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Who can you be?

I have recently re-read a compelling book on interfaith relations, ‘Without Buddha I could not be a Christian.’ It’s a fascinating and provocative read, not least because it offers valuable insights into our own faith tradition.

In one chapter, the author Paul Knitter reflects on the way Siddhartha achieved enlightenment (thus becoming the Buddha.) In summary, he suggests that Siddhartha did so by asking questions.

He contrasts this path with the orthodox view of Jesus, which asserts that Jesus arrived on earth with all the answers.

Siddhartha left behind who he was to find out who he might be - he emptied himself; whereas Jesus maintained his divine identity –full of answers to every question.

I stress that this is not the only way of understanding Jesus. (For example, Philippians 4:7, ‘he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.’) The New Testament offers several models for understanding Jesus. Nonetheless, the orthodox model alluded to above has been dominant.

Embracing Siddhartha’s example, Knitter explores the possibility of viewing Jesus differently.

He posits that Jesus arrived on earth with potential, and slowly attained full personhood by listening to the prompting of the Spirit; that is, by responding to what he sensed, he grew and developed, and continued to do so throughout his ministry.

This model has much to commend it; potentially, we can be caught up in the same process. (And Jesus, therefore, is not categorically different to us, not apart from us, but is the One who shows us how to travel this way.)

John’s gospel asserts, ‘To all who received him, Jesus gave power to become children of God.’ (1:12)

The key word here is ‘become.’ Becoming is a process not a magical change of nature.

Unfortunately, the gospel texts don’t offer much insight into the process of Jesus’ becoming, at least on the surface level.

At surface level, they seem to present a Jesus fully formed (hence the dominance of the orthodox view).

However, reading between the lines and using our imagination, we can glimpse traces of this process. Let me give one example:

Mark’s gospel relates a strange incident in which Jesus disowns his family. We read that his family had come to ‘restrain him.‘ They feared he was mad (Mk 3: 21).

Apprehending their intention, he announced to the gathered crowd that every one of them was part of his family. (One can readily imagine the hurt this must have caused his biological family.)

Underlying this arresting announcement, we can intuit profound changes in Jesus’ core identity: What defined him? Was it biological family and the socially approved bonds of kinship or was it something else?

(One biblical scholar has made the case that Jesus’ baptism entailed the discharging of all his social obligations, including to his family, rendering Jesus unobliged and therefore radically open to the coming of God’s kingdom.)

While not embracing Jesus‘ stance concerning family, I do recommend that deep, internal process of reflection upon identity.

Every so often, we catch glimpses of the Spirit, of something new and different.

Who can you be?