Psychology and Biblical Studies


SBL Annual Meeting Papers, November 2010

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Imitating Christ: Jesus as a Model in Cognitive Learning Theory

D. Andrew Kille

When people are free to do as they please,
they usually imitate each other.
Eric Hoffer (Hoffer, 1955)

“The minister went up into his study and shut the door. In a few minutes he heard his wife go out, and then everything was quiet. He settled himself at his desk with a sigh of relief and began to write. His text was from 1 Peter 2:21: `For hereunto were ye called; because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that ye should follow his steps’” (Sheldon, 1897). The sermon that the Rev. Henry Maxwell preaches from that text provides the key to Charles M. Sheldon’s 1897 novel In His Steps, in which the pastor challenges his flock to pledge that for an entire year they will not undertake any action without first asking “What would Jesus do?”  Sheldon’s book sold millions of copies, was translated into twenty languages, and provided the undergirding for the contemporary “What Would Jesus Do?” movement among evangelical Christians, the origin of those WWJD wristbands sold online along with bands intended to remind us to support our troops, promote cancer awareness and “LiveStrong” with Lance Armstrong.

Rev. Maxwell’s sermon text was taken from 1 Peter, but the idea of imitating Jesus appears several times in the letters of Paul. Interestingly enough, nearly every time that Paul calls upon his readers to be “imitators,” it is himself that he holds up as a model, sometimes in conjunction with “the Lord,” and sometimes himself alone. “Become imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1.

In this paper, we will examine the idea of imitating Christ, or of imitating Paul imitating Christ through the lens of observational learning as developed by Albert Bandura, and the complications that are introduced into the process by the fact that the human Jesus is no longer present to Paul’s audience, and that Paul himself is no longer present to contemporary readers. We will consider how some of the aspects of observational learning illuminate how the model of “Jesus” is developed and how both personal and community factors affect the shape of that model.

Paul and mimēsis

Paul employs the idea of imitation (NOTE: see the .pdf version for Greek text ) frequently in his writings. He praises the Thessalonians for having become “imitators (mimetai) of us and of the Lord” (1Thess 1:6), following the example that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy gave them while living among them (1 Thess 1:1, 4). He further praises them for their imitation “of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea,” in suffering attacks from their former compatriots (1 Thess 2:14).

Following up in his second letter to the Thessalonians, he supports his admonitions against idleness by calling on their capacity for imitation:

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us (Greek) we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate (Greek) (2 Thess 3:7-9).

Paul invites the Philippians to join together in imitating him and those who have already learned from his example: “Brothers, become joint imitators of me (Greek), and observe those who live according to the example you have in us” (Phil 3:17). Note, however, that earlier in the letter he had called the community to follow the model of Christ (though without using the language of “imitation”): “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5)

It is in the Corinthian letters that we find what is apparently Paul’s most bold challenge to imitate him. He claims his right as the “father” of the Corinthian community to be a model for them: “Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” (1Cor 4:15b-16).

Finally, in the course of his advice on how to deal with the issue of meat offered to idols, he describes how he seeks to please everyone, not for his own advantage, but to work for the salvation of all, he ultimately calls upon the Corinthians to “Be [or become] imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1Cor 11:1).

At first glance, Paul’s claim to be a model for the church could be construed as a kind of egocentrism and inflation. But it should be noted that in each case, he takes care to say that he himself is not the model to be emulated; it is when he seeks to imitate Christ that he becomes a worthy example for the community.

Paul employs a rhetorical device that would have been quite familiar to his audience. Mimēsis appears in Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient Greek writers, covering three related, but somewhat different concepts– “(1) the simple act of mimicking what one sees another doing, (2) the joy of following and emulating another, and (3) the representation of reality in artistic activities (e.g. theater, painting, sculpture, poetry)” (Wilkins, 1992, 392). 

The idea that we learn by observing or imitating others is no great surprise. By the familiar flippant comment “Monkey see; monkey do,” in our recognition that children pay attention to our behavior as much (if not more) than they do to our instruction (“faith is caught, more than taught”), or in the religious traditions of the East which insist upon the importance of a guru for genuine spiritual development, we acknowledge the importance of learning by observing and emulating significant models. In tribal cultures, especially non-literate cultures, children learn almost exclusively through imitation of adults. “Book learning” is, in fact, a relatively rare and modern form of education.

