Today’s question comes from Stevie. She wrote: “My daughter asked this question in a theology class at her Jesuit college. (paraphrased, of course.) ‘Buddha is not considered to be divine. People who follow his teachings are called Buddhists. If I follow the teachings of Jesus, yet don’t believe he is the son of God, am I a Christian?’ The answer was ‘no’. So my question is this: In a progressive religion, members say they “follow” Jesus. You don’t hear the words “worship Jesus” very often. Is it the belief, then, that Jesus was not divine? Or all we all divine because our souls don’t die? Or is that one of the beliefs that vary among the folks in the community?”
It’s no wonder so many people wrestle with the question of who Jesus (“Is he Divine or human?”) because even the sacred writings of our Christian faith provide different understandings of the question. The Gospel of John, for instance, includes several “I am” statements (i.e. John 14:6 – “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”) that suggest for some that Jesus’ nature was primarily divine. Other passages, (i.e. Luke 18:19 and Mark 10:18 – basically “Why do you call me good? Only God is good”) suggest a different understanding of Jesus: one in which Jesus is separate from – or other than – Divine. As you alluded to, there is even a stream of Christian theology that goes back to the Gnostics which suggests each and every human being contains a “spark of the divine”. If you want to find material pertaining to the question: “Was Jesus Divine or human?” there are many resources on the Internet – including this from Beliefnet.
I know that some individuals are tortured by these differences and feel compelled to try to resolve those differences. Such folks often belong to creedal traditions that teach the only way to have Christian faith is to assert a specific answer that has been approved by “the church” through one (or more) of the historic Church Councils. Others, however, do not feel compelled to neatly resolve the difference. They can live into the tension between these understandings and use them as a wonderful opportunities to spark spiritual growth through open (and safe!) conversations.
All of that is to say I believe an individual who relates to Jesus primarily through the lens of his humanity can be a Christian.
Before I move in to the heart of your question regarding “worship” language, I should make one point about my understanding of creedal vs. non-creedal traditions. Some folks define creedal traditions very narrowly. They define creedal traditions are those that require a person to assent to one of the historic Christian creeds (such as the Apostles or Nicene creeds). That is the accepted definition of creedal.
I define creedal a bit differently. I define it as someone who has a rigid theological agenda that they require others to hold in order for them to be considered “good” or “faithful”. I, for instance, have met many of what I would call creedal Progressives who demand that others think like them (i.e. reject a belief in a resurrection or demand only an allegorical reading of Scripture, etc.). Their rigidity and absolute certainty that their position – and their position alone – is the only correct position is what makes me call such folks “creedal”.
Now, on to the question about “worship” language.
As you have correctly noted, many Progressives such as myself do not use “worship Jesus” language. They use “worship God” language instead.
The easiest way to explain this is by saying that not all Christians ascribe to a Trinitarian belief of God. Trinitarian belief is reflected in the phrase: “God in three persons” – meaning God is present in three forms. To use traditional language, God exists as Creator (or Father); as Redeemer (Son); and as Sustainer (Holy Spirit).
Some Christians believe such language flirts dangerously close to being polytheistic (expressing a belief in not just one God but multiple Gods). To stress a belief in the essential unity in the Oneness of God, such folks use “worship God” language. They are often referred to as Unitarians.
So why do I use “worship God” language in service?
While my own personal theology has been strongly shaped and formed by a Trinitarian tradition, I feel called to use language in Sunday service that captures what all Christians – Trinitarians AND Unitarians alike – can embrace and affirm during their time in community.
I hope some of what I offered today helped.
So what about you? What is your take on all of this?
Don’t forget to keep the GREAT questions coming that spark our conversations!