The money quote from the interview is this,
Who’s Jesus to you?
(He laughs nervously)
Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.
And he’s also a wonderful teacher. I think it’s important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history.
The summary conclusion from Mr. Douthat is this:
Given the muddled way in which most Americans approach religion, and the pervasiveness of heterodoxy, I suppose I’m basically with Alan Jacobs: I think that figuring out exactly what sort of things Obama believes about God and Christ and everything else, and how those beliefs may affect his Presidency, is ultimately a more profitable pursuit than arguing about whether he should be allowed to call himself a Christian. Or put another way: I expect my Presidents to be heretics, but I think it matters a great deal what kind of heretics they are.
President Elect Obama’s response is incredibly – dare I say – nuanced. The first two sentences are almost stock evangelicalism. There is a Jesus, and he’s the one that bridges the chasm between us and God caused by sin. President Obama doesn’t say sin. He just says bridge and I’m sure this is part of where Mr. Douthat get his semi-arian line. Not being specific leaves open the “buddha” path who shows us the way to God – and President Obama’s next line (in the christian faith) can easily be read like that – in christianity Jesus was the “buddha” guy. It is a very tolerant and relative statement.
Essentially Obama’s statement from an orthodox perspecitve starts out great and goes downhill. The last line of his first paragraph (means of us reaching something higher) is really tough. Putting the best construction on it you might be able to say it is correct because Jesus is the means of our salvation, but the thought of us reaching higher implies that we have some role to play (instead of Jesus reaching down to us) and the something higher is just spiritual clap-trap. When he brings up the Jesus-the-great-teacher, it is true, but at the most banal level. That is the usual response of agnostics who just don’t want to think about theology.
Then President Obama leaves the quote with a great insight about in the flesh. He’s talking to the orthodox again. President Obama is talking incarnation. God had to be incarnated to pay for sin. All told He has addressed every possible constituent – excluding atheists. It is a great political answer.
That kinda puts in doubt Mr. Douthat’s conclusion in that I’m not sure President Obama’s answer gives us real insight into his beliefs. I can either believe that someone who can discuss Neibuhr with David Brooks can actually give this scrambled an answer, or I can believe President Obama knew exactly what he was saying and found a fantastic political answer. As a pastor, I guess I’d rather think the first. As an American, easily I want the second. That is where Mr. Douthat is on better ground. Being orthodox is not a job requirement of a politician. In fact, it might be a hinderance. I’m interested because when talking theology you are talking fundamental patterns of thought. If your theology says perfection is possible, that will have an impact on your governing. [The left used to have a phrase “immanantize the eschaton” which meant exactly that – make a perfect world (the one from the end of time, the eschaton) real right now (immananitze). Arguably that theology was behind all kinds of bad public policy. Mankind is not perfectable here and now.]
What it really comes down to is don’t look for you theology from a politician. That is mixing up the two kingdoms which is close to Ghostbusters crossing the streams. Only bad things happen.