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The ‘Weakness’ of Christ. An argument for His truth

José M. Millás, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Oct 12th 2020

1Sometimes we meet people who have had a good Christian formation, but who have become agnostics over time. We might think that these are exceptional cases. However, we are convinced that these cases are a symptom of an obvious fact: in traditionally Christian countries there is a crisis that affects both the faith and the life of the baptized. They stop practicing, become agnostics, and either  live as such, or seek alternatives to a Christian religion that has lost its attractiveness and credibility.[1]

The issue

The truth of Christianity is embodied and concentrated in the truth of the figure of Christ. Jesus of Nazareth continues to arouse interest and admiration, but the full truth of his reality has become fragile and evanescent, and for some even contradictory.

Traditional Christian apologetics wanted to demonstrate the truth of Christ, proffering as arguments the extraordinary facts narrated in the Gospels: the excellence of his teaching, miracles and the resurrection. Today it is recognized that a demonstration of the truth of Christ is impossible, and there are efforts instead to justify his truth on the basis of a “convergence of meaning” of the arguments in its favor.[2]

But even this solution does not seem convincing. According to Monserrat, the decisive arguments in favor of the truth of Christ are not the extraordinary events that characterize the life of Jesus according to the Gospels, but his “weakness,” that is, the human annihilation that he lived and suffered, and which Saint Paul calls kénosis.

In order to reach this conclusion, it is necessary to follow a reasoning that we shall set out below. Let us start from the fact that the common and traditional answer to the enigma of reality is the affirmation of the existence of God, transcendent reality, origin and foundation of the world, who is interested in the salvation of all. This religious response is transmitted above all through family and social tradition. Usually, people absorbed in the concrete problems of daily life accept it peacefully. But, alongside this response, that of a “world without God” is also plausible. Therefore, when dealing with the question of the enigma of reality, two answers are possible, based either on  the existence of God or the world without God.


A ‘world without God’?

Human reason will have to evaluate these two answers, see which of the two is more reasonable and opt for it, knowing, however, that it does not possess absolute certainty, that is, that the other possibility is not eliminated. At this point there arises the problem of believing in God,  in the light of the existence of evil, the classic problem of theodicy.

Indeed, reason may ask itself: “Where was God when humans were experiencing destitution, suffering unjustly and inevitably dying? Did God have nothing to say? Could God do nothing? Or, worst of all, did God not want to do anything?” In fact, the believer lives immersed in the experience of  the silence and the hiddenness of God.

The affirmation of God offers a response to humanity’s unknowns, such as its origin and foundation, how the world ends and human salvation; but the experience of God’s silence can make one think that the idea of God appears unconvincing, lacking truth and actual reality. The idea of a “world without God” leaves open very serious questions, which science will have to investigate and to which it will have to try to respond. But it has freed itself from the contradiction of a God who remains silent and does not intervene in the face of human suffering. At this point in the rational process, a “world without God” would seem to be the most reasonable answer to the enigma of reality.

Overcoming ‘contradiction’

The answer “world without God” seems more reasonable because of the scandal caused by the experience of God’s silence in the face of human suffering. Now this scandal can be overcome. If one starts with the human situation of poverty, the experience of God’s silence can be admitted when it reveals a meaning for humanity: precisely through his silence and concealment God has created a space in which it is possible for people to realize their freedom.

If God were present in creation showing infinite superiority, the freedom of the creature would not be possible. But freedom is the greatest good that God created, and God wants to preserve and respect it unconditionally, even at the cost of the presence of sin and evil.[3]

The contradiction that manifests itself between God’s silence and human destitution is then overcome. The religious person can rationally maintain the truth of his or her creed only if he or she recognizes – explicitly or implicitly – the profound meaning of God’s silence: to make possible the most precious thing that human beings possess, that is, to realize themselves as freed.

The affirmation of God as the answer to the enigma of reality has various arguments in its favor, among which the religious explanation of the origin of the world and the salvation of humankind stand out. But it must be stated categorically that the decisive argument is the recognition of the meaning that God’s silence has for the human person.

At this point, we can ask ourselves, “Has God, whose existence can be rationally admitted, revealed himself at some point in human history? We can formulate this question more precisely: “Can one recognize in the figure of Christ a true revelation of God?”

The Revelation of God in Christ

If God revealed himself in Christ, it must be possible to see a correspondence between the essential content of the Christian faith and the reasoning that leads to the affirmation of God.

The essential contents of the Christian faith must be found in Scripture, which is the text transmitted by the Church with the conviction that it contains the revelation of God in written form. A reading of this text makes it possible to establish the following fundamental points.

The human person is in reality and in relationship with God from the beginning. But God does not impose a presence: in fact, he can also be rejected. Rejecting God and living as if he did not exist appear as a possibility proper to the situation of the created human being n. This was the original human option (cf. Gen 3).

But God does not abandon his creature. He calls Abraham, establishes a covenant with him and offers him a blessing and a promise of salvation for all peoples. The promise will have different and provisional, partial fulfillments: people of Israel, exodus, promised land, kingdom, exile and post-exile.

