DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Where We Are Today

T
he search for a Jesus of history has reached a critical stage (in the early years of the 21st century). The implications of the search are at last becoming clear to a wider group of Christians than ever before.

Stephen Patterson has put the importance of this search to the life of the Church better than I can. He writes:

Critical scholarship ... has pressed our understanding of the texts and traditions of ancient Christianity to the point where organized Christianity, if it were to be guided by such work, would have to begin to rethink some of its basic theological commitments. [1]

There can hardly be a more important point than this. For it implies that the rethink is most emphatically not of the incidentals, but of the basics. The vast majority of Christians worldwide are completely unaware of the foundational changes on the doctrinal horizon. As a result, they have been unable to meet the challenge of the historical Jesus as posed by the findings of Christian researchers over more than two centuries. 

A few are aware that something is not quite right, that the present ecclesiastical edifice may be built on sand rather than rock. Some Western churches have attempted cosmetic changes. These may have proved temporarily satisfying in themselves, but they have not solved the underlying problem.

To give a current example: The Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops presently meeting [2] is discussing the place of the Eucharist in the Church's life. Contributions to the Synod so far show no sign of awareness that the Eucharist itself as a re-enactment of a Last Supper may be based upon an event which did not happen. Or of it did happen, the evidence for it is far less solid than the Church has so far allowed.

This is not to say that the Eucharist is therefore invalid. But it is to say that the rigid hierarchical control over its form and content may not have the biblical authority claimed for it. It also follows that tinkering with the Eucharist may never meet the hunger of ordinary Christians for something more expressive of their daily lives. This hunger may not yet have reached the millions of Christians in the so-called undeveloped world. In the West, however, it is increasingly evident.

Given that the historical foundations of the Eucharist are other than has been assumed throughout the life of Christianity, control of the Eucharist becomes a matter or good order, not of validity. 

In other words, if the biblical account of the Last Supper isn't what it purports to be - a sure-fire account of "what really happened" - then the Eucharist can validly be construed as an ordinary meal with sacred dimensions. It may be that it is who shares the meal that matters, not what is said and done there. The passion of participants for a lifestyle derived from and integrated with Jesus may be far more important than any particular patterns of life legitimised by a higher authority.

If so, alternative forms of thanksgiving meal are just as valid as the ritualised ceremonies which are the norm today. A church building, or vestments, or set prayers and formulaic words, or enthusiasm don't make a valid Eucharist. A passion for the words and deeds of a man who actually lived and died like all of us does matter.

Similar radical incongruities have been opened up in all the fundamental doctrines of all the churches - be they free church, evangelical, traditional, protestant or whatever. More than that, Church authorities have signally failed to integrate the findings of Christian scholarship into the life and works of the ordinary person in the pew. As Gregory Jenks puts it:

We have left our people functionally illiterate in using the Bible. This is not a new problem. It emerged slowly over several hundred years, but it has now become critical. [3]

What has happened over the past two or three centuries to reduce most church-going Christians to passive receptors of theological mush?

First, perceptions of the world have changed radically. Especially in the West, but increasingly elsewhere as well, the old reality of evil spirits, magic, miracles and messages from God has all but disappeared. In its place is a secular world, vibrantly aware of the way our planet functions as a highly complex system, and disconnected from the ancient parallel myths of heaven and hell.

Second, the Bible has been dismantled. It has been deeply and comprehensively analysed down to its last comma. Its language and form have been dissected until its entire anatomy now lies open for inspection. Gone is the idea that it was somehow dictated - directly or indirectly - by God. That sort of revelation is no longer credible to most people.

Third, the physical sciences have been harnessed and put to plough the biblical lands. Linguistics, archaeology, history and other analytical disciplines have contributed to the harvest. They have provided new perspectives on Jesus and Christianity. The shame is that these perspectives are almost totally unknown to the average Christian.

The search for a Jesus who actually lived just like all of us, has spanned more than two centuries. One way of summarising the search is to break it into three parts [4].

The Old Quest has its roots in the European renaissance. It began in earnest with the work of Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768). It was concerned mainly with rebutting the "impossible" parts of the gospels such as miracles. The structure of the gospels was analysed and obvious contradictions pointed out. Friedrich Strauss (1808-74) asserted that pious early Christians had put deep layers of theology over the historical Jesus. In doing so they created myths which later became central to the Church's teachings. 

This phase continued until a decisive moment in 1906 when Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) published The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Analysis of the Quest revealed, he thought, a failure to uncover a Jesus of history. Jesus, said Schweitzer, believed himself to be the Messiah who would return to bring God's righteous kingdom to earth. Jesus was devastated when, on the cross, he realised that God had abandoned him. In short, Jesus deceived himself about God and what God could and would do for humanity.

