“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.
Notice, 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.
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.[divider style=”hr-dotted”]
Cassandra 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.