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.

Redeeming Gnosticism? Scholars Weigh the Pros and Cons

A mixture of long-time supporters of Westar, new and inquiring members of the public, students, and faculty gathered in the ballroom of the San Diego Convention Center Friday, November 21st, 2014, at the Westar Christianity Seminar to discuss a troublesome little word you won't hear much in everyday conversations, even ones about Christianity—gnosticism.

One reason you may not have heard this term much is that gnosticism has become a catch-all in biblical studies for communities, texts and ideas that don't deserve much attention. "As soon as you put the label gnosticism on something, it's bound to be misunderstood," said Michael Williams (University of Washington), who has worked with such texts for five decades. Texts labeled "gnostic" are often excluded from stories of Christian history. They don't appear in the New Testament, so people tend to look right past them, as though their absence automatically makes them unimportant.

The Secret Revelation of John by Karen L. King

Karen King's The Secret Revelation of John attempted to place this text alongside books inside and outside the New Testament without giving priority to one versus the other.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the average person hasn't heard much about gnosticism, any more than they've heard of or read texts like the Secret Revelation of John, Gospel of Thomas, or more than fifty other texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Rather than being read alongside New Testament texts, which belong to the same historical period, they are relegated to the sidelines in stories about Christian origins.

It's tempting to say that this is a publicity problem and not a scholarly problem, but this issue has deep roots in the discipline. "Scholarly bias and preconceptions about gnosticism, mostly derived from polemicists"—that is, early leaders in the Jesus movement who first labeled certain groups and practices as heresy—"are a serious problem today," remarked Stephen Patterson of Willamette University in his opening comments. "The study of early Christianities is fraught for everyone. We must be attentive to unsensed tendencies in our work."

Before Nag Hammadi, some of the best historical resources available were "catalogues" of what certain ancient people considered "wrong" or "flawed" teaching. Unfortunately, scholars consciously or unconsciously took up the biases of these catalogues along with the content. To give a modern equivalent, imagine basing your entire opinion of groups like the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, or People's Temple on anti-cult pamphlets. No matter what you might think of these groups if you were able to observe them in practice, your understanding of them would be seriously skewed through the narrow lens of their most virulent opponents. All of this builds to the question of the hour: Is redeeming gnosticism possible anymore?

To answer this question, scholars had to cover a lot of territory and brainstorm about other possible models. The reason walking away from gnosticism isn't as simple as it appears is that, as Maia Kotrosits of Denison University warned, the term gnosticism is bound up with the term Christianity. The two terms often operate as foils of one another in biblical studies. What is Christianity? Whatever gnosticism is not. What is gnosticism? Whatever Christianity is not. What if we were to walk away from Christianity, too? Is it possible to jump ship entirely, perhaps appeal to other streams of literature from the same era, like diaspora discourse? We know that many people experienced loss in what several scholars have described as the "casual violence" of the Roman Empire. Are the texts we have better understood as responses to this violence, longing for a different reality, mourning what was lost? Remember that ancient people didn't see religion as separate from the rest of our lives. Religion, too, is a category, and a very modern one at that.

Madame Blavatsky

Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) was a leading figure in the theosophy movement. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Denise Buell made a critical observation that the rise of gnosticism in scholarly discourse took place in the midst of appropriation of the term by highly popular 19th-century spiritualist and theosophist movements. Some of the critiques leveled at gnosticism reveal themselves to be veiled critiques instead of these contemporary movements, not critiques of actual ancient groups.

David Brakke of The Ohio State University advocated for freeing even the polemicists from their traditional groupings. After all, some of them were eventually labeled heretics themselves, or defected to groups they once maligned. Such men did not belong to a unified group anymore than their opponents did. Brakke's more fundamental point, in spite of this, was that categories can have value. "One nice thing about categories is that we rethink them as we use them," he said. Texts are associated with communities and their practices. To deny them a place by refusing to group them runs the risk of denying them rituals, habits of life, and the visions or dreams that brought them together. We're already concerned that alternative visions of Christianity have been erased from history. As Arthur Dewey of Xavier University put it, we cannot be so afraid of freezing categories that we forget their interpretive or heuristic value.

