Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Jesus, Via Negativa


Many years ago I was at some meeting while in seminary, and had to make a presentation. My seminary friend (D.N.) introduced me by what I was not. D.N. said something like, "I'd like to introduce John Piippo. He is not a professor, he is not a doctor, he is not a seminary graduate, he is not from Africa, he is not 7 feet tall, he is not elderly, he is not.....  he is not..." D.N. went on for a while. I thought this was really funny, and clever. D.N. was introducing me using the ancient descriptive way of via negativa. By listing all the many things I was not, one could learn something about who I really was.

The sixth-century anonymous philosopher-theologian Pseudo-Dionysius, in his Mystical Theology, developed via negativa as a way of speaking about God in terms of what God is not. By saying what God is not, we learn things about who God is. For example, God is not finite (God is "infinite," i.e., having neither beginning nor end); God is not limited (in terms of power - God can do everything that is possible to do), God is non-spatial, God is non-material ("immaterial"), God is atemporal (not subject to time), God is non-physical, and so on. This way of speaking about God is a "negative way" (via negativa). In mystical theology this is also called "dark knowledge."

In January one of the messages I gave at Faith Bible Church in New York City was "Jesus, Via Negativa." In my passion to know the Real Jesus I find it helpful to clear away cultural confusion by saying what Jesus was not.

For example, Jesus...
  • ...was not wealthy. While foxes have holes and birds have nests, Jesus didn't have a roof over his head. Jesus didn't have closets packed with robes and sandals for every occasion.
  • ...was not impressed with the rich and famous. Actually, Jesus mostly viewed the rich and famous as spiritually bankrupt.
  • ...did not come to raise money for his ministry.
  • ...did not come for the express purpose of multiplying your finances.
  • ...did not operate according to cultural honor-shame hierarchies. Jesus climbed down the ladder, took on the form of an "expendable," and descended intio greatness.
  • ...was not self-centered. Jesus came, not to be served, but to serve.
  • not like much of what I have seen on "Christian TV." (Admittedly, I don't watch any of this any more. I'm certain some of it is good; I'm equally certain some of it misrepresents Jesus. I'm thankful for the good, and grateful that shut-ins can access it. Note: to access the real Jesus, begin reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) 
  • ...did not need to hype his message, which was "gospel." The "gospel" is good news. That's enough. Good news has intrinsic power. You don't have to advertise a fire.
  • ...did not come to establish any earthly nation as a "Christian nation." Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world." In his temptation in the wilderness by Satan Jesus positively refused the chance to rule over this world's kingdoms. Jesus comes for all the nations, for all peoples. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Galatians 3).
  • ...does not wink at sin. Jesus has no "boys will be boys" or "girls will be girls" attitude. As C.S. Lewis wrote, "Aslan [Jesus] is not a tame lion."
  • ...did not come to enhance your physical appearance, but came to capture your heart. Jesus rejected the Bling Dynasty.
  • not your "divine Butler" who comes to further your personal kingdom. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is something Jesus comes to defeat.
  • not "boring." Jesus is the greatest revolutionary leader who has ever lived.
  • ...did not come to sell tickets and entertain an audience, but to raise an army of followers. Jesus is after disciples, not mere intellectual believers.
  • ...was not an entertainer. Jesus wants followers, not spectators.
  • ...did not see himself as one religious option among others. Jesus was the Redeemer, the one through whom the Father would reconcile all persons unto himself. Jesus was the Sozo-er, the Savior.
  • ...did not come to "balance your life." Jesus wants all of you. 100%. Jesus is Lord.