Reading Embracing the Human Jesus: Introduction

“The problem … is what to do with a Jesus who was human like anyone else.”
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

This blog launches a hosted reading of David Galston’s recent book Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity (Polebridge, 2012). The Seminar on God and Human Futures will convene its opening session at Westar’s Fall 2014 national meeting in San Diego, California. Galston is the chair of the new seminar, and his book provides an overview of changing human ideas about God along with ideas for how to put that into practice. You can join the conversation by sharing your own responses to each chapter of the book in the comments section.

Author Note: I’m trying something a little different in this blog post. I’m writing not in any official or general capacity, but in my own voice, as an Associate Member of Westar. This change in approach comes in conjunction with the new role Westar Fellows Brandon Scott and David Galston will soon take as regular contributors to the blog—more on that to come! From now on, you will see an author bio at the bottom of each blog post.

Galston opens Embracing the Human Jesus with a critique of neo-orthodoxy, which prioritizes the Christ of faith over the Jesus of history to such a degree that studies of the historical Jesus are actually unwelcome, even declared impossible. Neo-orthodox language emphasizes “the majesty of human life and the limits of human thought” rather than Truth in the strict sense of traditional Christianity (Encyclopedia Britannica). Even so, by emphasizing the limits of human reason, neo-orthodoxy strictly separates religious truth from the experience of the world. “In fact, Jesus as a strictly historical person interrupts the process,” Galston explains. “It seems that the historical Jesus means the end of Christianity, which is why, perhaps, many theologians are terrified of him.”

Two questions arise from Galston’s introduction for me as a general reader: First, are the neo-orthodox theologians right in saying that we can never really know who the historical Jesus was? Second, in what sense does the historical Jesus mean the end of Christianity?

What Is Possible in Historical Inquiry
Neo-orthodox interpretation has been successful, and popular, because it generates its own heat. There’s always a new, universalizing vision waiting to be unlocked from the Christian tradition. We can see this in Desmond Tutu’s ubuntu theology. “A self-sufficient human being is sub-human,” he explained in a 1992 speech. “We are made for delicate networks of interdependence.” According to ubuntu theology, none of us is perfect but all of us are unique, and therefore we all must rely on one another. Tutu championed forgiveness by appealing to the relationship of Peter and Jesus demonstrated in John 21:15–18, a story voted black by the Jesus Seminar. In that story, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than they [the other disciples] do?” When Peter answers, “Yes, Master; you know I love you,” Jesus replies, “Then keep feeding my lambs.”  Tutu points out that even though Jesus knew Peter would deny Jesus three times, Jesus still expected Peter to take charge. “It’s almost like asking a thief to become your treasurer” (Battle, 1997: 44). By applying a distinctly African perspective to biblical stories like this one, while at the same time appealing to what are otherwise fairly orthodox Christian beliefs, Tutu offers a powerful, prophetic message of radical forgiveness and trust. 

Embracing the Human JesusNotice, though, that there is absolutely no role built into this process for historical inquiry. Historicity quite literally doesn’t matter to the telling. We don’t have to know whether or not John 21:15–18 is historical to understand Tutu’s lesson. The point is the message, as in Robert Graves’ 1934 novel I, Claudius, when young Tiberius Claudius is goaded by a pair of quarreling historians to admit, “I see now, though I hadn’t considered the matter before, that there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth.”

In the same sense, Galston’s caution here applies: “Neo-orthodoxy has no way to critique itself. It is subject to the very problem it sought to overcome, which is the problem of adapting the gospel to cultural norms. … Since there is no self-criticism (that is, no sense of relativity) built into neo-orthodoxy, its theological claims can defend any position, however ridiculous, that advertises itself as ‘counter-cultural.'”

Historical inquiry can help, but as young Claudius realized, such inquiry demands standards. I’m rehashing old territory here, so I won’t go too far into it. But one thing I appreciate about Westar’s Jesus Seminar is that the scholars didn’t conflate the difficulty of historical inquiry with impossibility. They established rules of evidence and gave it a shot. For example:

  • “Sayings and narratives that reflect knowledge of events that took place after Jesus’ death are the creation of the evangelists or the oral tradition before them.”
  • “Sayings or parables that are attested in two or more independent sources are older than the sources in which they are embedded.”