King, reflecting on her original thesis from What Is Gnosticism?, questioned whether her own feelings had changed. "A challenge for me over the past ten years has been to ask, 'Is there really no way to talk about these things as a group?'" She suggested that perhaps gnosticism could be redeemed by tying it to Christianity, such as referring to particular strands of tradition as "gnostic Christian" in nature the way we would refer to others as "Pauline Christian." Bernard Brandon Scott, borrowing from the scientific theory of evolution, asked whether we might step away from essentialist definitions and talk in terms of variety in populations. Rather than labeling groups and expecting them to conform to set boundaries, what if we mapped features or tendencies of this ancient population that birthed Christianity?

It is not possible to do justice to all the comments of scholars in this brief report, except to end on a strong note of appreciation for the organizers of this particular seminar session, which created a space for participants to apologize to one another for past disagreements, question their own assumptions, and change their minds. Suffice it to say that I have left out far more than I have reported here.

The Christianity Seminar closed with voting on 31 statements, the results of which will appear in a future issue of The Fourth R magazine and on the project page at a later date. Here are a few sample statements from the ballot:

  • Scholarship now needs a less blunt tool/analytical category than gnosticism for examination of the Jesus/Christ(ian) literature of the second and third centuries.
  • The essentializing influence of Plato inhibits in major ways conscientious re-thinking of the history of early Christianity.
  • The category of “diasporic literature” is a more analytically helpful term for The Secret Revelation of John than the categories of “Christian,” “Gnostic,” or “Jewish.”
  • To be even considered as a possible phenomenon related to something called gnostic or gnosticism, ancient groups must have called themselves gnostikos.
  • Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and company should be liberated from “proto-orthodoxy” and allowed to be their own idiosyncratic selves.

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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.

What is the Gnostic Redeemer Myth? (Gnosticism series)

Last week we left off our reading of Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? with the problem of historians ignoring and distorting data for the sake of protecting the exalted status of whatever they believed to be true Christianity. They let theological concerns get in the way of historical ones. The most damaging idea introduced by this generation of scholars was the gnostic redeemer myth.

What is the gnostic redeemer myth? More or less invented by philologist Richard Reitzenstein by combining elements from many different texts, the gnostic redeemer myth is summarized as follows by twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann:

A heavenly being is sent down from the world of light to the earth, which has fallen under the sway of the demonic powers, in order to liberate the sparks of light, which have their origin in the world of light, but owing to a fall in primeval times, have been compelled to inhabit human bodies. This emissary takes a human form, and carries out the works entrusted to him by the Father; as a result he is not cut off from the Father. He reveals himself in his utterances (‘I am the shepherd’, etc.) and so brings about the separation of the seeing from the blind to whom he appears as a stranger. His own harken to him, and he awakes in them the memory of their home of light, teaches them to recognise their own true nature, and teaches them also the way of return to their home, to which he, as a redeemed Redeemer, rises again. (Bultmann, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart).

Bultmann, like other scholars of his generation, believed the gnostic redeemer myth to be a pre-Christian myth appropriated and transformed by Christian evangelists like the writer of the Gospel of John (Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography: 319). Most of you will be familiar with the Christian version, as can be read in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed:

I believe … And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Apocryphon of John

King questions whether the Apocryphon of John, pictured above, should be understood as an example of gnostic alienation, as Jonas believed, or a social critique of imperial violence. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The gnostic and Christian myths mostly differed “in what each conceived to be the root cause of the problem [of the human situation]. For Gnosticism, it was fate; for Christianity, sin” (King, 105). Often viewed as a direct competitor with the Christian redeemer myth, the gnostic myth was deemed “an alien parasite whose infestation produced the heresies of Christian Gnosticism” (109). Scholars were able to assume this in part because they assumed a master narrative in which Jesus delivered an original, “pure” doctrine to his disciples that was later corrupted (111).

