In my last blog I distinguished between Jesus and other good people by the constancy with which Jesus saw and responded to the persuasion of God in the events of the world. Am I saying that the difference between me and the Son of God is only a matter of degree? That Jesus is just a tad better than the average decent person? Because that would certainly run counter to the evidence of the Bible.

Well no, I don’t think that way, although it’s worth remembering that according to John’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that they would do even greater things than he had done.

I think of Jesus as unique, in the way that every event in the universe, like the life of a person or the successful building of a starling’s nest in my neighbour’s eaves, is unique. Each event is unique in its apprehension of previous events, in its creative use of them. In the case of Jesus, firstly we have to allow ourselves to be led by the gospels of Matthew and Luke in their pointing to Jesus’ genetic inheritance on the one hand, and his faith inheritance on the other.

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are different and cannot, in spite of the witness of Christmas cards and Sunday School narrative, be successfully aligned. Still they have some common elements:

1. Jesus was born, as human beings are, from a woman. Although his conception is said to be virginal, his life in the womb and his birth were normal.

2. Although Joseph is sidelined by the Holy Spirit, the genealogies of Jesus trace the male line from him, back to Abraham via King David, indeed back to Adam in the case of Luke. These are Messianic genealogies, although Luke especially wants to emphasise his inheritance as “son of God”

Jesus was unique because of his genetic inheritance from Mary – and Joseph, because the narratives want to have it both ways: Mary’s conception is virginal but Jesus is a son of David. The usual means of human evolution are not set aside, but with the addition of the Holy Spirit’s action, bring about the birth of Jesus. Any conception is an event which in my thinking involves the persuasive presence of God. As it happens, that was also the traditional Jewish view of conception, so we can understand Matthew and Luke as defining Jesus’ birth as Normal Plus. This aspect of Jesus uniqueness is his genetic inheritance from his forebears, via his parents, made new ( with God’s help!) in his body.

Another aspect of Jesus’ uniqueness is the story of faith which he inherited as a Jewish child, through his familial tradition of faith. Ancient prophecies were part of this. We are used to seeing how Matthew uses prophecy to characterise Jesus as Messiah, how Luke uses them in a slightly different way, but we should also reckon with Jesus own knowledge of the prophetic tradition, gained from his parents and his community, and how he may have applied these to himself and his mission. In fact we should broaden this out to include Jesus’ knowledge of the whole Jewish inheritance of faith, as he encountered it. The events of Jesus’ encounter with that tradition are also instances of the persuasive presence of God. Nobody ever interpreted that tradition as authoritatively and as creatively as Jesus. What astonishing intimacy with the tradition allowed him to say, “You have heard that they were told, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But now I tell you, Do not resist those who wrong you…”! We only have the result of Jesus’ study of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings of the Hebrew Bible, and the traditions of interpretation built up in the synagogues. His parables and replies to question and argument reveal how thoroughly he had made his people’s wisdom his own. Every new discovery he made is a creative event in which he responded to God and continued to develop as a child of God. We can also say that God also, in sharing Jesus’ life, learned more about what a human child could be. Can we say that God developed through Jesus? Yes we can and must.

I am saying that Jesus was unique as all human beings are unique by nature and by nurture. But I am also saying that God had been begetting Jesus his son over millions of years of genetic evolution, and through the hundreds of years of the Jewish heritage of faith. Jesus is especially a product of that process begun when God’s persuasion found a human response in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

So no, Jesus was not merely a tad better than me: he was full of God. I am going to pause here before I write about Jesus’ murder and resurrection.

“So if Jesus was somehow God, how do you imagine him? Classical theologians talked about two natures in one person, but surely that’s just a bit of gobbledegook?”

This is a real challenge. The Nicene Creed simply asserts that Jesus was/ is “very God of very God, begotten not made,” and the Chalcedonian Creed (451CE) emphasises that Jesus shared the “substance of God and the substance of humanity, two natures without separation or confusion.” Although the creeds are part of the story of how the church imagined Jesus, they are mainly prohibitions of wrong imaginings, and perhaps, in Chalcedon, of all imagining: “don’t try to imagine Jesus, because he is essentially unimaginable. Just accept the formula.”

