Christianity’s Struggle for Self-Definition (EHJ series)

“The historical Jesus was a person like us who struggled in life to realize, through his own personality and situation in the world, the Christ of himself.”

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 214

We can be really short-sighted, historically speaking. We struggle to keep more than one human generation’s beliefs and ideas in our heads at once. It seems obvious these days that when somebody says, “I’m Christian,” he or she probably means they believe Jesus died for their sins and rose again on the third day, but of course in the earliest generations of the Jesus movement, that was not a given. “Christianity has always engaged in a struggle of self-definition,” Galston explains in the final chapter of Embracing the Human Jesus (203). There is no monopoly on the name, and Christian has held multiple meanings across time.

That’s actually the subject of the next blog series, so let me tell you a little about that before I come back to this important final chapter of David Galston’s book.

Join us in reading Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

What are we reading next?
Next week I’ll be starting a new blog series on Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? Karen King is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, best known these days for her role in studying the Jesus Wife Fragment. In What Is Gnosticism? she specifically addresses the fact that “Christians of the first centuries were deeply engaged in controversies over such basic issues as the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, the significance of his death, the roles of women, sexuality, visions of the ideal community, and so on” (vii). This book forms the basis for the next Christianity Seminar at the Westar Fall Meeting in San Diego, so I hope you’ll join me in reading the book in preparation for that event, whether you’re planning to participate in the conversation here on the blog, on our Facebook page, or in person.

Can a historical Jesus community be Christian?
It’s tempting to reach for one of two extreme responses to the historical Jesus. Like me, maybe when you learn about Christian history in all its convoluted and uncertain terms, you find yourself preferring an atheistic or humanist outlook. Or, like others, you may find yourself courting neo-orthodox Christianity, a fancy word for Christianity that applies the Christ-myth more metaphorically, even prophetically, often in the service of social justice issues. In a variation of this second position, still others prefer a more mystical outlook, one that interprets Jesus as the key to a more universal spiritual pattern that manifests across all religions (although David Galston didn’t mention them, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung as possible examples).

When it comes down to it, though, all these positions have something in common. They tend to prefer the Christ to Jesus. The historical Jesus is dismissed in favor of the clear, straightforward Christ who can either be rejected or embraced—but not engaged.

So as I read this, what I was left asking myself was the question, “Do I really want to engage the historical Jesus?” I feel almost blank in response to that. What do I know about the historical Jesus? It’s hard to engage with someone you’ve been taught to ignore and elide into the Christ over and over again through weekly rituals. Yet throughout this book Galston has introduced a Jesus who is clever and compassionate, a man whose stories especially reveal him to be a careful observer of human relationships. He left a mark on the people who knew him. For that reason Galston has suggested the banquet should replace its closely-related cousin, communion, as the center of religious life.

Also, and this seemed to be problematic to many of you who commented on the past couple chapters, Galston is suggesting we see the Jesus movement as a school and Jesus as a teacher. A school may simply not be an adequate replacement for the mystery that religious practice often offers.

We’re left, then, with a lot of questions about what shape ultimately an historical Jesus community would take, whether it can still be relevant, and especially whether it can speak as powerfully for Christianity as orthodox forms have in the past. We’re living in the era in which that will likely be decided. Maybe the reason education—biblical literacy and religious literacy more generally—has to play such a big role in our generation is that it has failed to do so in the past for the everyday person, regardless of what was going on in the academy. “A major roadblock to taking the historical Jesus to church is precisely that he comes with some assembly required and no miracles, no mystery, and no authority provided,” Galston explains. Then, once we’ve delved into the stuff we’ve been missing, “sometimes the humanistic wisdom of the historical Jesus is not mysterious enough to be attractive” (199).

Coming back to the quote with which we began, what I find most compelling in this final chapter is the call to give Christian a new definition, and to do so without fear. It’s okay to see the Christ nature not as something absolute or essential, but rather as something to be practiced and experienced—as long as we do it inside the accountability provided by a community. We do it by imitating the historical Jesus’ parable-world. We change the world by living it differently, and we do so together.

This is the concluding post in a blog series on David Galston’s book, Embracing the Human Jesus. You can find chapter 8 here. Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. 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.