In chapter 5 of What Is Gnosticism?, Karen King introduces three scholars who became increasingly critical of earlier claims about gnosticism, especially the redeemer myth: Walter Bauer challenged the notion that “heresy was a secondary development in the history of Christianity” (110). Christianity "did not look the same everywhere" (112). Whatever form Christianity took in a given city or region, that was Christianity to those communities. There was no model or protocol for how Christianity ought to be until several generations later. Hans Jonas challenged the history of religions school’s obsession with tracing the origin of gnostic ideas as though a movement could be defined merely by the sum of its parts. “Myth demands interpretation,” he believed (128). We can engage myth on a psychological and philosophical level rather than merely dissecting it. Carsten Colpe dissected faulty assumptions in past studies of gnostic texts, such as the fact that no single text tells a complete version of the myth, and that the Jewish “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel cannot easily be tied to redeemer figures in Manichaean and Mandaean traditions.

While the work of this later generation of scholars carried forward some of the prejudices of the past, such as the assumption that gnosticism was immoral and inferior, their “enduring work” has been “to emphasize the multiformity of early Christian phenomena, as well as to demonstrate irrefutably that Christianity and Judaism are integrally entwined in a wider historical and cultural matrix” (148). This laid a crucial foundation for the further upset of assumptions about gnosticism that was to come with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.

More on that next week as part of the Westar Christianity Seminar discussion of this book at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Diego!

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

This is the fifth post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. 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.

Christianity and Colonialism (Gnosticism series)

In my last blog post about Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?, I used the metaphor of maps and boundary-making to point to the problem of always keeping in mind the purposes behind our “map” of early Christian history. This has proven to be a problem in the study of Christianity because it’s too tempting to take what early Christian writers claimed about themselves—and about their opponents—at face-value.

King goes on in chapters 3 and 4 to give examples of actual scholars who fell into this trap, complicated by the rise of Western colonialism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars like Adolf von Harnack and the history of religions school tried to move beyond the church’s language of heresy without, however, endangering Christianity’s status as the highest form of religion. Some even went so far as to claim Christianity had taken over and improved upon the ideas of other religions on its path to ascendancy. Of course this or that brand of Christianity might get touted above another, such as Protestantism versus Catholicism, but the status of Christianity itself was left untouched. Scholars assumed the superiority of Christianity just like wider society assumed the superiority of white Europeans.

Today we study that phenomenon under the term "colonialism." Arguably, we haven't yet moved beyond colonialism. It is evident in the ways race, class, and gender are treated differently in pop culture, our legal system, and other social institutions. Bell hooks, an American feminist and cultural critic, links colonialism to our tendency to recycle old ideas in new forms for the sake of power. In Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, she gives a commonsense example of this phenomenon:

We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation. People forget that when they wanted white women to get into the workforce because of the world war, what did they start doing? They started having a lot of commercials, a lot of movies, a lot of things that were redoing the female image, saying, “Hey, you can work for the war, but you can still be feminine.” So what we see is that the mass media, film, TV, all of these things, are powerful vehicles for maintaining the kinds of systems of domination we live under, imperialism, racism, sexism etc. Often there’s a denial of this and art is presented as politically neutral, as though it is not shaped by a reality of domination.

Sometimes people get upset in conversations about racism and other –isms because they don’t feel they should be held personally responsible for the actions of past generations. And that’s a fair complaint, to a point. What Hooks is talking about here is not the past as such, but our choices to reproduce past attitudes through new movies, books, and so on. If we reproduce sexist, racist, and other oppressive images without criticizing or challenging them, we keep them alive for the next generation.

Richard Reitzenstein

Richard Reitzenstein is credited (for better or for worse) by King with the invention of the "gnostic redeemer myth." Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Scholars deal with this problem, too. King is claiming that gnosticism happens to be a tool used—consciously or unconsciously—by scholars of early Christian history to keep alive the basic structures of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and heresy (“deviance”). The orthodoxy-heresy divide served the church’s goal of claiming authority for itself, but it does not in any way serve a scholar’s goal of a better understanding of history.

