Following Jesus: a journey out far and in deep

Following Jesus: a journey out far and in deep

By Mary Maher S.S.N.D.

Mary Maher, SSND

I want to thank the National Religious Vocation Conference for the invitation to spend these days with you and to share some thoughts on your theme: “Fidelity to Jesus: A Paradigm of Hope.” I must say it is refreshing to attend a conference that does not shy away from focusing on Jesus and calling us to grapple with the historical ground of our faith. From the outset, there has been a boldness about the goals of the gathering. More than a year ago in the NRVC News it was promised that, at this Convocation, Timothy Radcliffe and I would “address how a close personal relationship with Jesus not only sustains us in ministry but creates an atmosphere of authenticity in our communities.” 1

And, in his letter of invitation to us as speakers, your Executive Director spoke for the planning committee when he wrote: “We believe that through fidelity to our call and through a close personal relationship with Jesus, we will be transformed. That transformation will impact our communities which, in turn, hopefully will attract new members to our religious congregations. In other words, our hope lies in getting back to the basics of Jesus.”

Not as simple as it sounds.

I have to confess I found this theme quite challenging personally. I would have found it easier had the theme been “Fidelity to Jesus Christ” or “Following Christ: Paradigm of Hope.” Then I might have been able to avoid some of the stickier questions plaguing us today—questions such as: who is Jesus and what did he stand for? Does the maleness of Jesus lock the Christian tradition into patriarchy with not much hope of being freed from it? How can an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, be (or become) the universal savior of all peoples and of all created reality from the “big bang” to the end of time?

Somehow I feel that if we had started with Jesus as the Christ, I could have taken a different tack. I could have explored the Wisdom tradition (Jesus as the personification of the feminine figure for God) or mystical universality (the created world itself as the body of Christ)...and so on. It would have been lovely. But, here we are faced with the challenging theme: fidelity to Jesus.

I surmise that most of us, when we use the name “Jesus,” intend to refer to the one whom John Meier and Luke Timothy Johnson call “the real Jesus,” that is, the glorified Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father, is present to us in the Spirit, is mediated to us through the Scriptures and tradition, and experienced by us in prayer, liturgy and our life of discipleship.2 But that is more than a mouthful of assumptions, and we cannot take it for granted that the name “Jesus” has this meaning (Jesus as the Christ) for everyone. So, I want to get into our theme by a very practical route. Let’s start with our contemporary experience, in all its ambiguity, and examine some issues we encounter.

Irreconcilable differences among Christians?

Here’s my question: Hearing from Christians in our society and world today, are we not saturated with irreconcilably different opinions as to what constitutes fidelity to Jesus? How is it that such diversity of political and social convictions can arise from believing that one is being faithful to Jesus? Consider this randomly-put-together list of convictions held by individuals and groups who believe that, in holding these views and acting on them, they are being faithful to Jesus:

♦ Opposition to homosexuality as a disorder of nature.

♦ Conviction, based on an understanding of the complexity of human sexuality, that gay persons have the full rights, benefits and privileges of all human persons in terms of social relationships, health care, partnering, marriage, and so forth.

♦ Obligation to preach the Gospel of conversion in any and every context because no one can be saved without explicit, personal connection with Jesus as savior.

♦ Need to promote harmony and dialogue among the world religions as mutually beneficial and necessary for peace in a pluralistic world.

♦ Opposition to women’s ordination on the grounds that women were not present at the Last Supper and, therefore, it is not the intention of Jesus to ordain women.

♦ Conviction—based on a belief that inclusiveness, and an openness to women which was unique for his day and age, were central characteristics of Jesus’ ministry—that working for the full flourishing of women, including access to all ministries in the church, is intended by Jesus and part of fidelity to him.

♦ Duty to fight the just war to promote democracy.

♦ Obligation to oppose war, especially in light of the uniquely destructive weapons possessed by the human community in our time.

I could go on and on, as could you, I am sure. These convictions concerning what actions and beliefs flow from fidelity to Jesus are not reconcilable. One has to decide between and among them. On what basis does one decide? Who is Jesus that one may be faithful to him? And how do we know Jesus?

Some basic theological questions

These are the concerns I would like to address in my time with you today: Who is Jesus? How do we know Jesus? What does it mean in our day to “faithfully follow Jesus”? What kind of a journey is it? Addressing these questions will take us into theology, to a place beyond ideology and unexamined assumptions. A place we need to visit more frequently than I feel we sometimes do.

I have to confess that, as a theologian and a life-long believer, the “what-would-Jesus-do?” movement feels empty and holds no comfort or challenge for me. If anything close to an answer to that question is possible, it is not easily arrived at and holds no assurance of certitude. We have to be wary of easy answers. If following in the footsteps of Jesus means anything, it has to call us to grapple with what it means to be human. It has to demand that we give ourselves over to such questions as: “What is it all about?” “Who am I?” and “Who is my neighbor?” Answers to these questions are not easily arrived at. The search itself is what it means to be human. It is messy. And it takes a lifetime to answer these most basic and important questions.

