The Christ Aporia: his last name is not Christ and he’s not your friend

untamed Jesus

Aporia…confusion is of the devil, but aporia is of the Father -this is the least one can say about a definition of the Christ, a symbol as rich as it is dense, as familiar as it is foreign.

Or one can say it as John Milbank does in his seminal text, The Word Made Strange, “The Name ‘Jesus,’ does not indicate an identifiable ‘character,’ but is rather the obscure and mysterious hinge which permits shifts from one kind of discourse to another” (p149).

Yet Christ is not conceived this way, at least not by church folk.  Christ is not complex; it is (he is?) domesticated, weakened and too cozy to emit the sort of mysterium and holy fear that should accompany the utterance of the aporia Christ.  While we have gained a friend in Jesus Christ, we have lost the “Word made Strange” (to use John Milbank’s quaint phrase), and have forgotten that the very idea with which we become cozy is the very idea that wishes to perplex, challenge and leave us at a loss.  The Word is no longer Strange; it is now all too familiar to the point of catatonic proportions.

Yet, Christ is not an idea with which we should be comfy; it is an idea that should be strange, disquieting and disturbing.  You know the kind of idea that makes guys like Herod kill a bunch of 2 year old’s kind of disturbing.  To invoke the Christ is to invoke a theophany of magnificent magnitude, for the symbol Christ upsets the very metaphysical structures of the world.  It challenges anything that is counter-christ and it challenges our fabrications of order and prescription.  These structures have been shaken to such a degree that the very ordering of the world is not as it seems because of the presence of the Christ.  For Christ to mean anything it is to mean that our familiarity with the world has been inverted and lost.  If we know the place in which we live, than we live not in the place that is occupied by the Christ.  Christ is not normal; it is not routine; it is not profane.  It is abnormal; it is traumatic; it is holy.  These characteristics mean that if the foundations be not shaken and crumbling than Christ is most likely not operative…not anywhere, but especially not operative in our idea of Jesus.  No wonder so many people think Jesus and Christ dead symbols!

This is because Christ is aporia, and aporia negates what we know, even about the much said object to which Christ points: Jesus.  In this case it negates our idea of Jesus precisely because we call Jesus a/the Christ.  The Christ known as Jesus attracted followers not because he was familiar, but because the strangeness of his life left the world around him undone…and only in undoing the world is one able to resurrect it anew.  Perhaps this is why there is no resurrection amongst those most devout…their world is not undone by the perplexity of the Christ known as Jesus.  The Word is no longer strange; it is impotently familiar.

Ironically, the very Christian idea that might now leave us standing confounded and challenged now leaves us with a gain in the eyes of many.  We have lost the strangeness of Christ, but at least we have gained a personal friend in Jesus (I feel like inserting a Teddy Ruxpin Commercial here as an example of carrying Jesus Christ with us everywhere and him even telling us what we want to hear by inserting a new tape in his back).  The Horrible transcendence of God has been sublimated via the incarnation of Jesus…when in fact the opposite should have happened theoretically, and thereby Christ is not a strangeness that leaves us feeling more strange, Christ is now a pillow that makes us feel more at home.  Isn’t it funny how Divine kenosis has such a non-effect on those that profess its dogma?  Putting a leash on Christ has never been so popular and taming the content of this symbol never more rampant!  The very people who say there is power in Christ have helped reduce such power by defining Christ in narrow and restrictive ways, ways that make the leash holder comfortable…not realizing they have just grabbed the whirlwind!

So, unfortunately, for many today Christ is conceived in very personal, up close, familial kinds of ways.  Perplexity, uncertainty and awesomeness is no longer a part of the equation.  Buddy Jesus exists all around us, yet very little thought is given to how the theological construction around the historical Jesus and the symbol of Christ eventually merged together forming a linguistically synonymous relationship.

Jesus is often interpreted through the New Testament as “Christ” but the symbol of Christ is independent Jesus…at least this would have to be the case in order for the early Church to appropriate the symbol “Christ” upon the person Jesus.  Even characters in Gospel stories seem to know a difference between the person of Jesus and the idea of Christ.  Peter proclaims to Jesus “you are the Christ” (note the definite article there).  The Woman at the well in the Gospel of John notes a belief in the Messiah while Jesus and her are talking about her life…and she returns to her village not believing Jesus is the Christ, rather she asks her kin folk, “might he be the Christ?”  Clearly, during the ministry of Jesus it was not evident that he was THE Christ.  He was interpreted to be the Christ after Easter, and this dogma makes its way into the Gospels a generation later, but there is little in the gospels that would lead one to believe that a pre-Easter Christological pattern had even begun to emerge (indeed what would a pre-Easter Gospel even look like???  It most likely would not exist).  This is not a radical Jesus Seminar conclusion, even more conservative Catholic scholars who profess full ideas of the immaculate conception, trinity, etc.,would agree on this point.

Thus, the powerful symbol of Christ has been lost in the sea of Jesus, even becoming nothing more than Jesus’ last name.  Whatever we conceive of Christ, we conceive of Jesus…whose name is in fact Jesus “Christ.”  The confusion of these two terms and the assumption of their linguistic marriage lead me to prefer to talk about Jesus and Christ in Tillichian terms whenever I invoke these names.  Following Tillich, one should note that it is Jesus whom we call the Christ…not Jesus Christ…and it is Jesus that may only be granted such Christological status because his life takes on Christic significance, not because he was born with a last name that identifies who he is as Christ.  Jesus is only Christ because the story of his life is worthy of a designation as Christ.

The reason this parsing of concepts is important is because in understanding the terms separately one may, thereby, begin to actually appreciate any Christological significance bestowed upon Jesus.  When Christ is just an assumption of identity by the historical wonder worker from Nazareth, the loaded concept of Christ is lost amidst our domesticated faith…thereby emptying the Christ of the very power that many folks testify the person of Jesus Christ to represent.  Only by freeing Christ from Jesus can we fully appreciate what it is that is about Jesus that makes him Christ, and therefore, makes him significant.  Thus, if one is to understand Jesus, one must understand that Christ is an aporia (a confusion, a loss, a perplexity at every turn)…only by freeing Christ from our structured comfortable faith might the actual person of Jesus whom we call Christ become a symbol of strangeness that is anything but something that can be overly conceptualized on a rationalistic level and then stuffed into our hearts…our chest being the cozy threshold of a Jesus that is no longer strange enough to change anything…let alone change us. 

3 thoughts on “The Christ Aporia: his last name is not Christ and he’s not your friend

  1. When the message of Jesus no longer “afflicts the comfortable” then we have indeed homogenized and pasteurized the Christ beyond recognition.

    • Pasteurized Jesus…that’s a good way to put it. That which makes Jesus a Christ has been removed in the pasteurization process enacted via a crumbling Christendom

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