World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Study IV: Jesus Christ

01 January 1970

Deepening Our Understanding of Christ in a Religiously Plural World

A. Christian "images" of Christ

1. Texts
1. Four artistic interpretations of Christ from different cultures, and a text.

a) Pantocrator from Byzantine apse, Daphni, 11th century.

b) Crucifix, Peru,

c) Portrayal of the
Emmaus story, China,

d) Drawing of Christ healing a leper, Holland, 17th century.
Credit: Pen and bistre drawing by Rembrandt, about 1657-60. Reproduced by permission of the Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam

e) Also consider the following biblical text and a contemporary commentary on it:

Christ Jesus,... though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2.5-11

A commentary on the text
If we read the very early Christian hymn from Philippians (quoted and perhaps edited by Paul) in the Jewish context that was his and that of the early church, we might say that it interprets Jesus in the figures of scripture: Christ Jesus, though like Adam in the "image and likeness" of God, did not grasp after equality with God (in contrast with men of the tower of Babel), but became, like Israel, the humble slave of God (cf. the servant poems of Isaiah 42 ff.), obedient to God even unto death. Therefore God exalted him and crowned him with God's name, that all should fall down before him in whom they are confronted by God, confessing him as Lord so as to give all honour and glory to God the Father, as Jesus did himself.

Paul van Buren, Theological Significance Study Workshop II, Bossey, 1986.

2. Comment
These representations in art as well as the commentary on the Philippians passage are interpretations of Jesus. They are also, indirectly, interpretations of how we understand God. The pictures are as diverse as the various interpretations of Jesus that we find in the New Testament, such as Christ, the son of God, the son of man, New Adam, the word, the Saviour, Redeemer, etc. The Christian tradition has, from the beginning, borne witness to the mystery of Jesus Christ. The interpretation of Christ, however, has been largely determined by the time and place, the cultural context and historical situation of those who experience the presence of God in their encounter with Christ.

3. Discussion and questions
Begin by making your own personal responses, as group members to the images of Christ presented here in art and word. Are there other images that are important to or distinctive to your own culture? Bring along other art forms and images for comment and study. List on a blackboard the images and descriptions of Christ that come to mind when you think of Christ in the Bible, such as the rabbi or teacher, the healer, the suffering and crucified one, the cosmic and eternal Christ through whom all things were created, the Logos, the Good Shepherd, the Rebel, the Liberator, etc. You might discuss your use of the terms "Jesus" and "Christ".

a) What understandings of God do these pictures convey? Have these artists seen different "Christs"? Different aspects of the same "Christ"?

b) What does it mean for our Christian faith that there are many "Christologies" or understandings of who Christ was and is, both in the Gospels and in the Tradition?

c) Which interpretation of Christ comes closest to your own? How do you give expression to your understanding of Christ today? What does it mean to speak of Christ within a Trinitarian understanding of God?

d) How do these various understandings of Christ help us to think about people of other faiths? From your understanding or experience of Christ, what do you think should be the attitude of Christians towards people of other faiths?

B. Other Understandings Of Christ

1. Texts
In dialogue with people of other faiths, we may discover perspectives and insights which could help us in developing our own interpretations of Christ and of God. They may see in Jesus something we have missed, or from the perspective of their own faith they may raise questions that will throw light on the role of Christ in our faith. Consider the following:

a) The contemporary Zen Buddhist Masao Abe talks about the image of Christ conveyed by St Paul in the passage from Philippians quoted above. He notes that the Christian tradition tends to use "both/and" language to speak of the paradoxical immanence and transcendence of Ultimate Reality, while the Buddhist tradition tends to use "neither/nor" language. He wonders if they do not both convey a similar insight into the nature of Ultimate Reality.

Since the ultimate truth of religion for Zen is entirely beyond duality, Zen prefers to express it in a negative way. When Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty asked Bodhidharma, "What is the ultimate principle of the holy truth?" the First Patriarch replied: "Emptiness, no holiness. " In his "Song of Enlightenment" Yung Chia (Jap.: Yoka, 665-713) said:

In clear seeing, there is not one single thing
There is neither man nor Buddha.