According to a believing reading of the biblical message, the definitive fulfillment takes place in Jesus Christ. He is the center of the biblical message and the Christian faith. He is the promised prophet similar to Moses (cf. Deut 18:18), the descendant of David whose kingdom will be eternal (cf. 2 Sam 7:12-16). In him the prophetic figures of salvation, the suffering Servant of Isaiah (cf. Isa 52:13-53:12) and the Son of Man of Daniel (cf. Dan 7:14) will find fulfillment. In Christ the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled, but they are also surpassed: Christ’s humiliation to the point of death on the Cross, the Resurrection and his own unique divine sonship go beyond the Old Testament promises of salvation.

According to the Gospels, Christ offered many supernatural signs and showed that he had the power to overcome human dereliction: He healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, calmed storms, and multiplied the loaves and fishes so that the crowd that followed him could be satisfied. He also showed that he possessed a mysterious equality with God, whom he addressed as “Father”, in a proper and original sense.

However, according to the Gospel accounts, these signs of power, although evident,  did not impose themselves as such: they could be ignored, misunderstood and rejected by people, to the point of provoking against Jesus the accusation of being possessed and blasphemous, liable to a legal process that condemned him to death on the cross.

We are faced with this surprising paradox: Christ appears endowed with a supernatural power, which he exercises on behalf of others, but when he is arrested and condemned, he does not defend himself with these powers, but submits to the trial that condemns him and does not impose silence on those who accuse him. It seems that in the “figure” of Christ what occurs is the mysterious paradox of a revelation of a God who fully respects human freedom.[4]

Content evaluation

One can easily see a correspondence between the rational affirmation of God and the contents of the Christian faith. Indeed, according to the rational affirmation of God, there is a divine and transcendent reality. It is the origin and foundation of the world and has placed humans in an environment where they can realize themselves in freedom. God wants our salvation, even though he allows the problem of reconciling his own silence and human destitution. It is precisely the recognition of the meaning of God’s silence that makes possible the complete rational character of the affirmation of his existence.

The contents of the Christian faith have a correspondence with the rational affirmation of God, but they also present significant initiatives. God revealed himself to Abraham, established a covenant with him and promised the possession of a land and then the establishment of a kingdom. The promises seem to have a fulfillment in the kingdom of David, but this fulfillment is provisional: the Davidic kingdom is destroyed, and the people must go into exile. In the misfortunes and sufferings of defeat, in exile and return from exile, a “faithful remnant” – the “poor of the Lord” – is formed who, despite failures, retains faith in a future definitive fulfillment of God’s promises.

The great novelty of Christianity is the conviction based on faith that God has fulfilled his promises in Christ. Jesus was the witness of God’s truth and presented himself as his definitive envoy. He showed that he possessed supernatural power, but he always exercised it for the benefit of others, and never for his own benefit. The proclamation of the truth and the signs of supernatural power manifested themselves convincingly, and yet they never had a ‘compelling’ character. This is explained by the fact that Christ lived a true human life, sharing human weakness and destitution to the point of dying on the cross without defending himself with supernatural powers.

Therefore, in Christ God reveals his truth, but fully respects our human sphere of freedom. God offers sufficient signs of his truth and definitive salvation, but does not impose  acceptance of them. He endorses human freedom, and he respects it even at the price of opposition and rejection.

In conclusion, starting from the rational affirmation of God, the critical evaluation of the Christian faith must be positive, but it possesses only a moral certainty, that is, a certainty that makes the option reasonable without eliminating alternative options: in this case, that of  a “world without God.”

What we have said about moral certainty does not mean that the believer cannot live his or her faith with absolute certainty of the truth. But this is only possible if we add to rational arguments the inner experience of the Spirit. The moments of spiritual experience are moments that happen within the individual they are strictly personal and cannot become the subject of rational discussion.

The decisive argument: the figure of Christ

We have followed a reasoning that has led to the conclusion of the truth of the Christian faith. This conclusion possesses only a moral certainty, and therefore the alternative option “world without God” is not eliminated.

In the evaluation of the Christian faith the figure of Christ has emerged as the decisive argument for its truth. The reason is clear: on the one hand, he gave a convincing testimony to God’s truth, based on the manifestation of supernatural powers at the service of human good; on the other hand, according to the Gospels, he lived a truly human life, and shared human poverty unconditionally, experiencing rejection, insults, unjust condemnation and death on the cross.

According to Scripture, the whole Christ-event possesses a rich set of elements: divine existence, the Incarnation, preaching, healing of the sick and liberation of the possessed, the power to dominate nature and to raise the dead, his death and resurrection, testimonies in the life of the Church. In the past, people tried to demonstrate the truth of Christ through the manifestation of supernatural powers and, in particular, through his resurrection, but we cannot pretend a demonstration is possible.

According to the reasoning we have set forth, all the elements of the entire Christ event contribute to the justification of his truth. But the decisive argument is not the manifestation of any extraordinary power, but the appearance of the power of truth that arises from the moment of his greatest weakness.

