Jack Miles is one of the best known and most influential scholars of religion in our time. Never one to turn away from audacious projects, he is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography (1995) and the editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions (2014). The blog post below is a report on Miles’ lecture entitled “If Jesus is God, what God is he?” which was delivered on Sunday, November 22, 2015, at the Westar Institute national meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.  

At a time when the political climate is drenched with religiously modulated violence (both for and against religious communities), this lecture by Jack Miles was not only welcome but frankly challenging to hear. He opened with history and closed with modern events, leaving no doubt that the dearly held myths of the past are still operating today.

Miles frequently used the word “myth” in his lecture. He wasn’t using the word in the sense of something being true or false (he even discouraged us from thinking about religion in those terms). Myths are stories that guide the communities to tell and retell them. To give religion its due, we need to acknowledge the deep power of myths as human beings employ them to guide their own choices and attitudes in life.

Miles began with the Christian story of Jesus as Christ. Scarcely is any teaching of classical Christianity more important than the divinity of Christ. But who was the God who became incarnate in Christ? And if “becoming” entails change, how can God change? This was a Greco-Roman protest that was eventually resolved by retrojecting Christ back into eternity, as Miles put it, out of the particularity of the Jewish story of God.

Once set on such a path, this generalized understanding of Christ continues right up to today. Miles put it like this:

The incarnation of generic deity as generic humanity has among many other effects that of deflecting attention from the highly particular and endlessly complex personality of YHWH and the allegedly identical but in fact strikingly different and equally complex personality of Jesus of Nazareth as we find the two of them in scripture. Any attempt to relate the personality of the one to that of the other thus entails an act of selection on either side.

Marcion recognized this early in Christian history, but his suggested solution of the existence of two Gods, one of a higher and better nature than the other, was ultimately rejected by the tradition. So the process of harmonizing via selectivity continues to the present day. Speaking even from within the vast array of Christian denominations, consider: Which God of the Bible do you honor? Which do you deny? Is God for or against homoerotic love, love without the possibility of children, ending a pregnancy prematurely, ending one’s life prematurely … and on and on? Among those who read the Bible for spiritual and cultural guidance, it really depends on which stories and statements you rank above others.

Miles’ provocative offering in response was this:

What I propose to you today with deliberate reference to the violently threatened world in which we now live, is that the myth of YHWH the divine warrior, the lion of Judah, continues as the mythologized life story of Jesus the divine pacifist, the lamb of God. The answer that I shall thus offer to the title question of this lecture, “If Jesus is God, what God is he?” is that the mythologized Jesus is the mythical YHWH self-disarmed.

Miles invited listeners to think of myths as an important means by which human beings “domesticate” or “acculturate” themselves. So when a myth that matters to a certain group of people undergoes a change, we can safely describe that as an evolutionary adaptation where that group is concerned. Citing David Sloan Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral, Miles points to the communal nature of religion as more important at base to human beings than the impressiveness of any rationalizations housed in the religion. Hence, rather than ask, “Is this story true?” we would do better to ask “in what way it may ever be or have been adaptive to tell such a story week after week, year after year, and assimilate it to a point where it could influence everyday behavior.” What in human life is being changed by this story?

Drawing this back into the story of YHWH and the story of Jesus, when we look at the Jewish Scriptures, we find that fear of infidelity is the undercurrent that runs through all laws and behaviors. Apostasy, or the worship of another god, is the worst possible act, but all other breaches of sacred law imply it. In evolutionary terms, this shows a deep concern for loyalty to one’s “tribe,” one’s people, or else the whole community will fail to survive attacks by enemies. If fidelity represents God’s will for the Israelites, then war is that which demands it.

War can be useful to survival, but it comes with costs. Often those costs are so high that even “winning” the war may lead to ruin. It’s plausible to think that some communities told or revised myths in which even the gods eschewed violence for the sake of survival. Could this not be what happened with the dissident Jews whose myths eventually came to be known as Christianity? The Messiah who was meant to conquer the enemies instead is sacrificed to them, and in doing so saves the people. Saves them from what? Perhaps a ruinous, maladaptive mistake.

Victory undergoes a change in meaning from the Jewish Scriptures to the New Testament. Victory in the latter is over death itself rather than any individual enemy. One no longer hopes to stand over the body of a known person. In the Jewish Scriptures, death is a weapon of God, and victory is over enemies. Individual followers of Jesus, like Paul, revised this view by understanding God to have laid down his own weapon.

Miles noted here that asking whether this story is “true,” that is, whether the historical Jesus actually believed this himself, becomes less helpful knowledge than the following:

The only thing that matters in either contrasting pair [God and Jesus] is that the sanction once given to violence by the violent character of God is gone. There are no NT psalms calling on God to rise up and smite Rome. … There are instead Pauline exhortations to endure. …

… At its deepest level, the gospel is legislation by characterization.

If Jesus represents the decision by God to lay down his weapons, the implication is that the people must not be warriors either. When the Romans approach, they must go and do as their God has done. Christianity has sometimes been described as a “defeatist” myth (e.g. Nietzsche) but it’s plausible also to understand it as pre-adaptive in the evolutionary sense: as a trait that developed in one situation but proved advantageous in another, very different situation.

Miles observed that Armageddon is cheaper these days. It costs only $1 to kill one person with a biological weapon. Likewise drones are so small, so accessible, they are no more difficult to access than toys. One can become a military superpower of one’s own at very little expense. This isn’t hypothetical; it’s the reality of our world today.

But think of the cost. Little boys may resort to fist fights, but by the time they reach adulthood they realize that even if they win they may end up with broken jaws. So it may be with humanity and the accessibility of weapons. Does the Christian myth have a future, given the nature of this problem? Yes, Miles suggested, because it offers a pre-adaptive quality of self-disarmament.

Theologians whether Christian or Jewish may disagree, but when a change in myth is understood as adaptation in the interest of survival, and when furthermore God’s repudiation of violence in a given myth is viewed as a move toward the same repudiation in a species with a unique capacity to exterminate itself, then anthropology may embrace what theology resists.

I feel it needs to be clarified here that Miles was in no way speaking in a derogatory fashion of controlling others by foisting religious myths onto them. Rather, he was observing our own ability to shape ourselves through willingness to let the most powerful stories of our lives shape us and guide us, and help us respond to extreme change. In fact we do this as human beings, and we need to acknowledge it.

As one final case in point, Miles’ own book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Knopf, 2001) was one of many in a literary movement largely inspired by the publication of Adolf von Harnack’s classic work on Marcion, driven by the question of the goodness of God after Shoah (the Holocaust). “There are historical moments when the survival of a nation, or of the human species itself, seems to hang in the balance,” Miles said. “Such are the moments that yield speculation about a God beyond God and daring stories about unthinkable change in God.” And so Miles ultimately rejected Marcion’s compelling story of two Gods. Rather, he said, God has repented.

Thank you for reading this report on the Westar Institute Fall 2015 national meeting, which took place in Atlanta, Georgia, in conjunction with the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. New reports will be added as they come available. To see all meeting-related resources, visit the Fall 2015 program page.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.