It seems to me that the discipline required to live a lifetime in face of the deepest questions concerning human life is important to young people today. And even if such discipline is not important to young people, it should at least be important to vocation directors and to all of us interested in the future of religious life, because the same discipline is necessary to address the life-defining question from Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?”

Some evidence is beginning to surface of a possible surge in vocations as sociologists look at the demographics of upcoming generations. We all find ourselves examining intensely the attraction that some so-called “traditional” congregations seem to have for young people these days. We also see many different kinds of contemplative groups steadily growing in numbers of newer members. And we all have our opinions about the reasons undergirding the trends we are seeing.

What I am willing to say at this point is this: the call of the National Religious Vocation Conference to “get back to basics” is exceedingly important. It is necessary if we are to find our way to the future of religious life. But we should not be duped into thinking that getting to basics is uncomplicated or easy. We are talking about getting to the heart of it all. And we all know from experience that getting to our hearts requires effort, courage and the willingness to be vulnerable. It is not easy.

Another example of Christian divisions

Last week as I was worrying that my approach to this topic may not be the best, a document emailed to me provided a wonderful example of my point that there are vast differences over what fidelity to Jesus means today. This document seemed to confirm that I was on the right track. (Either that or I was desperately searching for a confirmation that I was on the right track!) It was a petition for an advertisement to be placed in newspapers around the country by Sojourners, a self-described “Christian ministry” in Washington, D.C., “whose mission is to proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice.”3

The headline at the top of the ad reads: “God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat.” Then the ad quotes two members of the so-called “religious right” who, by their statements, obviously feel they are being faithful to Jesus. First, Jerry Falwell is quoted from the New York Times, July 16, 2004, as saying: “It is the responsibility of every political conservative, every evangelical Christian, every pro-life get serious about re-electing President Bush.” And, then, Pat Robertson, as reported by Associated Press/Fox News on January 2, 2004, said: “I think George Bush is going to win in a walk. I really believe I am hearing from the Lord it’s going to be a blowout election in 2004. The Lord has just blessed him…. It doesn’t make any difference what he does, good or bad….”

I want to quote this ad because it is a wonderful example of two irreconcilable viewpoints on what being a faithful Christian means. After quoting these Christian ministers, Sojourners then gives its position:

These leaders of the Religious Right mistakenly claim that God has taken a side in this election, and that Christians should only vote for George W. Bush.

We believe that claims of divine appointment for the President, uncritical affirmation of his policies, and assertions that all Christians must vote for his re-election constitute bad theology and dangerous religion.

We believe that sincere Christians and other people of faith can choose to vote for President Bush or Senator Kerry—for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.

We believe all candidates should be examined by measuring their policies against the complete range of Christian ethics and values.

We will measure the candidates by whether they enhance human life, human dignity, and human rights; whether they strengthen family life and protect children; whether they promote racial reconciliation and support gender equality; whether they serve peace and social justice; and whether they advance the common good rather than only individual, national and special interests.

The final paragraph just quoted gives Sojourners’ list of what constitutes fidelity to Christian responsibility. Where did this list come from and how do we assess it? How do we assess any description of criteria for making decisions “for reasons deeply rooted in our faith?” Answering that takes effort, thought, reflection, reading, study, conversation and decision-making. It is not easy.

So, to enter into our reflection on fidelity to Jesus, I want to pause here for a few minutes and ask you to reflect on your answers to a series of questions. These are to enable you join the conversation today from the place of your own deep truth.

  • How would you describe your relationship with Jesus? Is it personal? Or more of an abstract faith in Jesus as the Christ? How do you connect with Jesus? Do you think of yourself as following Jesus or imitating Christ or neither?

  • What are your earliest memories of knowing about Jesus? What are your earliest memories of knowing Jesus?

  • How has your relationship with Jesus changed over time? What have been your struggles with this?

  • Is there a particular symbol or image through which you relate to Jesus?

  • To whom do you pray? To Jesus? To God? (To get at this, ask yourself how you pray in times of great stress or grief or anxiety.)

The key issue: historical consciousness

The question, “Who do you say that I am?” has been around since the earliest followers of Jesus. However, with the advent of modernity in the 17th century, the contours of the question changed irrevocably. The most important feature of modern Western culture as it relates to the question about knowing Jesus is historical consciousness.

