A slightly strange title I’ll admit, but as a prelude to my Master’s dissertation “Is God a Lib Dem?” (if my title is accepted by the faculty powers-that-be), I thought I’d go back to my academic roots and spend a bit of time thinking about Christology and in particular, the basis that both theological and political liberalism may have had with the man named Jesus of Nazareth.
Now of course, this isn’t to suggest that Jesus would have actually voted for the Lib Dems, or that he would have been a member or activist; such a claim would be absurd and, slightly ironic. Surely if Jesus was a Lib Dem then his Father would have supported our cause back in May, which we all know certainly wasn’t the case; but then again, God works in mysterious ways! Christianity and politics isn’t a subject unique to the Liberal Democrats as there are Christian wings within both the Conservative and Labour parties, however it does seem to be the case that the Lib Dems aren’t afraid to talk about it. The 2013 publication Liberal Democrats Do God written by former and current MPs including the leader, Tim Farron, deals openly with the interplay of Liberal Democrat politics and the Christian faith. Tim Farron is as dedicated a Christian as it gets, although this wasn’t all too well received during his first television interview as leader back before the summer. Regardless, given what I know and understand of Jesus’ significance both theologically and historically, I think it’s safe to say that whilst he may not have been a Liberal Democrat, he was certainly instrumental in the foundation of liberalism and can provide a solid basis upon which Liberal Democrats can conduct themselves, and give themselves an identity.
So, what do we know about Jesus? We know that he was a man who lived during the first century in Palestine. We know that he was raised in a Jewish family and lived his life as a Jew. He was most certainly a carpenter like his father Joseph and began his ministry in his late 20s or early 30s. We also know that he was executed by the Roman government in the area; nailed to a cross and crucified because Pontius Pilate wanted to appease the Jewish Pharisees who were, understandably upset with the heretical nature of Jesus’ and his followers’ proclamations about his relationship to God. This, contrary to what an alarming number of people think, is historical fact. I am always astounded when I hear people say to me “oh I don’t believe in Jesus”. It’s about as nonsensical as saying “I don’t believe in Nick Clegg” – no jokes please.
What isn’t historical fact and has been the topic of debate for centuries, is who Jesus was theologically; that’s the task of Christology and is the area to which my undergraduate dissertation was dedicated. There are many different assertions about Jesus’ theological significance, the most common you will all have heard: “Jesus is the Son of God” and “Jesus is God incarnate” get thrown around by people as often as Kim Kardashian uploads a selfie to Instagram. The problem is such theological declarations have huge significance and ultimately affect the whole of a person’s Christian faith, depending on how one interprets them. These two common assertions about Jesus are what people get taught in schools and are commonplace in Christian orthodoxy. They lend themselves to a Trinitarian understanding of God, this being that God is one entity with three parts: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. According to John 1:1 (which, coincidentally is where this blog gets its name), the Son – often referred to as the Logos or Word of God always existed with God even before the incarnation. This leads onto the proclamation that Jesus was God incarnate; God’s essence embodied in human form making Jesus both fully human, and fully divine.
From this understanding of Jesus most Christian doctrine and dogma fall into place from ideas of God suffering on the Cross and salvation, to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus to Heaven, giving all Christians a hope for the future as and when Judgement Day occurs. All of this should sound fairly familiar even if you’re not a practicing orthodox Christian (please note orthodox rather than Orthodox). The problem is, not every Christian prescribes themselves to this understanding of Jesus’ significance. It’s time to bring up my old friend, John Hick.
For anyone who isn’t aware, John Hick was one of the most influential theologians and philosophers of the 20th century and most importantly, a liberal. His liberal theology was often highly controversial because it reinvented and rearticulated Christian orthodoxy in a way that can be intelligible in a contemporary context, such is the overall aim of theological liberalism. Hick’s contributions to Christological thought attracted harsh criticism from none other than the Pope, who declared him and the contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) as “seven against God”, despite the fact that all of the authors who wrote for that book were practicing Christians. Hick expanded his Christology in The Metaphor of God Incarnate (1993) where he outlined the following four precepts:
- The idea of someone simultaneously being fully human and fully divine is a logical contradiction and absurdity. You cannot call a circle a square, no more than you can call a human being, God. By definition of being fully human it is impossible to also be fully divine, and vice versa.
- The idea of incarnation therefore, should be understood as a metaphor. We accept that Jesus was a human man and did all of the things as outlined earlier in this article, but lived his life in such a way that he emulated what people understood as being divinity. His love, care, compassion and kindness is akin to the characteristics one would often associate with God; this is not the same as saying Jesus is God. Winston Churchill incarnated the will and spirit of the British people to defeat Nazism, he was not actually the combined will and spirit of the British people.
- This obviously has a knock-on effect on how people should understand the crucifixion. Rather than a metaphysical ransom being paid by Jesus’ death as is often understood in conservative Christianity, his execution served as a pivotal point in history in which the people who followed Jesus and those who had been touched by his message and his lifestyle, felt inspired to attempt to replicate Jesus’ way. Much like when Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated, it prompted a radical overhaul in civil rights for black people and others of ethnic minorities.
- The fourth point is largely irrelevant to this article, but it deals with Christian exclusivity and the fact that if Jesus were to be accepted as the Son of God or literally God incarnate, it would make all other world faiths irrelevant. This is something both Hick and I vehemently reject and instead move to a model of the theological Jesus that allows for religious pluralism. In Hick’s understanding of Jesus, his life and death can have significance for all humanity, regardless of what religion (or not) they prescribe themselves to.
After studying Hick’s Christology I was completely convinced that this should be the way in which we understand Jesus today and, is partly the reason why I am a liberal both theologically and politically.
Jesus was a man who totally revolutionary for his time; despite living as a Jew and within a strong Jewish community, he spoke out about the failures of Judaism and of society as a whole and pushed for a fairer, more tolerant society. Jesus didn’t want to start a new religion in his name, I believe he wanted to abolish the sectarian nature of religion altogether! He wanted cohesion between people of all backgrounds, regardless of their religion or culture. Jesus only ever gave two commandments himself during his ministry, to love God and love your neighbour and enemies. Whilst he may have reinforced aspects of the Decalogue in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was firmly opposed to the traditional an eye for an eye sentiment. He did not discriminate against people based on their gender, their sexuality, their culture or their race. Jesus was inclusive of everyone as he saw everyone as God’s children. If this isn’t the foundation of liberal democracy then I don’t know what is; the Liberal Democrats are about fairness, equality and social justice, something that Jesus was preaching almost 2000 years ago.
Jesus doesn’t need to be God incarnate to make people live better lives, nor does he need to have been resurrected in order to make believe his message of liberalism. Jesus was an astounding man based on the merit of what he preached and taught people about kindness and compassion towards people, even if they have wronged you. Forgiveness is a key precept of Christianity and, I believe, a core value of liberalism and perhaps even the Liberal Democrats.
So I’m a Christian because I try to follow Jesus’ example by living out his liberalism; I’m a Liberal Democrat because it’s the only political party that does not discriminate against people based on their backgrounds; it does not punish the poor, it does not punish the wealthy. It gives equal opportunities for everyone and shows compassion and kindness to the most vulnerable in our society, as Jesus did.
Would Jesus have been a Liberal Democrat? I most certainly think so.