Jesus' Divinity Debated

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on December 15, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

In the translucent glow of a stained-glass window, Jesus hovers, larger-than-life, behind the pulpit where Rev. Bill Phipps prepares to address his congregation on the first Sunday of Advent. The dark-stained oak pews are full.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on December 15, 1997. Partner content is not updated. In the translucent glow of a stained-glass window, Jesus hovers, larger-than-life, behind the pulpit where Rev. Bill Phipps prepares to address his congregation on the first Sunday of Advent. The dark-stained oak pews are full.

Jesus' Divinity Debated

In the translucent glow of a stained-glass window, Jesus hovers, larger-than-life, behind the pulpit where Rev. Bill Phipps prepares to address his congregation on the first Sunday of Advent. The dark-stained oak pews are full. And the 300 members of Scarboro United Church in Calgary wait with more than their usual anticipation to hear what their minister has to say. Only a few weeks earlier, Phipps - the newly elected moderator of the United Church of Canada - caused an uproar when he denied that Jesus is God and that he physically rose from the dead. "Some say I am a heretic," the genial pastor tells his flock. "And I've even got the wrong stole on for Advent," he confesses, pointing to his unseasonably green vestment. Purple is the proper color for Advent and for penance. But Phipps is unrepentant. In a 20-minute sermon, titled "I Believe," the moderator, with well-measured passion, explains his controversial beliefs. "The truly remarkable thing," he declares, "is that there are literally thousands of conversations taking place - at the dinner table, in the workplace, wherever people gather - about Jesus."

Jesus is the flash point for a religious debate that is as hot as hellfire. Believers and non-believers alike are asking how a leader of a Christian church could publicly question Jesus' divinity. Phipps has stated that he does not believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead, and that in fact, Jesus merely embodies all of the divine that can be embodied in a human being. Those statements have forged a rift in Canada's largest Protestant denomination, and the United Church is feeling the heat. But the controversy is also forcing millions of Christians, often accused of losing the true meaning of Christmas - the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ - to re-examine their faith. The furor, coming after decades of waning church attendance, raises dire prophecies of a "post-Christian" era. Meanwhile, some scholars are challenging the notion of a white-robed Christ who walks on water, proposing, instead, a portrait of a more human Jesus, with dubious supernatural powers.

The crisis has hit hard for many Christians, already feeling beleaguered in Canada's increasingly secular, pluralist society. Followers of Eastern religions and para-religious organizations more than doubled their numbers between 1981 and 1991, according to Statistics Canada. During that same period, while the population grew 12 per cent, evangelical Protestants increased by 82 per cent. But overall Protestant ranks still declined by 1.4 per cent, fuelled by a stunning 18-per-cent free fall in United Church membership. Roman Catholicism - the country's largest Christian denomination - grew by a modest eight per cent, partly as a result of recent immigration. Some clergy are making the provocative suggestion that Christians should abandon the idea of "one true faith" altogether. "We don't have a monopoly on God's truth," says Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham. "Jesus encountered people of other faiths respectfully." In his just-published book, Mansions of the Spirit, the Vancouver cleric calls for a new vision of a God who reveals himself in all the great religions. Adds Ingham: "The task for Christianity today is to remove some of its inflated claims for itself."

Phipps may have already started the job with his recent assertions about Jesus. Liberal theologians and thinkers insist that, as Ingham says, to remain vital the church must "embrace diversity and healthy dialogue." In the wake of Phipps's remarks, the bishop says: "I have received many calls and letters from people saying, 'If the church is going to open up, I am going to come back.' " Others argue that spiritual searchers are looking for certainty. It's like climbing a mountain to seek advice from a guru, asserts Toronto author Ron Graham. The pilgrim finally reaches the top and poses the question: who is the true Jesus? "If the answer is, 'We are debating that,' " says Graham, "people will look somewhere else. What Phipps signals is that, at the very top, the church doesn't know what's true. People might go to something more traditional, like the Catholic Church - or leave."

North Americans have been wearing their spiritually needy hearts on their sleeves for decades. And many, even nominal Christians, are favoring more worldly, less demanding gurus than Jesus. Promises of peace, energy and enlightenment have, for some, more appeal than life everlasting and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus, long associated with strict commandments, may have an image problem - but there are signs of a make-over in the works. "There are accusations of a watering down of dogma," says Thomas Bandy, head of the United Church's evangelization ministry. "But everybody is trying to make Christianity more relevant to contemporary culture."

The Catholic Church is holding fast, with no intention of altering its teachings on Jesus and the Resurrection. "Scholarship continues in the Catholic Church, but scholarship begins with the creed," says Bishop Faber MacDonald of Grand Falls, Nfld. "When you start moving away from the foundations of faith, as the United Church is, you get on a slippery slope and all of a sudden, Jesus becomes a prophet."