A story in the Hasidic Jewish tradition tells of a rabbi who would make an annual pilgrimage to see the Maggid of Mezrich. When he returned, he was asked what Torah he went to learn. The rabbi answered, "I do not go to learn interpretations of Torah. I go to watch the way he ties his shoes." Much of what is important for growth in the spiritual life is not about information or theology; it is about experience and living out what we have been taught.

Clearly, Paul is not calling upon his readers to copy either him or Jesus slavishly, nor to engage in artistic renderings of reality. It is the second form of mimēsis, the benefit of emulating another, that Paul has in mind. But how is this imitation to be done, when we no longer have the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to see the rabbi– be it Rabbi Paul or Rabbi Jesus?

Observational Learning (Albert Bandura)

Jo-Ann Brant warns against taking Paul’s idea of mimēsis in its simplest sense as merely mimicking the behavior of another:

Mimēsis, as a process of education, is neither the Skinnerian education of the late 20th century nor the Benthamite ideal of the 19th century. In both these cases, the educator shapes the pupil. In the mimēsis of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the imitator, by acting as Paul does, gains cognizance of the meaning of his or her actions. The actions should be deliberate and self-shaping in order to realize the goal of spiritual maturity. Simple mimicry cannot achieve such an ideal. (Brant, 1993, 295)

Brant is correct in her analysis, as far as it goes. Skinner’s strict behaviorist system does not allow for the kind of mimēsis that Paul is calling for. In classical behavioral theory, actions are always reactions– responses to stimuli that evoke responses that have been shaped by positive or negative reinforcement. Each action then becomes a potential stimulus, and the cycle of stimulus– response– reinforcement continues indefinitely. {slide 3}


Operant Conditioning

However Skinner, is far from having the last word in the psychology of learning. Cognitive theories of learning recognize that there are mental processes involved in perceiving and interpreting information, in storing information in memory and in retrieving it for later use. {slide 4}

Cognitive Learning


Observational Theory (Bandura)

Many psychologists were aware that there were simply too many aspects of actual learning that the stimulus-response method failed to explain. Albert Bandura noted that observational learning went beyond merely imitating what one sees. {slide 5} For example, a driver observing another driver ahead running into a pothole may learn not to imitate the behavior, and will rather attempt to avoid striking the pothole. {slide 6} Bandura argued that observation, joined with cognitive processing, gave rise to behavior. Information is transformed into symbolic representation which then can shape subsequent action.

Several phases of this process can be identified, each with its own set of factors that will shape the ultimate behavior. These phases are Attentional Processes, Retention Processes, Production Processes, and Motivational Processes. {slide 7}

In order to learn from observation, it is necessary first that the model must attract the individual’s attention. We constantly filter the information that comes to us from the world around through our senses, and any number of possible models of behavior fail to catch our attention at all. Attentional processes have to do with how a model is identified and observed.

Once the modeled behavior is noticed, retention processes come into play. Unless the information can be stored for use later, it will be “in one ear and out the other,” momentarily entertaining, perhaps, but not useful for learning. Bandura argued that this information can be stored in two ways– imaginally and verbally. Imaginal storage consists of actual images of past experiences that return to shape responses to current situations. Far more important, in Bandura’s view, is verbal symbolization:

Most of the cognitive processes that regulate behavior are primarily conceptual rather than imaginal. Because of the extraordinary flexibility of verbal symbols, the intricacies and complexities of behavior can be conveniently captured in words. (Bandura, 1986, p. 58)

The third dimension of learning involves the question of whether the learner can, in fact, reproduce the behavior that has been observed. Even though we might be able to watch hour upon hour of Lance Armstrong’s training and bicycle riding and understand every detail of his performance, it does not by any means follow that we can then go out and win the Tour de France. We might learn cognitively how to do something, but still be far from able to carry it out. This factor involves what Bandura calls production processes.