Rules like this are not fail-safe, and of course are open to debate, but they are part and parcel of the historian’s task. They keep us grounded. These days we often don’t stay with a historian’s rules long enough to appreciate why they were offered in the first place. Think of geometry proofs, or better, Plato’s Analogy of the Line, in which some aspects of knowledge are available to us only through deductive reasoning.

Image Credit: Amalia Pedemont, La Audacia de Aquiles

It takes effort to stay with an intellectual puzzle. That doesn’t make it a fruitless exercise. Historical inquiry is not impossible, and it seems to me that, to quote young Claudius once more, honesty and inspiration are “perhaps not irreconcilable.” We can keep the prophetic mode of interpretation awakened by neo-orthodox theology while at the same time expecting the best prophets to do the hard work of linking interpretation to history. Why? Because it serves as an anchor. It’s not absolute or cosmic in scale, but it offers the opportunity for inquiry into both truth and morality.

The Historical Jesus as the End of Christianity
Is the historical Jesus the end of Christianity? What is the threat here? Basically, “a strictly human Jesus … can only be the same as everyone else,” whereas the great core of Christianity for generations has been its emphasis on the coming together of human and divine in the Christ figure. It’s like the first time you read the Epic of Gilgamesh, expecting the hero somehow to escape “the savage death that snaps off mankind” by remaining awake for six days and seven nights at Utanapishtim’s urging. The task seems simple enough, and the prize of immortality a prime motivation, but the great warrior falls asleep the moment he sits down. How very human.

And yet, Galston points out, “there is a momentum to [Jesus’] movement that does not have to be sealed in antiquity.” What prophetic visions may come of that? I’m interested in how Galston will define that momentum, and am looking forward to reading his ideas in the coming weeks about what that momentum can look like in terms of praxis and belief in the modern world.


Battle, Michael. Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1997.

Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: MacMillan Polebridge, 1993.

Galston, David. Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdome Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2014.

Kovacs, Maureen Gallery, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

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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.

12 replies
  1. Peter Kane says:

    Hi Cassandra: Just stumbled onto this blog site. Can you give us an idea when David blogs the 1st chapter? I am wondering how fast I need to order and read.

    PS: I remember how good Brandon was when he hosted a week of interaction of the old chat group some years ago. (Basically he liked a couple of my ideas.)

    • Cassandra says:

      Hi Peter! Sorry for the confusion, I’ll actually be hosting the read-through of the book, hopefully with plenty of contributions from other readers. However, David has recently become the Academic Director at Westar and will be contributing periodically as well, mostly on topics related to the upcoming God Seminar. Brandon will be taking more of a leading role in the blogging, and will contribute on different topics. Thus, we’re hoping to have both Associate and Fellow voices on the blog, covering a range of issues, with plenty of opportunity for discussion.

  2. Peter Kane says:

    In the Introduction, David Galston confesses that by nature his first inclination is to take a philosophical rather than historical approach to life. Of course we have had a widespread epidemic of that temptation going around for a good long time now. It seems to me as a long term follower of all things Westar that even those fascinated and energized by historical presentations of Jesus have great difficulty breaking out of the systematic cultural mode of thinking. It is not at all unusual for an associate member to still confuse a historical presentation of Jesus as the leader of a movement with Jesus as the perfect idealized enlightenment man. And how many professional academics also still read Paul to extract the essence of his ideas, rather than ask questions about how Paul was also trying to motivate and organize people.
    And if the historical way of thinking is slow to take root in a place like Westar, which is trying to stimulate more historical thinking, how much more difficult must it be to make headway in a church setting, where the culture is saturated with theology and royal language. Galston’s comment that “The current way to be in church is to worship Jesus as if he were Augustus Caesar” is striking in illustrating the problem. On the other hand, I remember when Reza Aslan appeared on the Jon Steward show, and after a few minutes of well framed 1st century historical background conversation, you could see a bright light bulb go on above Steward’s head, leading to the famous ‘why weren’t we ever told this before’ comment.
    There is the potential for history to resonate, but culturally we are trapped into asking the wrong questions. I have a lot of faith that ‘normal people’ would head in a lot of productive directions if they asked historical rather than philosophical questions. What does it mean to say Jesus is lord (and Caesar is not) is perhaps the most obvious. But also, is resurrection real – wrong question. What did it mean to assert resurrection? Is god real – wrong question. What did it mean to claim one god, rather than many? Why were the nations invited to sneak in Paul’s the back door, a vision of the universal nature of humanity or a good political and practical move?
    The congregation in which I actively participate, often times gritting my teeth as I go, is slowly changing its culture. For a number of years it has been our practice for the kids during the children’s sermon to bring up a basket of food to be placed on the altar for the food pantry. Every week we ask what is in the basket this week, toothpaste, peanut butter. It has become as much of a ritual as the Kyrie. And low and behold, when the pastor asked a rhetorical question about who is responsible for caring for the poor, god or us, only about 2/3 mumbled god, and there were more than a few firm voiced ‘us’s.
    Culture changes painfully slowly. But I think we could speed up the process of we treated historical inquiry like peanut butter, over and over every week in the children’s sermon and everywhere else we can cram it in.
    A lot of gritting of teeth, but a movement implies more than one person.

