At Cross Purposes

Column by Rev. David M. Felten on 21 January 2021 0 Comments

As one who’s had to endure a career in a denomination whose global trademark is a burning cross, it once again raised the question in my mind of how the cross, burning or otherwise, had become a symbol of hate and White Supremacy.

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I have a question about the relationship of Progressive Christianity and Jesus. I have always been told that despite their denominational difference all Christians understand Jesus to be the son of God.  Not a man selected by God, or a special creation of God, but both God and man simultaneously in a way that is absolutely unique. From what I have read and heard Progressives see Jesus as inspirational, a great teacher and someone whose words and example should be followed.  It seems Jesus, here, is more of an inspirational philosopher like Socrates or the Buddha.  Is it fair to say that P.C.’s do not see Jesus as the son of God as it is traditionally understood?


Jay, thanks for this thoughtful question about the term son of God.

Many traditional Christians, I think, connect the term son of God with the virgin birth, as if God sent a divine or spiritual sperm to impregnate Mary, making God Jesus’s father and Jesus God’s son in an almost biological sense. If you want to read an interesting book that tells the story of how this misunderstanding led to conflict between Christians and Muslims, see Miroslav Volf’s Allah: a Christian Response (HarperOne, 2012).

Other traditional Christians frame the term Son of God primarily in Trinitarian theology, with the Son a counterpart/partner with the Father and Spirit.

Some progressive Christians affirm Trinitarian theology as expressed in the historic creeds. Others downplay or modify it, and some reject it. Personally, I find value in progressive re-articulations of Trinitarian thought in the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, and a wide array of relational, process, and feminist theologians who take seriously the patriarchal problems embedded in father/son imagery.

In my writings, I’ve focused on two primary lines of thought. First, I’m interested in the linguistic formulation son of God. The son of formation pops up a few different ways the New Testament. For example, James and John are called Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17). In John 8:39 ff, the terms sons of God, sons of Abraham, and sons of the devil are put in conversation. This usage, I think, resonates with our familiar aphorism, Like father, like son (or like mother, like daughter). There’s a family likeness, a resemblance. In this light, son of God is roughly synonymous with reflecting the character of God.

Luke 20:36 has a similar interplay between children of God and children of the resurrection. Of special interest, a blind Jewish man uses the term son of David (Luke 18, Matthew 20, Mark 10) to refer to Jesus, as does a Gentile/Sidonian woman (Matthew 15). Both seem to be saying, “You are a great leader like King David was,” with son of again bearing the idea of resemblance.

That understanding resonates with John 1:12, where we all have the capacity to become children of God, a theme we see also in 1 John 3:2. It especially makes sense of Matthew 5:9, the beatitude where Jesus says that peacemakers will be called children of God. People who make peace resemble the God of peace.

This idea of resemblance calls to mind an insight from Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood: the scandal of Christianity was not the claim that Jesus resembles God, but rather that God resembles Jesus: nonviolent, kind, merciful, healing, reconciling, inclusive, accepting. In other words, the life and teaching of the Son made us conceive of the Father in a radically new way.

Second, I find great value in Dominic Crossan’s explorations of the political meaning of the term son of God. (God And Empire and Excavating Jesus are good places to start.)  Crossan points to stone inscriptions still visible today that demonstrate that the Caesars were seen as sons of the gods. In this way, to call Jesus the son of God is to say that his authority challenges Caesar’s.

We live in a time of resurgent nationalism, where the state and/or its leader are upheld by many as the absolute authority. To call Jesus Son of God can be, in our context as in the first century, a way of saying that we do not hold any human regime to be absolute. We believe there is a higher power, a higher authority, a higher wisdom, that relativizes any nation, any leader, any ideology, even any religion. We dare to believe that the love manifest in Jesus reflects the authentic nature or character of the Ultimate Reality, which makes Jesus a great teacher, an inspirational philosopher, and someone whose words and example should be followed indeed.

~ Brian D. McLaren




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