The contents of the Christian faith speak of God’s revelation in human history. Is it possible to admit this from testimonies written two thousand years ago? The answer is yes, if we turn our attention to the figure of Christ, the center and synthesis of the Christian faith. According to the Scripture transmitted by the Church, he gave convincing signs of his divine condition, in which God reveals himself in the world; but, at the same time, he truly experienced the human condition, which even included the Cross.

Death on the Cross could be considered the failure of Christ’s life, but in reality it is the positive conclusion of his mission: to reveal the true God without damaging human freedom, which is the greatest good of creation. For this reason, the figure of the Crucified One, the conclusion of Christ’s becoming human, is the most powerful sign of God’s revelation in the world. The moment of greatest weakness becomes the strongest argument for the truth of Christ and his message.

Biblical and liturgical confirmation

We came to this conclusion following a line of reasoning, but this conclusion also has a confirmation in the New Testament. In the Synoptic Gospels we find the “three proclamations of the Passion”: Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must “suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, be killed and, after three days, rise again” (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34 and par.), causing incomprehension in the disciples and scandal in Peter (cf. Matt 16:22). After the Resurrection, Jesus reproaches the disciples on the way to Emmaus because they did not believe the prophets’ proclamation that the “Christ had to suffer in order to enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26). It is assumed that the death and resurrection of Christ was “announced.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus predicts that the most powerful moment of revelation will be his death: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15); “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he” (John 8:28); “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me” (John 12:32). In these verses, Jesus announces that his “being lifted up,” his death on the cross, will be a moment endowed with a special power of revelation.

According to the Gospels, Jesus’ death could be considered a failure; the passers-by, the chief priests and the scribes said to Christ on the cross: “Save yourself, if you are the Son of God, and come down from the cross!” (Matt 27:40); “Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe!” (Mark 15:32); “He saved others! Let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, the chosen one” (Luke 23:35). But death on the Cross was also a moment of revelation: The centurion said: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39; Matt 27:54); “Truly this man was just” (Luke 23:47); One of the thieves said: “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). In the trial, the accusation against Jesus of being king aroused mockery and derision, but the accusation of pretending to be the Son of God aroused fearful respect in Pontius Pilate, who asked him: “Where are you from?” (John 19:9).

In the Letters of Saint Paul a particular saving power is recognized in the death of Christ. The Apostle, a witness to the Resurrection, understood the death of Jesus as the source of salvation. He says in fact: “We have been reconciled with God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10); “In him, through his blood, we have redemption” (Eph 1:7); Christ wanted to “reconcile both [Jews and Gentiles] with God in one body through the cross” (Eph 2:16); and he wanted to reconcile “all things … through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). With regard to preaching, Paul declares: “We proclaim Christ crucified: scandal for the Jews and foolishness for the Gentiles; but for those who are called […] the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24)

Finally, let us remember that the reason behind the Christian liturgical celebration is the action of thanksgiving, the Eucharist, for the “body given” and for the “blood shed.” Christ is risen, and the moment of his “weakness” remains present among believers, nourishing and confirming their faith. The death of Christ belongs to the integral content of the Christian faith: pre-existence, incarnation, miracles and preaching, death and resurrection, glorification as Lord of all things. But the moment of Christ’s greatest “weakness,” his death on the cross, constitutes the decisive rational argument of his truth, the center of Christian faith, the source of hope, and the reason for the liturgical celebration as an “action of grace,” “Eucharist.”[5]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 05 art. 1, 0520: 10.32009/22072446.0520.1

[1].    In this article we want to show how Javier Monserrat, Jesuit, philosopher and scientist, disciple of Xavier Zubiri, addressed the issue and sought a satisfactory answer. In fact, he dealt with the current crisis of Christianity, clarified its key points, made a diagnosis and proposed an original and convincing strategy overcome the crisis. See J. Monserrat, Hacia el Nuevo Concilio, Madrid, San Pablo, 2010. To deepen one’s thinking on the subject of this article, cf. J. M. Millás, Cristianesimo e Realtà. La credibilità di Cristo nell’epoca della scienza, Rome, Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2013; Id., La figura di Cristo. Il segno della verità del Cristianesimo, Rome, AdP, 2006.

[2].    Cf. S. Pié-Ninot, La teologia fondamentale, Queriniana, Brescia, 2002, 197 f.

[3].    See J. M. Millás, Cristianesimo e Realtà. Novità teologiche nel pensiero di Xavier Zubiri, Rome, Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2014, 57-75.

[4].    The term “figure” is Zubirian and means the topicality in the world of human reality. Zubiri affirms that human life is a “configuration”; the actuality of the human person “has in every moment a determined figure” (X. Zubiri, L’uomo e Dio, Bari, Edizioni di Pagina, 2013, 45).

[5].    The confession of faith in the sacrifice of Christ (homology) becomes a thanksgiving (Eucharist) in the Christian liturgy; in it “homology is the Eucharist” (G. Bornkamm, “Das Bekenntnis im Hebräerbrief,” in Id., Studien zu Antike und Urchristentum. Gesammelte Aufsätze, vol. 2, München, Kaiser, 1970, 196).

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