The Word Encountered
Lording It over the Rest
“But it shall not be so among you.” (Mk 10:43)
Most of us have heard of the contrast between “Christology from below” and “Christology from above.” This opposition sneaks into most theological discussions, whether they are about dogma, scripture, morality, mission, or salvation.
Most of us are not theologians, but we can still sense what it is all about. The “above” emphasizes the divinity of Christ, the transcendent; the “below” emphasizes the full humanity of the Jesus of history.
Christology from above is the “old” way of thinking. It presumes that God, from above, enters history in Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh. Its strongest insights support our intuitive recognition of human inadequacy. It demands an admission that we are not enough. It calls for intervention and assistance from a reality beyond our own.
In its deficits, Christology from above so fixes on the divinity of Jesus that he looks like some kind of organic automaton, manipulated by a divine nature that knows everything in advance and feels nothing in actuality. All is fixed, tidy, and predicted. All is planned, neat, and efficient. Jesus is so utterly different from us, so remote and unapproachable, that we imagine him moved to compassion only by the pleading of his mother.
An equally oversimplified version of Christology from below stresses his humanity so much that you start wondering about that divinity stuff—whether Jesus pre-existed as the Word, whether he did miracles, whether he was raised from the dead, among other things.
It is easy for us to foul it all up, especially since we have big problems with notions of “from above” and “from below.” Those who are above are the top dogs. They call the shots. They lord it over the rest of us. They pull the strings. When we feel below, we tend to resent those above. Or wish we could get to their status. Then we could dominate. Then we could control things.
Most of our notions of authority are rooted in this supposition. Those who have it, lord it. They take the first place. They put us in our place. Those who do not have authority easily resent it or hunger for it. (If only we could call the shots.)
There seems to be a strong tendency, consequently, to resist the authoritative aura of Jesus—although almost everyone who encountered him acknowledged his authority in word and deed. If we have nagging suspicions about “above-ness,” we may insist on a Jesus from below. Little that we are, it is not pleasant to imagine anything greater than us. We love the below—as long as it can aspire to greatness and power. Even Jesus could make it as a self-made man.
Paradoxically, Jesus was very unlike us—both in his above-ness and his identity with our lowliness. Not only is he unlike us in being God, he is unlike us in being human. After all, we tend not to be very good at being humans, much less gods.
We construe our humanity in terms of mighty aspirations. But the human Jesus aspired to smallness. Oddly, even his divinity sought to be emptied out.
The Letter to the Hebrews reaches for this paradox. We have a “great” “high” priest. But he was strangely compassionate, fragile, and subject to the very trials we abhor. Isaiah warned of the fact. This savior would be afflicted, would suffer, and would even bear guilt. We want no afflictions, no suffering, and will admit no culpability. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned.” (Hebrews 4:14)
This is a strange fix. Like Zebedee’s sons, we aspire to sit at his right and left, but we do not know what we are asking for. It is a cup of pain and suffering. It is an emptying-out. It is a descending.
The great joke on us is that the mighty God above goes down below, even below us, proud of ourselves for not needing anything other than ourselves.
What would it be like if we exercised our above-ness, our authority, in the manner of the God we profess to believe in? “You know how among the Gentiles those who exercise authority lord over it them: their great ones make their importance felt. It cannot be like that with you. Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve—to give his life as a ransom for many.”
People in authority—even the churchly kind—may love exercising it. But they mistake the authority, the above-ness of God. If we feel excluded from authority, we may crave it. But we misunderstand the authority of Jesus.
Those who are above should go below. So it was and is with our God. Those who are below need not hunger for the heights. We need only enter more deeply into what we are, our humanness, to receive from the One above the message that even in our smallness the grandeur of love is revealed.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University