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God is not king

God Is Not King

God is not king. God is not a master, and we are not in bondage to God. This was the consensus reached by Fall 2016 session of the Seminar on God and the Human Future with the guidance of guest theologians J. Kameron Carter and Keri Day. A formal report on the session will appear [...]

A Weak but Potent God

Seminar on God and the Human FutureThe Seminar on God and the Human Future gathered on March 21, 2015, at the Spring national meeting to launch a five-year project on what we mean by a little word with big consequences: God. When Westerners speak of God, they can mean many things: Supreme Being, First Cause, Creator, Lawgiver, the source of all that exists, the energy or force that pulses through all reality, the “ground” of being, the All. We speak sometimes, too, of a “God of the gaps,” of that which surpasses human understanding. Rilke called God “the primordial tower,” which we circle without ever figuring out who or what we are.

Radical theologian John D. Caputo, whose work was celebrated by the Seminar, asked attendees to consider a new way of thinking about God: a weak but potent God, God as “the great perhaps.” As Caputo explained, this approach to theology comes in the wake of work done by twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich:

It is Tillich who initiated, at least in the most decisive way in the twentieth century, the critique of supernaturalism and the attempt to understand religion in the mode of what Heidegger described as “being in the world” … a mode which taps into the depths of mundane life.

Joseph Bessler of Phillips Theological Seminar, in his paper “Moving Words,” contrasted Tillich with his contemporary Karl Barth, who “sought in the face of World War I to draw theology back from public discourse and to protect it from the gross failures of modernity.” Tillich’s willingness to put theology out into the public sphere, as a public art, may be his best legacy. It is in that spirit that the God Seminar has issued a call for participants who are willing to engage with this and other meaningful theological questions in a very public way.

God as an absolute Being diminishes God in a way by revealing the human need for stability. A mighty, unchanging God is safe. Such a God can be made to stand for whatever aspects of life we find comforting and would rather not give up. Other kingdoms may falter, but surely a kingdom “of God” is stable. A kingdom sounds grand and certain, so we settle into complacency about it. Of course it will come. God is in control. Yet the Kingdom of God in practice is not certain at all. We’re continually pulled from the false stability of where we are now toward a vision that is not yet real. This vision is attainable in the sense that we can always move closer to it and yet it is never quite done in the sense of arriving in paradise. Consider French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s notion of justice: “The law can strong-arm us, but justice calls.”

Law—of the sort that takes you down to the courthouse—is not justice. There’s a weakness to justice, weakness in the sense that there is no safe or predictable structure handed down from a king or even the cosmos to us that says, “This is justice. Do it exactly like this and you’ll be fine,” or “This is the law. The law is always just, so you can trust it.” Sometimes human law fails to meet the higher value of justice. Likewise, sometimes human claims about God fail to meet the higher value or concept of God.

The temptation in a conversation like this is to jump to a familiar escape route: “Of course human beings can’t understand God. God is bigger than any human thought. We can only do ‘negative’ theology by talking about what God is not.” But Caputo is not claiming God is a Supreme Being, a higher entity, or even the “ground” of being. He’s not asking us to imagine a particular being in the sense of a potentially physical entity that exists. Instead we are invited to consider God as weak in the same sense as the weak force of justice. Sarah Morice Brubaker, a Phillips Theological Seminary professor and writer for Religion Dispatches, put it like this:

There’s a really big difference between talking about the weakness of God and really following that through [as Caputo has done], versus simply saying, “Well, God isn’t vulnerable to the constraints of being. God doesn’t show up within beings’ terms. That was fascinating to me reading [The Weakness of God] because there are many similarities between the two approaches notwithstanding that huge difference. I was thinking of Jean-Luc Marion, a very theologically inflected French Catholic philosopher who wrote, among other things, God without Being. The God you get there is not a vulnerable God. It’s a God who is so invulnerable even being can’t contain him—and I agree it’s a ‘him’ in this case. This is a God who no matter what you bring at him, can say, ‘Whoa, step off, back off. That’s nothing. I can bust those categories without breaking a sweat.’ … It’s kind of a rescue mission [to prove God’s invulnerability].