The controversies about the nature or natures of Jesus arose out of the biblical witness to Jesus on the one hand, and the use of the Greek philosophical terms “physis” (nature) hypostasis ( substance/ person) ousia (being) logos (word/reason). In particular the difficulty was in asserting of Jesus that he had both human nature and divine nature. This difficulty is not biblical. The bible never says that Jesus has either divine or human nature, but uses a variety of expressions to refer to his sharing human and divine life. Jesus, a real human being, shares as a human being in God’s life, so much so that he can be called Lord, Son of God; and it can be said that he shares the “abundance” of God. He can also be depicted doing things which are considered impossible for human beings, raising the dead, stilling storms, rising physically from his tomb. Certainly, however, no division of natures is alleged. Was his forgiveness of the weeping woman in Luke 7 any less “divine” than his stilling of the storm in Mark 4? It is enough to say that with the help of what now would be viewed as magical realism, the Gospels are able to tell a convincing story of a man who is the action and the suffering of God. They deal with events, with what happened, and with the character of the person through whom they happened. This also true of the more reflective language of St. Paul, who writes of the “crucified messiah” who “loved me and gave himself for me” – he is still dealing with character and events: “he humbled himself and was obedient even to the point of death, his death on the cross.” Even when Paul talks of him as raised to the highest place above, as Lord over creation, he is still depicting a cosmic drama in which Jesus wins a victory. The language of the Bible is the language of human history, of what happened and why; of what was done and by whom; of what was felt or understood; of what the main actors were like, how they acted and spoke and suffered; of what emerged from events. Of course, natures, substances, being and reason may be deduced from such language, but it may not be a successful endeavour.

The Jesus’ narratives of the Bible are part of two larger narratives about God:

1. The battle of God’s goodness against evil

2. The ongoing story of God’s creation of a perfect universe.

In both of these stories the people of Israel have an important role, as God cannot win his battle and achieve perfection without the cooperation of humanity, of which Israel is the chosen prototype. The narrative of Israel as God’s partner is an important sub- narrative of the two major narratives. The story of Jesus is presented in the Bible as a critical although not final turning point in all these narratives.

There is a great difference between the movement of these narratives and the static determination of divine and human natures in the person of Jesus. This has often been recognised in the history of Christian theology, to the extent that “narrative theology” is an accredited field of study. Its practitioners suggest that rather than jumping out of the story into theology, we develop a theology by entering more deeply into the story, as becoming part of the story is the best way of finding the truth of Jesus, God and the world.

I want to agree with that while disagreeing with its disengagement from larger issues of truth. Yes, imagining the story of Jesus as part of the story of God can be life-changing, but only if I insert my own story, the story of my life, into his. But if I do so honestly I have to recognise that I do not live in the time of the Bible authors; I do not speak their languages or share their culture; the society of which I am part is blessed with knowledge which they did not possess, in the sciences and especially in our discovery of the universe and its evolution. So, if I imagine myself as part of the Biblical story, it has to be a total re-imagining of it which engages with questions of its continuing relevance and truth. In other words, although the answers given by the questioning Greek believers of the 4th and 5th centuries may not be acceptable to me, the questions they put to the Biblical narrative remain relevant, and can guide my questions and my re-imagining today.

They remain relevant but they must be supplemented by contemporary questions and not just those of my own culture, but of other cultures too, for unlike the ancient Greeks I do not see other cultures as barbarous, but as a shared civilisation. It’s a tall order, but that’s what makes it THEO- logy, reasoning about the One who is not us, rather than IDEO- logy, reasoning about the priorities of my party, nation or church.

An example may help, the story of the man afflicted by a legion of evil spirits, from Mark chapter 5.

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.[a] And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus[b] asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits[c] begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus[d] to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus[e] refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

This story is set in the Decapolis, the area of the ten towns developed by the Greek conquerors of Palestine, which were viewed as foreign territory by pious Jews. Like the rest of Israel it was at that time under Roman rule. The key to the story is when the evil spirits name themselves as Legion. In effect they say, We are the Roman Army. This poor man has allowed the violent Roman conquest to enter his soul, so that he is continually brutalised. A superior powerful culture has made him into a self-harming victim.

Jesus’ lack of fear and his therapeutic questioning leads the man to acknowledge the “spirit” by which he is oppressed, so that he can be healed. The request of the legionary spirits to enter pigs is a kind of manga comedy, where the evil ends up where it belongs in unclean animals. The reaction of the townspeople shows how much they are complicit with the rule of Rome, but the witness of the healed man shows how the fight against global wrongs starts locally.

Can I insert myself in this story? Yes. When I was young I was oppressed by fear of violence at home and at school. A culture I saw as superior made me ashamed and stupid. In that condition I did many things which harmed myself, as well as sometimes others. I took me years into adult life to be able to name the afflicting spirits, while admitting their influence. The persistent counter-influence of Jesus, along with the love of my wife and friends, helped me do this.