I found this quote especially illustrative:

Possibly the greatest mischief [of history of religions school] was done by the invention of the Gnostic redeemer myth, that staple of two-page summaries of Gnosticism. This stirring narrative … was constructed by taking bits and pieces from particular motifs from a variety of historical and literary contexts, and combining them into a single, coherent narrative. … In reality there is no single existing ancient literary source that gives ‘the Gnostic redeemer myth’ as scholars have ‘reconstructed’ (i.e., invented) it. (109, italics in original)

Last week I mentioned Daniel Boyarin’s suggestion that the metaphor of “family resemblance” is a useful alternative to other kinds of definitions. No one member of the family has all the family traits, but they all share some. However, now I see that the case of the history of religions school shows one weakness of that metaphor. Because there is no family prototype, out of which the rest of the family members are stamped, we’re all family if you draw a large enough circle. The lack of a prototype allowed scholars who liked the history of religions approach to cherry-pick whatever traits they felt like assigning to gnosticism, without anchoring them in place and time.

All along, King’s point has been that the entire structure of a “good” Christianity and “bad” gnosticism, or vice versa, is flawed. We know things were never so monolithic in practice. The end result is absolutely going to look like a family of some kind, but I can safely say this much: the Christian family is not going to divide easily into two groups.

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

This is the fourth post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book will form the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. 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.

Reader Roundtable: Reimagining God by Lloyd Geering

Reimagining God, by Lloyd Geering

This blog post is part of the Reimagining God book club hosted by Patheos.com. The book club runs Nov 1st to 15th.

Is the concept of God still viable for the future? What do we mean when we say "God"? In my last blog post I introduced four alternatives to fundamentalism from Nigel Leaves' The God Problem, among which Leaves placed respected New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering among the non-realists and religious naturalists. In this blog post, readers respond both to Geering and to this problem of God language as part of the ongoing book club hosted by Patheos.com that ends November 15th.

It's not too late to submit your thoughts on Reimagining God by Lloyd Geering. You can simply respond in the comments section below or send us a message containing your thoughts on the Westar Facebook page. Comments will be highlighted in whole or in part in another roundtable next week.

Kicking us off, Jim High offers these comments on the problem of authority:

We live in the age of changing authority, and I believe this is why our language has and is changing. We no longer have a central place (The Bible) where all authority comes from. Our understanding of God is also undergoing drastic change because science and evolution shows us a quite different world and God from what we find in the old authority of the Bible. Within Christianity and all other beliefs there are many new ideas about Life, Oneness and our connections to all that exists in the Universe from which Life emerged. Maybe we will never again have a single Authority as we once did. Maybe that is a good thing, but for sure only we humans have control over what happens in the future, good or bad.

While the problem of authority doesn't come up explicitly in Reimagining God that I can recall, it certainly underpins the stories of theologians like Ludwig Feuerbach and Bishop John Robinson, whose work erupted in public controversy precisely because they cracked the authority-giving veneer of the reigning religious views in their respective eras. In his discussion of Feuerbach in chapter 4, Geering writes, "Even today ... those who are most convinced that God is an objective being external to them are the most certain that they know exactly what God thinks and desires on any issue" (69). At the end of chapter 7 on Robinson, he goes on, "The theistic image of God has got to go. It was too small, too human, too personal, and too objective. 'God' remains as a symbol, should we choose to use it, that both refers to all that transcends us and points to the unity of the universe we live in" (113). It is no wonder that the "too human, too personal, too objective" qualities of our concept of God has proven most devastating to the authority God traditionally held in Western culture.

Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach.
Credit: Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin

A natural question from a specifically Christian angle in response to this authority issue becomes, "What about Jesus?" How does Jesus, both as an historical figure open to anyone and as a divine Christ figure of the church, appear in modern conversations about God? Gene Stecher says:

I’ve never quite understood how ‘no God’ or ‘impersonal God’ fits with the ‘human Jesus.’ What we’re really saying is that if Jesus lived today, when the three tiered universe and ‘spatial’ God has been rationally eliminated, God would not be part of his belief or language system. How would anyone know that? The thing is, if the gospels tell us anything about the human Jesus it is that his belief and language system included a personal God. Do we really know that in today’s world, for him, rationality would obliterate intuitive, revelatory, relational, and other forms of knowing what is ‘whole’ and ‘ultimate,’ ‘personal and impersonal.’ It’s just another case of making Jesus and God in our own image. Going along with this is the notion that Jesus ‘ teachings can somehow exist on their own apart from his deity orientation. His teachings re-present the kingdom of God. They are not isolated nuggets of wisdom raising rationality to its own level of divinity.

Stecher points to the problem of plucking Jesus out of his own era and dropping him into our own specifically as a way to support modern ideas of God. Karen King, in chapter 3 of What Is Gnosticism?, which we've also been reading on this blog, pinpoints this same problem in the highly influential theology of Adolf von Harnack. "Harnack appears to have done with paganism what the polemicists did in the Christian construction of Judaism," she writes. "[Harnack] appropriated all the positive characteristics of pagan thought (such as universalism, rational philosophy, monotheistic piety, and ethics) for true Christianity, while attributing all the negative characteristics (superstition, myth, polytheism, cultic practice) to his opponents, in this case Catholics" (68). Geering suggests an alternative that still carries forward what we find meaningful from the teachings of Jesus, not on the authority of his name but on its own merits: "The value of Christian teaching must be judged not by appeal to divine revelation but to its own inherent capacity to win conviction and obedience. ... Even such so-called teachings of Jesus as we find in the Sermon on the Mount must be valued not because they were spoken by Jesus Christ, but for their inherent capacity to convey to us the ring of truth" (161).

This problem in part arises from the situatedness of ideas in their cultural and historical context. Jamie Spencer, author of Fictional Religion (Polebridge, 2011), gives a nod to Geering's explanation of this phenomenon:

I have read Geering’s book with delight. Here are some quotes that particularly spoke to me. 1)“The modern world is no longer Christian …[but]… it holds in high regard the moral values, aspirations and social mores it has inherited from its Christian matrix.” 2) “We are all products of language-based cultures, and every religion is clothed in a specific language and expressed in a particular set of verbal symbols. This is one important reason why the medieval church was reluctant to allow the bible to be translated into the vernacular, and why Islam refuses to allow any translations of the Qur’an.”

Norman K. Bakken, Ph.D., retired pastor and professor of the Lutheran Church in America, offers up what might be called a panentheistic understanding of the divine for today, one that points us toward whatever it is that manages to transcend the particularity of time and space:

In our age imagining God is no option. What we can imagine is the creative spark of life that is present in all things, a life stream coming with every breath we take, every drop of moisture, every exposure to light, however dim or uncertain. Life is sacred, as are all things and all people. What we must search for is the distinguishing uniqueness of all that is, and every person we meet, so that together we may celebrate an evolving understanding of what life is all about, and what potential humans have in promoting its care and well being.  Jesus was part of that "I AM", and we are part of that as well.  Our problem arises when we forget who we are and who every other is and represents, more, much more, than we can imagine.

As with Bakkan, several respondents turned their attention to the practical ramifications of arguments about the concept of God, not the least of which is the basic question, "Does it even matter?" How far can such arguments take us? Dennis Dean Carpenter writes,

Gods are irrelevant. When fundamentalists realize you realize this and that you are just as inflexible as they are, the conversation turns to the more relevant and important things in life, like good barbecue and the garden.

Religion doesn’t need gods to abuse. It has people of other faiths.

