Jesus is important to my thinking and theology as a figure who provides me with inspiration and example but I do not think it is possible for me to believe that Jesus was a divine figure. I do not see him as the central figure around whom the fate of humanity is decided any more or less than a hundred other historical figures who populate my imagination. As I've read history, I've seen that his words of peace and love are neither unique nor original to him. He was a product of his community, his religion, and his circumstances. I am thankful for that confluence of influences that so magnified his beautiful message but that does not make him alone a Son of God. I am unimpressed with biblical "evidence" that he was uniquely divine. It is hard to take seriously documents that were written with the sole intention of proclaiming his divinity. We really don't know anything about him outside of what the gospel and epistle writers choose to tell us. Due to the various literary natures of the gospels and epistles that record the first and second generations' attitudes about him, we are not privy to information that people of our own generation might wish to ask. Outside historical and archaeological sources are limited in the extreme. Indeed, there is almost no historically credible biographical information about him at all. What we have about his birth and life outside his ministry is clearly apocryphal at best...and I'm being generous. What the gospels and epistles prove to me is that there were communities of people who believed in his divinity and that their belief was profound and life-altering. It does not tell me what Jesus felt about himself. It does not prove his divinity.
I'm also not keen on the notion of assigning divinity to other human beings regardless of how many profound lessons they have offered humanity. In my research in feminist theory and history, I've seen the deification process approached in figures like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King. Every year, there's a new batch of literature glorifying these folks. Within their own lifetimes, the process of deification was already underway. Why? I think it is partially a natural reaction to thanks for their accomplishments and grief for their loss. I think it also has a great deal to do with political expediency. The glorification of the individuals most closely associated with an unpopular or struggling cause has been an effective means of promotion for said cause. The unfortunate side effect is that the darker, more complicated, and more radical elements of the deified individual's work and personality are usually downplayed or intentionally obscured to maintain the popular image of special (and politically tolerable) human value. No one wants to hear that Dr. King was a sexist or that Susan B. Anthony undermined the work of more radical feminists. No one wants to know about their temper tantrums, their grandstanding, their inability to acknowledge or make good use of the talents of others.
Think how carefully one must tread today when speaking of either of these Americans who have been dead for a mere handful of generations. I have been attacked by people who did not care to hear me speak one critical word about these individuals. Although my criticisms grow out research dedicated to social justice for women and people of color, I am perceived as a danger to the integrity and strength of black history and women's history by certain members of my audience who believe that any criticism of their heroes profanes the cause. But these folks, however famous, were not perfect. In fact, like all people everywhere, they could be sorrowfully flawed.
On one occasion when I was giving a speech about Matilda Joslyn Gage (whose history and contributions were willfully undermined by Susan B. Anthony), I included uncomplimentary historical facts about Anthony that were pertinent to my presentation. A woman stood up and chastised me for including this information. Even in her life, Susan B. was known as "Saint Susan" and boy, oh boy, some people won't let me forget it. Following the presentation, the woman sought me out again and, after first indicating that she didn't know much about history, said that it was a shame that people like me were spreading such "lies". It was as if she feared that the entire suffrage movement would fall apart if dear Susan turned out to be merely human after all. (Imagine if I'd told a group of people that I think Jesus probably had sex!)
One sees the same reactions at work with Dr. King. Very little effort is put toward understanding how his belief that women were inferior to men undermined the work of his female co-workers such as Ella Baker who was, arguably, at least as important to the Civil Rights movement as Dr. King himself. One hears little about the role that male clergy played in stymieing the work and obscuring the accomplishments of African American women. Sure, within academic circles, such things are open to discussion but what would happen if such a thing were to be expressed in a popular forum? With so many outwardly racist Americans still resentful that we have a Martin Luther King Day, is it wise to criticize him too loudly? I think that may be the fear at work in the case of these American figures who are currently undergoing a process of near-deification in popular sentiment. It irritates me because it ignores the truth and the truth, however ugly, is better than a pretty lie.
I also call for disciplined study rather than deification because such shallow and romanticized views of our leaders undermines their humanity. Not only their flaws but their radicalism, their relationships, and their fears become lost to us. When we sanitize them, we lose much of the blood, grit, and passion that made them worthy of acclaim in the first place. "I could never be like one of the suffragists," say my women's history students sadly. "They were different. They were braver than we can be."
I've read too many letters and journals of these "superhuman" women to believe that. I happen to know that they were scared to death, overwhelmed, overworked, bitter, angry, frustrated, selfish, self-glorifying, self-loathing, insecure, scattered, ordinary, tired-to-the-bone human beings. They weren't angels. They were human. And that's OK! What good does it do to glorify a saint? Sigh in enraptured admiration all day long and it won't accomplish a thing. But what if you were to emulate the hard work of another human being who you know to be imperfect...just like you? They made terrible mistakes and kept going. So can you. They suffered shame and loss and kept going. So can you. They were defeated again and again and suffered moments of faithless despair then kept on going. So can you! Angels don't make footprints for us to follow. People do.
So I don't believe in making gods of men and women. I'd rather shine a light on their failings as well as their feats. Don't ask me to rhapsodize over any historical figure no matter how glorious their reputation. When people get all glassy-eyed and reverent, I'll just roll my eyes. So if my job is to go knocking heroes off of pedestals, what do I think about divinity itself? Don't I have any faith that there are certain people who are especially chosen and in whom dwells a fierceness of Spirit that leads humanity forward out of the darkness?
Well, I do. Sort of.
I believe all of us are that person in the right circumstances. I'm no especial fan of Dr. King or Susan B. Anthony but I celebrate their good work. In fact, I'm thankful for it whatever flaws I find in their histories. I think both were occasionally and disappointingly self-serving but I know they also served the Good. If I deny any attempts to deify these "larger-than-life" characters, I do not deny that there is an intersection between their work and divinity. Their communities created them and used them. Were they also used by the divine Source? I think they were. I think we are used in spite of ourselves and I think Jesus must have been as well even when he didn't want to be. ("Take this cup away from me" and all that jazz.)
But I also think that it is a mistake to view any of us as having any uniquely salvific qualities. We do not exist outside of the context of our histories and communities. King did not work alone but was upheld, celebrated, taught, and magnified by his community, a community that was already in engaged in the intellectual, legal, and social struggle for justice long before King was a twinkle in his (also impressive)daddy's eyes. Susan B. Anthony didn't invent suffrage. She was a product of her Quaker upbringing and education and her immersion in a community of suffragists who taught her the ropes of the movement, wrote her speeches, and sustained her efforts. Likewise, Jesus a product of his community who for thousands of years developed the ethical and spiritual richness of Judaism. They raised him up, called his personality into being, taught him from childhood, supported his ministry, then magnified his work. He was not dropped into human history out of the sky. He was one of us. Nothing more and nothing less. And you know what? It was enough.