So who do you say that I am?
The Lectionary reading in the UK last week was that focal passage from St Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus challenges his followers to identify him and suggest where he might fit in the natural order of things (Mark 8.29). The conventional wisdom on this verse is that the disciples have yet to grasp who or what Jesus is, and despite attributing to him the title “Messiah”, they fail to understand. This is followed almost immediately by a further passage where some of his followers start arguing over which one of them is to be the greatest (Mark 9.34), so it is evident that they have still not understood. Within the natural order of things in that culture it would be logical to ask where the followers of this great man were to fit into some sort of hierarchy. Would we not ask exactly the same sort of question in our own culture? His reply is enigmatic, as Jesus takes a little child and says that anyone who welcomes some such as this welcomes him. What is he on about?
The message would seem to be that “the natural order of things” no longer applies and that in Jesus we encounter a new and different world, one that is hard to recognise, identify or categorise. So the effect of encountering Jesus is that one becomes radically disorientated – we no longer know who we are, or where we fit into things. We perhaps experience lesser versions of this when we first encounter a person who will turn out to be a “significant other” in one’s life. We have to begin to reconfigure or relocate ourselves in relation to this other person, as they also do in relation to us. The world changes in some way as and when we meet a life partner, for instance, or when a child is born. Even when a friend or colleague moves or takes up another post we may be forced to re-think or renegotiate our relationship to them. Perhaps they no longer feature in our life in the same way and contact is fractured or lost. There is a constant “shuffling around” as those close to us change their location or status, and the precise nature of our relatedness has to be discovered or developed anew.
What does this tell us about relationships and human responses? It tells us that there has to be some stake in a relationship before a response can be expected. It sounds obvious and is, but we tend to ignore it when we start to question why it is that many people fail to respond to external challenges such as economic or environmental threats. Intellectual arguments abound along with scientific evidence, but these have little or no purchase on most people and life goes on as before. Perhaps the encounter is so disorientating that we do not know where to locate ourselves in relation to it – so what has this got to do with me? The old order carries on as we fail to even recognise that a new one needs to be acknowledged and built into our responses. The very language we use and concepts which shape our consciousness prevent a response. This does not fit into the familiar scheme of things so we push it to one side. Thought collectives, plausibility structures, conventional wisdom – each different ways of describing the human propensity to remain within safe and familiar ways of thought and action.
There has to be some recognisable point of contact, a relatedness based on direct experience rather than intellectual argument before a response can reasonably be expected. “So who do you say that I am?”. No encounter, then no question and no response. This is why one of the key tasks of any form of ministry, let alone a political or public theology, must be to identify locations for encounter, those liminal spaces in which we meet the new and unfamiliar. But, even then, without a framework within which to place that encounter the opportunity may be lost. At least the disciples had some language with which to identify Jesus – he was the Messiah – although what that meant in practice had still to be worked out. The concept itself was to be redefined in relation to who Jesus was and to how his life was to work out. No title fully captured this new order and this new reality.
And here is one of the central problems we face as a species I would suggest. The tried and trusted language we use no longer does justice to the relatedness to the world that will determine and dominate our future on this planet. We can no longer tell who we are or where we should fit in relation to all forms of non-human being, and that may be our downfall. At best we are disorientated by these encounters, at worst we are not even aware that they are happening. It is as if we are sleepwalking into the future, one where the old paradigms simply no longer apply. Can we even hear the question being posed to us now? So who do you say that I am?