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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Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)
Towards the end of the 19th century it became possible for theologians to begin to look back at the many attempts, especially in Germany, to discover an historical figure of Jesus.

Don Cupitt remarks that since then Albert Schweitzer in common with others like Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud has lost a central place in public imagination.

In each case the man has tended to become fixed in the public mind as he was in his old age rather than as he was in his prime ... Schweitzer was unlucky in living too long. An absurdly inflated personality cult grew up around him, obscuring the real meaning of his life and thought. [1]

He was a greatly talented music student, studying in France and producing an early book on J S Bach. His interest in theology probably came from his background as the son of a Lutheran pastor in the Franco-German territory of Alsace. He studied enthusiastically under H J Holtzmann, the able professor of New Testament studies at Strasburg University.

But Schweitzer was unusual in his approach to his career. Early on he decided to plan his life. The first part, up to the age of 30, he decided would be taken up by study and enquiry. After that, he would revert to his more naturally activist, practical nature and devote himself to serving the good of the human race.

His critical, undogmatic approach was to serve him well. Focusing especially on the works of H S Reimarus and W Wrede, Schweitzer took his place in the public eye when he published his Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906 (the original German title was Von Reimarus zu Wrede). By that time he had shown himself sceptical about the supernatural orientation of traditional Christian teaching. Despite his reservations he was fascinated by the person of Jesus. But he was less interested in the metaphysics of Christianity and of religion in general than in its capacity to guide and direct human energies and right behaviour.

The broad context of the Quest is important. The 19th century is characterised by a conclusion that traditional, supernatural Christianity was anti-rational. Many of its features like miracles and resurrection could no longer be believed. What then of Jesus? Would we be forced to throw out the baby with the bathwater? 

A common conclusion was that the most appropriate response was to investigate the person of Jesus using all the newly-found analytical tools of the Enlightenment. This was best done by deconstructing the Bible as a literary source of data. The latter had been corrupted over the ages. But it should be possible, it was thought, to come up with an adequate biography of Jesus - witness the large number of "lives of Jesus" which appeared in England, America, France and Germany during the period. 

The literary approach to the New Testament eventually bore the fruit of what is known as "Form Criticism". This is the attempt to boil down the text of the gospels into its constituent parts. From these parts can be identified, it is thought, those pieces which are either the original words of Jesus or at least the earliest oral renditions of those words.

Having reviewed the bulk of literature of the search for the historical Jesus in the New Testament texts, Schweitzer concluded that the quest had failed. It was not possible to do more than sketch a rough outline of Jesus. More than 200 years of scholarly endeavour had yielded precious little of real substance. The evidence in the New Testament was too thin to support an account of Jesus in terms of of history as a discipline. The Jesus of the New Testament does not satisfy the normal standards of historical exploration. Nor is it possible, thought Schweitzer, to produce a satisfactory biography in the normal sense of the word. 

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb. [2]

I suspect that neither he nor many of those who subsequently acknowledged Schweitzer's contribution could see the profound implications of this conclusion. For if we acknowledge that our vision of so important a figure as Jesus changes with time we must ask if "the truth" about him exists or can exist. Jaroslav Pelikan is among those who suspects that the "real" Jesus cannot be reached. All we have is a considerable number of versions of Jesus, each dictated by the culture and priorities of the time it was produced [3]. It is worth noting that from here it is not far to the trackless swamps of postmodernism.

Schweitzer has retained pride of place in New Testament studies less for his examination of the original material, and more for this astute summary of the state of scholarship in the 18th and 19th centuries. The work of New testament scholars in the 20th century has, by-and-large, born out his conclusions.

Unfortunately, these conclusions have not yet adequately penetrated the awareness of ordinary Christians.  Very few are aware, for example, that the long monologues of John's Gospel turn out to be the theological teaching of the Gospel's author, not the verbatim words of Jesus. Even fewer know or much care that we have only the sketchiest outline of the events of Jesus' life. His sayings are too brief and too overlaid by later thought to give us the insight into Jesus' thought and motivations required by a normal biography. 

Schweitzer discovered that what had emerged instead of an historical figure was a series of differing word portraits of Jesus, each reflecting the needs and perceptions of their author. Two hundred years of more or less dispassionate research had not yielded the much sought after consensus about Jesus. The quest was in fact, thought Schweitzer, an attempt to manufacture a modern Jesus to fit modern aspirations. In truth, the Jesus of the Bible is, he thought, an almost totally alien figure to the modern world and most of the writing was therefore imaginative fantasy.

The Jesus of traditional theology turns out to be a myth. He is the creation of Christians, designed to support and perpetuate a traditional culture. It is as though, wrote Schweitzer, that when we peer down to the bottom of a well looking for Jesus, we see our own faces reflected in the water.

Many establishment scholars applauded Schweitzer's efforts. Perhaps they hoped that the faithful would now be encouraged to return to the traditional fold and to the authoritative certainties of biblical revelation. Others weighed up the incontrovertible evidence which Schweitzer had produced about the failure of the quest for an historical Jesus. They concluded just the opposite. The Bible had been destroyed as a set of documents to be relied on and should be treated as a collection of literary writings like any other.

