- Jesus, Man of Sin: Toward a New Christology in the Global Era
Sin as the Common Ground
The blasphemous title of this article is likely to outrage more than a few devout Christians. I am aware that most Christians view Jesus as the most immaculate and beautiful person who ever lived. As a Buddhist scholar and practitioner, however, I cannot extinguish a long-held question from my mind. Was Jesus really free from sin? I do not object to the view of those Christians who see him as the greatest living expression of compassion and courage. But the Christian construction of an untainted, perfect image of Jesus, the Son of God, raises certain problems that I would like to address. Although Jesus, the Anointed, could have had a special mission in the human world, the Son of Man did not appear as the Holy Ghost. He was incarnated in human form: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father” (John 1:14).
It is important to carefully consider the meaning of the Incarnation. The fact that Jesus came to be born with flesh in this world means that he chose to stand on the common ground of sin with us. The sin that I refer to here is the most ontologically fundamental sin that is at the core of human experience. What links us with Jesus is none other than so-called Original Sin.
To be sure, as a man who comes from a different religious tradition, I do not make this outrageous claim because I want to dispute the value of the divine personhood of Jesus, or because I am cynical about the most sacred object of Christian faith. I have a deep respect for the greatness of the Christian tradition that has developed around this very unusual person, Jesus Christ.
On a personal level too, I do not think of Jesus as a distant figure, as merely the god of another religion. During my boyhood in Japan, I often attended an Episcopal church; and the first academic degree I earned in the United States was in theological studies. In light of all that I have learned from my own personal involvement with Christianity, I still believe that Jesus was a person who suffered like us as a sinful human being.
If I were to choose the most important of Jesus’ words from the Bible, I would not hesitate to point to the following passage: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? (My God, my God, why have you deserted me?)” (Mark 15:34). It is surprising how few Christian scholars have offered persuasive interpretations of these words, which Jesus is said to have uttered in the final moments of his life. Many Christians would rather not hear such contradictory, despairing words come from the mouth of Jesus. Yet [End Page 81] these words of extreme suffering contain the key message at the core of Christian faith.
Though I am also interested in Jesus’ historical background and the political role he played in a tiny corner of the Roman Empire, it is not the purpose of this article to investigate the historicity of Jesus’ life, as many theologians and historians have attempted to do in recent years. I will focus instead on the philosophical implications of Jesus’ life and his physical body, and why I believe it is important to develop a new Christology for the coming global era.
The Karmic Body of Jesus
First, why did Jesus have to experience the suffering of crucifixion? The evident answer might be explained this way: because he sacrificed himself to redeem the human race, which has been sinning since the time of Adam and Eve. I would like, however, to suggest a totally different answer: Jesus was crucified to atone for his own sin. He courageously showed the way each of us must take responsibility for our own lives. He deserves our high admiration, but not excessive mystification.
I do not mean that Jesus committed any specific sin in his lifetime, but rather that as the Son of Man he too was...