A Theological Conversation by Natalie Weaver and Valentine


My son asked me to discuss with him the theological problem of the dual natures, i.e., the divine and human natures, coexisting in the person of Jesus.  He asked me to begin by assuming the premises that 1) Jesus was a real, historical person and 2) that Jesus was both human and divine.  The question then became, “Did Jesus know he was God?”

Of course, as a theologian, I was delighted to have this conversation with my son.  It was fascinating to see how his mind worked, to hear him evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of high and low Christologies, to hear how he resolved the question himself, and to have an opportunity to share my own thoughts with a genuinely engaged, truly curious, and attentively listening dialogue partner in the person of my teenage son.  Not too shabby a victory for any parent!

As we talked, he continued to provide context for the question, which began as a classroom debate in his high school theology seminar.  Apparently, the students were tasked with taking some element from their in-class discussion, evaluating it, and then applying it practically by a twofold retrospective reflection in which the students were 1) to identify a specific situation in their life that could have gone better and 2) to share how their insight drawn from class would have made all the difference.  Now, my son expressed a bit of frustration with this assignment because he would have preferred to discuss how today’s insights might help him in the future, rather than to dwell in the past.  As his wheels turned, I left him alone to puzzle out his assignment, with the promise that I eagerly would return in an hour to see what he produced, accompanied by my own essay on the same task.

In light of his critique of the assignment, I set out to unearth not only what I might have done better in the past but also how I might be bolstered in my future endeavors.  Since the topic at hand had been Jesus’s personhood, I used this as my subject matter.  It was not hard to arrive at some theologically (mis)informed past behaviors and the possibility of future improvements in the light of theological reformulations.  So, what was my Christological insight that would have made all the difference?

Natalie:

When I was a child, I always wanted to be “good.”  It was sort of my thing.  I wasn’t good for show. I was never a goody or a pet, so to speak.  But, I was earnest, simple, decent.  I was a good student, a loyal friend, a peacemaker.  I sometimes helped with chores without being asked.  I specifically prayed for people I didn’t like.  When I considered my most sincere desire for my life, it was to be good in some essential, existential, good-with-God, and never-go-to-bed-without-saying-I-love-you sort of way.

This attitude spilled over into my friendships, in which I could not see it, for example, when some girl named “Misty” stole my sweatshirt from my locker.  It was a novelty, souvenir item, so I knew she could not really have one exactly like mine, especially when mine had gone missing the day before she started wearing it.  Yet, I couldn’t admit to myself that she would take it.  This sort of thing was emblematic of my friendships during childhood.  Was I a fool?  Not if I knew the truth, right?  But, was I a fool to allow her to take advantage of me?  Or, the other friends such as her, who behaved similarly?   I didn’t used to think so; I merely thought I had paid no mind because I committed myself to letting such things go.  However, obviously I had paid mind to it, because I am here writing about it.  You see, over time, I could not deny hurt.

This sort of thing, which I now understand to be massively distorted relationships that were rooted in fundamentally different value systems, characterized much of my life. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself because I didn’t value doing so. I felt an encompassing love, instead of anger, and I deliberately forced myself to see and remember others’ frailty and needs.  My stepdad, who was verbally battering, would sometimes sit on the driveway after a run.  I once noticed that his eyelashes were long and lovely, and he looked like a confused, awkward child to me.  I felt a surge of sadness for him because I saw him that way, and so I went on to excuse his cruelty for years because he looked feeble in that one moment.

Reader, I am not making this up or exaggerating.  I felt some sort of innate, supernal call to goodness, and this was the result.   I cannot tell if this disposition in me specifically attracted people in my life who would be naturally advantageous or whether it merely brought out the advantageous in otherwise average personalities.  Whichever it was, I found myself increasingly wounded over the years, as the slights became much more severe with personal, professional, marital, and parental ramifications much more profound than a stolen sweatshirt.  I also did not know for a very long time that I had become angry and disgusted at the whole, lousy charade.

