By Carroll Simcox
Catholic Hans Kung and Protestant Albert Schweitzer are gigantic figures in 20th century theology. The contrasts between their positions are many and obvious, but both, in their thinking about Jesus, are impressed by his strangeness to us.
Schweitzer concludes his great work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, by saying that Jesus comes to us “as One unknown.” He does come to us, however, in reality and in saving power. In his most recent book, On Being a Christian, Kung writes: “Jesus is by no means merely an ecclesiastical figure. Sometimes he is even more popular outside the church than inside it. But, however popular he is, what is immediately evident — when we look at the real Jesus — is his strangeness.”
Both Schweitzer and Kling are concerned to say that we cannot “know” Jesus in the way that we might “know” some other figure in history by reading what the books tell us about him: not even the canonical gospels. A classical scholar of the last generation said that whenever he read the poetry of Horace (65-8 B.C.) he felt the presence of Horace as a dear and delightful friend: he was a guest of Horace, and his host was offering him a choice cigar, urging him to pull his chair closer to the cheerful fire and savor a glass of some superb Falernian. This man could “feel” Horace personally in a way that we can never “feel” Jesus by reading the New Testament.
If Jesus comes to us at all it is somehow directly, rather than indirectly through his recorded words and works. Schweitzer declares — as one to whom Jesus has indeed come — that when this “One unknown” commands us to obey him, and we do so, we are then given the knowledge of Who He Is. We do not discover him; he discovers himself to us.
Perhaps one thing we can do here and now to honor Christ at his birthday season in 1976 is to hear once again what Christ’s faithful witness to our century, Dr. Schweitzer, testifies: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is.”
Schweitzer was not the first to discover that way of knowing Who He Is —by simple obedience of his command. All of the joyful and triumphant saints from the beginning of this age of grace have discovered it in the same way.
There is a strangeness about Jesus as he appears to us in the gospel records and portraits, a strangeness so radical that it can only baffle and perplex — until we begin to obey what we believe to be his commands to us. Then, and only then, does the sublime non-sense of his recorded words and works begin to make sense. Then, and only then, his Sermon on the Mount ceases to strike us as beautiful but insane idealism preached to a planet of sane realists and begins to strike us as sanity preached to a planet of lunatics. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” is beautiful non-sense, until we get down seriously to the business of trying to serve Jesus as our Master in the immediate tasks and responsibilities that God sets upon us from moment to moment. All of the strange dicta of the Galilean Stranger begin to make sense, and then to appear not only as true but as the only truth, as we hearken obediently to his Voice within our souls.
Jesus began his career of redeeming strangeness at his very birth. All the circumstances of the holy nativity were strange. Later in the gospel story we meet him as a boy of twelve, in the Temple. What he said and did on that occasion was strange. Then, when he was about thirty, he strangely received John’s baptism for sinners. Almost everything he said or did from that point onward was what we should not have expected. It is all strange. From time to time, well-meaning Christians try to write a biography of Jesus, trying to use the New Testament data so as to make Jesus humanly comprehensible to us. The only way that can be done is to alter the data, to tamper with the facts as recorded. The Jesus who is not humanly strange to us, to whom we can relate as our classicist friend related to Horace, is not the Jesus of history.
And he is not the Lord who can save us either. In his very strangeness lies, not our hermeneutic problem, but our hope for salvation. A Jesus we could readily understand because he “talks sense”. to us and “is just one of us” we could put right into our pocket; he could do nothing for us at all. Even our human benefactors all turn out to have been in some respects our superiors — hence in some degree strange to us. The greatest benefactors are never, personally, as comfortable to us as an old shoe.
The strangeness of Jesus is that of the visitor from a higher realm than ours, coming to us out of passionate love to lift us and redeem us. Irenaeus said in one of the first and greatest of Christian epigrams that Christ became what we are in order that he might make us what he is. Exactly. And when he comes to us where we are, to begin lifting us, everything about him is strange, and can be forbidding, even terrifying at the moment. It is only as we obey him — let him lift — that his strangeness wears off. Truth is always stranger than fiction, until we quit living fictionally and begin living truth.
Jesus was born to enable us to make that saving switch from comfortable fiction in our living to the strangeness of truth. And the strangest thing about the whole strange story is that it still turns out to be always and everywhere true. As St. John put it around the turn of the second century A.D., that to as many as receive him as their Master and King, with all his strangeness, he gives the power to become the sons and daughters of God.
The Rev. Carroll Simcox was editor of The Living Church from 1964-1977. This essay was first published in the December 19, 1976 issue of The Living Church.