Posts

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 ↓

[divider style="hr-dotted"]

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.

The Once and Future God

What is the future of God? How can we talk about God, and what do we mean by that word in a postmodern, perhaps even post-atheist world? With these questions Westar Fellows Joseph Bessler, author of A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better, and David Galston, author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, kicked off the first day of Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? with "The Once and Future God" at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. As Joseph Bessler said, "We are living without an end to the story" of what life means, individually and communally. Bessler and Galston, with insights from conference participants and presiders Jarmo Tarkki and John Kelly, tackled this very modern problem by exploring how earlier generations have confronted and explained God conceptually.

Christian Theology's Debt to Plato

Early Christians recognized that the significance of Jesus required a wider context than a simple narrative of his life and teachings. They cast the life of Jesus through the lens of the life of Socrates, which we can see in texts such as 1 Corinthians 1-3, in which Paul is confronted with the problem that the cross is a "scandal" - humiliation in the extreme - in Roman culture. He needed to give the cross a new meaning. To kill Christ was to kill a wise one, and this was something Hellenistic culture had done 500 years earlier, with Socrates. Even the condemnation of the State could not undo Socrates; so, too, the Christ.

Joseph Bessler

Joseph Bessler

It is important to understand that Plato, the student of Socrates, created a foundation for Christianity that lasted over a thousand years, so much so that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would later describe Christianity as "Platonism for the masses." Plato's theory of the Forms enabled Christians to articulate that appearances are different from reality. What seems like a scandal is in fact, the power of God. There's a sort of longing in Platonism that translates into Christianity, too - a longing, perhaps, for stability. While we can participate in ultimate reality from a Platonic perspective, it's "shadows all the way down." Without guidance, we cannot fully grasp reality. According to Plato, we can reach ultimate reality through reason, which is reliable with proper training. The Christian theologian Augustine would later argue differently, that we cannot reach ultimate reality (God) because of moral fault brought about through moral freedom. This necessitated a savior, the Christ.

God: The Modern Problem

The Platonic view of reality dominated until the 13th or 14th century, when the West shifted toward nominalism, a focus on words and the relationships among words. We have a concept of something not because we know the Form but because we experienced it: a horse is a horse because I saw one, experienced it, and named it. In a world like this, God is free of nature ... and nature is free of God. This shift in thinking about reality simultaneously opened up theology for Protestant revolutionaries and nature for scientists.

David Galston

David Galston

This transition didn't come without losses, however. We can no longer have a transcendental relationship with the universe anymore; we now experience the universe as all there is. What happens to the idea of Jesus if he does not participate in the eternal substance of God? We woke up to the notion that the historical Jesus is really very, very different from the Christ of theology. We are struggling in the wake of this transformation, brought about by modernity, to find the rhetoric for modern religious language.

Modern theologians have attempted to save God: they have explored God as the Word beyond word, God as a mystery in which we participate, God as pluralistic (liberation theology, feminist theology, queer theology), and God as the energy of becoming. All these models struggle with modern language about God. Buddhism offers some help in this situation, inasmuch as it expresses how the world arises all together in relation with everything else. All is defined by relationship, and this fact is experienced as liberating. But we have by no means resolved the issue.

God and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

As modern society gained historical consciousness, theologians like Martin Kahler set aside the historical Jesus as less important, less historic, than the Christ of faith. Theologians didn't do this arbitrarily; the various quests for the historical Jesus are marked by the sociocultural context in which each quest arose. While Kahler found the Christ of faith a better route, theologians like Reimarus and Strauss responded to the hostile environments of their times by appealing to the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith might be associated with princes, but the historical Jesus related with peasants and told parables that upended normal social expectations. The Christ of faith, which society embraced, stood for an important end; the historical Jesus spoke parables without aim, playful in Nietzsche's sense. This opened up the possibilities of Christian language.

Neitzche, too, found a role for the historical Jesus where he rejected the Christ of faith. Neitzche prioritized vitality, forging one's own path, as a direct response to the dominant Christian framework of his era. Neitzche's child, inspired by the historical Jesus, is the one who is open to experience and embodies the "eternal return." Jesus' parables break down the habits of everyday life in a similar way; the stories can be humorous, but they have an edge to them. They are critical. The child, too, is about creativity, critical imagination, seeing things differently. That is the challenge of theology today. Perhaps God as a metaphor has run its course. We need to reawaken our language. The historical Jesus succeeded at that.

A Way Forward

Conference participants asked a variety of questions about the way forward. What role can mystical and ecstatic religious experiences play in our language of God? How do individuals like David Galston and Joseph Bessler, who are both affiliated with particular religious communities, make new language "work" within those communities? What questions will be addressed by the emerging God Seminar?

Want to know more? You can see a video clip and Twitter timeline of live updates from The Once and Future God Q&A Session. Follow @WestarInstitute on Twitter to get updates about future Westar events and projects.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly responded to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly respond to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.