"Imitation of Christ"
In a recent Christianity Today article, "The Jesus We'll Never Know" (April 9, 2010), Scot McKnight tells of how he begins his class on that 'historical Jesus' figure known as Jesus of Nazareth:
On the opening day of my class on Jesus of Nazareth, I give a standardized psychological test divided into two parts. The results are nothing short of astounding.I recall as an undergraduate at Baylor University that during a time of depression, I imagined Jesus as a depressed individual, though a happy friend insisted that Jesus was a very happy fellow. We both made Jesus in our own images, so I reckon McKnight is correct. His point is not entirely new, of course, as Albert Schweitzer noted this early in the twentieth century in his critique of the Jesus reconstructed by scholars in their search for the historical Jesus, for these scholars all reconstituted Jesus in their own image. The tendency undoubtedly goes back centuries, for instance to Thomas à Kempis in his famous, fifteenth-century De imitatione Christi, as we perhaps see here, in an English translation by Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton, The Imitation of Christ (Bruce Publishing Company, 1940), Book 4, Chapter 8:
The first part is about Jesus. It asks students to imagine Jesus' personality, with questions such as, "Does he prefer to go his own way rather than act by the rules?" and "Is he a worrier?" The second part asks the same questions of the students, but instead of "Is he a worrier?" it asks, "Are you a worrier?" The test is not about right or wrong answers, nor is it designed to help students understand Jesus. Instead, if given to enough people, the test will reveal that we all think Jesus is like us. Introverts think Jesus is introverted, for example, and, on the basis of the same questions, extroverts think Jesus is extroverted.
Spiritual formation experts would love to hear that students in my Jesus class are becoming like Jesus, but the test actually reveals the reverse: Students are fashioning Jesus to be more like themselves. If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar. To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.
Since we are pushing this point, let's not forget historical Jesus scholars, whose academic goal is to study the records, set the evidence in historical context, render judgment about the value of the evidence, and compose a portrait of "what Jesus was really like." They, too, have ended up making Jesus in their own image.
As I offered Myself willingly to God the Father for your sins with hands outstretched and body naked on the cross, so that nothing remained in Me that had not become a complete sacrifice to appease the divine wrath, so ought you to be willing to offer yourself to Me day by day in the Mass as a pure and holy oblation, together with all your faculties and affections, with as much inward devotion as you can.Here, we see a Christ who renounced all of his 'self' on the cross and asks his followers to do the same, which would likely appeal to Christians of many varieties of Christianity, but in some of the specifics might appeal only to Catholics, for in references to the "mass" and to Christ's body and blood as "food," we see a very Catholic Christ exhorting Catholic Christians to (distantly) imitate him by offering themselves as "oblations" during the same mass. Thomas à Kempis would thus appear to have constructed Christ as a Catholic.
What more do I ask than that you give yourself entirely to Me? I care not for anything else you may give Me, for I seek not your gift but you. Just as it would not be enough for you to have everything if you did not have Me, so whatever you give cannot please Me if you do not give yourself.
Offer yourself to Me, therefore, and give yourself entirely for God -- your offering will be accepted. Behold, I offered Myself wholly to the Father for you, I even gave My whole Body and Blood for food that I might be all yours, and you Mine forever.
But if you rely upon self, and do not offer your free will to Mine, your offering will be incomplete and the union between us imperfect. Hence, if you desire to attain grace and freedom of heart, let the free offering of yourself into the hands of God precede your every action. This is why so few are inwardly free and enlightened -- they know not how to renounce themselves entirely.
My word stands: "Everyone of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be My disciple." (Luke 14:33)
If, therefore, you wish to be My disciple, offer yourself to Me with all your heart. (paragraphs 231-232)
I offer nothing surprising or profound in this observation, obviously, neither anything original nor purely scholarly. I was simply struck by Scot McKnight's anecdote about students and by the thought that Thomas à Kempis must have done the same sort of thing.
I suppose that some scholar has looked into the point, but this is just a note to myself . . .