But Schweitzer did not rest there. He took the matter further, to the dismay of many Christians and the delight of as many humanists. He made plain that he shared the view of D F Strauss and others that the dogmatic systems of tradition have crippled and corrupted the perceptions of Western people. This was because Jesus had to be interpreted in terms of eschatology - the traditional Jewish concept of the "last things" which would usher in God's rule - rather than morality. In taking this line he struck at the heart of the type of theology that had guided much of the Western world during the previous century. 

Jesus, said Schweitzer, believed that he was the Jewish Messiah. He had instructed his followers to keep this conclusion secret from the authorities (the so-called "Messianic Secret", a scholarly supposition which persists to this day). Despite this, his God-given calling did get into the public domain in various ways, not least because it was betrayed by Judas. Jesus thought that as Messiah he had a close relationship with God and was supremely able to know God's will. This idea is still current amongst those who agree that the "Jesus is God" image of popular religion is bankrupt, yet who wish to maintain that Jesus is the best thing since God.

It was through this relationship that Jesus knew that the Kingdom of God - a new order on earth in which the powers of evil would be destroyed - would come in his lifetime. Schweitzer thought that when Jesus concluded that it wasn't happening as he had anticipated, he attempted to precipitate things by entering Jerusalem as a "king" and challenging the authority of the Temple.

Schweitzer maintained that Jesus can't be understood apart from his vision of the approaching end of the world. This apocalyptic theology of the last things coloured and conditioned every aspect of his teaching and attitudes towards life. Schweitzer rightly remarked that this Jesus was radically different from prevailing ideas. As a result, "... he comes to us as one unknown". He will always "... be to our time a stranger and an enigma" [2].

Jesus paid the price and ended his life a bitter failure, dying as "one unknown" - though a magnificent person for all that. This interpretation seems to have made its way into the imagination of many Christians. They have been caught up by the concept of Jesus as tragic hero. This contrasts with today's growing consensus that Jesus died because Roman authority wished to nip a potential uprising in the bud. 

This negative conclusion about a Jesus of history is not to say, wrote Schweitzer, that Jesus is therefore lost to us.

But the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually risen within men, who is significant for our time and can help it. [2]

This line has been taken by many since. In effect it claims that the essence of being a Christian lies in our inner attitude towards Jesus. This attitude derives from the action of God's Spirit within us, sparked perhaps by some human intervention or natural event. That Jesus was a real person just like the rest of us, that he lived and died just as we do, and that he worked things out for himself as we must do, is diminished if not destroyed by Schweitzer's conclusions. It leaves little place for the deliberate construction of a Christian way of life on the basis of what is known about Jesus.

What Schweitzer called "Christ-mysticism" was based mainly on his study of Paul. Following Romans 8 it was more important to have the spirit of Jesus than anything else. In other words, it was better to believe as Paul had believed on one hand, and on the other to live as Jesus had lived.

Paul must have had more knowledge of Jesus than he uses in his teachings and polemics ... He does not appeal to the Master even when it might seem inevitable to do so ... and in fact declares that as a matter of principle he desires no longer to "know Christ after the flesh." [4]

This approach entailed on one hand practicing spiritual unity with God, and on the other doing works which demonstrated a reverence for life. In this way, Christ-mysticism does not involve losing oneself in God as our "ground of being" (as in Eastern mysticism). It is an ethical way of life rooted in the person of Jesus and thus allowing us to become children of God. True mysticism is like the stalk of a flower which produces the blossom of ethical living.

Schweitzer is rightly recognised for his work on our search for the "real" Jesus of history. But in his early work on the writings of Paul, he found against the accusation that the thought and teaching of Paul had been corrupted by pragmatic, humanistic Greek ideas. This accusation, he wrote,

... has been clearly answered by the history of Pauline study. The answer is this: Paulinism and Hellenism have in common their religious terminology, but, in respect of ideas, nothing. The Apostle did not Hellenise Christianity. [4]

I doubt that this conclusion is shared by many scholars today. A broader and more inclusive review of Paul's world has revealed a much less homogeneous situation than previously thought. The Jewish culture of the time was deeply penetrated by Greek and Roman cultures. Hebrew theology attempted to preserve an image of pristine purity, uncontaminated by anything but God's word. But the daily lives of ordinary Hebrews were in reality inextricably intertwined with the cultures which had conquered them. 

There is at present a debate about just how much Jesus was influenced by Greek and Roman culture. Christian scholars, it must be admitted, have a substantial investment in a Jesus who adopted and developed an exclusively Hebrew world-view. A glance at New Testament studies of the past 60 years or so reveals an assumption that because he was a Jew, Jesus paid no attention to anything but a Hebrew understanding of God. 

