RESPONSE TO JACK MILES

by Walter Wink

Jack Miles is not only one of the most original, but also most literate, of scholars wrestling with the meaning of God and Christ today. His God: A Biography (New York: Vintage, 1995) is richly deserving of the Pulitzer Prize, which it won in 1995. His book is a feast of staggering insight, luscious locution, and daring conjecture that makes it read as grippingly as a novel, and the sequel, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (New York: Knopf, 2001) is nothing short of equal.

At first glance we could scarcely seem to be farther apart. I am trying to construct a christology from below. He begins with the divinity of Christ and goes up from there. Miles’s interpretive rule is that everything that Jesus says, does, or suffers in the New Testament should be regarded as said, done, or suffered by God. With the creeds, he sees Jesus as always both divine and human. But that does not make him orthodox. His God is becoming, learning, taking on flesh quite literally, struggling to become a human being. “The changing of God’s mind is thus the great subject, the epic argument, of the Christian Bible,” wherein God had to learn how to be a father, “the bridegroom of the universe and husband of the human race.”

Readers of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job will immediately sense connections. Both Miles and Jung see the necessity of sending the traditional God-image through a centrifuge in order to cleanse it of its violence, arrogance, and God’s inability to keep his word—human, O so human. At the end of God’s already extraordinary career, God becomes a human being: Jesus. “The Lamb Triumphant arrives at long last at his wedding day, taking to himself his eternal intended, the human race itself.” Miles sees this transformation taking place at Jesus’ birth. I see it happening at Jesus’ ascension. Miles sees Jesus as ontologically (which is to say, literarily) divine. I see Jesus as having entered the realm of the archetypes, becoming indistinguishable from the archetype of humanness. Curiously, having started at polar opposite starting blocks, Miles and I both end up at the same finish line, regarding God as the Human One.

How we consider that humanness, however, differs hugely. Miles sees Jesus as God flat out, yet God fully become flesh. Not surprisingly, he gravitates to the Christ of the Fourth Gospel, whose human bearing is only a thin film masking his divinity. A real human being who talked and acted like Miles’s Jesus would be a megalomaniac. Miles rescues Jesus from that diagnosis by making him a literary figure no different in kind than Hamlet and God no different in kind than Zeus. I argue, by contrast, that the Jesus of the myth of the human Jesus really was a human being. But the moment we make him an exemplary human, we leave history and enter the world of myth. What Miles and I have independently done is to move the quest of the historical Jesus to the realm of myth and symbol, subordinating, and even at times eclipsing, the historical. That makes Jesus accessible as one in whom the archetypes are once again effective, thus breaking the grip of nineteenth- and twentieth-century rationalism.

But can Miles’s literary Jesus “save”? Or is that even a question any longer? The question might rather be, How does a mythic or literary Jesus “work”? And does he work well enough to still be a catalyst of transformation?

I love what Miles has done, so much so that I have spent more time here over his work than mine. That such books as ours could be written at all is evidence of powerful cultural shifts that are already taking the biblical field in a more humane direction, though we still have a long way to go.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2003, Vol. 53,  No 2.