13 replies
  1. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Per Thomas Thompson.A purpose of the messianic king (Christ) in the Bible is education – encouraging the audience to identify with the hero, the model of piety. Interest isn’t in the hero per se but in his piety.The quote atop seems to mythologize Jesus as a Zen adherent (minus satori),tasty and caloric but not filling.

  2. Gene Stecher says:

    Cassandra wrote, “still others prefer a more mystical outlook (Campbell, Jung)” See also W. Wink (deceased JS Fellow) The Human Being (2002), “… striking parallels in Jewish mysticism and Gnosticism that show that the ‘son of the man’ was an archetypal phenomenon touching even non-Christians in the ancient world.” (3) “To use Jung’s terms, the ‘son of the man,’ an image of the archetype of wholeness, which mediates between the transcendent self and the individual ego.” (272)

    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, I have been reading Walter Wink’s autobiography, Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human; thanks for suggesting that as one possible voice that leans in the more mystical direction. I was struck by not only his appreciation for spiritual experiences but also Elaine Pagels’ appreciation for them, as she has discussed in her books and in person at some of our events.

  3. Gene Stecher says:

    “…accepting J as a human being and building a community experience in the momentum of this ancient wisdom teacher can be done.” (EHJ 194) Ok, but again, why J and not some other wisdom teacher? Years ago my kids asked me why they should pay attention to Jesus. I considered two choices: read what he said or read what he did and see what you think. At last I said, “Where else do you find resurrection taken seriously?”

  4. Peter Kane says:

    Cassandra: ‘Feeling blank about engaging HJ’: me too, but it’s OK, because we said we are giving Jesus a demotion, and the only people I know how to engage are currently living. As long as in today’s community you throw in historical context and HJ movement followers along with the parables – not just parables in the abstract, what else would the Jesus tradition have to contribute to living and acting together today? And isn’t that, plus the Cosmos series, enough mystery?

    • Cassandra says:

      That is a good reality check, Peter; it’s true, something that comes with all that life experience of elevating the Christ is also the implicit assumption, “He is supposed to be important.” Well, okay, maybe he isn’t. When it comes to mystery, nature contains enough mystery to sustain me for a lifetime (and is often my cure for renewal when feeling burnt out by life).

  5. Gene Stecher says:

    Do we not have in EHJ a talking-head Jesus who introduces a new mythical structure called the parable world? Such a person is likely the creation of a teacher of philosophy. I’m not sure how David knows that this J “worked out the Christ nature of himself” and that it’s “Christian to seek the critical engagement of the self and reality with the parabolic vision of a differently reasoned world.” (214) Why did Christ suddenly replace human at the end of the book?

    • Peter Kane says:

      Gene: I think the apocalyptic Jesus talking head would be about the mythical structure of another world. The parabolic Jesus talking head deals with trying to manage this world.

      • Gene Stecher says:

        Well put, Peter! Speaking personally, to make sense of life, I need more than a talking head of whatever persuasion.

        Speaking of managing this world, did you see Amy Jill Levine’s interpretations of the Prodigal, Samaritan, Vineyard Workers, and Pearl at the Westar site? Really good stuff, grounded in a Jewish context.

      • Gene Stecher says:

        Really well put, Peter! For myself, to make sense of the world I need more than a talking head of any persuasion. On the matter of interpretations, have you seen Amy Jill Levine’s take on the Prodigal, Samaritan, Vineyard Laborers, and Pearl at the Westar facebook site? Excellent stuff understood in a Jewish context.

  6. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Gene, I think that is what I was getting at with my original post. The quote “the Christ of himself” (what I was talking about) distorts the original ANE notion of a messiah/Christ into a caricature.

    • Cassandra says:

      Just following up on your point, Dennis, it occurs to me that by placing that quote at the top of the blog, I may be unfairly narrowing what David is saying. That comment appears in a series of meditations specifically on traditional Christian terms, in which David is asking how such terms might be reformed for modern relevance.

  7. Gene Stecher says:

    With the oral Jesus, how much do we determine is consistent with his own experience. For instance, take ‘conscription and walking the second mile.’ Is he addressing something that he heard about? Is he addressing something that he saw second hand? Is he addressing something that happened to him personally? Do we not assume that he was sufficiently knowledgeable to a address the matter intelligently? So he’s not only a man of words, he’s a person of experience. It’s common sense.

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