How is Caputo’s view different from this absolutely powerful God of Marion? Answering that question requires us to let the idea of God get a little messier (with the promise that it straightens itself back out as we go). We do this by “deconstructing” the concept of God.

Statue of Justicia (Justice), by Walter Seymour Allward, outside Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Deconstruction simply means interrogating the concepts handed down to us by our communities and traditions for the sake of understanding those inherited concepts more deeply and even in a new way. When you deconstruct something, you destroy the concept in the sense of picking it apart, but then you rebuild it with a better understanding of the full range of its meaning—why people care about it and appeal to it in everyday life. You purposefully play with the language to see what it’s all about, in the same way you played with objects as a child both to understand the world better and to understand your own power to manipulate objects into tools that may help you or hurt you. There are no guarantees when you do this that you’ll retrieve either the language or the object in the exact form in which you received it. Deconstruction does involve risk. In this case, we’re willing to take that risk because the value of God is up for question in our modern, increasingly scientific and technological and nevertheless earth-bound community. What sort of God—if any God at all—makes sense in this world?

The point here isn’t to dismiss or downplay the importance of whatever you are deconstructing. It’s deadly serious business. We should avoid what Caputo and others semi-jokingly described as “postmodernism-lite,” that is, deconstruction used as an apologetic tool that pulls apart human stories of reality in a materialistic, reductionistic way of saying, “See, if you interrogate an idea far enough down, there will be nothing at the bottom.” Why are we deconstructing the human story or idea of God? What are we deconstructing God in the name of? We must not forget why we employed the method in the first place.

We’re deconstructing in the name of a value, and the one I most often heard named during the God Seminar discussions was justice. Justice is not served by understanding God as some outside being that lays down absolute law, who “balances the scales” in the end. We know that because, to give just one example, we can’t forgive our enemies on the principle that we expect God to hurt them later, what Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary (emeritus) referred to as the “myth of revenge.” Forgiveness in the radical sense of the word comes without such a condition even on the metaphysical level. When the apostle Paul said the weakness of God trumps the strength of the world, he surely didn’t mean to imply that was because God has the bigger bludgeon. “Faith, hope, and love are the virtues of the unhinged,” Caputo warned. Before that: “In the name of God, something gets itself said and done.” God is a call, an allure, a threat, and not necessarily human in the sense of active agency. Westar Fellow Susan (Elli) Elliott, in unpacking this example of forgiveness, compared the identification of a people by a shared story over against identification of a people by shared landscape. One sees in her example how the land itself shapes and suggests the work of the future, not by wielding a kingly power to bring it about but because it is the horizon presented to us by our own past:

We’ve talked [in the Big Sky region] about the difference between the metanarrative that comes from Europe primarily, that has been successfully imposed upon this hemisphere and on our territory. There’s a huge difference between grounding in a place in the earth and grounding in a metanarrative that’s alien, fundamentally alien to the place. When we think about forgiveness, when we look at the layers of what has happened to our places … of the removal of native plants and replacement with agriculture and mining, change[s] … that are unforgiving, [we might ask] what it means to turn to the landscape in which we dwell for our collective memory.

Forgiveness, in this sense, comes about not because God is a supreme bully who’ll whack you if you put your toe over the line but because forgiveness opens up a new possibility for moving forward. Nothing can take away the fact that human actions have changed the land under our feet. Will we take a risk that changes that trajectory? Sometimes you have to take a chance on a world-changing event.

“You’re talking about the fact that God, theology, event, are verbs and not nouns,” observed Lane McGaughy of Willamette University. “The assumption that is built into Latinate languages is that naming came first … but really language starts with verbs, that is, calling things, not naming things. … I hear naming as a way of pinning things down, that, as it were, fossilizes or sediments them.” Event understood as a verb is messianic, always something coming in the midst of the relatively stable structures—social, legal, theological, and so on—by which we live our lives. That relative stability is important, but sometimes a single act can change everything. All of this should be very familiar: the Bible is one story after another of this kind of experience. God is the warning that the event is possible, never here but always calling. As the German philosopher Heidegger warned in Being and Time about the project of being, when you arrive, you’re dead; to complete the circle, to reach paradise, is to cease to exist at all. Caputo sums it up: “Paradise is the death of hope.”

