A Secular Jesus

My first experiment with the historical-jesus in church occurred in Hamilton, Ontario. I was appointed to lead a community set up to explore new forms of Christianity. I wanted to see if it was possible to take the historical-jesus to church. The answer turned out to be yes, but the church won’t like it. I was not initially prepared for the second half of that answer.

During the course of this experiment a reporter from a local, independent newspaper interviewed me about the historical-jesus. The reporter was young, highly suspicious of religion, and questioned me about all the bad things that religion leads to like homophobia, crusade mentalities, and social violence. While it is true that religion can lead to these tragedies, I resorted to the usual response theologians give: these troubles cannot be reduced just to religion. Lots of things in history have spurred on the worst expressions of our collective humanity. The reporter then espoused the virtues of secular society and a world without religion. I pointed out that historical-jesus research surprisingly exposes from under Christianity a secular Jesus. The reporter thought I was joking and being cynical. When the article came out, I was presented as a kind of hopeless believer who resorted to cynicism when facing criticism.

From this experience I learned two things. I deeply respect news reporters who take daily risks to uncover what is happening in the world independently of government agendas and group ideologies. But the reporter in this case was not professional and was driven by a desire to show that religion in any form is to be rejected. I felt victimized. I learned to be cautious when being interviewed. The second thing I learned is that the image of a “secular Jesus” is so unbelievable to the common idea of Christianity that it seems like a joke. Jesus is or is supposed to be a teacher of holy things who was either completely delusional or else the Son of God – an extremely unhelpful dichotomy drawn by C.S. Lewis.

Historically, secular means an age or generation. Over time, it came to mean the world as opposed to the church. Today, we use secular to mean non-religious. To say Jesus was secular in the modern sense would be to ignore his ancient context. But it does make sense to ask what images Jesus used when he spoke of his vision. Did he use sacred images and sound religious or did he use worldly images and sound secular?  It’s not a joke. Jesus used worldly images and sounds secular.

After doing our homework and cutting through the beliefs of the gospel writers to arrive at the historical-jesus, the aphorism and parables of Jesus are completely set in the world, in the saeculum. Jesus talks about losing a coin, making a trip, dealing with a runaway child, visiting a neighbor at night, shepherding a flock, begging before a landlord, throwing a party, and giving away your clothes. When he refers to God, he does not imagine temples but sparrows. He refers to the hair on your head and the lilies of the field. He might use a camel to illustrate a point. He might talk about common acts undertaken in politically risky times like burying treasure. After the Second World War, many East Germans who fled to the West buried their possessions in the hope of returning someday. Jesus also talks about oysters, images on coins, gardening, clouds and rainfall, and scholars who like fancy dress.

Jesus used concrete, daily, images. He did not use abstract thought. He never said God loves you. He was silent about the Trinity. His prayer was not “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” and his vision was not about the immortal soul or the ground of Being. After a lifetime of research on the historical-jesus, Bob Funk drew the simple conclusion that the language of Jesus was set in the everyday world, that it was “secular” rather than sacred or religious.

Another insight that Bob Funk offered related to how the language of Jesus, though made up of everyday imagery, held a certain element of parody. Jesus exaggerated the everyday. He was a supreme satirist. When someone stated that he followed all the commandments and wanted to know what else he could do, the advice of Jesus is to sell everything you have. We tend to think this is serious because Jesus said it, but of course the answer is absurd. We do not hear the humor of Jesus; we do not register that grace comes in laughter. It is in the elements of parody and exaggeration that we learn when Jesus talks about a pearl of great price he is not talking about a pearl of great price. He instead is talking about the misleading decisions of greed and avarice. To sell everything you have for a pearl of great price leaves an individual with nothing but a pearl, which is useless unless it is sold. We should laugh here and not think that Jesus is talking about heaven. He is not. He is talking about ourselves and our own self-deception. In a way he is mocking how we think about religion.

Sometimes the comedy of Jesus is not comedy as laughter but comedy as critique. To fall among thieves and to be rescued by your enemy is in a certain way comical. After all, the last person expected to be your hero is your sworn enemy. But this type of comedy stings. It is a comic act that reveals our own prejudices and that challenges us to see their false nature. Sometimes the comedy of Jesus is political. To say that the poor are the lucky ones is comical even though it seems initially cruel. There is nothing lucky or great about being poor. At first this saying seems like something to say if voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. How great it is to be poor! But Jesus was poor too. And his saying exaggerates the status of being poor against the exploitive political structures of his day. His saying mocks the wealthy, typifies their thinking, and calls those who know poverty to solidarity, even, in modern language, to unionization.

The comedy of Jesus is not necessarily funny, though at times it can be. It is however built out of the concrete, everyday world, which is why it addresses us and why after two millennia it remains both attractive and challenging. By way of a final comic move, it is because the language of Jesus was secular that Jesus remains an important religious figure. Jesus takes religion away from the professionals who prefer its abstract expressions and beliefs. He gives religion to common experience. To those who choose to hear, he offers reality experienced differently where grace is about laughter and where life is about justice changing the world.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical-jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical-jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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