My theological problem became nearly untenable for me when I offered a Christology class a few years back, and I had to decide for myself whether I had indeed theologically “doormatted” myself.  Having spent time researching the insidious nature of internalized Christianity in the control of enslaved Africans and in the dehumanization of women in Western theo-philosophical discourses, I had come over a period of years to the difficult observation in myself that I had mistaken personal abdication for goodness.  I had to confront whether kenotic self-gift was ever a manifestation of divine love or merely an occasion of vampirism of the gullible.  I took up Nietzsche, Lawrence, and Dostoevsky as my conversation partners.  Was I truly an Idiot?

Without retreading my process, I came to a few Christological insights that made a difference for me.  The first came in this passage from Matthew 10:

[13] And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. [14] And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.

This is not a doormat philosophy, I concluded, but rather a caveat.  “Leave it alone, and protect your own being,” it seems to say, “where you are not properly received.”  This, to me, is a very helpful reframing of the boundlessness of Jesus’s mission.  “Goodness,” or whatever other names we here ascribe to self-gift and love, exists where it is worthily received.  In the absence of that, distortions will inevitably manifest, in both the one who takes and also the one who offers.

This idea, moreover, is companion to the larger, indeed gigantic, claim that Jesus was divine.  However one parses out the idea of the human as divine, whether in Jesus or in anyone, the very claim suggests a measure of power and innate dignity in agency.  One can give what one has in a self-pouring way, even unto death, but only from that place of self-aware, intentional vision.  I believe that must be how, at least in part, one can co-create the world, after the divine image within.  I believe that is also, at least in part, how resurrections might rise from the ashes of lives.

I am not here proselytizing Christianity or making any claims about Jesus per se.  The hard-won discovery is merely that good religion, good theology, especially good Christology, should be aimed at emboldening people to find the divine within and to carry that light with somber stewardship.  Genuine supernal goodness demands a certain inter-relational accountability, dedicated time by the self in the dessert of one’s own discernment, self-awareness of personal power, and unequivocal freedom (not the demand or the usurpation) of agency and self-gift.  I think I would have been much “better” at being “good” had this been my childhood theology. And, I am delighted to report I see no paucity of opportunities for constructive future applications.

As for “Misty,” I would today confront her about my shirt.  I would tell her that I would have been happy to give it to her, and that she still may keep it.  I would ask her to be honest with me about taking it, and I would tell her it hurt my feelings and confused me.  I would continue to offer her my friendship, and, if she behaved strangely with me on account of the whole affair, I would move on.  Also, not too shabby!

Valentine:
Christology is defined as the study of Jesus the Nazarene (or Jesus Christ) and his identity, mission, and saving work. Modern Christology has two main schools of thought, High and Low Christology, which form their respective theological opinions from different perspectives regarding the nature of Jesus. In essence, Low Christology “starts” with Jesus as a fully human figure that came to understand His identity and mission as fully God incarnate throughout his life and trials, then ascending into Heaven. In contrast, High Christology “starts” with the notion of Jesus as the divine, constant, and eternal Word of God that existed before His incarnation as a full human and thus understands his identity and mission, sent down to Earth in human form on Christmas. It is important to recognize that these two approaches to understanding Christianity do not have nor are intended to conflict with each other. The ultimate beliefs of the Christian faith contain and use elements of both viewpoints.
I personally struggle with this concept, not because it is fundamentally difficult, but because formulating a personal opinion regarding the central figure of faith that I did not know and that I see described in texts that are not first hand is a challenge. I see this element of Christianity as a choice of perspectives to adhere to, lest one fall into any kind of heresy both doctrinal and mental. In fact, I would go as far to say that the struggle in knowing who Jesus is is most of the time less of a “Mystery of Faith” and more of a deterrent and source of confusion and possibly even fear. It is not desirable to mislabel, much less wrongly interpret, the figure that is perceived as God. Nevertheless, I firmly hold two opinions: Jesus was not a blazing idol, stamped with the Alpha and Omega on each hand, marching humanity to salvation, but at the same time, I feel that Jesus was also not a person unaware of His nature. I do not reject that He was not confused or troubled in life -and all of the other human emotions- possibly even angry that He was existing at all. I suppose I take comfort in considering the notion that one could talk with Jesus in a personal way about everyday things. In this way, I can see only two moral options that do not involve outside philosophy, the first being to reside squarely in the middle of the Christological spectrum, and the second being to reject all formal notions of Christology and view Jesus and the Trinity simply as that, the I Am.
With this in mind, I relate the knowledge of High and Low Christology to my First Communion as a second grader. The tradition of receiving the Eucharist at the age of eight is due to the belief that at around such a point children come to understand reason and the makings of their critical minds begin. Despite this, when I was in second grade there was almost no reason given as to why we were receiving the Eucharist. Our instruction went as deep as Jesus is love and we are eating Jesus. While both of those statements are catholicities, there was not even the making of a notion as to why. It is not necessary for 8-year-olds to be thinking about theology in a broad spectrum, but if I had the understanding of the principles of Christology when I was in second grade my First Communion would have been much more meaningful. The most I remember being taught was to consider whether or not the manner I reached for the chalice in was congruent with what we had practiced everyday for months. If not, I was to be sure I fixed my hands before taking a drink.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D.is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books includeMarriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.


