Christianity is a religion that is filled with tension. Creation is essentially good (see Genesis 1 and 2), yet existentially strained (see Genesis 3). Jesus is fully God, yet fully man at the same time. The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet.
Ross Douthat brings out a lot of this tension in a brilliant paragraph in his book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics (see page 153). He then rightly conveyed that the most important thing is to rest in that tension. Douthat raised these questions concerning Jesus:
“Was he God or man? Is the kingdom something to be lived out here or something to be expected to arrive? Are we given a blueprint to moral conduct or a call to spiritual enlightenment? Did he aim to fulfill Judaism among the Jews or convert the Gentile world? Was he the bloodied man of sorrows of Mel Gibson’s movie, the hippie/lilies-of-the-field Jesus of Godspell, or a wise moralist?”
Were you able to see which one was right or wrong? Well, it was a trick question, because Jesus is all of those things, and more!
Christian belief, as set forth in the councils and creeds of old (see my Beliefs page), sought to be faithful to the teachings of Christ and to the unpacking of those teachings in the rest of the New Testament. It tried to hold onto the tension and seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives, instead of harmonizing or glossing over them. There’s a suffering Jesus of Mark, and a superhero Jesus of John. Do these two portraits differ? At points. Does that mean they nullify the others? Not at all! At least four people have written biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Of those four books, are they all identical? No, they have different feels to them, perhaps one might emphasis Lincoln’s melancholy side, another might emphasis his political genius. Seeming contradictions aren’t really contradictions at all, they’re different perspectives on a remarkable life.
Same thing with the gospels. Jesus will never be fully understand, this side of the River Jordan. We won’t understand him completely, since he is (*spoiler alert*) God. And we need to be OK with this– we need to live with the tension. Where a lot of people get into trouble is when that tension is replaced with glossing over tough passages and forming Jesus in our own image. Joseph Smith did that, so did/does a lot of pseudo-Christian prosperity gospel preachers.
Fundamentalists might voraciously defend tensions by stamping out any potential controversy or refuse to answer any difficult question. Shut up and just believe it is not the best answer to an honest question. Sometimes, I think we need to live with the tension instead of trying to make sense of it all. Some things will just be too much for us to comprehend, and we need to be comfortable sitting with paradoxes*. Paradoxes are all around us, maybe we should start embracing tension in our faith as well.
*A common paradox in our lives deals with light. It is both a wave and a particle, how can this paradox be resolved?