The Irrational Logic of Christ

The Sermon on the MountCarl Bloch, 1890Christians don’t usually act like Christ.

In one sense, this should be expected. Christian theology has Jesus Christ being fully man and fully God.  Not everything he said and did would be appropriate (or possible) for a mere mortal to imitate. In another sense, however, Christians should be expected to act like Christ. According to orthodox theology, Jesus revealed both something of the nature of God and something of the nature of humankind. Jesus showed what it means to be human. It stands to reason, then, that the followers of Christ would strive to follow his example.

What is that example? If there’s an overarching theme to Christ’s ministry and passion, a logic that it follows, I would say it’s total, unconditional self-emptying or self-giving. Theologians call this kenosis, a word initially used to describe the humility of God becoming man (Phil 2:6), but since used also in reference to his complete obedience and service to the Father, his willingness to give his life for the expiation of sins, and his absolute, unconditional gift of self for the good of creation. According to the gospels, Jesus followed the logic of preservation as well–e.g. working a job, attending a wedding, eating food–but these acts were all done for the sake of his ministry. Jesus followed the logic of preservation so that he could better follow the logic of self-emptying.

Should total, unconditional self-emptying also be the logic of the Christian life?  In his preaching, Jesus implied that it should. Following him meant selling everything you had and giving it to the poor. To be his disciple, you had to hate your family and even your own life.  The early disciples took him at his word. Many were martyred, offering their lives as a witness to those who killed them. They gave everything to help build the Kingdom of God, and the Church celebrates them for their sacrifice. They gave all despite the dangers to themselves and those under their care. They believed bringing souls into the Kingdom was more important than their physical lives. Spreading the gospel deserved their full devotion.

Interestingly, over the course of the Church, this logic of self-emptying is rare among Christians, and not only because Christians try and fail. It’s rare also because it’s not always expected, not even by the Church. Why? Perhaps because this logic isn’t rational.  Not if the logic of preservation, built into our nature, rules. Not in comparison to the logic of prosperity built into our culture. It doesn’t work. You can’t build a social order on total self-emptying, not one we’d recognize anyway. Our species seeks to perpetuate itself. Our social arrangements do as well.  For the “world,” so to speak, the logic of preservation largely reigns.

This goes for Christians as well.  As they work to live long and prosper, Christians might also work a spirit of kenosis into their lives, but it’s not the primary ethos that governs all that they do.  They must give something to the good of others, but not everything.  In some cases, denominations even permit the faithful to act against the good of others when one’s own good or the common good necessitates it. Traditionally, Christians can kill justly under certain conditions.They can destroy others, rationally and licitly. Christ chose self-emptying over self-preservation, but his followers, by and large, don’t have to be as radical or irrational.

I’m certainly not. The entries on my Google calendar do not give witness to a life lived in service to others. I don’t even try, as a Christian, to live ultimately according to the logic of kenosis. This is sort of odd because it’s precisely this logic that most attracts me to the Christian life.

The rare Christian is as radically irrational as Christ. The church honors them for this, but why?  Because these souls successfully lived the Christian life? Or because they successfully went above and beyond it?

Kyle Cupp is an author and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook,and his personal website.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

38 thoughts on “The Irrational Logic of Christ

  1. Interesting analysis. I see a couple of problems with this issue.

    The first is the question of who Jesus was and what he actually preached. Each of the four canonical gospels lays out a different picture of Jesus, attuned to the needs of the writer and the audience he was addressing. The history of Christianity is filled with attempts to create a coherent ideology out of different portrayals of a man whose followers came away with many different interpretations of his message. These attempts have even included changing the texts of the gospels themselves to make them seem more in step with one another. In the modern era, it has often meant grafting a veneer of Jesus onto one’s preexisting beliefs and calling that Christian.