Categories: Bible, Christianity, Christology, Church Doctrine, General, Theology, Women's Voices

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6 replies

  1. What a wiser and more adaptable society we’d be if thoughtful young people were included as essential parts of advisory boards and all other vision and decision making groups.

    Thank you, Valentine, that’s a brilliant, insightful summary of the First Communion experience for we Catholicized children.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I was very moved by your thoughtful beautifully crafted essay and your personal experience with being “good”… I think I was born with “goodness” and empathy as fundamental aspects of my personality ( I surely did not get these qualities from my family). I remember being so shocked when a playmate suddenly turned on my little brother and me and threw rocks at us for no reason when I was about 6 or 7. I didn’t understand “meanness” and throughout my life I have paid a steep price for my stupidity. When I finally got it that some people take pleasure from harming others I berated myself for my gullibility…I wasted a lot of time trying to be good to people who did not deserve it while paying no attention to myself or to the fact that I was increasingly angry… and when I was finally able to face my anger and rage and deal with these qualities appropriately (not until mid -life) I was surprised that I remained “earnest” to a fault – I wish I could say that I overcame my vulnerability – today I am still stunned to see how easily I am taken in.

    I love hearing that you had such a wonderful conversation with your son! May many blessings come your way.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Very thoughtful essay. Thanks. It has for many years seemed to me that if Christians paid more attention to the Sermon on the Mount and seriously practiced the Beatitudes, the world might be a better place.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Kudos to you and your son. Not too shabby, indeed!

    The story of your life in relation to longing for goodness, finding your way between boundaries and boundlessness could be mine.

    I find this sentence helpful and it will remain with me: “Goodness,” or whatever other names we here ascribe to self-gift and love, exists where it is worthily received. In the absence of that, distortions will inevitably manifest, in both the one who takes and also the one who offers.

    I love you son’s childhood and current theology!

    Well done, mother and son. A+

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I truly enjoyed your post and conversation, and I feel gratitude for your sharing. I do relate to your experiences and your term of being doormatted spoke so much to my heart and feelings I had when I was younger. Luckily ” I have left the doormat” through rough live experiences which were teaching me what I needed to hear. Being raised as Christian, in the later years I became a Buddhist, Buddhism just spoke more to me , yet there are so many similarities with Christianity , so there so no division at all. The Goal is what is important , even the paths might be a bit different, but all what counts is spreading LOVE and PEACE. Thank you for your amazing article. Wishing you a great blessed weekend.

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  6. What I loved about this essay most, Natalie, is its depth. Digging into what the dual nature of Christ, a doctrinal tenet in much of Christianity, means (or can mean) fascinates me, but most importantly (I think) is how that dual nature gets applied in “real living” by you with the story of “Misty.” I would enjoy seeing how your son wrestled with his assignment as well! I believe, whether we are aware of it or not, we (humans) see and understand the world through a mythological lens. Doctrine or interpretation of a story or myth often becomes reified–something I don’t see in your refreshing essay. As a child and young adult, I struggled with the virgin birth of Christ, something believed by my community to be literally true and terribly important to be literally true! What I would have given for my community to understand and be open to the layers of meaning within that doctrinal tenet–a place that took me years to get to.

    Liked by 1 person

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