... As clearly shown in this passage (Philippians 2.5-8), Jesus Christ is God who became flesh by emptying himself, even unto death. It is really through this kenotic negation that flesh and spirit, the secular and the sacred, the immanent and the transcendent became identical in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus Christ may be said to be the Christian symbol of Ultimate Reality. So far, this Christian idea of the kenotic Christ is close to the idea of "neither man nor Buddha". At least it may be said that Christianity and Zen represent Ultimate Reality in similar terms, where the immanent and the transcendent, the secular and the sacred, are paradoxically one.

Masao Abe, "God, Emptiness, and the True Self, in F. French, ed. The Buddha Eye: an Anthology of the Kyoto School, New York, Crossroad, 1982.

b) The Muslim writer and thinker Sayyed Hossein Nasr uses his understanding of the centrality of the Christ event for Christians to convey to us how Muslims view the Qur'an and how they understand the role of the illiterate prophet Muhammad in the divine revelatory event:

One could of course make a comparison between Islam and Christianity by comparing the Prophet to Christ, the Qur'an to the New Testament, etc.... In this way the sacred book of one religion would correspond to the sacred book in the other religion, the central figure in one religion to the central figure in the other religion and so on... But in order to understand what the Qur'an means to Muslims and why the Prophet is believed to be unlettered according to Islamic belief, it is more significant to consider this comparison from another point of view.

The Word of God in Islam is the Qur'an; in Christianity it is Christ. The vehicle of the Divine Message in Christianity is the Virgin Mary; in Islam it is the soul of the Prophet. The Prophet must be unlettered for the same reason that the Virgin Mary must be virgin. The human vehicle of a Divine Message must be pure and untainted. The Divine Word can only be written on the pure and "untouched " tablet of human receptivity. If this Word is in the form of flesh the purity is symbolized by the virginity of the mother who gives birth to the Word, and if it is in the form of a book this purity is symbolized by the unlettered nature of the person who is chosen to announce this Word among men... Both symbolize a profound aspect of this mystery of revelation.

S.H. Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, New York, F.A. Praeger, 1967, pp. 43-44.

c) Anantanand Rambachan, a Hindu, had the following to say recently about Jesus:

From the perspective and background of my own Hindu tradition, I did not find it difficult to identify with the figure of Jesus. In fact, I found him positively attractive. Deeply attracted as I was, at that time, by the ideal of the Hindu sannyasin (monk), I was able to immediately see in Jesus many of the qualities of this ideal. Here also was a wandering spiritual teacher without home or possessions, fired by the true spirit of renunciation (vairagya). Here also was one who spoke with authority about the limitations and futility of the life which was spent solely in the selfish accumulation of wealth (artha) and transitory sense enjoyment (kama)....

What, therefore, initially attracted me in the personality of Jesus is the embodiment in him of what I considered to be, from my Hindu viewpoint, the ideals and values of the authentic spiritual life. This dimension of Jesus has always continued to have a meaning and appeal for me. From my own very limited perspective of Christianity, I think that this primary aspect of the personality of Christ is not always sufficiently emphasized in presenting him. I imagine that it will always be difficult to represent one who cared so little for the comforts and possessions which are usually the focus of our energies and aspirations and whose life was so totally a reflection of its centre in a higher reality. As human beings, we have mastered the art of subtly and nakedly using our respective spiritual traditions and ideals to mask and serve our own insatiable ego-centred ambitions. It seems hopeless when that which is meant to free us from the constraints of the ego becomes the servant of its narrow interests. But perhaps in its concern to stress the uniqueness and originality of Jesus, Christianity has ignored some of the identities in the definition of the spiritual life which Jesus shares with the tradition of Hinduism.

A Hindu Response to Jesus

 2. Discussion and questions
a) How do these interpretations enrich or clarify our own understanding of Christ?

b) Do you think that Christ has to be reinterpreted in every cultural situation? If so, what are the elements that would go into this reinterpretation in your own cultural and religious situation?

c) Many religious traditions give expression to the paradoxical mystery of God (or Ultimate Reality) who is beyond human imagination and yet accessible to humankind, who is utterly transcendent and yet intimately present among us, who is beyond the highest heavens and yet within the human heart. How is the mystery of God expressed by neighbours of other faiths in your area? In what ways do they speak of transcendence? In what ways do they speak of the divine, or incarnate or active among us?