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Christian Tirthankara: Ford Finders

1 December 2011

tirthankaraThis morning I was having a great conversation at Starbucks with Pastor Chris Coffman, the associate pastor of outreach at our church.  We were talking about pastoral sin. (now THERE’S a fun topic for you!) 

We talked about the tension between the need/desire for church members to know that their pastors are human, but their fear that they will be “too human”.  Historically when pastors have been shown to be “too human” they are figuratively crucified and drummed out of ministry.   The burden of proof in finding this balance does not lie on the lay person, however. The burden of proof (as it were) lies on the leader.  He or she has the responsibility to make an effort to make the fact of his weaknesses known, without destroying her credibility among the people of the congregation. 

I don’t exactly know why, but the concept of tirthankara came to my mind.  (Of course, I’m sure the same thing came to YOUR mind!) Winking smile

Many of you know that one of my (many) jobs is teaching eastern religions for the University of Phoenix. In the second week of the class we look at Hinduism and Jainism.  (Hinduism is known as the world’s oldest existing religion and Jainism is/began as a reaction to the polytheism and ritualism of Hinduism. While Hinduism is the world’s 4th largest religion [900 million adherents], Jainism is the world’s 14th largest religion [4.2 million adherents])  Jainism is also very old, its origins really lost in the mist of time.  It is particularly known for emphasizing the importance of non-attachment and non-harm to all living creatures.

In Jainism there is the concept of the tirthankara.  They believe that there have been 24 perfect people in history (although there is no evidence that most of them were historical persons).  They are supposedly people who have reached moral perfection/enlightenment/liberation.  But not all people who reach this state are tirthankara.  Only those who then turn and teach and lead others to find the path are tirthankara, which is Sanskrit for “crossing-makers” or “ford-finders”.  The picture is of passing through a river.  The word specifically does NOT mean “bridge”.  Central to the term is the idea is of fording:  finding a shallow section of a river through which people can wade to the other side.  No one can cross to the other side without getting wet and going through the river itself.

Now, I don’t want to go down “the Jain road” too far (we get into terms like moksa, samsara, and siddha)—tirthankara in Jain teaching it is NOT a concept that is compatible with Christian teaching—or carry the analogy to an extreme.  But in my mind, leaders in the church (pastors, elders, etc.) play the role of Christian tirthankara—“ford finders”.  They are people who have gone through the river and have gotten wet.  Some (unfortunately), in finding the ford, have gotten into water over their head.  The question is not if they have been submerged into the river.  The question is what has happened after that:  has there been true repentance and growth in Christ?  Have they indeed found “the ford” through which they can lead people to the other side (Christian maturity).  Leaders must not pretend to be people who have never gotten their feet wet (struggled and even succumbed to sin).  Some have found the ford right away…but they still have gotten wet. Some have almost drowned and have found the ford only at the last minute by the grace of Christ.  By definition, you cannot ford a stream without getting wet. Have they discovered the combination of humility, repentance and Christ-dependency that the people they lead must learn?   By that I don’t mean “book learning”.  The scriptural truths are absolutely true.  But the real “ford-finders” have an existential understanding of these concepts of repentance, humility and Christ-dependence.

I still don’t know that I have found an answer to the question of how pastors are to share their sinfulness with their congregations without destroying their credibility.  But (as in many things) I believe success is found in the struggle.  The balance will probably vary for every pastor and for every congregation (and perhaps even for groups within the congregation?)

I have more thinking and praying to do on this subject.  What insights has God given you as you have read this? I hope you will share it in the comments section.


2 Comments to “Christian Tirthankara: Ford Finders”

  1. Even though you say that “tirthankara in Jain teaching it is NOT a concept that is compatible with Christian teaching”, you then utilize the concept to illustrate a Christian leadership principle. I think that would prove that there is something compatible with Christian teaching, though peripheral to central components of the gospel.

    The element of 24 perfect tirthankara would not be compatible, but the metaphor seems relatable. One could, potentially, understand Christ as the great ford-finder, which would put his human experience, especially the suffering, in more meaningful context than to view Christ as purely transcendent.

    Would you be interested in re-posting this at globaltheology.org?

    • Michael:
      I thought of both of those points. I still would hold that the doctrinal content of what makes a tirthankara is not compatible with Christian teaching, but if it is used as a metaphor (you use that word) of someone who has found the way, has become changed by the process and then takes others along, I think it applies.

      I also think that there is an entire post that could be done on Christ as our great tirthankara. (It likely applies to him even more than it does to us). It crossed my mind, but that was not the point I wanted to make in this post.

      See my e-mail to you about cross posting.
      Thanks for your comment.

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