In fact, for more than a century, scholars and thinkers have been exploring Jesus' humanity. Christology - the study of the nature and meaning of Jesus - now embraces such issues as feminism, liberation theology, the black freedom movement, the environment and even New Age philosophy. "Every age has to answer the questions Jesus posed to Peter in the gospels, 'Who do you say that I am?' " says the Vancouver-based theologian Sallie McFague, author of Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. "That means reframing the question in terms of the most pressing issues of the day. Is Jesus Christ important for the planet or just for human beings?" For some, Christ's gender has proved to be a barrier. But call it the Christian mystique: in the eyes of many devout feminists, Jesus is a modern, sensitive kind of god, as considerate of women as men.

It would be naïve to see the debate over Jesus as a phenomenon of the 20th century. "There have been many great schisms over Jesus," says Michael McAteer, co-author of the 1996 book The Man in the Scarlet Robe: 2000 Years of Searching for Jesus. "Was he divine and human? Was he a mixture of both?" Theologians thought they had settled the issue in AD 415 when the authoritative Council of Chalcedon declared Jesus "fully human and fully divine." But the paradox remains. "I don't think modern people are happy with that definition," states Pamela Dickey Young, head of religious studies at Queen's University. "If Christianity can't find a credible way of explaining it, thinking people will lose interest. God is ultimately unknowable, but you must know something of God to enter into a relationship with her."

In his seminal book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906, the European theologian, philosopher and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer wrote that looking for a human Jesus is like looking down a well. "He said we'll never find out who this man is," recalls McAteer. "You're inclined to see your own reflection in the water." Nevertheless, Schweitzer's book launched a critical analysis of Jesus in the scriptures - a pursuit previously confined to theologians and clergy.

When McAteer, a former Catholic, peeked into the well, he found a shadowy figure, obscured by myth. Like many skeptics, he dismisses Jesus as a religious fiction. "I don't believe in the virgin birth," he declares. "I don't believe in the Resurrection." McAteer points out that the Gospels - still taken as literal truth by fundamentalists - are secondhand accounts, written 50 or 60 years after his death. "I would accept that somebody like Jesus existed," says McAteer. "That's as far as I can go. Anybody who has a definitive answer, I think, is either dishonest or disillusioned."

The Jesus Seminar, a controversial biblical think-tank with headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif., acknowledges the existence of Christ, but questions many of the sayings attributed to him in the Bible. "For 12 years, we have been examining the Gospels to come to conclusions about which words and statements are best attested as words and deeds of Jesus," says Robert Bater, former head of religious studies at Queen's University and a fellow of the Jesus Seminar. Bater says that the interdenominational group did a thorough treatment of the Resurrection, with a conclusion that may have influenced Phipps. "There is a sense that Jesus' presence was strongly felt and experienced intensely by the disciples," says Bater. "But to say that Jesus was physically risen as if the body just got up from the tomb makes it into a resuscitation of a human corpse. Since Jesus is recorded as having raised others from the dead, this would make him just one more of the resuscitated corpses, but the New Testament teaching is that he was the first born from the dead, the first of a whole new order, which is physical as well as spiritual." Of course, Bater adds, "the critics are scandalized and bitterly opposed to the Jesus Seminar because the findings have been very embarrassing for them."

Since 1963, Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor has scoured the dusty archeological sites of the Holy Land, putting together a fresh picture of Jesus - a man who may be, he says, harder for a Christian to accept, but ultimately more rewarding. Nonetheless, it allows the Irish-born priest to maintain his faith as well as his academic integrity. A professor of the New Testament in Jerusalem, Murphy-O'Connor paints a vivid picture of Jesus as the youngest in a large family, with four stepbrothers and two stepsisters. In looking at Jesus as the person, he believes there is a valuable message for Christians. "We see Jesus having these struggles, and we realize that everyone goes through self-doubt and anxiety. It's natural."

Theologians and scholars are amazed by the fierce response to Phipps's sentiments, first aired in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen's editorial board on Oct. 23. Says Bater, a retired United Church minister: "Many previous moderators and many in my profession have said similar things for decades." Michael Steinhauser, professor of New Testament studies at the Toronto School of Theology, agrees. "The virgin birth and the Resurrection are theological beliefs expressed in narrative form," states the Roman Catholic, also a member of the Jesus Seminar. No scripture scholar, he says, would say they are accurate accounts of what happened. As Phipps told Maclean's: "The body dying and coming back and walking around the earth and then ascending into heaven in a three-storey universe - if I have to put the Resurrection in those terms it loses its power because it's not credible to me."