    • Cassandra says:

      Peter, picking up on your comment about getting historical awareness into religious practice, as I read the Introduction I really had to stop and ask myself if I understood clearly what neo-orthodoxy is, and how I would recognize it. I realized after reading around a little further (in David’s book and elsewhere), that I am surrounded by this approach, which seems to allow creativity up to and as far as the Christ Myth, but no further. The Christ Myth is a mystery to be protected. Some of the most influential theologians in my life have, in fact, placed themselves pretty clearly in the neo-orthodox stream.

      I see David attempting to find a place for historical inquiry that is allowed to affect the core of the tradition. I will be interested to see what responses scholars give to the question of how their work in the various seminars affected their own theology at the next meeting.

  3. Peter Kane says:

    Cassandra: Thanks for the response. Hopefully someone else decides to jump in.
    If I had my druthers, I would like to see a bit more than just some adjustment to the core of the tradition. When I daydream in church (frequently) I tend to focus on just how awash in the tradition we are. The symbols, the ritual, the structure of the event, not just the systematic theology, all scream non-historical. There is overt junior Christology for preschoolers! (‘Jesus’ is the answer to every question in the children’s sermon, whatever that might mean.)
    And as you say, theologians aren’t immune to the malady either. They called it the Jesus Seminar after all. I had an opportunity to chat with Melanie Johnson-DeBautre shortly before she presented for the first time at a Westar meeting. Since her book, Jesus Among Her Children focused so much on a movement approach to understanding Christian origins, I asked if she expected any hassles from fellows for taking seriously ‘giving Jesus a demotion’. Apparently the thought had crossed her mind.
    When I get up in the morning, I don’t meditate for ½hr on the nature and essence of my marriage before I plan the agenda for the day. Lenore and I ask a few practical questions, make a few practical plans, and then get on with it. I think when people quit asking ontological questions, and start asking historical questions, ancient and here and now, then neo-orthodoxy would melt away by itself. Something new would come from each person’s struggle with the questions, and we can get around to symbolizing it all later. As long as the historical questions are spread like peanut butter.

  4. Brian says:

    Cassandra, I’m glad you said you were sort of scrambling to understand the neo-orthodox. When I first read this post, I wasn’t clear about who they are. They seem to be anti-historical, but that’s probably just one trait. The thing is, I grew up in a fundamentalist group (as you know), and they were anti-historical, but I’m not sure that makes them neo-orthodox.

    Peter, I like your term “royal language,” that certainly was my experience, as well as almost a theatrical tone and posture, which is surprising given how restrained (and repressed) my group was.

    I’ll keep checking back here to see who the neo-orthodox are : )

    • Cassandra says:

      Brian, glad to have you in the discussion! The gist of what I’ve learned is, first, to put the neo-orthodox movement in the context of WWII Germany, where the state church was getting drawn into the politics of the time, particularly the Nazi party. My knowledge of that is largely based on reading the Rudolf Bultmann biography we published a couple years ago. Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann were allied in the sense of resisting state control of theology, but they differed on how to go about it. Barth took what ultimately became known as the neo-orthodox path. Bultmann drew on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger while at the same time remaining committed to historical-critical research.

