How Has Biblical Studies Research Opened New Questions about God?

At the turn of the nineteenth century, theology and biblical studies parted ways. Theology committed itself to the exploration of matters of faith, while biblical studies dedicated itself to history and other humanistic disciplines. This divide has never been a clean one, of course. Whether engaged in scholarship or in public discourse, most of us are aware that appeals to God or some ultimate reality continue to be an active part of human vocabulary, persisting even in the face of claims that religion is dying and being replaced by strict secularism—that is, a focus on this life and this world without any appeal to super-natural causes or influences.

While most of us are probably familiar with the controversial April 1966 Time magazine article asking "Is God Dead?", the average person still believes in God, even among those who have abandoned organized religion. According to the Pew US Religious Landscapes Survey, 71 percent of Americans responded "absolutely certain" to the question, "Do you believe in a universal God or spirit? If so, how certain are you about this belief?" Eighty-eight percent were at least "fairly certain." That's a lot of people, and that's just one country. "Large populations of the world don't see a problem with God," observed Westar Fellow Perry Kea at the new Seminar on God and the Human Future, which convened November 22nd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center to discuss critical questions at the intersection of religion and philosophy. "That's not just true of theists," he added. Some atheists are also content to stick with a certain idea of God. But when philosophers began declaring God dead, they weren't referring to a cold body on the floor. So what did they mean?

Scholars of religion confront this question in their own research, implicitly and explicitly. The Death of God question is about more than culture wars, although the culture wars are a symptom of the deeper question. In fact there have always been many definitions of God, and some of the most exciting and challenging ones are hardly the equivalent of an old man in the sky. To begin to open up conversations about some of those options, and to ask whether any particular understanding of God can—or should—have a future in human life, the new Seminar invited members of past Westar seminars to field questions about the visions of God they found in their historical work, as well as what of their own philosophical and theological assumptions came out in their research.

Jesus Seminar scholars Hal Taussig and Bernard Brandon Scott challenged both Jesus Seminar participants and those who have followed the proceedings over the years to acknowledge that the attempt to set aside theology, to say to themselves, "Just the facts, ma'am," was never entirely possible. It was, in fact, shockingly reductionistic at times. They didn't do this with their eyes closed, of course. Jesus Seminar founder Robert W. Funk, in his opening remarks in 1985, touched on this issue:

A fiction is ... a selection—arbitrary in nature—of participants and events arranged in a connected chain and on a chronological line with an arbitrary beginning and ending. In sum, we make up all our “stories”—out of real enough material, of course—in relation to imaginary constructs, within temporal limits.

Our fictions, although deliberately fictive, are nevertheless not subject to proof or falsification. We do not abandon them because they are demonstrably false, but because they lose their “operational effectiveness,” because they fail to account for enough of what we take to be real in the everyday course of events. Fictions of the sciences or of law are discarded when they no longer match our living experience of things.

... Not any fiction will do. The fiction of the superiority of the Aryan race led to the extermination of six million Jews. The fiction of American superiority prompted the massacre of thousands of Native Americans and the Vietnam War. The fiction of Revelation keeps many common folk in bondage to ignorance and fear. We require a new, liberating fiction, one that squares with the best knowledge we can now accumulate and one that transcends self-serving ideologies. And we need a fiction that we recognize to be fictive.

Satisfactions will come hard. Anti-historicist criticism, now rampant among us, will impugn every fact we seek to establish. Every positive attribution will be challenged again and again. All of this owes, of course, to what Oscar Wilde called “the decay of lying;” we have fallen, he says, into “careless habits of accuracy.” And yet, as Kermode reminds us, “the survival of the paradigms is as much our business as their erosion.” Our stories are eroding under the acids of historical criticism. We must retell our stories. And there is one epic story that has Jesus in it.

Jesus Seminar scholars knew the risks of assuming they would be able to tell a purely historical story without appeals to faith or belief. This was a necessary commitment in order to be open to new stories of Jesus and Christian history more generally, but of course, as Funk and others have acknowledged, human subjectivity is inescapable at base—a problem faced by all historians, not just historians of religion. Nevertheless, "to the surprise of ourselves and our opponents," noted Taussig, "the Seminar affirmed the existence of Jesus." Much of the energy of the Seminar was then directed toward "empire of God" language, the parables, because those were considered the likeliest voiceprint of the historical Jesus. So who was the God of "God's" empire?

The historical Jesus' God may be better understood as all good, not all powerful, suggested Taussig. Jesus "was breathtakingly comfortable with incompleteness," and his good God was not necessarily a just God. There are limits to the interventions a good God can do. The tension between the desire for an all-powerful God and an all-good one is evident throughout Christian texts. "Frankly, I don't need Jesus to be this good but fragile God," Taussig went on, "but he reappears in this form in later tradition." Scott, picking up on the theme of the historical Jesus and later tradition, observed, "Jesus uses all the wrong metaphors for the empire of God for his time. The church has always been interested in God, but I see no evidence Jesus was interested. ... I would like to draw a distinction between theological questions and ecclesial questions (that is, about the power of the church). The Christ of faith is a power move of the church—a power move, not a theological one." Charles Hedrick, agreeing with Scott, notes, "I would begin by talking about the world. ... There's no real ethical action behind what goes on in the world. It's an absence of God. When I look at the church, there's a theological perception of God. What, then, is the point of reference for God?"