In my varied ministries I have seen how the very poor people of the UK are subjected to the violence of destitution by a class of people who imagine themselves as superior, even when engaged in the so- called caring professions. The self-harming of the poor, through alcohol, drugs, and crime, is an obvious result. I confess that I was only seldom able to help them name their oppressor, and to find healing. Churches in such areas often imagined themselves to be superior to these victims.

The hymn writer Fred Pratt Green got it right:

In conflicts that destroy our health/ we diagnose the world’s disease. / Our common life declares our ills./ Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

That question reminds us that Jesus is depicted by Mark as in many other stories as an unremitting agent of life who will not be complicit with violence and death. He does nothing spectacular but he frees the man from these evil spirits. Mark is saying, This is God’s goodness. The same sort of story had been told in the Hebrew Bible, for example, in the healing of Naaman by Elijah. The goodness of God is as quiet and persistent as the questioning of Jesus or the water of Jordan on the leper’s skin.

This is an important way of talking about God, but is it true? It seems to me unarguable the neither of these two healings took place as narrated. Rather, an author is imagining an improbable human being in whom God is revealed as present and compassionate.

The small communities of the early church also knew the power of the legions, along with the overwhelming cultural power of the Roman Empire. They hoped that by naming the oppressive spirit and trusting in the goodness that is Jesus, they might be freed from fear and self-harm and liberated to speak of what God had done for them.

Enough! The world of this story, the world of the Bible, is a world of events. Nature is not a background to events but is itself a series of events which involve human beings. This sits well with the world as defined by modern quantum physics as an infinity of events, some very large like the explosion of a black hole, some unimaginably small. Some people of faith and wisdom are able to perceive the presence of God in certain events, such as cataclysms, or sacred groves or the actions of great rulers, but Jesus is depicted as one who cherished each and every event, ready to find in it the possibility of creative goodness, which he called Abba, father. He imagined the process of the world in this way. Only the possibility is given, for God will not force it. The entities involved in the event have to respond, as Jesus did. This responsiveness may belong as much to particles and viruses as to human beings.

This way of thinking points to a universe of ceaseless happenings in each one of which the persuasive goodness of God is present. “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Heavenly Father” “In him we live and move and have our being.” We deny these as often as we affirm them, but Jesus on earth is the small life which was never without The Father, the man who always lived and moved and had his being in God.

1. I am imagining God as the persuasion towards perfection in every event of the universe.

2. This persuasion issues from the origin of the universe and from its future culmination, for God is the first and the last.

3.Jesus of Nazareth is both the revelation and the embodiment of this persuasion in a particular time and place, in his life and his death on the execution stake. He is the true but not finished expression of God’s goodness. He was not an automaton with a son of God implant, but a real human being who believed himself to be God’s child, a faith put in question by his death and answered by his resurrection, that is, by his disciples’ imagination of the risen bodily life he shares with God. Did God make a difference to Jesus? Yes, in all his living and especially in his resurrection. Did Jesus make a difference to God? Yes, assuredly God is different because the life of Jesus became part of God’s own life.

4. Life shared with other creatures in the persuasive goodness of God is called life in the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit differ from God the Father? By being the shared life of God and his son, God and his children. It is the venturesome partnership (Greek: koinonia) in which God is happy to work with human beings.

5. This is my imagination of Jesus the Son of God. It does not mention evil, sin, heaven and hell. So it is not a creed but a faith working towards articulation.

In my last blog I argued that chapter 1 of any theology book should begin with the sentence, “All gods and goddesses are invented by human beings.” This is not an atheist principle but an insistence on the irreducible contribution of the human imagination to all faith in god.

One or two readers have kindly questioned how on earth a Christian believer ( as I am) can agree with this principle, as the heart of Christian faith is Jesus of Nazareth, a historical person. Surely if one of the divine persons was also a flesh and blood human being, he, at least, cannot be imaginary. My immediate answer is that I have never said that God is imaginary, that is, wholly a creation of the imagination, but rather that his/her reality cannot be thought without the exercise of the imagination. Opponents of my argument may then want to ask whether we need much imagination when dealing with a historical figure. Do we imagine Julius Caesar or Napoleon? And if we do doesn’t that invalidate our image of them? Alexander the Great is one thing, and Mary Renault’s story of him another, no? I could spend some time arguing that there is no Alexander outside of someone’s imagination, but I will rather take up the question about Jesus.