Jesus Seminar ballot box

Participants voted using the Jesus Seminar ballot boxes, a choice which Robin Meyers, author of Saving Jesus from the Church, suggested might be an interesting statement in its own right about the importance of public theology.

What sort of theology is implied by this idea of God? What is the work of theologians who accept this idea of God? Jeffrey W. Robbins of Lebanon Valley College recommended two books by Caputo for members of the public who are interested in pursuing this further. The first is On Religion: “Who do I love or what do I love when I love my God?” The other is What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, a reclamation of Sheldon’s novel In His Steps from the evangelical cultural “machine” to remind readers of the concern for social justice that underpinned the question, “What would Jesus do?” In fact we are living in an era in which the lines between philosophy and theology are not nearly so neat as they have appeared in past eras, especially since Heidegger famously described theology as a closed circle and philosophy as an open one. Robbins explains:

People are rethinking the conditions of possibility for philosophical theology. … If radical theology happens in confessional theology whenever confessional theologians get themselves in trouble, because they’ve thought themselves to the limit and all of a sudden stumbled upon something that religious authorities perhaps are uncomfortable with, the same phenomenon happens within philosophical circles. Throughout especially twentieth-century continental thought, what you have is philosophers thinking themselves to the limit of what philosophy allows, and interestingly once they think themselves to the limit of what philosophy allows, all of a sudden they stumble upon God—or they stumble upon, not God as some kind of entity, some hyper-being, but they stumble upon religion. How do you talk about that which is beyond your ability to talk about, your ability to conceive? Philosophy thinks itself to its limit and becomes theological … All the while, Martin Heidegger tells us that never the two should meet. What we’re seeing is the two bleeding into one another.

The Seminar concluded its sessions with a vote on the statement, “The subject matter of theology is God conceived as a supreme being or highest entity.” The recommendation for the vote was BLACK, which means the seminar committee was urging both professional and public participants to DISAGREE with the statement and open up the question of what the subject matter of theology truly is.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about the new Westar Seminar on God and the Human Future. You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. 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. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

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.

Did the Historical Jesus Bring about His Own Death? (EHJ series)

"We don't need to take the apocalyptic Jesus to church; he is already there."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 4 of 9, "Unhearing the Apocalypse," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
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Did the historical Jesus know he was going to die? For some of us, this is a non-question that takes us too far into the realm of the impossible. A human Jesus could not possibly have foreseen his own death. But did he want that outcome? Did he, like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, propel himself willingly toward his own death? Did he act in such a way as to bring it about? The word for this is apocalyptic.

Maybe it makes more sense to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher of sorts. Even saying it this way, I feel a drop in pressure. Wisdom teacher? Big deal. Why would history remember a guy who went around spouting aphorisms? I'm not saying, if he was a wisdom teacher, that he didn't stir up controversy—quite the opposite. To forward our parallel with Socrates from last week, recall that that wise man's life ended with a dose of hemlock for all-too-political reasons.

Was Jesus an apocalyptic end-times prophet who incited outrage, even purposefully, with an intent to go out in a blaze of glory? Or was he a wisdom teacher whose cheeky, barbed remarks got him in trouble once too often with the authorities?

We have examples of both in history, including specifically in ancient Jewish history and literature. Anyone who has read the later books of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Elijah stories, will easily recognize the prophet motif. The wisdom motif is there, too, in books like Job and Ecclesiastes, although these books as wisdom are emphasized less often in Christian contexts. I certainly noticed, growing up in the pentecostal tradition that I have since left, that it is very much possible to read such stories as a community while still downplaying any interpretation outside the apocalyptic. I certainly learned that wisdom all occurred inside an end-times framework, and the wisest action of all was submission to the cosmic Christ.

It doesn't have to be interpreted that way, of course.

