Here’s a blast from the past! Sometimes the old theologians are the best ones! Paul van Buren is best known for publicizing the “Death of God ” controversy in the 60s. (It even reached the cover of Time magazine, see above.) This blog isn’t about that however. It’s about his writings on the freedom of Jesus. I have extracted his thoughts on this from his excellent book “The secular Meaning of the Gospel” which was the first theology hardback I ever bought (in 1964). Looking at all my underlinings in it I see that my feelings about theology haven’t changed much in the intervening decades. Yes, although I’m an atheist, I like his way of putting things. Like me he is pro-Jesus but not convinced about God. (“God is only to be found in Jesus” p.147) Indeed, he’s one of the founders of the ‘Death of God’ school of theology.
Jesus was free from self-concern, and thus open to the concerns of others; he was good at putting himself in other people’s shoes. He not only expressed compassion and solidarity for others, he showed mercy towards their weaknesses.
Jesus was free from anxiety over clothes, food and shelter
Jesus was free from the chains of family
Although he followed the rites of his people he also felt free to disregard them, as in “…but I say unto you…”
In the miracle stories he is even presented as mythologically free from the limitations of natural forces.
He never claimed a basis for his authority. He simply spoke and acted with the authority of a singular freedom.
He felt free to act in place of God by forgiving sins.
He was free for his neighbours, free to be compassionate, free to give himself to others whoever they were. He was open to friend and foe alike.
Attracting and repelling
van Buren makes the point that a “free” man like Jesus will attract followers and create enemies according to the dynamics of personality. He died as the result of the threat such a free man poses for insecure and bound men. His disciples were left insecure and frightened. They ran away and lost hope – Jesus had failed them. Jesus had not yet produced enough freedom in his disciples at that time. His freedom was only shared in the most fragmentary fleeting way by a few men at certain times.
After Easter, however, Jesus had a new power to awaken freedom in his disciples. Jesus’ freedom started to get contagious, like a smile or a laugh.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The experience of transcendence is Jesus’ being-for-others. His omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence arise solely out of his freedom from self, out of his freedom to be for others even unto death.” What happened to the disciples after Easter was that they came to share in this freedom to be for others. The word “contagion” carries the sense of “catching” something from another person, not by choice, but as something that happens to us. Jesus the Liberator became the reference point for the disciples from which they saw life, the world, history, themselves and other men. They had an experience of which Jesus was the sense content . They experienced a discernment situation in which Jesus, the free man whom they had known, themselves, and indeed the whole world were seen in a quite new way. They proclaimed the gospel as the story of the free man who had set them free.
He who says “Jesus is Lord” says that Jesus’ freedom has been contagious and has become the criterion for his life, public and private. As Jesus was led, because of his freedom, into the midst of social and political conflict, so it is with one that shares his freedom. The gospel asserts that Jesus is lord of the whole world.
Related Zingcreed Post:
van Buren, Paul “The secular meaning of the gospel.based on an analysis of its language” SCM ( 1963)