive authority from God.  "Mormonism" comes apart at the seams if Joseph Smith was just a theological innovator or reformer.

When I attended the Affirmation Convention in Kirtland, Ohio, I was particularly intrigued by a lecture I heard there on Mormon history delivered by Community of Christ historian John Hamer.  His lecture boiled down, I think, to the notion that different branches of the "Mormon movement" could be accounted for in relation to their acceptance of successive revelations of the Prophet Joseph.  At the very core of Mormon belief, you have "Restorationism," the idea of the need to "restore" the "primitive," ancient Church of Jesus Christ, as established by Christ himself in the meridian of time.  At this level, Mormons look very similar in their belief to other radical "restorationist" Christians (like the Campbellites or certain kinds of Baptists).  Acceptance of the Book of Mormon and of the divine calling of Joseph Smith is what separates "Mormons" from other restorationists.  On the other hand, the "Nauvoo theology" -- polygamy, theocracy, temple sealing, and the King Follett theology regarding the divinity inherent in human nature -- is what separates Latter-day Saints from the Community of Christ.  The Community of Christ was ultimately constituted of those Mormon communities that rejected Brigham Young's leadership; and the main bone of contention in relation to Young's leadership was the Nauvoo theology.  (It's why Emma Smith ultimately aligned herself with the "Reorganization"...  She never could reconcile herself to her husband's polygamous teaching.)

This is why, ultimately, as much respect as I have for the Community of Christ, as grateful to them as I am for their compassionate moves toward greater inclusion of GLBT folks, as much as I love individual members of the Community of Christ, and as much as I honor their testimonies and their profoundly Christian commitments, I can't see myself joining the Community of Christ.  For me, there's no making sense of Joseph Smith's calling as a prophet without coming to full terms with the Nauvoo theology he revealed.  And at that crossroads that divides me from other Christians -- at that all-important question regarding the divine calling of Joseph Smith the prophet -- I am firmly decided on the point that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God, with all that that implies.  For all my human frailty and sin, and for whatever judgment I may come under to acknowledge it, I cannot retreat from the conviction at the core of my being that Joseph Smith was a revealer of divine truth and a restorer of divine priesthood.  I must come to terms with that in all its fullness, let the chips fall where they may, even if to do so ultimately condemns me.

Whatever conflicting emotions I may have about this, oddly, the one emotion that comes to the fore is gratitude.  I am thankful to know what I know, to know it with every fiber of my being.

I cannot possibly judge or condemn others for what they believe or do not believe.  I cannot speak for what they know or the ways in which their consciences may hold them responsible to that knowledge.  It is too awesome a responsibility for me simply to be obedient to my own conscience to try to account for anyone else's.  And my conscience commands me to love others completely and unconditionally, to seek their happiness and welfare as I would my own.  So I am grateful to people of conscience everywhere.  Rabbi Neusner, thank you.  My Christian friends who think I'm slightly crazy for being Mormon but love me anyway, thank you.  My friends in the Community of Christ who extend a loving welcome to me as a gay man and as a "Mormon," thank you.  My LDS brothers and sisters who don't know what to make of me as a gay man, but who love me and are willing to wrestle with me and on my behalf, thank you.


Sulli said...

I really want to read that book. Thank you for the recommendation. It makes me wonder what I would discuss with Jesus if we go to sit down and have a discussion. I've never really thought about that before.

"It is too awesome a responsibility for me simply to be obedient to my own conscience to try to account for anyone else's. And my conscience commands me to love others completely and unconditionally, to seek their happiness and welfare as I would my own."

I was especially touched by this part. Reading what you write and having met you I really see that you live that. If there is anything that we should internalize and use as a guiding principle that is it.

Matthew said...

"... it is ultimately impossible to separate any evaluation of Jesus' theological positions from Jesus' claim to divinity."

This is really intriguing and makes a lot of sense. Something to ponder over the next few days.

Just wanted to add that although I don't comment frequently, I do read regularly and I wanted to thank you for sharing your insights, John. They have been by turns moving, thought provoking and inspirational. Your experiences are so relevant to the idea of Zion - what it means and could mean to be of one heart, one mind, and to truly have no poor among us. God bless you and yours.