1. We only have access to Jesus of Nazareth through the imaginative narratives of the gospels, and references to him in other New Testament writings. Well, there are some in Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus, but they are little more than confirmation that Jesus lived and was crucified. The conventional English titles of the gospels in English, “according to Matthew, Mark, Like and John” should alert us to the nature of these writings: they are versions of Jesus as the bearer and exemplar of a joyful message for human beings, as recreated in the imaginative writing of an author. For example the Markan Jesus does everything “immediately” because Mark imagines his ministry as very urgent. Matthew sets Jesus’ sermon on a mountain because he imagines Jesus as Moses, Luke sets it on a plain because imagines Jesus as a prophet on a level with people. Although, on the whole, the timeline of Jesus’ story is similar in these writings, incidents and the specifics of incidents vary considerably, even in respect of key incidents such as the birth, deaths and resurrection of Jesus. When these narratives are tested for facticity by strict historical criteria, only a minority pass.

Some of these contradictions may be attributed to the distance of the authors in space and time from the original events, but many are more likely the result of the re- imagining of Jesus by different believing communities with different priorities of faith and practice, together with the very different narrative methods of the gospel authors. The story of Jesus is essentially an imaginative construct based on the communal memory of a person. Above all, it is witness to an act of God. This squares with what we can see in the genuine letters of Paul, which are much earlier than the gospels: Jesus Messiah is presented almost exclusively in his death and resurrection as evidence of God’s favour to Jewish and non-Jewish peoples. It would be an exaggeration to say that Paul was not interested in the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, but not much of an exaggeration. It may be that the later writing of gospels was promoted by elements of the Christian assemblies who saw the danger of a gospel unanchored in the original humanity of Jesus.

Are the stories imagined by the gospel authors sufficient to arouse faith? Of course they are! They are witness to an extraordinary grasp of what is important for human flourishing, of the disciplines and graces which produce human goodness. They have an earthy wisdom which nevertheless would be folly if the God of which they speak does not exist. They outstrip the complex reasonings of classic and modern philosophers. They stand in the Jewish tradition of which they provide a radical re-interpretation, inviting all readers to share Jesus’ love of God and his neighbour, and God’s love of Jesus and all creatures.

2. My decision whether or not to accept this invitation engages my imagination necessarily: I must imagine Jesus as my teacher, brother and God, otherwise I will find it impossible to follow his way. In this imagining I have the help of the Gospels and other scripture, together with 2000 years of Christian tradition, including hymns, prayers, frescoes, sculpture, paintings, music, books, along with the creeds and confessions of the churches. Sometimes I have memorised a hymn before I understood it, only to find, much later, that it fills my imagination, supporting my faith in a dark time. The best spiritual guidance has always been directed at the imagination of the believer.

3. The story of Jesus demands a comprehensive re-imagining of God. Much of the worst theology has failed to do this, simply bolting Jesus on to a simplified version of the Jewish God. The wrathful God who demands the sacrifice of his only son as the price of offering forgiveness to human beings, is an example. If God is imagined as persuasive rather than executive, as asking cooperation rather than commanding obedience, much that has been taken for granted in the character of God has to be ditched, and much that seems improbable has to be imagined. Take for example, the notion of God’s judgement. If God is not a pathological monster, loving a person one moment then burning them to a crisp for disobedience the next, then a serious attempt to contemplate a loving God has to be made, in spite of centuries of refusal by the Christian church to do so. In fact love is more terrible than wrath, as it will not compel a person to turn from evil, but will respect that person’s decision even as it results in suffering now and after death from the evil they have created. Somewhere I read the terrible sentence: “God will leave them in the darkness they have made.” Perhaps there is a stubborn evil which love cannot conquer, but we know that God will try, through his/her own persuasion in Jesus’ action and suffering. Or the notion of God’s forgiveness. Jesus requires no qualifications for the forgiveness of sin, no elaborate rituals or spiritual preparations; wanting it is enough. In fact Jesus scatters it around so promiscuously in his ministry, that some of his church’s careful prescriptions for gaining it seem to ignore the one they call saviour. Jesus was not much interested in the “weight of sin” other than in a person leaving it behind to enter into a new life. St. Paul understood this: “God was in Messiah reconciling the cosmos to himself.” It is not God who needs reconciled, but us.

4. Of course a wrong imagination of God/ Jesus, or even a truthful but one-sided imagination, can be both powerful and damaging. The imagination of a God who delighted in the death of Moslems fuelled the crusades just as that of an Allah who delighted in the death of heathens fuelled the early Moslem conquests, as well as those of “Islamic State” in our own time. There is no cure for these aberrant imaginings other than the recognition that they are imaginings, and as such subject to error and correction, rather than objective and inerrant truths of faith. The imagination of faith should be bold, but confidence in its productions should be modest. Theology is the testing of the imagination of the faithful.