Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What happened to Jesus? (continued)

(CCBlogs users note: For some reason CCBlog links are not going to the correct post. "Drip, drip, drip" can be found here.)
(This continues the thought of the Reflections post below on April 16, "What happened to Jesus?").
One can, of course, take the conclusion that the Easter experience was one of visions and apparitions of Jesus a step further. Some would say this is all Jesus ever was. The voices have been slowly but steadily growing more numerous who say Jesus never existed as a flesh-and-blood human being. Jesus was never other than in people's heads. Personally, from my own reading and thinking on the subject, I have to say it is possible. Certainly the modern "quest of the historical Jesus," as Albert Schweitzer called it, has raised far more questions than it has answered. To borrow Churchill's phrase, Jesus has become "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma".

Perhaps the simplest and most helpful explanation of the problem comes from New Testament scholar Robert Price. What Jesus research has produced, says Price, is too many Jesuses. No one has been able to construct a picture of a historic Jesus that can encompass all the various personality traits, theologies, and social agenda that scholarship has uncovered. It's as if we are at the end of the old TV show "To Tell the Truth". When the host asks the real "John Doe" to stand up, each of the candidates make a move as if to get up until one finally does. In this case, however, the real Jesus won't stand up. We just get a lot of shuffling from the candidates.

The explanation that Price and others have come to is that there is, in fact, no "real Jesus" to be found. The bumper crop of Jesus possibilities is the result of his being a constantly evolving figure in the literary and kerygmatic imaginations of the early Jesus movement. One theory is that rather than Jesus being a real person spiritualized into the Christ, he actually have started as a mythical and heavenly figure that was the central character in a great mythical salvation drama of death and rebirth. Over time the stage moved from heaven to "history" and the cast found their feet planted here on earth. Indeed, without too much difficulty, one can imagine the Jesus Paul talks about as just such a mythological character. Hence, the near absence in Paul's letters of any references to Jesus' "earthly" life and ministry as one finds it in the gospels.

When I first heard of this theory it seemed, of course, radical and revolutionary. If accepted, if "true," the church would never be the same. That's a common reaction of both proponents and opponents of a mythical Jesus. Now, however, I wonder if it really makes all that much difference. The historicity of all ancient figures is pretty fuzzy. We have our Alexanders and our Caesars. But even the lives of the greatest rulers and generals are missing many of the details modern biographers want and those we have often appear suspiciously like romantic embroidery.

As we move to lower levels of prominence, the historical reconstruction process becomes nearly impossible. And ancient religious and philosophical figures are several levels below that of royalty. Do we really know anything about Socrates' teaching, for example, given that virtually our only source is a hardly objective Plato? Historians today cast doubt on what we really know about any of the great religious figures of history: the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, as well as Jesus. The fact is that all we have to deal with today is the religious traditions that trace their origins to the stories, historically accurate or not, surrounding these figures. We know there was an explosion, but there is so little left of the building it's doubtful we'll ever know what really caused it.

So the historical Jesus is likely to remain hidden—perhaps forever—in the fog of the ancient past. But what if a convincing mythological proto-Jesus were found in some yet undiscovered document, thus shifting the argument in a non-historical direction? Again, I suspect, it wouldn't make all that much difference. After the media splash, those of a fundamentalist persuasion would remain unconvinced and those more liberal would repeat what they already say, which is that it's "the story" that matters, and the philosophy and ethics that goes with it.

And that, of course, is where contemporary Christianity's problem lies. The question is not what is or isn't historically believable about the Bible and the Jesus story. Rather, the question is whether we really care about them anymore. "The story" (which actually unites Christian conservatives and liberals more that they realize) comes to us from very distant time—from another world, really. The attempts of preachers and teachers to make it "relevant" are now so strained that many have basically given up on it. For those that haven't the results are often laughable and pathetic. Verses and texts are seized willy-nilly to frame this or that teaching on marriage, sex, child rearing, personal finance, and countless other contemporary topics, many of which ancient people couldn't have even imagined let alone had an opinion about.

And all this focus on contemporary life issues in the church is a not very effective screen for the growing disinterest among Christians in the classic themes of sin and salvation, the mystery of God and eternal life. We simply live in a different world than did our ancient spiritual ancestors. Do Jesus and the Bible generally have anything to say to us about life and death and the meaning of existence? Of course, but then so do many sources of ancient wisdom—but it’s found only after sifting with difficulty through much that is irrelevant or incomprehensible to us. And even if we concede that the biblical and Christian traditions have insight and wisdom unique in the ancient world, it still doesn't mean they can provide us an overarching philosophy or even mythology with which we can understand and organize our lives today.

This is the Jesus the church needs to find today, whether historical or not—a Jesus whose story and message can give inspiration and meaning, purpose and comfort to people living in a confusing and evolving post-modern world. For the contemporary church, as for the women at the Markan tomb, this Jesus isn’t here. What’s uncertain is where or whether this Jesus can be found.

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