In light of these questions, John D. Caputo posed the question, "Does it matter whether there is an entity behind the kingdom 'of God'?" Without assuming that we can fully know an ancient person's psychology, at the same time Arthur Dewey offered the idea that we can "seek the imagination of Jesus, what his strategies reveal." We can look at those strategies and ask whether we want to play that game. Susan (Elli) Elliot warned the Seminar away from reductionistic thinking. "When we give priority to language and texts, we are making a theological choice." There are many other options for articulating such questions, such as theology of place, ritual and practice. Diversity is quelled by reductionism. How can we avoid this? David Galston advocated for engaging with criticisms of the Jesus Seminar without at the same time labeling any one person who has voiced them as an enemy; meaningful criticism can open up serious philosophical questions.

Paul Seminar scholars Arthur J. Dewey and Lane C. McGaughy opened their session with an appeal to see the apostle Paul's vision as relational rather than doctrinal. "Paul was working out his experience and appealing to the experiences of his listeners. His logic is inductive, playing to the experience of his listeners," Dewey explains. "It's a constant renegotiation of relationships." To put it another way, "We cannot spin a non-temporal cocoon around his writings." Paul lived in a certain time and place, and interacted with specific communities. Furthermore, "for Paul, it is about God, not about Jesus." Paul appeals to trust in God, as Jesus and Abraham before him trusted God. Paul's vision is incomplete; he doesn't draw his apocryphal vision to a close. Thus, the best way to respond to and build on the work of Paul is to explore the use of metaphor, as Paul does, from multiple angles without settling on any one. His advice in his letters should not be seen as the final word.

The work of translation for The Authentic Letters of Paul was often the work of dismantling the translators' own assumptions. Philosophers and theologians, and anyone who is working with second-order (explanatory) language, need to acknowledge that they, like Paul, are working out of metaphors that may not always be obvious and may not be the final word. "I had functioned through the Jesus Seminar, Paul Seminar, and other Westar Seminars ... as a historian, and wasn't sure at first if this was a good launching point for a God Seminar," McGaughy said. "But what this Seminar signals is that over the last generation, since the time of Rudolf Bultmann and his colleague Martin Heidegger, the whole focus of theology and philosophy of religion has changed to the point where it is now possible for biblical studies and theology to link up again ... because of what Martin Marty has called the linguistic turn in philosophy." We are now in a place to recognize that fundamental questions about God are not about a physical deity but about our language for reality and the limits imposed by that language. Language is the meeting point of major philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Bultmannian theology and biblical studies, and linguistics. "Notice that in all the humanistic disciplines, language has become the root problem of the twentieth century."

Acts Seminar scholars Milton Moreland and Dennis McDonald picked up on Lane McGaughy's point about the departure of biblical studies from theology. In spite of this attempted separation, many who deal with the New Testament remain very much theologians at heart. Often, they assume a traditional view of God based on a literal reading of Acts. "We've got to re-imagine how one goes about using the stories [of Acts] to talk about the rise of Christianity," Milton said. "What happens when you re-situate Acts into a humanistic enterprise of asking what this text is trying to do in its setting?"

The critical moment for the Acts Seminar came when participants placed Acts in the second century. Acts is not a neutral history but a rhetorical and ideological work. The writer of Acts was apocalyptic, supersessionist in how it placed Christianity in relation to its Jewish heritage, and beginning to feel pressures from Marcionite tendencies. "We know more about Christian origins than Luke. It is clear Luke knew more about Christian origins than he told," McDonald explained based on his work in The Gospels and Homer and Luke and Vergil. "This doesn't mean Luke ceases to be significant. He remains significant not about the period about which he wrote but about the period in which he wrote." He goes on, "What we are doing as critical scholars is reconstructing Christian origins in a way that goes far beyond the simplistic and ideological commitments of the author of Luke-Acts. The challenge for us is to view statements about God, Jesus and so on in Luke-Acts not as metaphysical references but as politically charged foundation mythologies that are used to organize early Christian theology to incorporate Paul into the Petrine tradition."

In response to William O. Walker's question about whether there was theological motivation in the formation of the Acts Seminar, Brandon Scott observed, "I don't think you can raise these questions without raising theological issues. ... When you raise these questions, you're going to be messing with somebody's theology." This theme continued as Joe Bessler revisited discussions around the historical Jesus and the church from earlier in the session to ask, "Is Acts the place where collapsing happens, where ecclesial and philosophical questions merge?" Moreland observed in response that this is precisely why assigning Acts a date appropriate to its concerns is so important. "Taking the author seriously within his time period is productive, not just critical."