    There’s also the difference between being a loosely-organized, underground minority faith and a dominant institution in society. When Christianity was young movement threatened by the Roman state, living the commitment to community and service had a real impact on the ability of a group to sustain itself. Early Christianity was also an apocalyptic movement, so followers had an imminent event to prepare for and look forward to. Once it became an institution, the Church (really, churches), became more focused on self-preservation and self-propagation, as all institutions do. The urgency of the apocalypse receded and the character of the church became less radical.

    Report

  2. It seems to me that the good follower of Christ ought to be as mindful as possible of what the Christ-like thing to do might be in difficult circumstances. If the Christ-like thing isn’t really what ought to be done at that juncture, the person should have enough of an understanding of their earthly relationship with Christ’s teachings that they will feel, if not guilt-free, at least justified.

    Going through life only thinking of others’ needs in the context of how those needs compete with ones’ own is miserable. Contemplating the example of Christ (as well as other examples, like the Buddha) can lift us out of misery even when we aren’t Christ-like.

    Report

    • I guess my question is, how do you determine what’s Christ-like and what happens when someone else’s interpretation of Christ-like disagrees with yours?

      Without any surviving records from Jesus’s lifetime, it seems hard to know for sure. I think part of the problem is that a lot of modern Christians believe the the gospels to be historical/biographical documents, when they’re actually something very different. And then, there are Paul’s additions and changes.

      Report

  3. I agree with your take on what it means to live a Christ-like like. I’d moderate your claim to say Christians should at least give evidence of trying to live like Christ. However, that the proportion who actually do seems indistinguishable from the proportion of unbelievers who give evidence of trying to live that way seems to me to indicate something about the actual power of Christianity, which in turn seems to indicate something about the actual power, or even actual presence, of God.

    Report

    • I’m curious about what the “something” is that that all indicates. If I read you right, I think, say, the unbeliever acting in a “Christ-like” way can be taken to mean the following: 1) there is no unique “Christ-likeness” to which Christianity can lay claim, or i.e., Christianity cannot claim to be “the one true faith”; 2) God does not exist and the “self-emptying” behavior is indicative of something good in human nature, or perhaps a social component to our being that has evolved to meet the challenges of our environment; 3) the unbelievers who act in a “Christ-like” way are actually Christians without knowing it, in the way that C. S. Lewis once claimed (I think in Mere Christianity) that it could be possible people are saved through Christ without knowing that it’s through Christ they are saved.

      As an agnostic who leans to theism, I prefer the first reading myself.

      Report

  4. Should the total, unconditional self-emptying exemplified by Christ be the logic of the Christian life?

    I think it’s the opposite, actually – an anti-logic or perhaps an anti-dote to logic. I’m not a Christian (so I reject the idea that Jesus is literally the son of God, that he died for my sins, that accepting him as my savior is part of attaining the Kingdom of Heaven, etc) so by my lights his “message” exemplified by his life and words is to live in the present free from attachments and reactions and liberated from externally imposed and internalized conceptions of right actions. Being in that state *is* the Kingdom of heaven.

    Report

    • So Kingdom of Heaven = Nirvana/Moksha?

      It would be awfully convenient for my own beliefs if reinterpretations of other religious traditions recast them in ways that make them look more similar to my own, but I don’t know whether it is fair to those traditions.

      Report

      • There’s a school of thought that Jesus was directly influenced by the mysticism of one or another eastern religion. Though the experiences of mystics across most religions tend to rhyme anyway, so perhaps that’s all it is.

        Report

      • kenB,

        Yeah, that’s right. There’s a bunch of ways to understand Jesus: comparative mystical accounts which focus on the content of his words; via comparative mythological accounts; historical/political accounts from Judea at the time he lived; historical accounts of the creation and evolution of The Church thru the years.

        He (the actual dude) was obviously an important historical figure who possessed wide ranging influence. Figuring out why that is, and on what grounds that influence is/was based, is a pretty interesting issue in its own right even for someone who rejects the standard Christian account why that’s the case.

        Report

      • I should add that there are other accounts, too, in addition to the ones mentioned above – anthropological, biological, evolutionary, psychological (especially Freudian), etc etc. – the least likely of which is the account offered by The Church.