Finally, Bandura reminds us that learners must be motivated to learn. They must believe that there will be some kind of reward for learning from the model. This is the role of reinforcement in Bandura’s system– a learner must have the expectation that they will receive some positive reinforcement for imitating the modeled behavior. In classical behavioral theory, the reinforcement, whether positive or negative, had to be directly experienced, and thus directly shaped behavior. Bandura’s approach took seriously the fact that learning can take place vicariously– that seeing the results of another’s behavior can be just as effective as experiencing the reward or punishment oneself. Motivational processes involve this evaluation of the potential benefit or deficit of a possible behavior.

Reciprocal determinism

Classic behavioralism says that the environment is the key determinant of behavior, as the organism responds to stimuli from the world around. Other psychological theories emphasize the innate characteristics of the individual, or assert free choice in one’s actions. Bandura’s theory incorporates all three. What determines an individual’s behavior is not simply a function of the environment, the personality, or the individual’s choices, but an interaction of all three– a reciprocal determinism.

Social Learning

So it is in each of the four phases mentioned before that there are factors determining each that have their locus in the individual, in the environment, and/or in the individual’s behavior. Thus, for example, with regard to attentional processes, the strength of the model itself depends on its visibility, its similarity to the individual, its power, and its attractiveness. At the same time, the individual will tend to notice or disregard a given model because of previous experience, perceptual acuity, or how it is valued (reinforced) in the social group or culture.

Social valuation also plays a significant role in the motivational phase of observational learning. Since motivation depends in part on the learner’s expectation that imitating a given model will have positive results for him- or herself, the way in which a given behavior is valued within their social environment may well lead to choosing one exemplar over another, or in devoting more energy to seeking to imitate a highly valued model.

Self-regulated behavior and Self-efficacy

If behavior were only a matter of external stimuli and reinforcement, then individuals’ behavior would change drastically every time there was a significant change in the environment. Clearly, this is not so, and thus Bandura affirms that behavior is primarily self-regulating. In observing models of behavior, we internalize performance standards and then employ these standards in evaluating our own actions. The standards may be related to actual past experiences of reward, such as receiving praise from significant persons, or they may be derived from vicarious observation of others. If we accomplish what we intended to do, our self-evaluation will be a form of positive reinforcement; if we fall short, we evaluate ourselves negatively. This form of internal reinforcement, Bandura believes, is more powerful than external rewards or punishments.

Related to self-evaluation is what Bandura calls self-efficacy. This is the individual’s perception of his or her ability to carry out a specific behavior. It can be based on actual experience of success or failure, observations of others’ achievement or on internalized verbal symbols. Self-efficacy is one of the factors that comes into play in motivating behavior– as the children’s book The Little Engine that Could put it, “I think I can” often translates into “I can.”

Gerd Theissen and Learning Theory

Bandura’s theory is among those described by Gerd Theissen in his groundbreaking work Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology (Theissen, 1987). In his introductory chapter on learning theory Theissen mentions our text from 1 Corinthians 11:1 in passing:

Paul was a real model of religious experience and behavior for his communities. It was only for this reason that he was able to instruct them to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). The symbolic model of Christ was brought close to the communities through Paul’s behavior as a real model; the life and death of Jesus became manifest in Paul’s life (2 Cor. 4:10-11). (Theissen, 1987, 9)

Theissen reserves his more in-depth consideration of observational learning for Paul’s use of Moses as a (less than perfect) model in 2 Corinthians 3:4-4:6. Here he observes, rightly, that Paul is using Moses as a symbolic model, one that has been shaped by Jewish religious experience. But he fails to acknowledge in his introductory comment that for contemporary readers, Paul too has become a symbolic model, not a “real” one. For those in his communities who knew Paul in person and had opportunity to “watch him tie his shoes,” as it were, he did serve as a direct and present model. Now, at the remove of two millennia, Paul himself has become every bit a symbolic figure as Moses or Jesus.

Paul Ricoeur reminds us that something very significant happens when discourse moves from conversation to text. In a conversation, dialogue proceeds in both directions. It is possible to make specific reference to the environment surrounding the participants; it is possible to clarify references: “I mean this, not that.” In a text, particularly a text that is removed from the present experience by time and both cultural and geographical distance, it is no longer possible to have that kind of interactive conversation and clarity. The flexibility of language comes to the fore, and structures of interpretation become more significant. So it is with the “Paul” that we now encounter in the epistles. The flesh and blood individual, of certain height, weight, and hair color (or lack of hair) is lost to us forever. What remains is a symbolic construct, a trace of a personality, some sparse descriptions of a life and its actions, all mediated through the vehicle of texts.

Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian community (and to us as contemporary interpreters?) presents a twofold challenge: “Be imitators of me,” he writes, “as I am of Christ.” What is the model that he is holding up before us? How are we to determine how, in fact, he is an imitator of Christ? One can be reasonably certain that Paul was not thinking of the historical Jesus when he wrote these words. The historical Jesus simply does not play any significant role in Paul’s writings. Indeed, one wonders at times how much Paul even knew about the historical Jesus. Few scholars would go as far as Donald Akenson in suggesting that we should take Paul’s statement literally enough that Paul becomes “a skeleton key to the historical Jesus.”(Akenson, 2000)]

Furthermore, though Paul would probably not phrase it this way, there is a glimmering in the Corinthian correspondence that he understands how he can remain a symbolic model even when not present physically with the community. “Though absent in body,” he writes, “I am present in spirit.” (1Cor 5:3)

Akenson does suggest another way to consider the model that Paul offers:

Saul’s life was similar to that of a present-day performance artist. He shaped himself as a continually evolving offering-in-progress to his God and the letters are the record of that performance. We are justified in treating the record of Saul’s life as the first recorded instance of a life given over to the Imitation of Christ. (2000: 228)

Bandura’s theory of observational learning may not help us discern any more clearly the model that Paul holds up before the community both in himself and in his imitation of Christ, but it may well help us to understand how subsequent generations have developed what they consider to be appropriate images of Paul and Jesus that should serve as models for their own lives and behavior. Akenson’s simile of the performance artist may be apt; Bandura’s insight that individual personalities, the environment, and behavior are mutually interactive may help us to see characteristic ways that people identify, attend to, remember and seek emulate “what Jesus would do.”

In her article “The Use and Misuse of the Idea of the Imitation of Christ,” Margaret Schuster observes “. . .it would appear that a good deal of highly dubious selectivity goes into the appropriation of very particular aspects of Jesus’ reported behavior in the Gospels” (Schuster, 1998:70-71). This fact is indisputable, and should be expected once Jesus moves from the historical world to the symbolic and from the perceptual world to the textual. But what factors might we expect to find affecting this “dubious selectivity”?

What would which Jesus do?

Elaine Pagels quotes Theodotus, a gnostic teacher, as saying “each person recognizes the Lord in his own way, not all alike”(1979: 17). The Gnostics may well have recognized what orthodox Christians tend to overlook– that the symbolic model of Jesus is not fixed, but is shaped by each person who encounters it.


The attention paid to a given model is strengthened by several factors. Models will enjoy more attention if they are “similar to the observer (i.e. same sex, age, etc.), are respected, have high status, have demonstrated high competence, are thought of as powerful, and are attractive” (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005, 344). All but the first attribute are certainly true of the symbolic model of Jesus. But the symbolic model does not have the same fixity that the person of Jesus might have, and so we might expect that individuals might, in fact, shape the symbolic model following their own expectations. If Jesus is already respected, with high status and attractive power, why would he then not logically be similar to the individual?

In fact, experience has shown that an individual’s image of Jesus is closely intertwined with his or her own personality. Walter Wink describes an exercise that he has done with groups studying Jesus. He invites them to take a few moments to think about how they imagine the man Jesus– what kind of person he was, how he acted, what his personality was like. Then they are to write a brief paragraph describing their image of Jesus. When they have completed this exercise, he then asks them to go back and underline everything in the description that they consider to be true also of themselves. He notes that there is often a high level of correlation between the two, and that participants are often quite surprised to see the similarities. Wink states “Ultimately, we find ourselves reading the myth of the human Jesus in the light of our own personal myths” (Wink, 2002: 9).

While Wink’s approach takes its stance primarily from a depth-psychological perspective, it is not at all surprising that there should be such a correlation between an individual’s personality and their perception of the “model” Jesus. Since the strength of the model is enhanced by its similarity to the individual, the reverse ought to be true: because the model is strong, it must be similar.

