Erwin McManus: Jesus Was a Genius

It might surprise you to learn that there’s no technical definition of a genius. There’s no standardized test that someone can pass to officially designate themselves as a genius. Every person in history who’s considered a genius got there by popular demand. 

There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, most researchers have concluded that intelligence, by itself, isn’t enough to make someone a genius. Being smart definitely helps — it might even be prerequisite — but there’s more to being a genius than just a high IQ. It also takes original thinking and creativity. Walter Isaacson, the biographer of several geniuses like Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin, argues that real geniuses have “the ability to apply imagination to almost any situation.” 

In other words, geniuses think like both scientists and artists, applying their intelligence in original ways. They apply what smart people know to situations smart people haven’t considered yet. “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit,” wrote the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Isaacson is considered an authority on geniuses, and he considers Leonardo da Vinci to be the greatest genius of all time, a man whose “grand and noble ambition was to know everything there was to know about everything that could possibly be known–including our cosmos, and how we fit in.” 

Erwin McManus agrees with Isaacson’s assessment of da Vinci. McManus is the pastor of Mosaic and he also harbors a lifelong fascination with geniuses. He calls da Vinci his hero, and also cites names you’d expect like Mozart and Picasso. “I began studying human genius at a really early age,” he says. “And then my study in college was really studying psych, abnormal behavior …human uniqueness, creativity and genius.”

As he started reading about geniuses, something stuck out to him. The list of names that come up a lot — the artist Leonardo da Vinci, the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, the physicist Mary Curie, the filmmaker Stanley Kubric — didn’t necessarily exclude religious leaders. You’ll see Buddha and Mohammad’s names included, understandably so. But McManus never saw Jesus listed among the great geniuses of all time. 

That fact set McManus off on a bit of an existential journey that forced him to reckon with both his own faith and insecurities, and his understanding of Jesus. And while he does make the case now that Jesus deserves to be recognized as a genius, the real story is about the impact this case has had on McManus’ own life. 

The Journey to Genius

McManus was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the U.S. with his brother when he was young. He struggled in school, saying he “was a straight D and F student” in addition to being “ really neurotic, and maybe psychologically really shattered.” 

McManus speaks about his childhood insecurity about a “fear that there was never anything unique inside of me” with a candor that can be a little bracing. 

“Some people, they’re ambitious when they’re young. They want to be Olympians or they want to be president,” he says. “I would have migraine headaches when I was five, six, seven years old just at the thought that someone could hold an idea I was incapable of holding. I felt tormented that my mind was so limited that I couldn’t hold beautiful thoughts.” 

These insecurities cropped up again as McManus began pondering the idea of the genius of Jesus. He was toiling over the idea in his home and started a thought experiment that might push a few buttons: “Let’s say Jesus isn’t God.” 

Now, Jesus has changed McManus’ life. He says that repeatedly. His “whole life revolves around Jesus.” But what if Jesus wasn’t God? Would that change anything? “If Jesus is God, then my life has changed by the reality of who he is,” McManus explains. “But if Jesus isn’t God, then my life has been changed by the ideas of Jesus.” 

McManus realized that while Mozart may have been a musical genius, being around Mozart wouldn’t have made someone a better musician. Michael Jordan may be a basketball genius, but being around him won’t make a better player. But, the way McManus sees it, there is something about Jesus that is “transferable,” as he puts it. Being around Jesus makes you more like Jesus — both in his earthly ministry and now, still, today. 

What Makes a Genius? 

Like we said, there is no real definition of genius. It is, as McManus has it, “hard to define, but easy to identify.” There is sort of a sense that you know it when you see it. When you hear certain people talk, read their writings or see their art, you can tell that they’re operating on a very unique level. We tend to call that level “genius.” 

And that’s if people are lucky. Geniuses are frequently a little too far ahead of society to even be recognized as a genius in their time. You need only look at the fates of people like Socrates, Galileo and Vincent Van Gogh to understand that the world is not always ready for geniuses. “They’re hated in the moment they live, not because they’re just divergent from everyone else’s thinking,” McManus explains, “But they make brilliance look ordinary.” 