        Report

  5. I am not convinced that the spirit of kenosis is the only or even most legitimate expression of Christian life. Or at least, not in the way most commonly thought.

    The template of total self-emptying is only appropriate for a small number of lives- those who are called to such a life, like John the Baptist.

    But consider another example, that of St. Joseph. Or, just Joseph of Nazareth, which is how he was known and how he probably referred to himself.

    His life wasn’t marked by any extraordinary self-emptying. He likely gave generously to charity, but devoted most of his resources to protecting his family.

    I think we often read the Gospels and allow ourselves to become distracted by the power and intensity of the priestly life, with all its allure of transformative experience.

    Yet what if our calling is a life of patient toil and humble devotions? Acts less script-worthy than eating locusts, more prosaic things like paying bills and husbanding family resources?

    In its own way, this is a radical self-emptying more powerful than any other. It is a marathon self-emptying rather than a sprint, one that recognizes the need for periodic breaks in the fast, to be replenished and fed.

    Report

  6. I was raised Catholic. I recall when I was about 10 or 12 my mother giving me a copy of “The Imitation of Christ,” which I took as a hint as to how I should live my life. So I read it. I don’t remember much about it except that it urged just this kenosis. And my unspoken reaction: “Are you serious?!” My relationship with the Catholic faith only got worse after that, but it was probably inevitable.

    Report

    • No, not kenosis, altruism. Capital A Altruism. It took me another decade to read Rand’s analysis of how useful such a moral code is for purposes of social control. Surprised the word did not come up yet in this thread. Were you trolling for it?

      Report

      • A century or so before Jesus, Rabbi Hillel said it this way:

        If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what then am I?

        That is, there’s a tension between selfishness and altruism, and virtue lies in between the impossible standard of saintliness and the sociopathy of Objectivism.

        Report

      • Mike – “Sociopathy” isn’t appropriate. Had you claimed Objectivism jettisons empathy in favor of other traits, I would not argue. But Objectivism does not condone gains achieved through fraud and the initiation of force, activities which your average sociopath would have no qualms about engaging in. “Callousness,” okay. But not “sociopathy.”

        Report

      • Wikipeida says:

        Psychopathy (or sociopathy) is traditionally defined as a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior.

        That’s Howard Roark to a tee. I’m not saying that the average person who considers himself an Objectivist acts like that, but it’s the behavior that its sacred texts model.

        Report

      • Fair enough as far as you got, but keep reading. Poor impulse control including problems with planning and foresight, lacking affect and urge control, demand for immediate gratification, and poor behavioral restraints…. use of cruelty to gain empowerment, exploitative tendencies… and destructive excitement seeking. A cluster of traits we usually associate with the label which clearly do not apply.

        Report

      • Actually, I think that blowing up a building covers a lot of those. Not cruel or exploitative, true, unless you think the “rape” was non-consensual. (I don’t, and consider the use of that word Rand trying to be daring and shock people.)

        Report

      • , the problem with the wiki description of sociopathy, and the DSM entry from which it was certainly cribbed, is that the definition was derived by exclusively studying incarcerated criminals. It’s biased in that lack of empathy and poor impulse control are entirely separate traits that only happen to coincide in that particular study population.

        Lack of empathy plus poor impulse control plus low to average intelligence equals street thug. Lack of empathy plus good impulse control plus high intelligence equals CEO of health insurance company setting recission standards to kick people off their plan when they get sick.

        Report

      • Major Zed,
        I went to college. We had an Objectivist Club. I’m pretty sure it was a fraud — that the people there were not there voluntarily or without compensation.

        (we won’t mention the guy who disagreed with special relativity because Objectivism!)

        Report

      • the problem with the wiki description of sociopathy…

        If the definition of “sociopath” actually refers to a *cluster* of traits, and when not all those traits are present, the definition doesn’t actually fit – then the “problem” is in applying the word “sociopathy”, when it’s inapt. Which was @major-zed’s point.