      What the fundamentalist and the neo-orthodox movements have in common is a concern about the relationship between culture and theology. How much should changes to human culture affect theology? They both seem to share a need for a solid, unchanging core. The Christ Myth is that core. But the fundamentalist movement seems to have added another core, biblical literalism (although of course what is meant by that is hardly clear!). For example, I recently went back to the Fundamentalist Pentecostal church where I grew up. The pastor’s sermon was on exactly how the end times would come about, in concrete terms based on verses of the Bible. By contrast theologians like Desmond Tutu, or Martin Luther King Jr., willingly apply biblical stories to modern culture in creative ways, not wholly bound by the text, while at the same time orienting their creativity always by the Christ Myth.

      At least, that’s my take.

  5. Mike Short says:

    Cassandra, Peter, Friends

    I am so pleased to see this new forum.

    Like many folks who enter discussions about books without ever having read them, I plan to write in great detail about things for which I have no knowledge. Just joking.

    I just ordered the Nook edition and if I have anything worthwhile to say I will try to articulate it.

    Cassandra, thanks for bringing lucid and scholarly discussion about the Westar Institute’s excellent research back online. I notice my Nook just downloaded the book, I will get to reading.

    • Cassandra says:

      Mike, welcome! If you’re going to jump into a discussion, might as well do with with flair, right? 😉

      I will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  6. Mike Short says:

    “The consequence of neo-orthodoxy on the cultural level is fundamentalist arrogance and narrow-mindedness, exactly the things that Karl Bart would abhor.”

    Like David, and no doubt Peter, I also was exposed, ‘deeply immersed in’, might be a better term, to neo-orthodoxy in seminary. I am often confused by theology. There seem to be many assumptions necessary to get to the doctrinal points under discussion. I am interested in how we got the assumptions. To a chemist, these assumptions would be called “the starting materials.” It is necessary to have the correct starting materials to get the right results.

    If it was assumed that the Jesus in the Bible was the son of God, then all the rest of the theological argument could follow. After I got involved with the Jesus Seminar I finally had substantial evidence that the assumptions of theology were lacking credibility. If the assumptions are incorrect then the conclusions will also be incorrect. Theology as I had learned it in seminary and grad school was spurious indeed.

    Approaching Christianity from the historical Jesus perspective may be a successful direction. When I have spoken at churches about the parables and aphorisms of Jesus as elucidated by the Fellows of the seminar, (citing mostly Funk, Scott, Hedrick, and Beutner) the congregational responses have been positive. “The spirit of wisdom found in parable,” is a good phrase. I am no longer a churchman and have no idea if the voice print of Jesus as discovered by the seminar is a basis for a religious community. Peter, my good friend and colleague, is working in that area and may have some sound information to share with us here. Certainly his peanut butter analogy is a good one. David, of course, has written the book and I look forward to see how it plays out since I know he has been successful building a faith community. I am glad we have this forum for discussion. I am very glad to be rid of neo-orthodoxy.

    David mentions in his introduction how a dinner with Bob Funk was instrumental in supporting his philosophical change of direction. I can affirm how a lunch with Bob often resulted in a change of life path for the participant. Bob Miller said it best, “There is no free lunch at Westar.” Many new seminar research projects began with a free lunch with Bob.

    • Cassandra says:

      Mike: I hadn’t heard the free lunch joke, so will have to add that to my growing collection of Westar lore!

      In an earlier draft of this blog post, I started to comment on the various feminist, queer, liberation, etc., theologies that have cropped up in the past few decades, all of which dominated my education. I initially thought these must be neo-orthodox in orientation, broadly speaking, in that the Christ myth continued to be so significant as a symbol of liberation (often, liberation from a particular interpretation of a text along with social liberation). However that is no longer the case as these various interpretive lenses mature and new voices enter the conversation. Some have retained the Christ myth at their center, while others haven’t. All that is to say, I quickly realized that drawing those into the conversation created more problems than a blog discussion could reasonably cover!

      When I was teaching Western Religions courses, before taking on my current position with Westar, I told my students I would give their interpretations of a text fair shrift as long as they could actually tie it to the text and era. I learned that lesson the hard way when my undergraduate Hebrew professor called me out on translating a verse by pulling on my inherited Sunday School lessons instead of what was right in front of me. Neo-orthodox theology has the advantage of remaining close to the text (it’s easy to find verses to support it), but it’s missing the historical sense that says, “These stories and sentiments side by side don’t quite fit. What’s going on here?”

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