Wisdom Traditions in Ancient Jewish/Israelite Culture
I opened with a quote from Galston about the apocalyptic Jesus already "being in church." Church rituals, stories and interactions all cater to an interpretation of Jesus as bringing about the end of history as we know it. This being the case, I thought it might be helpful here to share a couple quotes about Jewish wisdom traditions as a way to counterbalance the more dominant apocalyptic view. For instance, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in The Essential Talmud (2010) explains,

The sages themselves said, 'Random conversations, jests or casual statements of sages should be studied,' and sometimes important halakha is derived from chance remarks made without any educational intent. This being so, the actions of the sages are of even greater significance. Everything a sage does in every sphere of endeavor must be carried out in a spirit of truth and should be Torah itself. Disciples often studied closely the behavior of their rabbi in order to learn how to conduct themselves. (138)

Carl S. Ehrlich, in From an Antique Land (2009), helpfully summarizes types of wisdom literature in ancient Hebrew/Israelite culture:

According to James L. Crenshaw's categorization, there are four types of wisdom literature: "natural, experiential, judicial and theological" (Crenshaw 1993). Natural wisdom reflects observations of the real or natural world. This type of wisdom literature in the ancient Near East includes lists of various types and reflects a precursor of what has become known as the method of scientific observation. Experiential wisdom deals with the workings of the world and more specifically of human society. It is closely allied with what may be termed folk wisdom in the modern world. Judicial wisdom deals with the adjudication of disputes and how to settle them. Finally, theological wisdom is the one that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature and is the type that is arguably predominant in the Hebrew Bible, but not necessarily within the book of Proverbs itself, in which experiential wisdom is quite heavily represented. (376)

On the other hand, it's good to remember that just because clever sayings were written down does not mean they were part of popular culture. Gonzalo Rubio, in a discussion of Sumerian literature, calls on a more recent example to show how far divorced an intellectual exercise can be from popular practice in the ancient world, too:

The divorce between production and consumption (i.e., writing and performance) of artistic works is not a particularly unusual phenomenon. For instance, J. S. Bach composed his Mass in B Minor according to the Roman Catholic ordinary cycle in Latin, as an expansion of a Lutheran missa brevis. However, there was no occasion for the performance of such a Mass in Lutheran Leipzig, and there is no indication this Latin mass was commissioned by any patron, such as the Catholic court at Dresden (Wolff 2000: 441–42). By producing such an apparently decontextualized Mass, Bach was establishing a musical dialogue and placing himself within a learned tradition that was initiated by Catholic composers, such as Palestrina. ... [Likewise] many Sumerian literary compositions are thoroughly scholastic and appear detached from performative goals of any kind. (From an Antique Land: 25–26)

Rubio is not saying that scholarly and artistic ventures like Bach's are fruitless, but rather that they belong to a particular community and stream of tradition that may not have touched the lives of everyday people. He specifically uses the word "decontextualized" to convey precisely what came up in discussion in last week's blog: the situation of a new stream of knowledge/performance, or the reason it came into existence. Why did Bach create such a Mass? To continue a multi-generational conversation he found meaningful about a certain genre of music. We don't always think of that as a context, but it was the context for his Mass.

Why did Jesus tell parables? Why did he tell those parables? The religion that developed out of it overshadows the original context, but what was that context, and why was it remembered in such a way that it eventually became an apocalyptic religious movement? Galston introduces his interpretation of life practices and philosophy recommended by the parables in the next two chapters of Embracing the Human Jesus, but for now, where does Galston find wisdom traditions in surviving texts about the Jesus movement?

Everywhere in the Jesus tradition there is evidence of wisdom as the fundamental memory of Jesus. In the canonical gospels, Jesus teaches mainly in parable. In the gnostic gospels, Jesus is almost exclusively a figure of wisdom. And the Apostle Paul is acutely aware of the wisdom tradition that defines his opponents and that he claims to know equally well (1 Cor 2:6). It cannot be said that apocalyptic material holds the same omnipresent characteristic. ... Other Christian options [apart from apocalypticism] that were eventually labeled heretical were originally as prolific as the orthodox tradition and shared with it the wisdom associated with Jesus. (78)

Galston goes on to cite the examples of Diogenes versus Thales to say Jesus not only employed parable but also short pithy sayings known as chreia. Even though this is traditionally a Greek form of wisdom, Galston and Steinsalz share the view that a man like Jesus need not be ignorant of wisdom traditions outside Judaism. "The spiritual world of sages was not closed to external influence or knowledge," Steinsalz explains after citing several examples of rabbinic interest in physical sciences. "'If you are told that there is wisdom among the nations, believe it,' they said" (140). Steinsaltz also observes that some branches of Judaism were aware of Greek and classical literature but purposefully muted their reliance on it, while others, like the Egyptian Jewry, purposefully "tried to combine Greek culture with Judaism" (141).