Perry Kea tied this to second-century Christians' question, "Who are we in relationship to the Empire? ... Who are these followers of Jesus who are not Jews?" Early Christians struggled on the one hand with who they were in relation to the Jews, yet also wanted to retain some continuity with that tradition. While condemning supersessionism, we can still appreciate that Luke had a tough job. Kea goes on, "The God Seminar might use that historical recognition and extrapolate God language from the lived experience of communities struggling for their voice and their identity in the midst of other voices and often powerful forces."

John Caputo, taking up this thread, asked, "What did God look like to this pre-Nicea community?" Moreland responded, "There's not a single view of God in early Christianity. What does the God of Acts look like? A God who kills people who disagree with the group. We get miracle stories that match up with the larger Greek and Roman story world. ... In that competition and staking of claims, they are starting to formulate a deity that is more powerful, distinctive, that is clearly the God, the power."

I will save a report on the final session of the God Seminar, the papers presented by David Galston, Jarmo Tarkki, and John C. Kelly, for a later report since the topic shifted pretty significantly at that point in the discussions. Also, on a related note, thank you for your patience as I continue to produce these reports. The new timing of the Fall Meeting alongside the Thanksgiving holiday created a busier schedule than I anticipated when I set out to report on the sessions. Reports will continue to come out over the next week or so.

Thanks, and as always, 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.

6 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    The deal-breaker for me is the 1st/2nd century absolute expectation of the end of the age. Paul and Mark were convinced that their message was the right one for those who believed that the end-times were coming in their own generation, and that same kind of absolutism can be found in the other NT writings. So the end didn’t come and Jesus disappeared into obscurity, right? That’s what should have happened, but it didn’t.

    So what is it about Jesus, that could still have thousands of years utility, which didn’t and doesn’t require an insistence that the end-time is right around the corner? Is the answer any different than what would be given for any other transformative religious figure in history? Does the answer have to do with what he said, what he did, who he represented, testimonies to how he transcended death?

    So, can studies of the Christian literature as well as theological reflection both make a contribution to the answer? I would say yes, because every book about Jesus, including all of the New Testament, is theological reflection about Jesus. We don’t have one word about Jesus that does not also contain theological reflection.

  2. Peter Kane says:

    “Do you believe in God, or not…?” is an irrational question. It doesn’t matter how you answer – either answer to that question is irrational and irrelevant. It isn’t the case that the pros and cons could be reasonably discussed. It is the case that the question itself has no merit, no rationality, no intrinsic usefulness. Worse, it subverts real human communication in the most profound manner. And yet it is so often the opening gambit of attempts at human communication in our world.
    When someone uses the ‘god’ word, either pro or con, we should be wondering what the person means by using that word. Parents are smart enough to interpret their infant’s babbling, more or less. I’m cold, I’m hungry, you stuck me with a pin, jerk! Then we grow up, and the world sticks us with a pin, and we forget that humanity is about interpreting, not about abstract truth.

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    God makes a good adjective and an excellent interjection, I believe. It’s one syllable, guttural, and an expressive cry “to the heavens.” (Compare with Baal, which would never sound right after hitting one’s finger with a hammer! It’s a wimpy, crying-like utterance.)

    As a proper noun, God lacks utility. People evoke it magically if they want something or want to thank their cosmic maid or butler, I reckon to tell God something that an omniscient creature should already know.

  4. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    “Heavens” would be a metaphor for the space between my mouth and forever, Peter! (Broke two bones in my hand wielding a 3 pound hammer and chisel when I was working construction and going to college. The pantheon of gods at the Board of Regents could hear my curses! Still gives me problems when the gods shower rain.) I think the poetic use of “god speak” is functional, though the gods aren’t. But, my background is literature and I write a ton of poetry. Let me somewhat digress to give one example of a religious term I didn’t know was one when I listened to the song “Sky Pilot.” Not until I started reading Westerns did I realize that was one name given to preachers. Wonderful term, evoking images of the pastor leading one to heaven!

  5. Gene Stecher says:

    I would wager that the interests of Westar and its scholars are as least as much, and maybe more, theology as history. Peruse through the articles in the 4thR over the years. One begins to lose count of the criticisms of theism and the alternatives offered. This, in spite of the fact, as best we can tell, the hero of Christianity was a theist who referred to “God” as a benevolent Father. And then there’s the matter of translations: The Authentic Letters of Paul, a most interesting work, is probably best described as an interpretation of the text with its elaborate and repetitive constructions of the meanings of certain words.

    I think that it was 2002 that I began participating in Jesus Seminar egroup discussions. Noticing the hostility to traditional Christianity, I asked the group some years later why each one was there. Many said it was because they could think the way they wanted without censure, in other words, theology. I was and still am taken back. My answer was to get ideas about the historical Jesus, and that still is my answer. By the way, Charlie Hedrick’s new book The Wisdom of Jesus, in my opinion, is an excellent resource for understanding Jesus in historical context.

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