I really believe that this feature of Western culture helps us understand a good deal about the polarizations in our church and world. For in terms of assessing what fidelity to Jesus means, a clear dividing line is formed by where one stands with regard to historical consciousness. Fundamentalists are on one side and other Christian believers are on the other side. Across this chasm, dialogue is nearly impossible. In fact it should be noted that modern historical consciousness represents such a shift in perspective that the question as to whether or not Christianity can survive the shift has been seriously considered by scholars for more than a century. It is no exaggeration to say that one cannot overestimate the impact of historical consciousness on our faith-life. And, before we take issue with other denominations for their lack of awareness of this impact, we need to acknowledge that we are nowhere near dealing with it successfully or completely in our church.

That said, I would like to structure my reflections today by addressing four questions:

I. What is historical consciousness, and how does it constitute a radical shift in our view of the world? It’s a major feature of the modern world, and it only intensifies in the postmodern world; it does not get changed.

II. What contribution has historical consciousness made to our knowledge of Jesus?

III. How has our understanding of fidelity to Jesus shifted under the impact of historical consciousness?

IV. Faithfully following Jesus today: What kind of a journey is it?


Although I identified historical consciousness as a distinctly modern development, I am very aware of the fact that in many ways we have shifted to a postmodern world in our thinking and perceptions. However, as I hope to make clear, postmodernity has only heightened our grasp of the historical conditioning and the relative character of all our knowing and perceiving. The contemporary postmodern world—marked as it is by ambiguity, relativism, flux, meaninglessness and disillusionment—makes understanding historical consciousness all the more important if we are to address the question of what fidelity to Jesus means today.

Premodern, modern, postmodern worldviews

To situate ourselves, let us identify the chronology to which we are referring by the labels premodern, modern and postmodern worldviews. To do that we have to begin with the premodern.

  • Although it had several significant movements within itself, the premodern (or classical) worldview nevertheless obtained as a commonly shared perspective from shortly after the beginning of Christianity up to the beginning of the 17th century. So for more than 1600 years we had a commonly shared perspective of truth and value, of who runs the world, of how it’s structured and what our place is.

  • The modern worldview emerged in the second half of the 17th century with the rise of science and scientific method, with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. It lasted to about the end of the 19th century, although we still have the effects of it and still must deal with it.

  • The postmodern worldview is really, the postmodern pluriformity of perspectives. There is no universe in postmodernity. Indeed people speak of a multiverse. This dominated the 20th century principally in the form of a disillusionment with progress and with modernity in the face of the World Wars, the Holocaust, and massive atrocities inflicted by atomic and conventional warfare.

Shifts in how we know what is true and important

Very significant for us in the church and in religious life are the shifts which have occurred regarding truth and value and how we human beings know what is true and important. In the premodern worldview truth corresponds to reality. Truth is known by “seeing,” by looking carefully enough and thinking clearly enough. Tradition comes to be seen as a source of authoritative knowledge of the truth because it is understood as the passing on of the clear and careful “seeing” of previous generations. Hence, truth, once seen and recognized, is understood as eternal, unchanging and absolute.

This view of truth shifts in modernity with the emergence of the scientific method and the Age of Reason. This is the time of the Enlightenment, which had as its motto: sapere aude, “dare to know.” The implication of the motto is: figure it out for yourself. Don’t rely on others, on authority or tradition to tell you. Trust in reason and in your own capacity to know. This primacy of reason is an important development and constitutes a defining characteristic of the modern age.

Equally defining of the modern spirit and its sense of truth is the development of the methods of historical research or the discovery of the “science of history.” Of course, I am not suggesting that it is only in the modern era that people discovered history. Humankind has always had a sense of the past, an understanding that events took place a long time ago, and could be remembered or preserved in writings and in art and in folklore, and so on. What is new in the modern age is a radical historical consciousness, the recognition that events of long ago carry with them a particular set of political, social, economic, linguistic, religious and cultural characteristics not shared by the present age. In other words, truth in the modern worldview is recognized as historically conditioned.

Let me give an example. At Christmas many of the cards we give or receive depict magnificent Renaissance or medieval paintings of the Madonna with child or the Adoration of the Magi or another scene from the birth of Jesus. What we notice about some of these is the magnificent medieval or Renaissance regalia in which Mary and Joseph and the three kings are clothed. Now it is not that the artists who painted these did not realize that the birth of Jesus took place a very long time ago. What is not recognized in placing Mary and Joseph and the kings in that dress is the difference in the historical, political, religious, cultural and linguistic characteristics in the time of Jesus as they differ from the time in which the artists lived. That recognition represents a powerful shift in consciousness! We have not recovered from that recognition.

Think about the implications of this for the understanding of religious truth. When we read the Bible, for instance, we cannot read it as if it were written yesterday in contemporary English or French as spoken in the U.S. or Canada. Rather, we must recognize that it was written in another historical period with cultural, religious, social, political and linguistic characteristics very different from our own. To understand what it means now, we need to try to grasp as much as we can of what it meant then.