The Social Environment

The community in which the individual lives also plays a significant role in shaping the model of Jesus. It is a major constituent of the environment which both shapes and interacts with the individual. It provides a framework for evaluating the relative importance of potential models and a set of expectations about rewards and punishments that will likely be associated with following a given model.

Two classics of Christian literature centered on the idea of the imitation of Jesus the Christ, Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ (À Kempis, 1952) and Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? (Sheldon, 1897) are as different in their conceptions of the Jesus who is to be imitated as the Medieval world is from the world of the late nineteenth century.  The models of behavior presented by Imitation are those of the monastic, contemplative prayer life, calling for withdrawal from the world and attending only to “God and his angels” (chapter 8); those of In His Steps, in stark contrast, reflect the social concerns of honest business dealings, opposition to saloons, fair labor practices, and civic participation. In its own way, the contemporary WWJD movement reflects the current youth culture, replete with consumer merchandise (wristbands, bumper stickers, cards), testimonies about how the wristbands have led to opportunities for witnessing about Christ, and a nearly iconic presence in the culture of both conservative evangelicals and social liberals (“What Would Jesus Drive? and “Who Would Jesus Bomb? are familiar bumper sticker questions).

Anticipated rewards or punishments, positive or negative reinforcements, have much to do with cultural values. Acceptance by the community is usually a strong motivator, and so the image of Jesus which is held up by the community at large is quite likely to be noticed not only for its own power and attractiveness, but for the social affirmation that attends one who seeks to imitate that model. It is perhaps ironic that In His Steps, a book rooted in the Social Gospel and written by a liberal Congregational minister at the end of the 19th century, should become the source of the WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) Movement among essentially conservative Evangelicals at the end of the 20th.

The people of Raymond, the fictional setting for In His Steps, acknowledge some difficulty in discerning the model of what Jesus would do in any situation. The President of the local college asks, "And yet what one church member thinks Jesus would do, another refuses to accept as His probable course of action. What is to render our conduct uniformly Christ-like? Will it be possible to reach the same conclusions always in all cases?"

Mr. Maxwell was silent some time. Then he answered, "No; I don't know that we can expect that. But when it comes to a genuine, honest, enlightened following of Jesus' steps, I cannot believe there will be any confusion either in our own minds or in the judgment of others. We must be free from fanaticism on one hand and too much caution on the other. If Jesus' example is the example for the world to follow, it certainly must be feasible to follow it. But we need to remember this great fact. After we have asked the Spirit to tell us what Jesus would do and have received an answer to it, we are to act regardless of the results to ourselves. Is that understood? (Sheldon, 1897: Chapter 2)

For the fictional Rev. Maxwell, integrity of the model of Jesus’ behavior will be preserved by the Holy Spirit. However, as we have seen, the dynamic relationships of the individual, the environment, and specific behavior are often shaped by other factors intrinsic to the interplay.

The concreteness of an actual person offers a potential corrective to behavior. His or her actual responses can be observed and imitated, either cognitively or actually. But in the fluid world of verbal and literary symbols, the model that is presented is often as much (or even more) a creation of the community as it is a result of direct observation. Communities and leaders may even manipulate the power of the Jesus model to sanction or evoke certain desired behaviors. Schuster dismisses much of what has gone under the name of the “imitation of Christ”:

. . . it seems to me that they illustrate our ongoing tendency to domesticate scripture, and indeed, to domesticate Jesus. We seek to find ways to achieve our own ends and use scripture as a means to those ends, a sort of bag of tools that help us justify going this way or that way. How can a congregation object to a pastor’s plan, whatever their actual feelings about it, if the pastor presents it as patterned on what Jesus himself did? But we sinners are frequently not entirely honest in what we highlight and what we omit altogether. And often enough, what `obviously’ does or does not apply seems obvious only because of our particular assumptions and social situation. In short and as in other arenas, in the realm of seeking to imitate Jesus, we too easily make Jesus and scripture our servants rather than our master.” (1998: 76)

Example: American Jesus

Representations of Jesus are not restricted to the verbal symbols we find in the Gospels. Two millennia of artistic response and interaction with the Jesus of the Bible have provided a store of imaginal symbols that accompany and interact with the verbal symbols. Bandura notes:

