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“Where Have You Laid Him?” An Appeal to Study Christian Origins

Revelations about the historical Jesus, Christian origins, and related topics can come as a shock. To cite a few common surprises, often the first to startle people into historical consciousness, consider these: Matthew and Luke relied on Mark to write their gospels. Furthermore, since the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were assigned to gospels by believers, not appended to the manuscript as in modern times, we don't really know who wrote the gospels. The Apostle Paul certainly wrote some of the letters attributed to him, but some letters are almost universally rejected: 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example. Likewise, the Jesus Seminar is famous for pointing out that Jesus didn't say every word attributed to him in the New Testament.

Such information might not be upsetting to someone who sees the Bible as literature or as a collection of texts. But for those of us who were raised within the Christian tradition, or surrounded by it in our culture, we can be left reeling. As one person asked recently at a Westar event, "What am I supposed to take home from this?"

In other words, is there nothing left? Does Christianity disintegrate under a withering historical lens? At the Fall 2013 Meeting, Westar Fellows Dennis E. Smith and Dennis MacDonald discussed this topic with attendees. You can hear their thoughts in the audio clip below.

This topic has come up before. Last October Tara Isabella Burton made an appeal to study theology in this article for The Atlantic. She writes, "If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the 'outside,' the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events 'from within': an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today."

Alana Burton soon responded in Religion Dispatches, "Burton is right to implore non-theists to 'engage with the great questions—and questioners—of history on their own terms.' But to discuss the great questions and questioners in the past tense is to suggest that the most important theological questions have already been asked and answered. Theological inquiry has present and pressing applications in the world and we would be wise not to leave all the fun to historians and the clergy."

Is it unfair to challenge our assumptions about early Christian history? In his book A Scandalous Jesus, Westar Fellow Joseph Bessler defends professors' right to challenge their students to think critically. "Can one also imagine, I wonder, the gall of professors in other graduate departments, in physics, for example, or psychology, or cultural anthropology 'forcing' their students to learn a methodology: How outrageous!" In The Craft of History and the Study of New Testament, Beth M. Sheppard expresses concern for the lack of historical consciousness sometimes present in biblical studies. But she also points out that a historical approach can still be flexible and doesn't necessarily lead to a single conclusion. "History is the arena in which we explore the past. Not every historian will come to the same conclusions or find the same insights about a single episode that happened days, decades, or centuries ago."

Applying this to the historical Jesus, Joseph Bessler observes that we often reach for the historical information that helps us interpret the problems of today. Quests for the historical Jesus, for example, matter deeply to theology because "they have, in their differing ways, sought to argue that the central figure of the Christian faith continues to hold open the horizons of religious and cultural life."

So what do we take home? As Dennis E. Smith suggested in the context of his work with the Acts Seminar, when we accept stories uncritically, we can be tempted to see what we have as inevitable. We may think it was the only possible outcome. Paying attention to history can serve as a corrective, or at minimum a caution, against oversimplifying what it means to be Christian, to follow Jesus, or—and this is especially relevant with the rise of secularism—to be religious at all.

Consider this an appeal to study Christian origins in spite of discouragement and frustrations along the way. Is it difficult to explore alternate versions of the story of Christian origins? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Definitively, yes.

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.

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.