Returning to the parables, one thing I find very interesting is Galston's definition of a parable as a way to see this world differently rather than transport oneself to another, better world. Case in point: Some of you may be familiar with Wendell Berry's agricultural interpretations of the Bible. I found it helpful to ask myself how Galston's view differs from Berry's, by way of example. Berry's theology is not interested in the historical Jesus, so it doesn't add much to the discussion in that sense, but it's exemplary of an interpretive approach that does not focus on an apocalyptic end that comes from outside the world. Where Berry imagines an almost certain-to-come human-caused apocalypse caused by our failure to work with the earth that sustains us, I see Galston as turning away from that model entirely to a tradition that is complementary to Berry's concern with the impact of human action on the world, but is not apocalyptic at all in that it doesn't imagine a virtually inevitable, destructive end.

To frame this same point in light of Carl Ehrlich's four types of wisdom, I feel that authentic Jesus sayings generally suit experiential and judicial wisdom. What's the right thing to do, and how should we behave when the world does not operate by just and fair rules? These questions rub up against the problem of the Roman elite's displays of military and economic power, so they are not merely moralistic.

I noticed in last week's discussion, however, that we aren't all in agreement or clarity about what sayings of Jesus we would consider authentic, versus what should be attributed to Jesus' followers. I see the parables as largely experiential, but maybe if you include some of the more mystical sayings in your repertoire you see theological wisdom—"that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature"—as more dominant. How many angels can dance on the head of pin? Which answer will get you crucified? Sometimes even the speculative questions can get you in trouble.

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud (Carl Schleicher (fl. c. 1859 – after 1871))

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bibliography

Ehrlich, Carl S. From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near East Literature. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Steinsaltz, Rabbi Adin. The Essential Talmud. London: Maggid, 2010.

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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.

“No News Here”—Historical Truth and the Jesus Voiceprint (EHJ series)

"To be 'over there' is not to be in a different world, but to be in this world differently."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 3 of 9, "The Jesus Voiceprint," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
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"In ordinary life we all carry around what we can call an imaginary baseboard: an electrical baseboard that jolts us whenever we encounter what feels like a problem," says Charlotte Joko Beck in Nothing Special: Living Zen.

We can imagine it with millions of outlets, all within our reach. Whenever we feel threatened or upset, we plug ourselves into it and react to the situation. The baseboard represents our fundamental decisions about how we have to be in order to survive and get what we want in life. As young children we discovered that life wasn't always the way we wanted it to be, and things often went wrong from our personal point of view. We didn't want anyone to oppose us, we didn't want to experience unpleasantness, and so we created a defensive reaction to block the possible misery. That defensive reaction is our baseboard. We're always plugged into it, but we especially notice it at times of stress and threat. (31)

This accurately describes my experience of conversations about the historical Jesus. And in chapter 3 of Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston begins with a catalog of the hazards faced by scholars who attempt such conversations: accusations of blasphemy (implied or stated), hostility, and ad hominem attacks.

Nevertheless, honesty demands the conversation. It is in this sense that Galston appeals to the Buddhist sense of Right View, which "involves a commitment to understanding things as they truly are" (EHJ: 50).

The critical issue continues to be how we approach history. Using words like "true" or "authentic" can make us feel like we're uncovering something absolute, but this isn't really what we get in historical inquiry. Our access to truth is limited by human perspective, which it often short-sighted and turned toward itself. Good historians need a more modest goal—Paul Ricouer's "model that suits," which Galston poses here as a question: "What makes the best sense of the available data?" (EHJ: 52).

This isn't a unique perspective to the Jesus Seminar, and in fact has been used against it. In a 2007 online article critical of the Jesus Seminar, N. T. Wright claimed "First-century Jews, for all their wide variety, were living within a story, a controlling narrative," which he defined as a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. "The Jesus Seminar, however, and many others beside, have said that all we know about Jesus are fragmentary sayings—a little nugget about this, a little wise saying about that, and a fragment of a parable here—that do not actually retain the stories." In other words, he accuses the Jesus Seminar of taking things out of context. Later in the article, he encapsulates the problem in the following manner: "To be historically credible, you have to picture a Jesus who is both comprehensible and crucifiable within first-century Judaism. That, simply stated, is a problem history must always deal with."

