written by Eugen Spierer
The blue water of the Sea of Galilee glimmered in the distance. I was sipping my chain store coffee, pensively awaiting my wife and two boys to finish the canoe trip they had taken on the Jordan River. We were no more than a hundred feet away from the place where I had been baptized three years earlier. The water was delightful then, and I followed the baptism with a short swim before reverting back to my normal hydrophobic state, hence my reluctance to join my family on the canoe.
We sometimes think life takes us in weird directions, only to look back and realize the course was called for all along. Signs of an impending change were clear years before I was baptized, ever since my extensive STEM education was shaken by a Philosophy of Science course that made it clear the answers to my everyday existential angst were to be found elsewhere. Once my former bastion of knowledge had begun to crumble, I searched for a new foundation upon which to base my thoughts. Surprisingly, the answer presented itself in a picturesque narrative I knew very little about but enjoyed. Those were just stories at the time, but they grew in my psyche to become life-changing descriptions of a God crucified by His own creatures. As a native Hebrew speaker living in the Holy Land, I realized I was afforded a fantastic opportunity to experience firsthand the places where it had all happened.
That day we were on our way to the Mount of Beatitudes when the three canoeists suddenly decided they wanted to hopelessly try and fend off the river banks. I was eager to see the place where Jesus had instructed His disciples in what would become one of humanity’s great endowments. My hope was that it would inspire in me a deeper understanding of a pressing question. You see, contrary to its appeal to many a convert, the Christian narrative did not supply me with immediate answers. Instead, it opened the door to an entire world upon which new questions could be formulated. I still had my scientific background, which I did not want to give up on for fear of falling too deep into the rabbit hole of unstructured thinking. Therefore, I tried to combine my newfound world of faith with the world I had previously known – that of facts, logic, and the illusion of certainty. The result was an inner world composed of two narratives, and while many had tried to persuade me from abandoning each, I chose to struggle with the difficult questions raised by the amalgamation of both.
Relieved that none of the happy sailors fell into the water (holy as it may be), we proceeded north along the jammed eastern bank of the Kinneret. Thanks to the preceding winter’s abundance of showers, the lake’s overflowing banks almost reached the road we were driving on. Many Israelis roamed the beaches, shedding their post Coronavirus curfew anxieties while paying exorbitant prices for popsicles and rented sunshades. The warm weather, the palm trees towering above the green scenery and the Golan peaks beaconing on our right all induced a meditative state ruined only by the constant shouting and bickering of the little duo sitting in the back.
The answer I was looking for had proven elusive, fleeting and unconvincing. Did Jesus really exist? Was He just a man? Was He a God? A scientist sure can’t agree upon Jesus’ existence merely because he’d read about it in a book, can he? But if I don’t accept this at face value, what should I believe? How can Jesus’ existence as a man-God be reconciled with a worldview that demands proof and consistency? As we neared the mount where Jesus had given His sermon, the question resurfaced. I thought of those who had told me that as a Christian, I should accept the truth of Mary’s parthenogenesis without question. Others had claimed that the sheer absurdness of such an occurrence nullifies the very possibility of the Christian faith. I hoped that the mount itself would steer some discerning emotions in me but as we arrived, different emotions arose. The walled-off local monastery with its locked gates made me resent those who claimed the place as their own prime real estate. The nuns even trimmed the bushes next to the entryway in the shape of a Latin phrase: Pax et Bonum. I just thought it ridiculous. The money and effort put into the whole manicured mansion could have been better used elsewhere. Perhaps helping the needy or bringing some actual pax to this troubled land.
Left to our own devices, we decided to take a stroll around the monastery. The scattered Eucalypti offered some shade and the chirping birds reminded me who was the real boss of that sacred ground. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was soon replaced by a very artificial avocado orchard interspersed with leftover packaging material. That was hardly the mood evoking scenery I was looking for. The mount of Beatitudes looked just like any other hill in the region. Tainted by human presence, it had lost the numinous aura accorded to it by its glorious past. It did not inspire me to come up with a better understanding of the matter at hand, so following a hopeless debate with my two boys about the disadvantages of eating immature avocados, we headed back to the car, leaving the matter to blind fate or a tummy ache.
The question of Jesus’ existence had become even more pressing after I had watched the 2001 film “The Body.” In the movie, Father Matt Gutierrez (played by the wonderful Antonio Banderas) is faced with scientific evidence of Christ’s body still in its tomb. The finding shakes his belief to its core. I could absolutely identify with the breakdown Fr. Gutierrez experiences, but not because I have gone through it myself. It was more of a chronic annoyance for me, as I was sure the future held definite answers. Nevertheless, the movie has left its mark in the form of the tremendous importance carried by the question and my personal urgency to find an answer. How could I reconcile the existence of Jesus Christ with a methodical, analytical system of thought?
On our way back home, we went into Tiberias to grab some supper. Walking along the promenade lining the Sea of Galilee’s bank, we admired how high the water level was. I have never seen it that high, and it felt good. It felt like nature was finally able to rehabilitate itself. However, the city itself was still as sad as I had remembered it. Decades of governmental neglect and a few touristless months during the pandemic left the promenade and its inhabitants in literal ruins. The little kiosks spread about empty restaurants were gloomier than ever. Their client-starved owners desperate for the return of the tourist season. Of course, the waterside churches towering above us still looked old and dignified. Their gates locked, God forbid anyone enter and pray outside of mass hours.
Opting for an overpriced cup of joe, we sat and watched the kids play among the many Arab families that roamed the promenade. The sun was setting behind us while the Kinneret’s tranquil waters and cool breeze induced in me a stillness of mind, interrupted only by the occasional electric bicycle rider riding through the crowd at takeoff speeds, nearly knocking small children to kingdom come. I remembered the words of Karl Barth, who claimed our faith is not our own but endowed by the Lord Himself. If that were true, then my question was also a product of God’s work and was worthy of being met with trust and love. I might never find a definite answer, and that was ok. It is the question itself and the rumination it afforded that justified its very existence. I knew that as long as I kept straddling the two worlds of science and faith, those questions were bound to come up. The answers, like a prosperous Tiberias, would need more than a brimming lake.