        Let’s accept for argument’s sake that the CEO “lacks empathy” (though of course empathy varies naturally from person to person, and is weighted differently situation to situation, and what you think of as an “empathetic” action or viewpoint may be regarded very differently by someone else).

        If he has good impulse control and intelligence and is not engaging in criminal actions (though of course you are free to disagree with his actions), it’s not “sociopathy”, however much you disagree with him.

        Obama is by all accounts “cool-headed”. He arguably lacked empathy for the bystanders in that Yemeni cafe where al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son (who also had no alleged ties to terrorism) got blown up. Is Obama a “sociopath”?

        One can be a drinker without necessarily being a drunk. One can (arguably) overstep proper and wise boundaries without necessarily being power-mad. One can (arguably) lack empathy in a given situation without necessarily being a sociopath.

        Just as not everyone we disagree with is a fascist, not everyone we disagree with is a sociopath.

        Report

      • Glyph,
        Lieberman is a sociopath. so was Nixon. This is a defined term in spycraft and dark psychology, and is an essential tool in understanding where people put priorities (Bush, otoh, valued loyalty highly, and would NEVER sacrifice underlings– other side of the spectrum). MANY folks are sociopaths (I know one, and debatably have some traits towards that myself).

        Report

      • the problem with the wiki description of sociopathy, and the DSM entry from which it was certainly cribbed, is that the definition was derived by exclusively studying incarcerated criminals.

        This is not true.

        Report

      • Glyph,
        Sociopath is no longer used in the DSM.
        Comparing Antisocial with Borderline is useful, because both come with “poor impulse control”

        http://psychcentral.com/disorders/antisocial-personality-disorder-symptoms/
        http://psychcentral.com/disorders/borderline-personality-disorder-symptoms/

        (I don’t recall anyone studying antisocial personality in the entire psychiatric department, though I hardly knew everyone. I knew several people investigating borderline personality though.)

        Report

      • Glyph,
        when i think of poor impulse control with regards to sociopathy, it’s kinda targeted.
        A friend of mine has had a coworker pull a knife on him, and try to stab him — utterly unprovoked. That sort of poor impulse control.

        Report

      • Sociopathy and psychopathy are hot topics of research these days, though they are not meant to be official personality disorders (rather, personality types), nor are they meant to co-extensive with antisocial personality disorder, which does require a history of criminal behavior.

        Report

  7. I reject the idea that “giving” is somehow “emptying” yourself. It actually fills you up with even more than you had before.

    Report

  8. “Judge Thyself who was right- Thou or he who questioned Thee then? Remember the first question; its meaning, in other words, was this: “Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread- for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.” But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread? Thou didst reply that man lives not by bread alone. But dost Thou know that for the sake of that earthly bread the spirit of the earth will rise up against Thee and will strive with Thee and overcome Thee, and all will follow him, crying, “Who can compare with this beast? He has given us fire from heaven!” Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!” that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee, and with which they will destroy Thy temple. Where Thy temple stood will rise a new building; the terrible tower of Babel will be built again, and though, like the one of old, it will not be finished, yet Thou mightest have prevented that new tower and have cut short the sufferings of men for a thousand years; for they will come back to us after a thousand years of agony with their tower. They will seek us again, hidden underground in the catacombs, for we shall be again persecuted and tortured. They will find us and cry to us, “Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it!” And then we shall finish building their tower, for he finishes the building who feeds them. And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Or dost Thou care only for the tens of thousands of the great and strong, while the millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love Thee, must exist only for the sake of the great and strong? No, we care for the weak too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them- so awful it will seem to them to be free. But we shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name. We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again. That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.”

    You love Jesus because he says he values only spirit and not bread. He gives all his bread away. But you cannot do that because you are human and it is essentially human to want, need, and acquire bread. So you feel shame at yourself and love of the inhuman, the superhuman. Not strong enough for kenosis, so you are bad. You hate yourself, you hate the human, and love the possibility of being greater than human.

    Report

Comments are closed.