VIEW VIDEO When I was a kid, we had two dogs and a cat claimed by my siblings. I kept telling my mother I wanted a pet of my very own, and she kept resisting, not wanting another to tend another pet. But then I contracted a serious illness that our family doctor, Doctor Kirtley, couldn’t diagnose, finally speculating it was some exotic, mysterious disease that had never been seen in Danville, brought to our town by a carnival worker. The carnival set up on the town square every summer and anything bad that happened while they were in town was laid at their feet—thefts, disturbances of every sort, fires, disease. One time a woman in town ran off with a carnival worker, then returned to Danville in a family way, and gave birth to a little carnie baby, who emerged from the womb sporting a tattoo and smoking a Marlboro.
So there I was, near-death, my mother hovering over me, and she asked, “What can I get you?” and I said, “A pet.” She got her purse, climbed in her pea-green 1969 Plymouth Valiant, and drove to Danner’s Five and Dime on the town square, returning home with a cage and two gerbils, which she named Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. I had never heard those names, not being a student of Roman mythology, but we had a set of World Book Encyclopedias, so I looked up Romulus and Remus and was shocked to discover they were considered gods.
What in the world was my Catholic mother thinking, naming our gerbils after pagan gods? Had she lost her mind? I kept reading the World Book Encyclopedia and discovered there were other historical figures thought to be divine—Egyptian Pharaohs, Chinese and Japanese Emperors, Julius Caesar, Homer, Alexander the Great, and Mary, Mother of Jesus, just to name a few. I read their names aloud to my parents and my father said, “Don’t forget Babe Ruth,” so him, too.
Up until then, I thought Jesus had the divine market all to himself. I’d had no idea that humankind had been in the god-making business since our earliest days, all the way back to Ishtar of Mesopotamia, the goddess of love and war, the first deity for whom we have written evidence. Isn’t theology fascinating?
We’ve been talking about the importance of good theology, that the antidote to bad theology is good theology. We remember the words of Bishop John Spong who said there is not conservative theology or liberal theology, there is only bad theology and good theology. Bad theology gives birth to many cultural disorders, including Christian Nationalism, this toxic mix of partisan politics, white supremacy, and evangelical Christianity, a movement many in our nation seem eager to embrace.
We’ve spent the past two weeks reflecting on the nature of God, so today I invite us to consider Jesus and, more specifically, to consider how Jesus became God and why. When I say Jesus became God, what I mean to say is that the divinity of Jesus was a human invention, that as a first-century monotheistic Jew, Jesus would have likely rejected any claim to divinity. We see hints of this in the Bible, one in Luke’s gospel, when a religious leader called Jesus “good teacher,” and Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Time and again, we see in his humility and humanity an unwillingness to elevate himself. Jesus was not a narcissist demanding worship, he was a servant inviting others to serve with him.
But because humans are exceptionally good god-makers, we promoted Jesus from teacher to God in the centuries following his death, until formally defining his nature at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., oddly enough by voting on it. It was almost inevitable this would happen, given our propensity for elevating our heroes. In Jesus’s lifetime, and in the centuries following, the Roman Empire and their divine “emperor” had a powerful grip on Israel and the surrounding nations. The early Church refuted that claim, chiefly by elevating Jesus. It was an early example of “sticking it to the man.” As you can imagine, this was not warmly received by Rome, and Christians were persecuted until gaining political favor under the Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion, an event we welcomed, but now must surely regret, not realizing it would one day lead to televangelists and Ted Cruz.
We are exceptionally good God-makers. We want to pay homage to those persons whose lives have been meaningful to us, so we grant them divine status. It’s our way of saying someone embodies the finest virtues we can imagine. When the early Church claimed Jesus was divine, they were saying the priorities and values of Jesus exemplified divine priorities and values. For the early Church, it was not enough to say Jesus was a good person. They wanted him to be a good god. While I understand that, I regret that it has devalued the intrinsic value of what it means to be human. So now we have this lopsided equation where humanity resides on a lower plane than divinity. But I believe Jesus had a high regard for humanity and is not honored by our diminishment. For Jesus to be good, it does not follow that we must be bad.
I think there’s another reason we create gods. Just as soon as we elevate someone to divine status, we give ourselves an excuse not to be like them. Oh, I could never be like Jesus, he’s God, after all. Even though Jesus seemed to clearly expect his followers to do what he did and live like he lived. Indeed, he told them they would do even greater things than he had done. That doesn’t sound like a god to me. That sounds like a man with a high regard for human potential.
We don’t honor Jesus by making him God, by crowning him King and installing him as the head of the state religion, thereby investing his followers with worldly power, and forcing him, and ourselves, upon others.
We honor Jesus when we live as he lived, when we heal, when we have good news for the poor, when we love the outsider, when we lift up the oppressed, when we embrace our enemies, and set the prisoners free. Jesus is not elevated by our words, but by our actions, by our steadfast determination to do what he did with glad and joyful hearts.