A task is imposed on us when we encounter “the other,” whether it is in the form of a text from the distant past or a person from another culture. There is a task imposed on us. We must build bridges across the differences if we are to link the different horizons of understanding and of viewing the world and living in it. The polarizations in our church and world come from our refusal to build those bridges of understanding, of mutual interpretation, of getting to know “the other.”

As I said before, it is difficult to overestimate the impact of historical consciousness on our faith-life. Who of us is not aware of the struggles of some theologians when they engage in the critical study of the Bible and doctrinal traditions of the church from the point of view of the historical contexts that produced them? We Christians continue to experience tension over making the move to historical consciousness, contending with premodern literalist interpretations and attempts to universalize certain historical circumstances into unreformable dogmas.

Postmodernism intensifies historical consciousness

The impact of the historical conditioning of knowledge is only intensified when we move to the postmodern era wherein truth is understood as relative to changing circumstances.

Let me give an example or two. Consider the reply that would be given today to one who says clearly: 2 + 2 = 4; this is so, absolutely and unchangeably! The reply would be: Yes, that is so, relative to base 10. Change the base, which is your frame of reference, the circumstances of the question, then 2 + 2 is not necessarily 4 anymore.

The point is, the postmodern world requires that we be aware of our perspective, our point of view or our frame of reference. Contingent upon this set of circumstances, thus and so is true. Relative to this set of facts, thus and so is true, etc. In this worldview, then, truth is an act of judgment, as Bernard Lonergan said so well. Truth is not simply a matter of seeing, as it was in the classical world. For example if I look at an x-ray of my lungs, I see only various shades of gray. However, if a trained technician looks at the same xray, with her perspective she is able to recognize, to know, whether my tissue is healthy or diseased.4 Without that perspective which allows me to judge, I can look all I want and never really know.

What results from historical consciousness? What has us all in a knot? What is polarizing the Christian community as well as our religious communities? Relativism and pluralism. These conflicts are the consequence of the modern and postmodern views of truth clashing with the old. What do we have a most difficult time with in theology and in the church today? Relativism and pluralism.

And what is one thing crucifying the world today? The fundamentalist reaction to relativism and pluralism— the refusal to engage in conversation at all. All the great faiths are struggling with this today. Time magazine in early September 2004 has a special report on “The Struggle Within Islam.” One Muslim gentleman is quoted there as saying that there is no way to interpret the Koran other than literally, and therefore there is no room for moderation. Historical consciousness has had a tremendous impact on our view of the world, and we’re still dealing with it.


Since this historical, critical approach to the Bible has been undertaken, first by Protestant scholars in the 18th tribution, and the most fruitful one for deepening our knowledge of Jesus, which these quests, these historical studies, have produced.

I suppose the most startling contribution which resulted from the first use of modern historical research on the New Testament—and with which we still grapple today—is the distinction between the Jesus of history (the man from Nazareth who lived in Palestine in the first part of the first century, as recovered by using tools of modern historical research) and the Christ of faith (the risen Jesus who, crucified and raised, is presently reigning in his church and is accessible to all believers).5 We need to understand this distinction because connecting Jesus of history with the Christ of faith is, in the opinion of many scholars, including myself, an indispensable guide to correctly interpreting the diversity of Christologies we encounter among the disciples of Jesus today as well as the diversity of opinions regarding what constitutes “fidelity to Jesus.”6 Some attention paid to the recovery of the century, there have been three scholarly quests for the historical Jesus. We will not deal with these in detail. Rather, I would like to mention the most startling conchurch’s memory of Jesus helps to make sure that what we say about the Christ of faith does not go off in fanciful directions disconnected from the historical ground of our faith.

Understanding what a Gospel is

To help us in that we turn to the most fruitful contribution made by historical consciousness to our faith, and that is: it gave us an understanding of what a Gospel is. It helped us recognize the genre of a Gospel— that it is not a biography but a faith document, not a photograph of Jesus but a portrait of Jesus Christ. We have four of these Gospels, all of them completely written from the point of view of the end of the story and not as a modern biography. They were written completely from the point of view of the resurrection, completely with the eyes of faith. In fact, we have in the New Testament four portraits of Jesus, four different interpretations of his meaning as the Christ of God.

Let us pause to take in the significance of knowing what kind of document a Gospel is. The Gospels, after all, are our main source for knowing Jesus. Then, in the third part I will indicate how fruitful this understanding has been for our grasp of what fidelity to Jesus should mean.

The best way to understand what the Gospels are is to understand the process by which they came to be written. The first century can be divided into thirds. Most scholars would agree that 4 B.C. is approximately when Jesus was born, and he lived to approximately the year 30. The historical Jesus lived during the first third of the first century.