This perception fails to take into account certain realities of the cultural situation in what we now call Palestine and Syria of the first century. For example, Jesus was no more than an easy 90 minutes walk from Sepphoris - a town of Greek and Roman foundation variously estimated as containing between 2 000 and 8 000 people. A day's walk would have brought him near to Gadara, on the eastern side of the Jordan. This was an independent city of Greek foundation which was sophisticated enough to produce several renowned Roman rhetoricians, no mean feat in a culture which regarded rhetoric as a foundational skill. Add to this many indications in the gospels that Jesus travelled widely throughout the area and Schweitzer's thesis crumbles.

Having said that, Paul is clearly primarily a Hebrew thinker. Particularly in his earlier letters, Paul shares the general Judeo-Christian expectation that history would soon come to a close. The coming of Jesus in power and glory would put matters to rights and impose God's direct rule. It is true that apocalyptic expectations were important to early Christians. It turns out to be false that they were important in Jesus' life and teaching.

Like us all, Schweitzer was not immune to contemporary influences. Friedrich Nietzsche, who died a few years before the Quest was published, appears to have been one who influenced him considerably. Schweitzer, despite a lifelong commitment to nurturing life in all its forms, regarded the human situation pessimistically.

I am pessimistic in that I experience in its full weight what we conceive to be the absence of purpose in the course of world happenings ... From this community of suffering I have never tried to withdraw myself. [5]

D L Edwards seems to equate this streak of pessimism with a secular outlook on life:

... for all the religious heroism of his life, Schweitzer's view of the world was essentially secular. Schweitzer did not share the Christian belief that love is "the last word about life". [6]

Be that as it may, Schweitzer's life-plan took an important step forward in his mid-30s. He was accepted by the Paris Missionary Society to serve as a doctor in Gabon, where he built his famous jungle hospital a Lambarene. In his later years sentimental Western media set him up as a Franciscan-like saint of poor. In fact, he was driving and autocratic. Cupitt remarks that he was "... wholly unlike the inoffensive weakling that people normally expect a saint to be". 

In his long ministry there, Schweitzer became famous for his exposition of the the ethical imperative of "reverence for life" demonstrated by his role as a "jungle doctor". His emphasis on reverence for life represented a sharp break with a prevailing culture which epitomised what we today call exploitation of the environment. This culture had been characterised by colonial expansion and the idea that through science humanity is able to control nature as an unlimited resource. 

The profound implications of Schweitzer's orientation are still being worked out today. Don Cupitt and others have begun to formulate a theology of "life with a capital L" to replace theism [7]. Similarly, so-called New Age theology tends to stress preserving and sustaining ecological systems. Popular Celtic spirituality in the West emphasises nature and our affinity to the natural. God is increasingly being perceived as revealed by nature, rather than by the Bible (an intriguing reversion to classical Christian natural theology).

Schweitzer's negative vision of Jesus as a tragic figure, deluded into thinking he had some special place in God's plan for the world, has not stood the test of time. The eschatological Jesus has, I think, been revealed as the creation of early Christian communities. The expectation of a new order was solidified by Christian teaching and then inserted into the gospels through the mouth of the scriptural Jesus.

Nevertheless, an eschatological expectation that the last things were imminent has been clearly shown to have existed in those communities founded and ministered to by Paul. 

Christ will overcome all spiritual rulers, authorities and powers, and will hand over the Kingdom to God the Father. For Christ must rule until God defeats all his enemies and puts them under his feet. (1 Corinthians 15.24)

He later began to back-pedal on these expectations, but too late to prevent their ongoing imposition on the Jesus of  history by the gospel authors and the Church.

Schweitzer's portrait of the Jesus whose expectations are not realised is typical of his outlook. Jesus, he writes,

... lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution, which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn ... and crushes him ... the wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body ... is hanging upon it still. [2]

This vision, shared by so many today, reflects a perception of Jesus which has lost its transforming power in the world. Jesus is no longer a heavenly envoy from God, sent to improve our lot and save us from the torments of hell. Instead, he is a mistaken quasi-hero. He is one who, though not insane, was grossly misled by his own flawed vision. One biographer insists that Schweitzer used the word "God" only to communicate his meaning with conventional Christians. 

If so, Schweitzer's words in 1923 are meaningful:

Without understanding the meaning of the world I act from an inner necessity of being ... I live my life in God, in the mysterious ethical divine personality which I cannot discover in the world, but only experience in myself as a mysterious impulse. [8] 

The ongoing freshness of Schweitzer's Quest some 100 years later is remarkable. While his own vision of Jesus appears flawed to us, his analysis of the search for a Jesus of history which preceded him remains and important contribution to the Christian life.
____________________________________________
[1] The Sea of Faith, BBC, 1984
[2] The Quest of the Historical Jesus, A & C Black, 1910
[3] Jesus Through the Centuries, Yale University Press, 1999
[4] Paul and His Interpreters, A & C Black, 1912
[5] My Life and Thought, Allen & Unwin, 1954 quoted by Cupitt
[6] Religion and Change, Hodder & Stoughton, 1969
[7] The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech, SCM Press, 1999
[8] Civilisation and Ethics, 1923 quoted by D L Edwards

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