In Jay Parini’s new book, Jesus, the Human Face of God, he retells the story of Jesus, interpreting it as both a literal story and a mythos: A universal map that offers a way to understand the meaning of life and death. This might sound like a daunting read, but it isn’t. Jesus comes alive, as a human being, and as you read about his final days, it’s a moving, vivid and emotionally powerful account of his willingness to fulfill his destiny at all costs. Parini sums up his purpose in the book: “The message of God’s love in operation in the world trumps everything…(and is) the social basis for true spiritual enlightenment.” It’s a subtle book, full of theological and literary scholarship: He quotes Paul Tillich and T.S. Eliot both. Yet it’s unpretentious, readable and emotionally rich.
What I found most riveting, though, is the way he focuses on the Sermon on the Mount as the heart of the New Testament’s moral teaching. This brief section of the New Testament is a radical challenge to how most people compromise their sense of spiritual purpose with the requirements of daily life. The Beatitudes call everything we take for granted into question, and challenge the listener to rethink all assumptions about how to live from day to day. In a sense, Jesus dares his listener to try and become completely selfless — do this first, and everything else follows. And what follows may not be terribly consistent with most assumptions we have about life in the contemporary world. What’s being urged isn’t simply to do good things, though that’s a step along the way, but to become utterly without self-interest — forgetful of almost everything that seems essential for one’s survival in the world. This is really what Jesus advocates. It sounds, at first, like a blueprint for becoming a wimp, until you reflect on how incredibly difficult it is to do what he’s saying. Dare to be meek and mild and you will inherit the planet. Be poor, and you will find the kingdom of heaven. If you are persecuted for staying faithful to the truth, you will be blessed, no matter what happens to you. Don’t resist when you are attacked. If someone steals your coat, give him your car keys. If you mourn, consider it a blessing. Forgive everyone for everything and love your enemies. You think you are good if you haven’t killed anyone? Being angry at someone is spiritually equivalent to murder. You haven’t committed adultery? If you’ve lusted after someone, that’s just as bad. (The Jimmy Carter clause.) This is all, quite literally, what Jesus says. It’s astonishing and completely opposed to how the people normally, naturally behave. Essentially, he’s daring his listeners to become a new type of human being governed by love rather than selfish motivation.
From the perspective of daily life, these commandments seem to threaten everything that holds the world together. Parini calls it a “radical incendiary ministry.” Parini finds ways of interpreting these injunctions that make them seem slightly less impossible to achieve, yet at the core of them all is the exhortation to disregard oneself so absolutely that you awaken to a higher moral order based on this loss of self. Quit worrying about your own survival and base your life on something far more beautiful and joyful and difficult: Be compassionate to everyone. To achieve this requires a larger mind, and a larger awareness of how all people deserve care, even the worst and most despised.
Earlier in the book, Parini points out that the word metanoia, used fifty-eight times in the New Testament, was mistranslated early on in the history of Christianity as “repentance.” It means “to reach beyond the mind,” in order to activate a larger mind, and a more inclusive scale of awareness. In other words, to escape the narrow confines of self-interest and identify with anyone you encounter, without thinking of how you will personally gain or lose in the encounter. As Parini phrases it: “It implies…a wish to have a wider spiritual awareness. Have a true change of heart and wake up to God.” Do that and the opportunity to do good becomes your only pursuit: Personal gain, success, pleasures — all the things the world most values lose their power to govern your behavior. In this sense, Christianity isn’t about proscribed ritual, but about personal transformation.
So here I sit, an evolutionarily flawed human being. Parini’s book asks me to look again at Christ’s suggestion that we can be the same as he is. I can see that I’m not there yet, but I’m not depressed — what’s being asked of me is a journey. What might seem an impossible goal is, in fact, motivating. So I’m willing to wake up tomorrow morning and the mornings after to find my footing, to march unsteadily on that path, on that journey that will take many life times beyond mine to get there. But my leg in this relay really matters. I simply must do better tomorrow if any of us is to become the human face of God. No matter how imperfect, my actions matter and so do yours.