Shortly after his death we have the apostolic witness to his resurrection, men and women who preached that he, Jesus, had been raised from the dead. This leads to 35 years of preaching and praying and serving in witness to Jesus on the part of the apostles and the early church. Theirs was an oral culture, a culture in which story and memory played a critical role.

The letters of St. Paul were written during this time. His letters are not preoccupied with the life of the historical Jesus; they are preoccupied with the meaning of his life, death and resurrection. They’re preoccupied with the paschal event, the kerygma: Jesus is risen. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Christ of God.

Finally the Gospels were written down in the last third of the first century. Mark’s gospel was likely the first written, around the year 65. John, the last, was in the final decade of the first century. The gospels are four portraits of Jesus, addressing four very different communities, with four very different sets of theological questions that their communities were facing at the time they were written.

One could ask: what happened to the stories and traditions about Jesus during 35 years of oral tradition? Naturally, some things about Jesus were simply forgotten. His exact words were not remembered, except perhaps some short, pithy quotations which are most memorable. The sequence of events likely shifted in the retelling. What found its way into the Gospels was the memory of Jesus filtered through the faith of the early church. We have the message of salvation recorded.

Scholars have approached the Gospels asking, how can we reconstruct the memory of the levels of that tradition that go back to Jesus? After decades and decades of this sort of scholarship, there is an emerging consensus among scholars of what we can say about the historical Jesus.

I quote here Elizabeth Johnson’s version of the contemporary reconstructed image of the historical Jesus:

In bare outline, it includes knowledge that Jesus was a member of the Jewish race, hailing from the town of Nazareth, who in his adult life started a ministry of preaching and healing centered in Galilee. He proclaimed the nearness of the reign of God and called for conversion of heart in the light of the coming of that reign. He taught in parables; addressed God as “Abba”; gathered a group of disciples; chose the marginalized people of society as the particular recipients of his ministering activity. The freedom of his behavior and the authority with which he taught raised at least implicitly a claim as to his own agency in the coming of the reign of God. Although his own perceptions were shaped by contemporary Jewish ethical and religious thought, he came into conflict with other Jewish teachers, particularly with regard to interpretations of the Law and its traditions. Going to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover he was arrested, tried, crucified and buried. Some time later, his followers began to proclaim that he had been raised from the dead.8

The value of this reconstructed image scholars have given us is that it offers something of an interpretive key. It is Jesus who is raised. It is Jesus who is Lord. It is Jesus who is the Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is not anything you want him to be. Tethering Jesus back to the ground with an historical understanding of Jesus of Nazareth helps in our interpretation.


In order to look at the impact of historical consciousness on the faithful following of Jesus (or on what we used to call the “imitation of Christ”), I want to go back to the chronology of premodern, modern and postmodern. Chronologically speaking we have all lived our entire lives in the emerging postmodern world. Yet do we not also know it to be true that, in terms of what matters most to us, (our faith-life, our prayer, our understanding of the vows and ministry, of the church and of doctrine), the majority of the members of religious orders in the United States today were raised in what can only be described as a premodern worldview? In fact, it can be said that the form of religious life which most of us have known only really began to engage the modern world when the church itself did at Vatican II. And, of course, we now realize that when the church at that time finally critically embraced the modern world, modernity itself was already giving way to postmodern pluralism and relativity.

In terms of the ways in which we actually live our lives, we religious of the Catholic Church have tried to do in some 35 years what Western culture has been doing for the past 350 years. We have been called upon to shift from a premodern to a modern to a postmodern worldview, stretching across all three world views in every aspect of our lives: our dress, our daily order, our ministries and community life, our understanding of the ideal of holiness and our images of God. We still find ourselves stretching from one worldview to the other, going forward and backward, backward and forward, living in all three at once, as we try to find our way. As we look at the following of Jesus from the various perspectives, we need to remember that we and the members of our communities are most likely living out of various combinations of premodern, modern and postmodern worldviews, living eclectically out of all of them at once. It should come as no shock, then, that we share life in our congregations with sisters and confreres who have profoundly differing views about what is important, about how the world works, about what our work should be, how we should live, pray and decide on the future. To the extent that these differences are irreconcilable our congregations will experience paralysis in moving into the future.

From the “imitation of Christ” to “following Jesus”

Some religious live very directly out of what might be called a premodern or classical notion of or experience of God. We might also use the word “traditional” here. This is an experience that is comfortable with the mystical tradition. It emphasizes the transcendence and holiness of God and focuses on imitating Christ’s virtues. It may be lived out by focusing on the action of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, or on the intercession of Mary or another of the particular saints, novenas or some other devotional practices. But the important point about this model is that it understands “fidelity to Jesus” as the effort to imitate the virtues Christ exercised in his life, and so forth.