The No-Quest period which followed Albert Schweitzer's book was characterised by little or no interest in trying to identify the Jesus of history. Schweitzer's decision that the historical Jesus was beyond discovery was by-and-large accepted. 

Typical of the No-Quest was the work of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) and other "form critics" - those who focused on the various "forms" of written material in the gospels. Bultmann claimed that the original words of Jesus can't be reconstructed from the texts of the gospels. His conclusions turned out to have been over-pessimistic, though form criticism did provide a range of criteria for assessing the authenticity of the gospel accounts which have since been very widely accepted [5]

Theologians such as Karl Barth (1886-1968) were widely thought of in the 20th century as having saved the Christian bacon from the Form Critics by proposing that faith takes us beyond the limits of biblical criticism. By Barth's reckoning, Bultmann's methods helped up to a point. But beyond that point, the worthy Christian could rely on "the eye of faith" to envision a Jesus of universal value.

Around 1960 the search for a Jesus of history was resumed in the so-called New Quest. Its premise was that it's not right to disconnect history from faith. Ernst Kasemann (1954) and others held that the Christian way of life must be rooted in a real man who actually lived and who actually said and did certain things. 

In taking this line, the New Quest was re-asserting the primacy of reason and the validity of analytical methods as the basis of Christian faith. Like it or not, Christianity is an historical religion. 

The past 40 years of the New Quest have yielded important insights: [a] Much of the gospel material is the construction of the early Church, probably in close connection with early schemes of worship; [b] we are nevertheless able to identify some actions and many sayings of Jesus which are good history; [c] while we can't construct a biography, we do know enough about the essentials of his ministry to base sound, creative Christian living upon them.

Unfortunately for traditional Christianity, the New Quest has sketched a man whose message at many points conflicts with the teachings of the Church. For example, they conclude that

  • Jesus' death was that of a perceived agitator who fell foul of the Roman authorities in first-century Palestine. His passion for the integrity of his vision took him to the cross. The elaborate theology of the cross is an accretion.

  • Jesus did not claim to be the Christ (Messiah). Nor did he claim to be God's son. Indeed, he did not allow others to talk of him in such terms. Elevation of Jesus to divinity and the title "Christ" came later.

  • Jesus asserted vigorously that no religious ritual, teaching, or person can come between us and our Creator. Boundary taboos of any sort are human creations. Jesus stressed inclusion and rejected exclusion. The Church as an institution has never served this vision - witness its multiple exclusions of people from fellowship with Jesus.

  • Contrary to tradition, Jesus did not speak about the last things and the trauma of God's terrible judgement at the end of time. There are no sheep and no goats. Forgiveness comes to all. Damnation is a myth. Such things were the outcome of the early Church's struggle to make sense of Jesus.

  • Jesus did not condemn or vilify his fellow Jews. Nor did he diminish the Hebrew religion as such. The virus of anti-Semitism was caught from the earliest times by Christians who were in conflict with the Hebrew establishment.

  • Jesus was not an ascetic like John the Baptist. He did not reject any of the good things of life. At the same time, he lived simply. We have no evidence that he was either a virgin or unmarried. Given the norms of his time, that is unlikely. Christian rejection of things natural is an aberration. The natural order we know is the only one there has ever been.

These and other points could be greatly expanded. However, if they are only partly correct, the Church at large is indeed in a difficult position - though it only fair to say that a large majority of Christians today debunk the truth of the above examples.

The entire search for an historical Jesus has been based on textual analysis. This kind of research appears now to have reached its limits. But the Quest goes on. It is yielding insights into the life and sayings of Jesus in at least three additional ways:

  1. The rigid adherence to the traditional New Testament as the only valid source of information about Jesus is increasingly being abandoned. Other literary sources have been recognised as yielding important information and background - for example, the Gospel of Thomas, its cousin the Q-source, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nevertheless, it may be that 250 years of relentless analysis of written records is nearing its end - unless new sources are discovered somewhere.

  2. It has been accepted that archaeology can give us vital slants on the culture in which Jesus lived. Traditional meanings and interpretations frequently fall or are modified in the light of hard evidence from the soil and ruins of Palestine and the Near East. This emphasis is growing fast and is attracting more and more attention - in the early 21st century hampered only by the dangers of working in the perilous political climate of Palestine.

  3. A new perspective uses our knowledge of the dynamics of social change to re-interpret the outlook of early Christians. It does not assume that the Church is more than a human creation. On the contrary, it assumes that the Church is subject to the same systemic forces and processes as every other human organisation. So the more we are aware of the social currents and forces which determined how the early Church adapted to its environment, the more clearly we can separate its theology from the original voiceprint of Jesus. To sociology are now being added the considerable resources of anthropology, comparative religion, and organisation development.

