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How Well Can We Know Historical Figures? Not a Rhetorical Question (EHJ series)

“To go forward boldly, it is not necessary to solve every problem of interpretation or to determine a definitive historical Jesus. … The challenge is to move forward with a human Jesus, not to interpret him conclusively. In the end, being human is exactly about the problem of interpreting others.”
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

Chapter 1 of 9, “Why the Historical Jesus Is the New Path,” Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Introduction   Chapter 2 »

How well can we know historical figures? These days, it seems like there are so many claims made about the historical Jesus and other famous individuals that I want to throw my hands in the air in frustration. In Chapter 1 of Embracing the Human Jesus David Galston urges readers to recognize that our encounters with historical figures share something in common with our everyday, in-person interactions. That is, we can’t know one other completely, and yet we still manage to make things work. It’s not a hopeless cause.

Perhaps because I’m an identical twin, I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how deeply we can know another human being. What struck me as I read chapter 1 this week, is the supreme anxiety that underlies our desire to know. It’s like we’re holding the other at a certain distance, as a painter would, and saying, “Now hold still.”

Jesus didn’t hold still for his many ancient portraits, not because he’s unique but because he’s human. We all fidget; we can’t help ourselves. Human beings, as part of this ever-changing world, cannot help but change. As Galston explains, this is a fact of existence, not an insurmountable obstacle. Roy W. Hoover, in his introduction to Profiles of Jesus, illustrates this issue in the context of historical Jesus research:

“The yield of the profiles [of Jesus] is what can be characterized as a collection of studied impressions of Jesus as a figure of history. They are different from the first impressions the young man known as Jesus of Nazareth would have made on the peasant farmers and fishermen, the homemakers and artisans of the small towns and villages of Galilee in the first century ce. We lack the direct access they had to what he looked like and how he sounded when he spoke, and we lack the ability to observe his behavior and what we would call his personality. We are also without that sense of their life situation and prospects that would have affected the way they perceived him.

But that we lack what they had is not the only thing that should be acknowledged. We also have what they lacked: the advantage of hindsight, the comparative capacities of knowledgeable and interested observers from another country, comparable in some respects to the case of the young Frenchman, Alexis de Toqueville, who, during a nine-month visit in 1831–1832, noted things about America that had not been recognized by Americans themselves. Also available to us, but not to them, is not just one, but several texts by different authors, all written within a few decades of Jesus’ life, that preserve a selected residue of his life and teaching in the context of their own assessments of his significance.” (Hoover, Profiles of Jesus: 2–3, emphasis mine)

Hoover is making what seems to me a helpful point here, that immediacy of contact with a person or place doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding it. Direct contact with a person is just a different form of human experience, which doesn’t automatically trump the careful reflection of a later generation. Later generations depend on the immediate experiences of their predecessors, but may find things in the story that the original tellers didn’t want or expect to matter.  These discoveries are not any less legitimate than the messages of the original tellers, as long as the claims can be anchored to the text and era.

Which brings me to another point. It’s easy to get stuck on the variability and limits of knowledge, in part because it encourages greater tolerance for difference. I certainly like being able to say, “How interesting that you think that way. I don’t, but I can see your point.” But after learning the basic principles of tolerance and open-mindedness, even if we can’t apply them as well as we’d like, at some point a person has to take real steps and leave real marks on the world. That requires making decisions, discarding some options in favor of others. As Galston says,

“What we mean by justice, by love, by forgiveness, and by hope is in our hands. These are the forms of life that we create, that we employ, and that we share with one another, but we and not a god are responsible for them. Love does not exist where people refuse to love.” (EHJ: 29)

The concrete reality of those actions in relation to the historical Jesus, and rituals that might be associated with them, will come up later in the book. Although the historical Jesus is open to some interpretation, the possibilities are not infinite. If we take all inherited texts about Jesus—those found in the Bible and otherwise—and factor in the basic skills and insights of historical-critical research, we can reasonably squeeze our circle of interpretation into a manageable range. Was Jesus a purveyor of wisdom, or an apocalyptic prophet? These both may fit into the circle based on different arguments, but nobody to my knowledge claims Jesus was a Roman soldier, a woman, or an Italian. These fall outside the realm of realistic possibility. What else can we discard, while still acknowledging a range of options within the smaller circle?

Stone Age Panel of Hands (detail), Source: Anonymous - artdaily.org. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Anonymous, artdaily.org (Wikimedia Commons)

Beyond this question of a basic historical portrait of Jesus, though, I get the impression Galston is pushing for something more immediate to our daily lives. He’s pushing us toward connection with others through the uncertainty, a step that cuts through the absolute obedience engendered by an Augustus Caesar, or multinational corporations, or whatever else seems so large we can’t overcome it. Hands raised in praise—of Jesus or Caesar—can look alarmingly like hands raised in surrender to the powers that be. To connect is very different. To connect is to reach across a table and offer food, drink, a probing conversation, or basic human touch.

Dare we?

Continue to Chapter 2 » 

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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.

 

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.

Bibliography

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.

God: The Modern Problem

Ancient Christians thought of God as an absolute, unchanging essence, based on the thought of the philosopher Plato. This underpins our concepts of the Trinity and even the salvation story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. But with the rise in the Middle Ages of nominalism, a new philosophy that emphasizes language over substance, the ancient view of God began to fall apart. Christianity is still struggling to pick up the pieces. Here David Galston, Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University and author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, describes this problem in more detail. He explores different attempts to save or defend God against the problems presented by modern thinking, and introduces some ideas for moving forward with the historical Jesus.

David Galston presented the above talk during the Once and Future God Session of the “Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies?” conference, sponsored by the Westar Institute in October 2013. He refers a couple times to the God Seminar: this is a new project by scholars affiliated with Westar that is still in the planning stages. You can also watch a discussion of the future of Christianity from this same session.

The lecture is available as five separate video clips. You can watch all five continuously below, or visit the YouTube playlist to browse different topics.

Once and Future God Video and Twitter Feed (Q&A)

The video above is an excerpt from the Once and Future God session of Westar Institute’s Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? Conference (October 2013). Westar Fellows David Galston, Joseph Bessler, Jarmo Tarkki, and John C. Kelly discussed with attendees topics including God language and the future of Christianity in post-modern society. Following an audience member’s question about whether human beings are “hardwired” for spirituality, the conversation turned to why so many people are living more secular, “a-religious” lives. To learn more about The Once and Future God, you can visit a summary of the day-long session and explore the timeline of live updates from the session below.*

*Please note that while every effort was made to present the material of the session accurately, the Twitter updates above are compressed summaries and should not be interpreted as the speakers’ exact statements.

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.