Phipps thinks his father, Reginald, a chartered accountant who worked at Eaton's in Toronto, would not have approved of his liberal stance. "My father was conservative, politically, theologically, morally, behaviorally, every way - and a very solid United Church member." Still, he adds, his father respected others' beliefs. Phipps, born in Toronto on May 4, 1942, took a left turn - in politics and religion - as a university student. His work with inner-city children in Toronto, Brooklyn and Chicago in the 1960s, says the moderator, changed his perspective. "Seeing poor living conditions in two of the most affluent countries," he recalls, "made the scriptures come alive."

After attending Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School, Phipps enrolled in a Chicago theological college. There, his work for famed community activist Saul Alinski, and marches with Martin Luther King Jr., inflamed his passion for social justice. He returned to Toronto in 1968, a year before his ordination and continued his community work while articling for his law degree. His first marriage dissolved in 1987. Within a few years of marriage to Carolyn Pogue, a freelance writer, in 1990, two of her three children died. To deal with their personal grief, the couple created a unique service for members of the congregation who, like them, felt too sad to celebrate. They call it "The Hard to Be Merry Christmas."

At the heart of Phipps's faith is the conviction that "public policy discussions are missing a moral core." As he told his congregation in late November: "The way of Jesus has everything to do with the Kyoto summit on global warming, on dealing with child hunger, on helping the homeless." Outside, on the church steps, members of the congregation rallied around the popular minister. "I might be a little more traditional," says Ken Hodgert, 69. "But I'm very happy with what he's doing for our church. Rev. Phipps has woken people from their comfortable pews." Since his arrival, Phipps has started a weekly Wednesday morning communion, instituted a noon-hour downtown Bible study every second week, and spearheaded a food hamper program for poor kids in the city. "Everybody loves Bill," says Ralph Garrett, 52. "He's stimulated our spiritual lives." The longtime churchgoer believes that there is little point in contemplating such mysteries of faith as divinity of Christ, the Resurrection and the existence of heaven and hell. "The answers are unknowable, so why waste our energy?" he adds. "Instead, we should put our energy into making this a better world."

Still, Phipps's remarks have hit a nerve. The strong reaction does not surprise University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby. In a poll, he asked Canadians if they believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ. About seven in 10 - and more than eight in 10 active United Church members - said they did. Hundreds of letters, faxes and phone calls poured into the United Church's head office in Toronto over the past several weeks. Many, like Duncan Shearer, a staunch member of Ottawa's Westboro United Church, thought the moderator's comments were heretical. "The bodily resurrection is crucial to our belief," says the retired research scientist. "If Jesus was not raised from the dead, we're just wasting our time following the Christian faith." Ariel O'Neil, 72, a member of Phipps's congregation, says that many in Scarboro United are distressed by Phipps's comments, but are reluctant to say anything. "He's a very warm, caring and charismatic person," says O'Neil. "It just seems that the liberal theologians are taking over. I'm really upset because the church is not being true to its origins."

John Trueman, president of Community of Concern, a conservative organization founded within the church during the controversy over homosexual ordination in 1989, agrees that many members of the church are dissatisfied. He reports that the church has lost more than 150,000 members since the ordination controversy began. "We are the fastest-shrinking Protestant denomination in Canada," says Trueman. "I think Bill Phipps is quite out of line with the majority of members and the historic faith of the church. This very radical view of theology is the same one that is taught in our colleges. Bibby's survey showed that only 24 per cent of the faculty of our theological colleges believe that Jesus is Savior and Lord."

But many ministers strongly disagree with the moderator's stance. "I hope Phipps will do what Jimmy Bakker did and write a book entitled I Was Wrong," says Rev. Graham Scott, a minister in Wainfleet, Ont., and president of Church Alive, an orthodox United Church theological association. "My only question now is, 'Why, if Jesus is not God, should we pay any attention to him?' " Many who disapprove are reluctant to openly criticize Phipps. "We try to be as inclusive as possible," says Rev. James Crighton, pastor of Ottawa's Westboro United. "Nobody wants to see a witch-hunt. The Christian thing to do would be to pray for his conversion."

But in late November, the executive of the general council, the governing body of the United Church, voted to support Phipps's right to express his beliefs. "Our strength is our diversity and the freedom that we give people," says Peter Wyatt, general secretary for theology, faith and ecumenism. "But the shadow side of that is that people wonder whether there are any boundaries? In point of fact, we have doctrinal standards. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of the faithful. But we don't use those doctrinal standards to exclude people."

