We can now see that divine sacrifice on our behalf affirms the radical question of life that, ultimately, reality is moral. The message of the cross, by depicting that affirmation, becomes the proper object of human faith. The Gospel According to John calls the message of Jesus’ life and death “the light of men.” (John 1:4) We have identified that light with conscience, and connected the light of conscience to faith that God will vindicate the person who seeks to live in its light.
Of course, these last statements are statements of faith. But we now understand that no neutral position is possible with respect to the supreme question, and a person who does not understand that does not understand the first thing about faith, that it begins with a decision. For the supreme question is posed to the naked human psyche, with not even a conceptual fig leaf in place to divert one’s gaze from the naked fact that one must choose.
A man who farms near a university that is famous for the study of agriculture likes to tell this story. He hosts students from the university on tours of his farm, and on those tours students frequently ask questions such as, “What’s growing in that field?” and, “What’s that over there?”
“Beans,” he says, and “Planter.”
As a person can study agriculture without learning the first thing about it from the perspective of a farmer, so a person can study theology without learning the first thing about it from the perspective of a person of faith. Consider a Christian who goes to church on Sunday and is told of her need for faith in God’s gracious sacrifice for her. Somehow that message strikes a chord in her heart. Somehow that message addresses troubling practical dilemmas that arise in her life. Somehow the sacrament of communion cuts to the very core of her being, and she strives to live in accord with the message. Her will has engaged the message, and the message has engaged her will. That is the first and most important thing about her faith. Her faith is not supported by any formal rationale, and she knows that. But her faith is vital, because it moves her feelings and motivates her actions. She believes that she is a better person for having faith.
A student of theology may look to wrap these first things of faith in a rationale, and so provide clothes to cover this naked faith. But by doing so, he makes them last things, conclusions, and he thereby treats faith as though it is a mistake, or at best, a stand-in for understanding. The implication is that the truth about God did not need to come into the world. From the standpoint of faith, however, we should not expect to discover the truth about it by means of science or philosophy, or even theology, any more than we should expect to discover the meaning of an author’s text by placing it in test tubes. For the answer we seek requires a higher order than nature; consequently, anything that we can discover by means of answering lesser questions is necessarily not what seek in asking the supreme question. Christian Scripture tells us that Jesus was God incarnate, the divine Logos of creation given human flesh, who in a supreme irony died for us. That message poses itself to us as creatures, putatively, by divine inspiration. Thus, we must hear it as creatures listening to the voice of God speaking to our core existential question, not as scientists or scholars.
We have considered the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ life on the supposition that he was God incarnate. All that we can know is that the message of the cross answers the deepest question that we face as free, morally sensitive beings. In other words, all that we can know, apart from faith, is that we are considering the right answer to the right question. To call the answer the truth, however, is a choice, not a conclusion: and a naked choice, one that cannot be clothed in conclusions derived from this world’s wisdom. But there is a much better way to say this: “Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the
Kierkegaard once wrote that it would be good enough for the purposes of faith “If the contemporary generation [with Jesus] had left nothing behind them but these words: ‘We have believed that…God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died… …this nota bene on a page of universal history…would be sufficient to afford an occasion [for faith] for a successor, and the most voluminous account can in all eternity do nothing more.”1 I agree, in that faith is a permanent possibility for all human beings; for it is the resolution of a dilemma at the core of human nature, as I hope has been shown. It must be added to Kierkegaard’s nota bene, however, that divine sacrifice for the sake of humanity is needed. For it is the question of whether to sacrifice one’s self-interest in order to do the right thing for the sake of others, when necessary, that underlies the supreme question, the radical question of life. In biblical language, it is “the message of the cross” that answers that radical question of life by depicting divine sacrifice for the sake of humanity. And so the message of the cross becomes the object of faith for a righteous belief, a belief fit for a humanity that accepts the call to a higher way of life.
Jesus is said to have used parables to describe the impact of having faith that one has “found” this higher way. Here is one.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)
Returning a last time to the story of Jesus’ trial, it presents an ideal microcosm in which to examine the essential teaching of Christian faith. Jesus prompted Pilate’s famous question—“What is truth?”—by saying, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” The famous question followed, and then Jesus’ silence, a silence made suspect by his statement. And yet the suspicion grows out of a preliminary, a superficial understanding of the passage. Having examined the context surrounding it in some depth—both scripturally and conceptually—we now understand that Jesus could not have answered the question and remained true to his purpose. For to have done so would have removed the pressure from Pilate of deciding the supreme question, thereby contravening Scripture’s main theme in application to his life, and averting Jesus’ mission as the Word of God made flesh in depicting that theme to us through Scripture.
It all comes together in that scene. Consequently, we have now answered the overarching question that constituted the conceptual peak that we have wanted to climb: We now see why Jesus’ silence in the face of Pilate’s famous question depicts his divinity. He had to silently accept his condemnation and crucifixion in order to enact the supreme sacrifice in answer to the supreme question.
In closing we should note that the text converges on the reader also. It does so in that the reader along with Pilate is left to judge the truth of Jesus’ claim. Astoundingly, the reader, like Pilate, is allowed to enact the supreme irony of the trial by making a judgment about Jesus. But then, again, this too is a statement of faith.
Nevertheless, whether or not one chooses faith, the point of view from the literary summit in The Gospel According to John is truly a revelation. For it strips human life of all pretensions, uncovering a choice at the core of our humanity.
“Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’”
1. Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, Tr. David F. Swenson (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1936) p. 87.