I find it ironic that Galston and Wright have framed this historical problem in almost the exact same terms, and yet represent very different attitudes toward the historical Jesus. Wright continues to emphasize the apocalyptic prophet, while Galston places Jesus in the Jewish wisdom tradition.

With all respect to Wright (full disclaimer: I've read only some of his work and am probably not the best person to address his views on the relationship between faith and historical inquiry), it seems patently unfair to claim that apocalyptic consciousness is the only historically credible attitude in the first century ce. Jewish wisdom traditions are well represented prior to this period by, at the very least, the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. At the very least, we ought to allow it is possible that Jesus could contribute to such a tradition and not solely to end-times thinking. There is more than one way to criticize the Roman Empire, after all, and therefore plenty of ways to end up crucified. Which explanation best suits the evidence?

This brings us back to the Jesus voiceprint of last week's blog post. Galston explains:

Identifying that voiceprint in greater detail helps us talk about the 'lifestyle' associated with a teaching tradition. This is not at all atypical of antiquity. Virtually all schools in antiquity not only had identifiable teaching but also complementary lifestyles. Jesus and various schools in ancient Judaism were no different. (67–68)

What was that voiceprint? What characterized it? The answer is right under our noses: Socrates gave us the allegory of the Cave; Jesus told parables.

Any of us who have read the Bible know what a parable is, more or less. It's a story Jesus told to illustrate a point. It can be pulled from its immediate context and be told on its own, and it holds together pretty well. Other people have told parables, both in ancient times and in the present. It's a rhetorical strategy, a mnemonic device.

Well, it's a bit more complicated. Here's the problem: sometimes, even most of the time, the gospel writers thought they understood the parables but really didn't, or blatantly chose to interpret the parables in such a way that it served a need in their own communities. So we have this interpretive clutter around the original story. Some historians are absolutely fascinated by that interpretive clutter. Maybe they want to know how Plato framed Socrates' Cave story and what it tells us about Plato. Maybe they want to uncover the historical "Matthew" for instance, or at least the community responsible for the gospel named after him. That would be a legitimate historical exercise.

However, if what we're after is the historical Jesus, and we can reasonably understand the concerns of a given gospel writer, we can also figure out what the gospel writer might have added or embellished. We can bracket out such embellishment and get a sense for the original kernel of the parable. In its more basic form, the architecture of the parable should "fit together" for the listener, even if he or she doesn't understand it. For example, the parable employs a recurring image like in the story of the Good Samaritan, where three people pass by the injured man in succession, giving us a key to remember how the story progresses.

Is there any reason to believe these mnemonic devices couldn't have survived by passing from an original teacher (Jesus) to his students? Could those sayings, passed around, have caused enough controversy to lead to his crucifixion? If you find this credible, the historical Jesus as wisdom teacher may not seem quite so far-fetched, after all.

Next week's post will revisit the "the apocalyptic complaint" mentioned above in more detail. For now, let me end with an excerpt from a rather parabolic poem by Anne Sexton, "Jesus Dies":

From up here in the crow's nest
I see a small crowd gather.
Why do you gather, my townsmen?
There is no news here.
I am not a trapeze artist.
I am busy with My dying.
Three heads lolling,
bobbing like bladders.
No news.
The soldiers down below
laughing as soldiers have done for centuries.
No news.

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo credit: Cassandra Farrin

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo credit: Cassandra Farrin

Bibliography

Beck, Charlotte Joko. "Nothing Special: Living Zen." San Franscisco: HarperCollins, 1995.

Miller, Robert J. The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 1999.

Sexton, Anne. "Jesus Dies." Pp. 272–73 in Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women's Spirituality. Edited by Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.

Wright, N. T. "Setting Scholars Straight about the Bible." March 5, 2007. Accessed August 1, 2014. http://jesusseminar.blogspot.com/2007/03/setting-scholars-straight-about-bible.html

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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.