This is why many geniuses become outcasts and, McManus theorizes, why many people who could otherwise be considered geniuses bury that part of themselves. Most people would rather be in a community than be known for radical ideas. “I think every human being has at least a touch of genius,” McManus says. “We lose our genius because we so desperately want to be accepted and belong.”

He’s faced this fear of being an outcast himself. He recalls being a younger pastor, back when Mosaic was just starting to gain steam. “I would get asked this question: ‘What techniques do you use to think outside of the box?’” 

“And I remember responding early on, ‘You don’t understand!’” he says. “I worked so hard to think inside of the box because I want to belong so badly. I want to be loved! I want to be accepted! I don’t want to be a heretic. I don’t want it to be unorthodox. I became a follower of Jesus so that I could actually be a part of a tribe.”

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To McManus, this is where his interest in Jesus as a genius and his own personal insecurities start to intersect. If Jesus can be considered one of history’s great geniuses, then why aren’t his followers known for modeling a similarly radical way of seeing the world? 

The Beauty of Humanity

“I think that we are the biggest problem to Jesus being identified as a genius,” McManus says. 

He’s referring to the Church at large. He tells a story about an Instagram post he made announcing the title of his newest book: The Genius of Jesus. “And immediately someone responded, ‘Jesus was not a genius. He was God.’” 

McManus tried to respond with grace: “If we said Jesus was compassionate, you would not respond, no Jesus was not compassionate. He was God.” 

But the comment was revealing. He believes he struggle with the idea of Jesus’ genius because modern Christians are more comfortable with the idea of Jesus as God than they are with Jesus as human. “We’re afraid to see Jesus for who he really chose to become,” McManus says. We’re afraid to look at Jesus in his humanity.”

“He not only came to give us a clear picture of God, but he came to give us a clear picture of us,” McManus explains “Of who we can be as human beings. Our fear of diminishing the divinity of Jesus blinds us to see the beauty of his humanity.” 

This was the key that helped McManus overcome his own sense of insecurity. If Jesus, as not just fully God but also fully man, also came to reveal the fullness of who we were created to be, then none of us are defined by our limitations or anxieties. Jesus holds the key to a greater potential. 

“What Jesus came to do is reestablish our humanity, to help us reclaim what was lost,” McManus says. This, according to McManus, is part of the genius of Jesus. 

The Genius of Us All

McManus is curious about what could be unlocked if we all allowed ourselves to be transformed by the genius of Jesus. What sort of potential could be unlocked? “I don’t think Christianity has ever allowed us to ask those questions,” he says. “We have been forbidden the right to think and to imagine, and to reimagine reality.”

What might lie on the other side of that reimagining? McManus is cautious here, but he’s willing to dream big. “Maybe that’s why we create submarines and airplanes, because it’s the phantom pain of what was lost,” he says. “Maybe we’re trying to recreate through technology what we once had through essence.” 

So is it possible that humanity, at its full potential, was capable of things like flight and breathing underwater? McManus thinks it’s possible. He points out that in the Genesis narrative, the very first human, Adam, was able to name the animals. All of them. That, McManus points out, is an astonishing feat of creativity and intellect that very, very few humans would be capable of accomplishing without an enormous Excel spreadsheet today. If Adam was capable of something like that, what else might humans have been capable of before the Fall? McManus says he doesn’t know.

“What I do know is we’ve never asked these questions,” McManus says. “And I do know there’s more capacity in every human being than we’ve ever imagined.”

So in this way, the question of the genius of Jesus isn’t just a curiosity or a hypothetical. It has profound implications for all of us. 

Created to Become

“A part of what Jesus does is he keeps trying to remind us who we were created to become.”

McManus believes that if we can internalize the reality of Jesus’ teaching, we can find new ceilings on our own abilities: to think, to create, to empathize and to dream. He believes we all have a spark of genius in us because we were all created in God’s image. The key is looking to Jesus to unlock that spark, and see how it changes our capacity as people. He believes that genius isn’t something that is given to a few special people. It’s something we can unlock. 

“I know that not all genius that is lost inside of people can be reclaimed, but I have a feeling that at any point in your life that you’re willing to go on that journey, there is genius inside of you that can be awakened,” he says. “If you don’t understand what it means to be created in the image of God, you’re never going to actualize that.”

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