During the 20th century the age-old marriage between biblical theology and Christian living was broken. Perhaps because they subliminally fear loss of power and influence, Church officials have generally hidden this fracture from lay people. In turn, the vast majority of scholars have failed to tell the Church about their findings. This is no doubt in part because they tend to become encased in academia; and partly because they have little or no skill in communicating in terms to which ordinary people can relate.

Emerging tensions between an increasing awareness of scholarly research on one hand and traditional teachings on the other now appear to be causing the great flow of Christian life to split. 

One branch takes some biblical research into account, but focuses more on continued theological interpretation along ancient and traditional lines. Old themes are reworked and given a new gloss. Considerable attention is given to clothing an ancient world-view in new clothes "relevant" to contemporary society and culture.

Another branch accepts the bulk of recent theological conclusions. It does not shy away from rigorously testing biblical and traditional material. The search for Jesus starts with contemporary understanding of the world, not with traditional teachings. As a result, its advocates find themselves increasingly alienated from the traditional Church.

A significant number of the latter group contend that the evidence yielded about Jesus by the scholarly search of the last 250 years deserves to be widely shared among all Christians. If that were done then

  • the ways in which Christians talk about their faith would begin to change radically. People would be free to imagine and express that new vision of Jesus in new images and words.

  • The Bible would cease to be definitive in Christian theology. Instead it would be a friend and guide, allowing all to work out and express their Christian faith autonomously and with adult maturity.

  • Christian communities would begin to slough off the accretions of past ages. And, rather than being part of the status quo with varying degrees of affinity, they would once again begin demonstrate to an increasingly secular culture an alternative vision of how to live a godly life.

To sum up: Centuries of analysis of written records have failed to give us a "real" Jesus. It is now certain that we will never know the Jesus who walked and talked in Palestine two thousand years ago in the way that we know Napoleon or Washington or John Lennon of The Beatles. The available evidence will never yield us a biographical picture of Jesus. Regardless of how much we "torture" the New Testament, we will always know almost nothing about what Jesus did, and relatively little about what he said.

But note well: What we do know is more than sufficient upon which to model an ongoing and dynamic Christian way of life - even though emerging lifestyles in the 21st century don't always seem congruent with the teachings and priorities of the Church as it has evolved over two thousand years.

In short, the role of the Bible in the life of Christians has changed radically. Previously it was thought that the nature of the great river of Christian tradition was defined by its source. That is in some sense true. Every river derives from its source.

But it is inaccurate in many other senses. It is the lie of the land which dictates a river's course. It flows not where it must, but where it can. And if you wish to learn about a river, you learn from the point at which you meet it. Though the source will tell you something, the point at which you meet the river tells you much more. And you can only tell where a river is heading by going with its flow.

In the case of the vast river of the Bible, the source turns out to be extremely diverse. Its waters don't flow from a single spring but from a myriad of tiny trickles on a number of different mountains and hillsides. The Hebrew Scriptures are one; the four gospels are another, written at different times in different places; Paul's letters form yet another tributary. Smaller sources are placed in the so-called Pastoral Letters. The Revelation to John is like a hidden spring - we know only the general area from which it flows. And the powerful flow of Greek culture and philosophy has immeasurably strengthened the overall flow of the river.

Our radically changed vision of Jesus now faces Christians with two differing ways ahead. 

We can close our eyes to the conclusions of generations of dedicated Christian scholars. If we do so, we will continue along much the same path as Christians of the past couple of centuries. We will accept that traditional theology carries an abiding and incontrovertible message, reaching back through two thousand years of history. That is, we will affirm that it preserves absolutely what the world needs to know about Jesus and therefore about God. The findings of scholars are but a pause in the relentless, unending flow of vibrant faith [7].

Alternatively, we can recognise that the traditions of our fathers are indeed worthy of great respect and honour. They are, however, no longer effective in imagining Jesus for our age. Nor are they sacrosanct. We can therefore accept willingly and with joy a new and renewed vision of Jesus, the man upon whom we base our way of life.
____________________________________________________
[1] The God of Jesus, Trinity Press International, 1998
[2] The Second General Congregation of the Synod of Bishops, October, 2005
[3] Honest to Jesus, an address to the 5th National Forum of the Center for
      Progressive Christianity, June, 2000
[4] Following A Survey of Historical Jesus Studies by Michael Burer
[5] Dissimilarity, multiple attestation, Semitic style and background,
      textual coherence and originality of source.
[6] See Unearthing the World of Jesus
[7] As the 21st century progresses, there are worrying signs that the Church at
     large is hardening its position to exclude any so-called radical approaches to
     re-envisioning Jesus along the lines offered by contemporary scholarship
     and other exploratory thinking. As a result, it appears that more and more
     thinking, questioning Christians are gravitating either towards the fringes of
     the Church, or completely out of its orbit.

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