Friday, September 26, 2014

Creating Jesus

A recent Salon essay described in simple terms the case for what is arguably the most controversial idea in Christianity today: that Jesus of Nazareth is not a historical figure. He never existed. He is a fictional character, not a real person.

As the essay explains in its opening paragraphs, for at least a couple centuries, scholars have said that Jesus was a historical person whose story had been mythologized. He was a real person but layers of fantastic tradition surrounded him in the Biblical accounts. The task of scholars has been to strip off those layers, or “de-mythologize” him, in order to discover who Jesus really was. For a long time this view had been considered radical and controversial.

The position described in the Salon article is different. In this view, centuries of mythical tradition, from a variety of cultures, was drawn upon in the literary and cultic creation of the figure of Jesus. This would be a case of “mythology historicized.” In other words, Jesus was created as a literary character from a variety of mythological figures and archetypes (which explains why in the Bible he seems to have a variety of personalities and agenda).

The arguments for such a notion are summarized pretty well in the essay and I won’t repeat them here. I have written about this topic previously (here and here, for example) and have come down somewhere in the middle on the question. What seems to me to be the central problem is summarized in the article’s conclusion:

In a soon-to-be-released follow up to Nailed, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, [David] Fitzgerald argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any “Jesus of Faith.” Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the “historical Jesus” figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions. We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.

Robert Price, one of the scholars mentioned here and who I have read, describes the problem of modern scholarship as discovering/creating “too many Jesuses.” He is quoted here saying, “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage.  But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.” John Dominic Crossan is quoted to add his verdict on the discovery of multiple Jesus figures, saying “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”

Who was the real Jesus? Does the question even have any meaning? Or if it is a real question, is it one that we have a realistic chance of ever answering? Just asking these questions makes clear that we are in very different territory than traditional Christianity ever found itself in—and that is the main point. We live in a different world than that of even our recent ancestors. Fundamentalism is the attempt to deny such a change, with all the schizophrenic contradictions inherent in such a stance. Liberal churches claim to embrace the transition to modernity but wander in confusion trying to decide what it really means.

Over the centuries having different Jesus figures has been something the church could put to advantage. An applicable Jesus has been found to comfort and inspire average folks in the pews, guide barons and business leaders, and support monarchs and politicians. The shallowness of it all, however, is evident when in World War I, for example, clergy blessed their nations’ armies as “Christian soldiers” as they marched off to slaughter each other.

Today the label “Christian” has become so ambiguous as to be nearly meaningless. There is almost no limit to the range of political and economic philosophies and personal lifestyles that can be justified as being true to the teachings of Jesus. Christians squabble among themselves, shouting Bible verses at each other in an endless struggle to prove one side right and the other wrong.

Does it matter if Jesus really existed or not? For orthodox Christianity it certainly does. If nothing else, a real flesh-and-blood Jesus needs to really die and really be raised for the whole “mystery of salvation” to make any sense. Yet it is just this “Jesus the Savior” which has less and less appeal or meaning today, for those outside the church certainly but even for many still active in church life. And even though Fundamentalists especially hang on to him, this Jesus now gets relatively little attention in their worship and preaching, particularly in megachurches with their emphasis on biblical principles for “successful living.”

Our knowledge about any ancient figure is murky at best. Even the most famous of Roman emperors or Egyptian pharaohs are generally known to us via highly prejudiced reports, often second or third hand. It’s hardly surprising that the life of someone as obscure as Jesus own followers acknowledged him to be would have left little in the way of a tangible record, including from anyone who actually knew him. What is perhaps the strangest aspect of the Jesus story, however, is Paul’s account. Though he is the closest in time to him, Paul seems to know virtually nothing about Jesus’ actual life. Nor does he ever unambiguously say “I talked to X who knew Jesus.” Paul’s ignorance of Jesus is, to my mind, the oddest part of the story and the strongest element of the case for a non-historical Jesus.

In the end, and as has always been the case, the only Jesus figure we have to work with is the one we meet in the New Testament, as confusing and contradictory as he may be. Scholars will continue to try to sort through this biblical material to try and find a “real” Jesus. Those efforts are not without value. The artistry and creativity of such work has to be to be recognized, however, and not to demean it. Throughout its history, the church has woven the Jesus material, selectively and in various ways, to create images of Jesus for different times and purposes. 

Why not? And why not continue doing so? We are at a point where the dogma surrounding Jesus has nearly lost its grip on him. Certainly the penalties for coloring outside the lines of official Jesus doctrine are of little or no consequence. On the contrary, to breathe new life into the person of Jesus, writers and other artists along with scholars should be encouraged to imagine a Jesus that speaks to our world. The critical community will judge their efforts as well or better than any contemporary Inquisition or other ecclesiastical review panel.

Recent literary efforts like Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago generated loud protests when published (or released as a film). Yet they are the types of work which help us connect Jesus to our present world and consider him from different, non-traditional perspectives. In fact, an eruption of genuinely creative and critical books and movies focused on Jesus could be one of the best things that happened to him, despite the inevitable shock and horror sure to come from Fundamentalists and other traditionalists. For most today the “historical Jesus” sits on a shelf: bland, safe, predictable, and often simply an object of kitsch. Scholars and artists alike need to bring to life a Jesus at least as shocking and challenging as the one that inspired the first century church, whether they ever knew him in the flesh or not.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Sam Harris: Exploring the Territory "Between Godliness and Godlessness"

In his Sunday New York Times column "Between Godliness and Godlessness", Frank Bruni relates his conversation with author Sam Harris about his forthcoming book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In responce to the religious motivation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens began a a public debate on what they perceived to be the inherent dangers of religious belief. Harris' The End of Faith (2004) was a New York Times best-seller and he has continued to speak and write on the conflict between religion and modern Western values.

Yet as Bruni writes, over the past ten years Harris has softened his criticism of religion and refocused his attention on the question of what attracts people to religion in the first place. In doing so, Harris does seem to be riding a cultural wave. Based on the subtitle of this new book, he is addressing the fastest growing segment of the population, recently dubbed "the nones." These are people who claim a sincere religious or spiritual interest yet have no membership or interest in any specific religion. Their most common self-description is "I'm spiritual but not religious."

This designation often drives clergy crazy; I've heard the disparagement many times. It's dismissed as another example of the "me generation" wanting feelings and experiences while avoiding genuine human involvement or commitment. No doubt there is some truth to this but it isn't the whole story. The drift away from religion has been going on for too long a time, and involves too diverse a population, to be dismissed as a symptom of the latest cultural quirk.

What Bruni likes is that Harris is attempting to start a conversation on a topic that is too often ignored or dismissed by religious people:
The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?

Bruni goes on to relate this observation by Harris:
“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.

The questions Harris is asking, and Bruni is encouraging, are ones that often make religious people squirm and get angry. Even more liberal religious traditions retain the notion that they are somehow unique and "true." The notion that spiritual experience is generically human irrespective of a person's religious tradition, or of having any religious tradition at all, is not one religious leaders, especially, want to entertain. Yet this is genuinely new ground that needs to be explored, "the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety," as Bruni describes it. It will only be religion's loss to ignore it, for such new territory can't just be wished away. The church's experience with Galileo certainly showed that.