Most of the men and women we have known throughout our religious lives have achieved holiness in this understanding. It is the ideal of religious life with which many of us were raised. It has a tremendous potential for opening us to the transcendence and awesomeness of the Divine Mystery. It deserves the label “mystical” in that, as Janet Ruffing has put it so well, this way of understanding Jesus draws us into the lifelong effort “to seek the one thing necessary, progressive contemplative assimilation to the Christ mystery.” 8

However, it must also be said that this model deserves the label “ahistorical,” or “non-historical” particularly in the sense that the concrete circumstances in which one lives (where one is, what one is doing, with whom and for whom one is doing it) are not elements that factor necessarily into what really counts for the achievement of holiness. The point is that whatever one is doing or wherever one is doing it, one must have the proper attitudes (the attitudes Christ had).

Under the influence of modern scholarship, some of us have shifted to a profound sense of Jesus’ mission to bring the reign of God to our world. You might say we have shifted to an historical notion of “fidelity to Jesus” in the sense that we have different experiences of God because of a focus on the life and ministry of Jesus. So, our action on behalf of justice, our ministries, our prayer, may all evolve out of the prophetic and contemplative grasp of our identity as religious in terms of the mission to serve the coming of the reign of God. It is not necessarily that we have left the classical experience completely behind in this shift. Rather, it is the case that we have come to experience the imitation of Christ so differently that our basic intuitions about what is most important have shifted to this justice-making, kingdom-building emphasis.

This shift has its origins in modern Protestant scholarship of historical study of the Bible in the late 18th century, but it really affects Catholic theology only in our century. In fact, it has only been since the Second Vatican Council (where the critical method of studying the Gospels was explicitly affirmed and taught) that a renewed understanding of “fidelity to Jesus” becomes operative in the spirituality of the faithful. Only recently, then, has historical consciousness come into play as a factor in our way of knowing Jesus In the historical model, the genuine humanity of Jesus is much more accessible. I am thinking here of the greater attention we have been able to pay to the ministry of Jesus, in contrast to the classical model, where, as in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, we move from “born of the virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” In an historical model, we pause over the concrete content, style, manner and meaning of the life of Jesus: what he said and to whom, how he behaved, who he favored, what made him angry, how he prayed, what his experience of God was.

Every New Testament scholar would agree (there are very few ways one can complete a sentence which begins with this phrase) that Jesus’ whole life—what he said and did, what made him tick—all revolved around the coming reign of God which Jesus made present.

This consensus has unlocked tremendous richness in our prayer lives and in liberating praxis in a variety of ministries. It has enabled us to articulate such phrases as “the preferential option for the poor,” and “action on behalf of justice is constitutive of the Gospel,” and so forth. Where did that come from? The historical reading of the Gospels. And, perhaps most profoundly of all, it has given us a perceptive grasp into the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not as something abstractly willed by God from all eternity, but as evolving out of the concrete decisions and behavior of his life.

Jesus as liberator

I think it is fair to say that the very richness of the second model contained within it some of seeds of the move to a third understanding of “fidelity to Jesus”— the liberation, feminist model of the postmodern situation. Here we experience what happens when we attend to the concrete meanings of Jesus and of the Christ-event. The Christology of the second (historical) model gave us a way of dealing with what Edward Schillebeeckx calls “contrast experiences,” those experiences of negativity, of evil, of injustice and inhumanity which plague human history in every age and place. In our encounter with these situations, the ministry of Jesus gives the ground and foundation and grace for the necessary protest: “No, this should not be!”

But in the postmodern situation something else becomes apparent to us as well. We begin to recognize the ways in which the Christian tradition itself, the institutionalized following of Christ, has supported and undergirded some of the structures which support or enable situations of negativity, evil, injustice and inhumanity. This, too, calls for protest, for critique, for purification. Only then does it become possible for the faithful believer (and the theologian) to search the tradition more thoroughly, imaginatively and authentically to discover elements that have been forgotten or lost or lie hidden, but which have the potential (the grace) to be instruments of conversion and liberation and a fuller realization of the reign of God in the world.9

It is in this way that the focus of Latin American liberation theology on Jesus Christ as “liberator” emerged, a focus which “evokes,” in the words of Elizabeth Johnson, a new image of God, who is on the side of the oppressed

with the aim to free them. It also lifts up a new image of the oppressed, [as]of great worth, the privileged focus of God’s own care. Finally, it gives us a new image of discipleship, entering into the way of Jesus with the poor, a way which has a paschal character. It carries a new answer to the question, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Neither passive victim nor dominating Lord, Jesus is the liberating Word of God in solidarity with the poor.10

Similarly, feminist theologians have recognized in some of the buried and forgotten or glossed-over traditions of Christian tradition, many resources for the full flowering of women’s humanity, for the real liberation of women from deep-seated cultural, social, and religious prejudices. We are all familiar, I think, with the efforts by feminist scholars to recover meanings of the Gospel stories involving women, meanings that have been suppressed or interpreted for centuries through a male-centered lens. We are also familiar with how unsettling and jarring these new interpretations and images can be for some among us.