Some believe that the perceived differences between the two factions are simply a result of the failure of language to express the mystery of an ultimately unknowable God. "When we say Jesus is God, what are we saying?" asks Bater. "We don't know what God is. The New Testament uses all kinds of images - Jesus is the good shepherd, the door, the way, the truth and the light, the vine - we can't escape metaphor. There is a huge problem of language behind all of this." But John Stackhouse, a religion professor at the University of Manitoba, argues that it is too facile to dismiss the debate as a verbal misunderstanding. "Many biblical scholars with equally strong credentials to Mr. Phipps's teachers starkly defend orthodoxy," he says. "They see no reason to set it aside in light of cutting-edge scholarship in the late 20th century." Some, including the United Church's Bandy are more concerned about the priorities implied by Phipps's emphasis on social activism. "The image of a utopian Christ, Jesus on the picket line, helping us to lobby for a perfectly just Canadian society is not enough to satisfy spiritual yearning," says Bandy. "People are beginning to realize that looking at Jesus in that way is a camouflage for a mere ideology. That is not enough to make Jesus relevant."

Loud, hearty laughter rings across the telephone line. "It strikes me as a joke," says Mother Tessa Bieliecki. "To say that Jesus is not God is so far removed from my experience as to be incredible." The Carmelite nun is a co-founder of Nova Nada, an isolated spiritual retreat centre in Kemptville, N.S., whose community is dedicated to reviving the 1,500-year-old Christian contemplative tradition of prayer and meditation. "A lot of retreatants who come to Nova Nada," she reports, "are United Church ministers who come for the contemplative experience of Jesus as the Christ - as God." Mother Tessa says she has a remedy for Christians agonizing about Jesus' divinity: stop theorizing. "Why do people go east? Why do people want to learn meditation from a guru?" she demands. "Because most people's experience of religion is sterile dogmatism, empty ritualism and rigid moralism - so they drop it. Who wouldn't?" The mystics, says Mother Tessa, describe their experience of Jesus "in terms of light, fire, wine, tears, intoxication, even a kind of madness and, of course, love" - not cold intellectual abstractions. "This ancient figure who lived and died two thousand years ago is as alive and present to you and me today as he was to those in his own time and his own place," says the 53-year-old nun. "All you have to do is, as Jesus says in the Gospel, go into your room - he means the inner room of your heart - and be still and look for him."

Phipps, Word for Word

The Rev. Bill Phipps, moderator of the United Church of Canada, ignited a national debate recently, when he expressed his views on the nature of Jesus, his Resurrection and the afterlife. Last week, Phipps expanded on his views for Maclean's. Some excerpts:

On Jesus:

I believe that God is more than Jesus. God is huge, mysterious, wholly beyond our comprehension and beyond our total understanding. Jesus therefore does not represent or embody all of God, but embodies as much of God as can be in a person. But to me that does not diminish the divine that Jesus embodies. I can say the traditional formulations very easily - Jesus is the son of God, the word made flesh, God Incarnate. Jesus is unique and special and the Christian makes the leap of faith that such divine revelation has not happened in this way in any other place, in any other historical figure.

On the Resurrection:

The Resurrection is mysterious and powerful and if you try and reduce it to some provable event, you lose its power. There's no question that Jesus' followers were turned from people who were afraid, bewildered and defeated into people willing to risk their lives. That is more than just an interesting dream or vision or hallucination. They believed with all their being that Jesus was alive and with them and energizing them to carry forward his ministry. Something very real happened to those people and it has been giving power to the Christian community ever since. But the body that he was crucified with - dying and coming back and walking around the earth and then ascending into heaven in a three-storey universe - that doesn't make sense. If I have to put it in those terms, it loses its power because it's not credible to me.

But that doesn't mean that I don't believe in the Resurrection. The power of the Resurrection is the belief and the transforming energy that calls us into the world to follow Jesus who, we say, gives life over death. Jesus did not want us to make a confession of faith so that we would follow him into heaven somewhere. His call was always into the world, to feed the hungry, free the captives, shelter the homeless and on and on.

On heaven and hell:

In terms of an afterlife, heaven and hell are part of the three-storey universe in which we no longer believe. I really do think that heaven and hell is what we create on earth. I'm content to say that the loved ones in my life who have died are safe with God. I believe the human spirit continues after death in some way or other. But I don't need to have a picture or any particular idea of it.

On the meaning of Christmas:

I can celebrate Christmas as joyfully and vigorously and with as much wonder as the most awestruck five-year-old or 80-year-old. All the biblical stories surrounding the birth of Jesus evoke wonder and awe and majesty. But as soon as you want to reduce them to literal fact, they lose their power.

Maclean's December 15, 1997