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Patrick Henry Reardon on the Unfathomable Self-Consciousness of Jesus
Jesus, as he appears in the Gospels, resists man’s efforts to comprehend him. There is a sense in which this is true of all human beings, I concede, but in the singular case of Jesus this resistance to interpretation is marked in a unique and special way. The “who” of Jesus, which he pointedly put in question form, remains utterly elusive apart from a special revelation (Matt. 16:15–17).
We have at least some chance of understanding other men “from within,” by recourse to the principle of intersubjectivity, the assumption of the common structure of self-awareness in all human souls. Each of us goes inside and finds a “self,” nor does the experience differ essentially from person to person.
This is what allows us to talk to one another. It is the premise of all rational discourse, the implicit starting point of all conversation, the necessary basis of all argument.
Thus, no one attempts to convince me of anything except by first supposing that his consciousness and mine share an identical shape, a radical “who,” of which to be “self-aware.” No matter how separate we are, we have at least this much in common: that we can be self-conscious in the same way.
Hence, no matter how individual the two of us remain, that other person is able to enter into his own soul, examine his own experience, and through a process of analogy (which I suggest we call the “analogy of subjectivity”) gain some idea of what is going on in my soul. What is human and therefore native to him is also human and native to me. He can interpret me by self-reflection.
Biographers presume that the inner content of their chosen subject—that is to say, the person’s subjectivity—is in some measure accessible by a consideration of what makes all human souls “tick.” It is probably impossible to write biography without some recourse to this process of analogy, which often enough produces a psychological portrait of its subject.
What Made Him Tick
Now a great deal of contemporary biblical scholarship is convinced that it is possible to do the same thing with Jesus. Exegetes of this persuasion, basing their efforts on the analogy of subjectivity, attempt to understand Jesus by recourse to the same sorts of internal information that are used to interpret other individuals in history. They study the social, environmental, and educational influences by which they believe the man Jesus can be rendered intelligible. They discover what made him “tick.” Psychology provides a foundation for exegesis.
These scholars go on to explain Jesus in various ways, depending on what influences were brought to bear upon him. Observing his compassion, for instance, they perceive in his soul the impact of the social prophets of the eighth century. Or, taking note of the marked apocalyptic element in Jesus’ preaching, they feel safe in explaining that phenomenon as part of the general apocalyptic atmosphere of first-century Judaism.
Current impulses of messianism gave shape to his sense of vocation. At his baptism, they claim, Jesus fell under the influence of John the Baptist and thus became aware of his own historical destiny. He became a man with a mission. And so on.
Moreover, these scholars justify their psycho-biographical efforts by appealing to the testimony of the gospel that Jesus “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). That is to say, the soul of Jesus grew and matured like the soul of any other human being. Therefore, his “self,” his “who,” can be analyzed like that of any other person.
Those who take this approach believe that the doctrine of the Incarnation provides ample warrant for analyzing the soul, the subjectivity, the self-consciousness, of Jesus. They reconstruct his inner history through the discipline of biographical psychology.
Indeed, these scholars are often so confident of this method of investigation that if someone objects to their effort or expresses a mild reserve about its validity, he is likely to be accused of questioning the very doctrine of the Incarnation. I know from experience that he may find himself indicted as a Docetist, a person who disbelieves in the full humanity of Jesus.
Nonetheless, it must be said that these modern efforts to interpret Jesus through the analogy of subjectivity are problematic at best. The reason is simply this: The “subject” in the subjectivity of Jesus is the eternal Son of God.
According to the traditional theology of the Incarnation (or “conciliar” dogma, the theology of the church councils in the fourth and fifth centuries), there is no human person in Jesus distinct from the divine person. The soul of Jesus, his psyche that these historians want to analyze and interpret, is the human soul of the eternal Son. The “self” of Jesus’ humanity is not someone distinct from the “who” of his divinity.
Consequently, that saddened subject weeping at the tomb of Lazarus is God, and the voice that summons the dead man to come forth is the same that Moses heard from the burning bush. The transfigured Lord of Tabor is identical with the one Isaiah saw, high and lifted up (cf. John 12:37–41). That weary man who sits at the well and sleeps on the stern sheets of the fishing boat is the Creator of the universe.
Impossible to Analyze
What is there in Jesus that renders him so impossible to analyze? He tells us: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
Again, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son (Matt. 11:27).”
The identity of the man Jesus is rooted in this eternal relationship of the Son to the Father. Self-awareness in Jesus is indivisible at every point from the consciousness of his eternal relationship to the Father. He has no personal identity apart from that relationship.
Now I submit that there is nothing else in any human soul even remotely analogous, and this is the reason why psychological analysis, based on the analogy of subjectivity, is an inadequate and even misleading path to the interpretation of Jesus. Jesus, while possessing a human psyche, transcends psychology for the same reason that he, partaking fully in created being, transcends metaphysics.
Surely, Jesus’ human awareness of this relationship to the Father grew and developed as he matured. Otherwise, it is not true that the Word became flesh. However, the lines of this conscious development in Jesus are quite impossible to trace, for the simple reason that there is nothing analogous to it inside our own consciousness, nothing within us that affords us even the slightest hint of what it means for a human being to be conscious of himself as God’s eternal Son.
The “subject,” the self, of Jesus’ consciousness is not a human being who is personally distinct from the consubstantial Son. We have not the foggiest idea how this self-awareness of Jesus took form in his soul, and speculation on the matter is an exercise in either futility or heresy.
The dogma of the early church councils, the conciliar theology, teaches that the man Jesus and the Son of God are the same person. They are “one reality” ( mia physis), said St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Leo of Rome spoke of una persona, divina et humana. This respect for the “mystery” of the Incarnation has always been the orthodox approach of the Church. Not until the early decades of the nineteenth century, as far as I know, did Christians attempt to “get inside” Jesus, by the analogy of subjectivity—or even, like Albert Schweitzer in his Psychiatric Study of Jesus, to psychoanalyze him.
For my part, I believe such efforts to be Nestorian at best but often enough only a species of Arianism. That is to say, they either take for granted (like Nestorius in the fifth century) that there are two distinct persons in Jesus Christ, or they presume (like Arius in the fourth century) that God’s Son is really a created being. On this matter of the self-consciousness of Jesus, I am persuaded, theology must be resolutely apophatic in order to remain orthodox.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.