These various theologies—mission-centered, liberationist, feminist—show clearly how historical consciousness has affected our understanding of what fidelity to Jesus might mean.


If Jesus is the exegesis of God, if Jesus reveals God, then the historical Jesus has to be important as the interpretive key to judge what is claimed about him— that he is the Christ of God. Let’s look again at the re-constructed image of the historical Jesus. He proclaimed the nearness of the reign of God, called for conversion of heart in the coming of that reign, addressed God as “Abba,” chose the marginalized. The freedom of his behavior and the authority with which he taught raised at least implicitly the claim that the kingdom was coming in him. A faithful Jew, he came into conflict with other Jewish leaders, particularly in regard to the most important things regarding the interpretation of the law. He was crucified. Where did he get the proclamation of the nearness of God? Where did he get the freedom to declare that people’s sins were forgiven? To teach in such a way that he declared, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you?...” Where did he get that? From his own experience of God, from Abba, from of the unconditional love of God for him.

I guarantee you that if you go to the authentic life of any saint you know, you will find at the center of his or her life the experience of God’s unconditional personal love. That imitation, that following of Jesus, means that Jesus’ God becomes ours. We must experience the unconditional love of God.

Look hard at the death of Jesus

Following Jesus today means we need to repeat the experience of the early disciples and apostles. We need to go back to where it all began, trying to grasp the death and resurrection of Jesus and his life in that light.It is very important how the death of Jesus is presented in the Gospels not as a stoic event. He does not go to it stoically like St. Stephen. There is no superman here. He agonizes over it; he’s terrified of it. It is “a death endured screaming to God,” in fidelity to his call.

The beloved of God, the prophet who proclaimed the nearness of God, the one who healed and assured others of God’s forgiveness and love—was seemingly left in the lurch by his God. Jesus died a God-forsaken death, crying out the prayer, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” A few sentences later, he’s raised from the dead and everything is wonderful, but the Gospel writers couldn’t suppress the negativity of the death of Jesus. To his friends as well as his enemies, it had to seem that he failed. When he came into conflict with Temple law, it had to be proven who was right. If Jesus was right, then the world of the religious leaders had to be turned upside down. The Jewish authorities either had to prove him a blasphemer, a seducer of the people, a false prophet and get rid of him, or they had to get with the program. His death had to seem like he had been proven wrong. He had had nothing to do with the true God.11

The first step to resurrection faith is to grasp the violent negativity of the death of Jesus. Unless he (not merely his ideas, not merely what he stood for, but he himself) is raised by God from his death, our faith is in vain. We are still in our sins, as the early church says.

Resurrection speaks of God, Jesus and us

The resurrection has something to say about God, about Jesus and about us. It has something to say about God. Resurrection is an act of the power of God, it reveals who God is. What the early church grasped so clearly is not that we believe in God and then we preach that God raised Jesus from the dead. No, the God we believe in is the God that raised Jesus from the dead.

St. Paul declares, “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.” The same power that began creation from the beginning out of nothing begins it all over again in the dead body of Jesus. Who do you believe in? You believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Resurrection reveals who God is. God is the one who is with us when all human power collapses. There is nothing more powerless than a dead body. God is the one who makes a way when there is no way.

Resurrection has something to say about Jesus. It is God’s confirmation of Jesus. At the time it happened, Jesus’ death meant that he was a false prophet, that he had had nothing to do with the true God who abandoned him in the end. The resurrection proclaims that Jesus had everything to do with God! He is the exegesis of God. He is the true revealer of God’s heart. And God confirms that by raising Jesus from death. Jesus is taken into glory, his whole person is with God in a glorified way, and he can be with us in a way that he couldn’t be when he was bound by time and space. Resurrected, Jesus is with us in the Spirit and through the church.

And finally the resurrection has something to say about us. As Karl Rahner would put it, “A piece of our earth, real to the core, is now with God in glory.” And this begins the new creation for the rest of us. What I’m trying to say is that in following Jesus, we need to start with the death and resurrection. We have to begin there—grappling with the negativity of his death and opening our hearts to the hope of resurrection. From there we journey to the meaning of Jesus’ life and, in turn, the meaning of our life in following him.

In these postmodern times, we can take some comfort, challenge and guidance from the story of Jesus and his disciples out fishing on Lake Gennesaret. Jesus says, go out deep and lower your nets for the catch. Peter says to him, “Lord we’ve been at it all night and we’ve caught nothing. But at your word, we’ll lower our nets again.”