Although verbal symbols embody a major share of knowledge acquired by modeling, it is often difficult to separate representation modes. Representational activities usually involve both systems to a degree. . . Words tend to evoke corresponding imagery, and images of events are often verbally cognized as well. When visual and verbal stimuli convey similar meanings, people integrate the information presented by these different modalities into a common conceptual representation (1986: 58)

Stephen Prothero has given us a fascinating study of how depictions of Jesus have changed throughout the history of America, and how those changes reflect changes within the cultural and political lives of Christians. American Jesus: How the Son of God became a National Icon examines models and representations of Jesus in a “quest for the cultural Jesus, who belongs neither to ancient Palestine nor to Christian America, but to all of us” (2003: 9). Prothero identifies what he calls “resurrections” and “reincarnations of Jesus. Resurrections include the “Enlightened Sage” of Thomas Jefferson, the “Sweet Savior” of the 19th century, who was then displaced by the “Manly Redeemer” of the “muscular Christianity” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (In His Steps was one of the books leading toward this activist model), and ending with the “Superstar” of the late 20th century. Reincarnations are models of Jesus taken out of the Christian context and placed into another framework– the “Mormon Elder Brother,” the “Black Moses,” the “Rabbi,” and the “Oriental Christ,” depicted praying in the full lotus position.

The Holy Spirit and Self-Efficacy

Bandura emphasizes the importance of production processes and of perceived self-efficacy in observational learning. What is it that makes an individual think that they can, in fact, do what Jesus would do? Clearly, the most salient aspects of Jesus’ life as presented in the Gospels are beyond human capacity– no one suggests that the imitation of Christ involves being crucified for the sins of the world, working miracles, or identifying with the Father are things that can be imitated.

Rev. Maxwell may, indeed, point to a very real resource for the individual who seeks to “do what Jesus would do”– the Holy Spirit. If one believes that the spirit of Christ or the Holy Spirit is present in their lives to enable them to do what God intends them to do, that belief serves to strengthen the sense of self-efficacy. Paul himself affirms this understanding: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13); “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2Cor 5:17); “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). The confidence that the power of the Holy Spirit will help one to follow “in his steps” encourages the individual to attempt that very thing.


“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Paul’s formulation is simple, but as with so many simple statements, it presents a complex challenge. Bandura’s model of observational learning helps us to understand and account for many aspects of how the desire to imitate Christ has unfolded.

The symbolic model of Jesus is shaped by significant, strong factors in individual personalities and community dynamics. Jesus already has the qualities of a strong, attractive, and valued model, and so it is not surprising that he would also be viewed as similar to the individual, reflecting the values and priorities of the social setting in which the individual seeks affirmation, support, and a sense of competency.

Some critics suggest that, given the factors that strive to assimilate the model of Jesus to prevailing cultural expectations, “it might be best to allow Jesus to slip out the back door and return to Palestine.” (Prothero, 2003, 9) Still, it is remarkable that Jesus has not completely disappeared into the fog of associations and perceptual shifts. Despite all efforts to domesticate him and enlist him on our side, again and again Jesus proves capable of standing against prevailing culture, and inspiring individuals to act differently than their own experiences or community ethos might demand.

Ultimately, as Bandura suggests, the question “what would Jesus do” is not a question about what I should imitate from the accounts of Jesus’ life. The distances of time, place, and culture are perhaps too wide to be bridged that easily. Rather, the more profound question is about what values we can learn from Jesus’ way of living that may touch on our own.

C.G. Jung phrased this deeper question this way:

Are we to understand the “imitation of Christ” in the sense that we should copy his life and, if I may use the expression, ape his stigmata; or in the deeper sense that we are to live our own proper lives as truly as he lived his in its individual uniqueness? It is no easy matter to live a life that is modeled on Christ’s, but it is unspeakably harder to live one’s own life as truly as Christ lived his. (1958: ¶522).

It is the question that is evoked in the story of Rabbi Susya in Rabbinic tradition, who said, “When I enter the world to come, I will not be asked `Why were you not Moses?’ Rather, I will be asked `Why were you not Susya?” Ultimately, the question is not “What would Jesus do?,” but rather, “What shall I do, as I seek to walk in Jesus’ way?”


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Theissen, G. (1987). Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress.

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