It feels odd to write the words “Jesus question,” because Jesus has never been much of a question for me. Over the years, when quizzed why I am still a Christian, I have always responded, “Because of Jesus. I know it sounds corny, but I love Jesus.” If you love Jesus, if you somehow believe in and believe Jesus, that comes pretty near the definition of what it means to be a Christian. Although I’m not quite at the end point yet, my eulogy might say I was a “cradle to grave” Jesus person.
That does not mean I have not questioned Jesus. There are lots of questions when it comes to Jesus. Nine out of ten Americans (not just Christians, but Americans) believe that Jesus was a real person, and six of ten say they have made some sort of personal commitment to Jesus. Two thousand years after he lived, “Jesus” may still be one of the most recognized names on the planet, making for myriad questions from all sorts of people. Those who are not Christians have questions; those who are no longer Christians have questions; people who are trying to stay Christian have questions; Christians have questions. I have questions about Jesus still. And many friends and acquaintances regularly ask me their questions about Jesus.
The most typical questions from people of other religions involve basic queries about Jesus—things like who he was, what he taught, and whether Christians actually believe he rose from the dead. Questions from those who are no longer Christian often involve skepticism regarding doctrines, especially those about the Trinity, miracles, or some particular teaching that makes no sense, and are the core reason for their rejection of the faith. But the struggling question too. Recent surveys show that even among churchgoers, belief in classic dogma about Jesus—such as his having lived a sinless life, his virgin birth, and his divinity—has eroded significantly in recent years.
Most of these surveys devise their questions on the basis of Christian creedal statements, the ancient formulations outlining orthodoxy, or “right belief,” as determined by certain early church authorities. That is actually odd, given that people in the United States are leaving religion in droves and only about one in four (or five, depending on the research) Americans attend a religious service on a regular basis. Quizzing people on material when they have not attended class does not seem quite fair. Some may vaguely remember what their church told them to believe about Jesus and manage to check the correct box, but many more fail the test. And that is the real problem: thinking that belief is an exam, that there are right or wrong answers.
A few years after the Romans killed Jesus, a man named Saul was persecuting Jesus’s early followers, known as those who belonged to the Way. When he was traveling to Damascus, a light from heaven struck Saul to the ground as a voice thundered, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul, a zealous Jew, knew the voice of God when he heard it. “Who are you, Lord?” he asked. The voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:3–5). In a life-changing second, Saul—later known as Paul—became a believer. But not because of a creed or any idea about Jesus, because creeds did not exist yet and the ideas he held about Jesus were not particularly helpful. He believed because he experienced Jesus as a blinding light, as the risen Christ, as healer of his own broken soul. He would have gotten every question on the doctrine test wrong.
In the decades that followed, however, Paul would reflect on his experience of Jesus—and his many experiences of Jesus yet to come—sharing those reflections and insights in letters to his friends and co-workers in small Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire. Those letters, Paul’s ruminations on his Christ experience, were loved and treasured by the church; eventually they would make up about a third of the New Testament and form the theological spine of much of Christian doctrine.
Each letter struggles with Paul’s very first question—“Who are you?”—as he contends with faith, personal travails, and conflicts in the little churches he founded. Through the letters, we do not meet a single Jesus. Rather, Paul introduces many Jesuses: gift-giving Savior, egalitarian radical, Wisdom of God, Merciful One, Light of the World, Joy of All Hearts, mystical insight, deliverer from sin and guilt, cosmic vision. From his first encounter on the Damascus road, along the paths of his missionary journeys, to his own imprisonment and execution, Paul met Jesus over and over again, and Jesus was always new.
Paul’s first question intrigues me. He asked, “Who are you?” not “What are you doing?” or “Why are you talking to me?” “Who” is a relational question, a question that opens us toward companionship, friendship, and perhaps even love. It is the question we try to answer whenever we meet someone new; if we find out “who” is sitting across from us, we might know how to proceed with whatever comes next. To know “who” is an invitation into a relationship that can—if we let it—change us, often sending our lives onto a completely unexpected path.
If we think that being with Jesus means getting the right answers from a creed or remembering points of doctrine from a sermon, we probably will not manage to truly know Jesus. We will only succeed in keeping the right responses scribbled on some back page of our memory. “Who are you, Lord?” is the question of a lifetime, to be asked and experienced over and over again. That query frees Jesus to show up in our lives over and over again, and entails remembering where we first met, how we struggled with each other along the road, and what we learned in the process.
I just passed a “big” birthday, having completed the sixth decade of my journey with Jesus. Like Paul so many centuries before, I have not known just one Jesus—I have met many. But there are six who stand out, the Jesuses who have been with me: friend, teacher, Savior, Lord, way, and presence. At each part of the journey, I met Jesus primarily in these ways, with the particular understanding appropriate to that stage—from childhood, through the teen and young adult years, to adulthood, wherever I was on life’s time line. Jesus as my friend was my earliest experience. Although I am well past the Sunday school room, I still understand Jesus as friend, but it is different now than it was then. The same goes for each Jesus in turn.
This book is an exercise in memory—remembering then, with all the nostalgia, sorrow, and joy memory summons. It is also an exercise in now, taking the lessons once learned and applying them to the present. And it is an exercise in what can be, having a certain confidence to keep on the way in the midst of even radical challenges. We live in a time of disruptions, deconstruction, and dislocations, of political chaos, climate crisis, and global pandemic. Yet we are still called to go on journeys to unexpected places, get lost, get found, and continue farther down the road.
As I collected the memories of Jesus assembled in these pages, I realized how profoundly the past shapes our spiritual lives. A verse in the New Testament says: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Sometimes Christians interpret that to mean that Jesus is static, almost like a pillar of stone, ever reliable, never changing. But we, of course, do change, and because of that Jesus goes with us in and through change, growing with us as we grow, a surprising companion who never ceases to be who we need at any given time, showing up recognized but ever new. This is not a story about a fundamentalist, liberal, orthodox, unconventional, demythologized, or liberationist Jesus (even though some of those Jesuses show up in this tale). Instead, this is a story of the Jesus of experience, who shows up consistently and when least expected. Freeing Jesus means finding Jesus along the way.
Your six Jesuses may be different, or they may be the same but in a different order. Perhaps you have known eight or ten Jesuses. Or maybe you have only known one and are looking to know that Jesus more deeply or anew. Whatever the case, you are welcome here—to this story of Jesus, a rediscovery of the Jesus who is liberated from constraint and whose company releases the possibility of peace, healing, and compassion in our lives and for the world.
Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books on American religion, including Christianity After Religion, Christianity for the Rest of Us, and A People’s History of Christianity. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Duke University, has taught at the college and graduate level, and is currently an independent scholar. She was a columnist for the New York Times Syndicate, and blogs for the Huffington Post and the Washington Post on issues of religion, spirituality, and culture. Bass is a popular speaker at conferences, colleges and universities, and churches across North America. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, daughter, and dog. Her website is dianabutlerbass.com and she can be followed on Twitter at @dianabutlerbass.