While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men and women.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him. —Luke 5, 1-11


Three ways to respond to the call of Jesus

What kind of a journey is this following of Jesus? Launch out in the deep, Jesus says. It’s a journey out far and in deep. In light of that, what should vocation ministers look for in candidates? I suggest asking, can they follow Jesus? Can they live the questions? Can they struggle to do God’s will in the face of evidence that the kingdom is very long in coming, that the right responses are not always clear, and when it seems as if God has forsaken you? Can they agonize over what is the will of God?

What is their attitude toward this challenge from Jesus to put out into the deep water and not be afraid to go where the questions lead? There are three possible responses they (and we) can take. They can stay on the shore and dabble here and there on the edges of the water, show up at things and learn to sound as if they’ve been way out in the deep. But all the while, there are depths to life, to themselves and to the search for God that never touch them, never reach them, never wrench their hearts and make them into persons. They may choose that path and still become religious, but I’ll tell you this, what the life is all about will always elude them, because the life is about being out far and in deep. They may choose that path and not become religious, but their time with us will largely have been wasted.

The second path is that they may choose to go out far and in deep. They may choose to go where the questions lead. But at their first experience of going under, of feeling they may drown, they grab for the shore and never venture out again. They may choose that path and become religious, but I tell you, their religious life will always be limited by anyone or anything that would take them out into the deep. They will then need to get their answers from outside themselves because they themselves have backed off from the questions. They may choose that path and not become a religious, but their lives and relationships will always know that fear.

And finally our deepest prayer for our candidates and ourselves is that they choose the path of out far and in deep. They engage their hearts and minds and all their strength, tossing about in the depths of the search for God, for what it means to be human and follow God’s call in company with Jesus. May they be willing to surrender their false images of God and of themselves, plunging into the waters with that kind of all or nothing abandon that is the hallmark of any true love. If they choose that path, whether they become religious or not, they will be human persons. And if they do become religious, they will be the only kind the church needs, those who are willing to pay the price to become human beings, who know how to lead others from the depths of fear and despair to faith and hope. Welcome them into that journey, to this business of headlong plunges into risky waters, the unknown reaches of human existence and into the awesome mystery of God. And they and you can take comfort in this—that their self gift is already bathed in, already made possible by, already snatched up in God’s love. God already has them. The power that propels, that draws them in their headlong plunge is the power of God’s love in which the whole universe is drowning.

Develop in them and in yourselves the eyes and heart to see things that far out and that in deep. For in this is all wisdom, everything that the Christian tradition— premodern, modern and postmodern—has to offer the world: that the crucial thing in giving ourselves over to a mysterious God is that it requires all the courage a human heart can have, and yet there is nothing to fear, for that Mystery is Love. The bottomlessness into which we go is the merciful arms of God. This is where Jesus leads. Let us hurry up then and follow. :


1. Vol. 16, No. 3, Spring, 2003, p. 2.

2. See Thomas P. Rausch, Who Is Jesus? An Introduction to Christology. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003, p. 7.

3. Mission statement taken from their Web site: The ad/petition can also be accessed at that site.

4. Bernard Lonergan offers this example. As Lonergan makes clear, taking the position that truth is an act of the judgment is not a simple declaration. Among the great achievements of his theology is to show the deeply human and rigorous contours of striving to live authentically. His statement that “genuine objectivity [with regard to truth and value] is the fruit of authentic subjectivity” is far from reductive relativism. See Method in Theology, New York: Herder and Herder, 1972, p. 292, and his seminal work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1957.

5. John P. Meier is very helpful here. See “The Historical Jesus: Rethinking Some Concepts,” Theological Studies, 51, 1990, p. 15ff.

6. Johnson, Elizabeth A. “The Theological Relevance of the Historical Jesus: A Debate and a Thesis.” The Thomist 48, 1984, pp. 1-43.

7. Ibid, pp. 7-8.

8. Talk for Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Region 2, on models of Christology and their relation to spirituality, 10/26/93, p. 4, manuscript copy. My categories differ from Ruffing’s in that I place the liberation and feminist perspectives in the same model because I feel they both are “postmodern” in the sense in which I develop the term.

9. Mary Catherine Hilkert, in her work, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination, New York: Continuum, 1997, offers a profound and helpful description of the deep pattern of a postmodern hearing, preaching and living the Word of God.

10. Johnson, Elizabeth A. Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology. New York: Crossroad, 1990, p. 93.

11. Hans Küng makes these points powerfully in his work, On Being a Christian, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966, pp. 339-342.

Mary V. Maher, SSND is provincial leader of the Northeastern Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology, and over a 20 year period taught theology at Washington Theological Union, Villanova University and Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Long Island, N.Y. She has written and lectured extensively on postmodern culture as it relates to religious life.

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