I remember having several conversations with students when I was teaching community college courses on ethics, to the effect that the existence or non-existence of God could only carry a person's ethics so far before it was time to turn to the nitty-gritty details of decision-making. For Geering, ethics encompasses "the ongoing evolution of all cultural norms" (170). He roots ethics not in questions about the existence of God but in human life: "Values such as love, justice, truth, compassion and social harmony ... supply the raw material for ethics because they arise from the human condition" (180). In short, with or without God, we still have to grapple with ethics, and arguably it is ethics that has the greater impact on human relations, including those among the world religions.

Robert Rock visits this topic in this excerpt from a letter he sent to Lloyd Geering:

What I’m trying to do here is to point out, based on the surprising number of historical references in your book, the uncommonly great effect that even the smallest sense of interpersonal relatedness of love and honesty and trust between has on each of us when it comes to experiencing something perceivable as divinity—“God”—“self awareness”—“love”—“inner peace”. And I’m using the smallest, least noticeable (i.e., daily relations) because they appear to be at the core of Jesus’ teaching—a special quality in daily human relating. Example: the fact that you cared to respond to my initial inquiry—leaves me feeling more whole than if you ignored me. I could go on with endless examples of personal encounters that contribute to steady, mutual soul growth, and those that diminish it. I’ll end however with just one more—namely a typical church (Synagogue, Mosque) in which the lives of its people are too often permanently diminished due to ongoing unresolved emotional and intellectual conflicts regarding mutual human trust, respect, honesty, affection, love, misunderstanding—millions of tiny skirmishes—never resolved and festering away at souls, diminishing the otherwise spiritual maturation of its participants.

What I am not saying is to give up all other religious disciplines and concentrate only on human relations. I am saying that all the ways in which we presently attempt to create an atmosphere of “God”, of spirit, of things higher and greater than we—are important—liturgy, song, prayer, confession, meditation, Bibles, Korans, pot lucks, social events—all are important. But if we forget the importance of a constant courageous honesty (toward onesself as well as collectively)—trust, “love”, affection, in all of these, our individual and collective spiritual maturation remains stagnated. This is what I see you have emphasized through your many historical quotations in your book. Now how to more effectively define this special spiritual quality of human relatedness, (you have used the phrase “global spirituality”) and how to live it in community is the next needed thesis.

As you imply—it’s not so much that God is guiding us, as much as it is us, collectively, employing that which has been provided us. Do the words: "Wherever two or more are gathered ... " take on a new meaning?

Rose Keister carries this question forward in the form of a question about the future of the church, a common theme I've also heard raised at Westar events. She writes:

Lloyd Geering is a national treasure although the country is New Zealand. His talk to Christchurch on YouTube is almost a map of where Christianity should be heading at least in his opinion. He is speaking to a filled Church about beliefs that include a lack of a personal God, Jesus as wholly human, supernatural world and no afterlife. Geering still finds value in the church but I believe many people are recognizing that Christianity and religion, doctrine and dogma are not the core of what people find valuable there.

From tribal beginnings through agricultural fertility cults through the mythologies and first state religions and only then through Judaism and Christianity, the core has always been the community gathering for a meal, dancing, celebrations but also mourning. I keep thinking about a community gathering and what that might mean in a post-Church era.

In an interview on the radio program Religion for Life, Lloyd Geering responds to a question about the future of rituals and worship: "We need to celebrate togetherness, and  I think the value of congregational worship is that it brings people together to form a community, a unity, a body of people who are sharing the faith they have. ... The other aspect I want to emphasize is that instead of focusing in our minds on some imagined picture of God and heaven ... we need to focus upon the universe itself and upon nature. It's interesting to note that our chief festivals, which were first of all Judaized and then Christianized, actually all began as nature festivals. ... Indeed, in many ways that's what we need to return to, but they won't simply be returning to what they used to be in the ancient world. They'll be doing it in a way which is consistent with how we see the world today."

Patheos Book ClubThis blog posts is part of the book club on Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic by Lloyd Geering, hosted by Patheos.com. There are several ways you can get involved in book discussions:

  • Visit Patheos.com between November 1 and 15 for free online resources related to Reimagining God, including a full study guide.
  • Use the comments section of this blog (below) to share your reflections on the book.

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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.