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?
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:
 And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.  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!