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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D F Strauss (1808-74)
David Friedrich Strauss was born in Ludwigsburg, a small village near Stuttgart, capital of a province in south-west Germany. He quickly finished a degree at T�bingen University, was ordained, and served in a congregation at the tender age of twenty two. 

He left this work to study at Berlin University but was very soon back at his alma mater as a tutor and lecturer. Strauss was influenced in his thinking by F D E Schleiermacher and studied under F C Bauer. He came into contact with Hegel's thought as a student. 

In 1835 Strauss wrote his definitive work, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, while at T�bingen. It was in this that he denied the historicity of all supernatural events in the gospels. His book created great controversy - and destroyed any hopes he might have had of an academic career. This didn't seem to bother him much at first. He wrote:

If I know myself rightly, my position in regard to theology is that what interests me causes offence and what does not cause offence is indifferent to me.

Reviewers considered his book scandalous. One said if that it was "...the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell" [1]. Nevertheless it went through several editions. Marian Evans, known to us as the British author George Eliot, translated it into English, ensuring that its influence spread quickly to the rest of the world.

Strauss was first transferred and then dismissed from his lecturing post in the theological college after publication of The Life. He was later given a post as Deputy Professor of Dogmatics in Zurich through a friend's influence. But his opponents protested so effectively that the Government revoked his appointment and he was pensioned off before he had given his first lecture. He wasn't allowed to teach again. Albert Schweitzer wrote that "The ban of the outlaw lay heavy upon his soul" [2].

But Strauss was a skillful writer. He had little difficulty supporting himself. His father's estate left him enough money to live on. His second great work was Christian Theology (1840-41). The work did not attract much attention, though Schweitzer says that "...in depth of thought it is to be classed with the most important contributions to theology".

Strauss married badly. The famous opera singer Agnese Schebest couldn't reconcile herself with his studious and pedantic ways. They eventually divorced. A brief spell in the Wurtemberg Chamber of Deputies representing Ludwigsburg ended when his views upset his constituents as well as the President of the Chamber. He proved a poor debater. When he died of stomach ulcers he was buried without Christian ceremony - at his own request.

The idea of mythical elements in the New Testament was first introduced into Christian theology by Strauss. For him the use of this anthropological concept (anthropology was then in a state of rapid growth as a new analytical discipline) was a way of explaining the biblical stories without recourse to miracles. 

He applied historical and critical methods to the gospels, concluding that (a) there was not much historical fact about Jesus in them (a conclusion echoed recently by the Jesus Seminar in the USA); and (b) that the rest (what remained once the history had been taken out) consisted of myths. These were religious ideas and doctrines given the form of historical accounts. Myths reflect the conditioning and social outlook of a person or group. They are invented to give meaning to human lives. Eventually they come to be treated as events which really happened.

Before Strauss, an interpreter of difficult texts might use one of roughly three approaches. As Van Austin Harvey puts it, he

... could suggest, as the rationalists did, that the miracle stories were misinterpretations of fact; or he could argue, as the supernaturalists did, that the stories were eyewitness accounts; or he could dismiss them all, as the freethinkers did, as frauds perpetrated by the earliest Christian community. [3]

The account of Jesus stilling the storm (Matthew 8.23, Luke 4.37 and Mark 8.23) illustrates. A majority in Strauss' time would have held that Jesus intervened in nature using his supernatural powers and caused the storm to cease. Rationalist biblical scholars, in contrast, denied that miracles such as this could happen. They proposed various natural possibilities - such as the boat entering a sheltered spot just at the right moment. The freethinker might merely assert that early Christians made the story up in order to further their own aims for power or money.

The radical scholars of the day were just as scandalised as any others by Strauss' proposal. This was hardly surprising because at root it was the doctrine of revelation through the Bible and the evolving nature of history as an analytical discipline which was being attacked by Strauss's concept of myth. In short, he began to think historically about even the most sacred of Christian cows.

Strauss denied that he was accusing the gospel writers of dishonesty. Rather, he was acknowledging that they conceived of truth very differently from modern rational thinkers who were currently evolving science, astronomy and the many other disciplines. An historical view of Jesus' life would have been entirely foreign to those who originally assembled oral traditions into the gospels as we now know them.

The primitive worldview held by the disciples and gospel writers had passed away, according to Strauss. It was becoming impossible for the aware modern mind to conceive of miracles in the sense of events which contradict what we know of the way nature works. The concept of the universe as a unified whole held by many today forbids its fracture by an external agent.

Today, in response to the holistic view of nature, many suggest that a miracle is merely an unusual aspect of what is natural - a sort of statistical abnormality which can ultimately be explained by science. The concept of miracle held by Strauss was much more far-reaching. He thought in terms of the temporary suspension of the "laws" of nature. His position owed much to the then dominant Newtonian physics. The latter perceived the universe as ultimately predictable in every way. In contrast, modern scientists are aware that probability rather than a rigid sequence of cause and effect appears to lie at the heart of how the physical world works.

In using this way of coping with a world-view incompatible with the rising tide of analytically-based thought, Strauss emphasised the capacity of historians to capture "what really happened". Just as it might one day be possible to know in full the laws of the universe, so would historians one day know the essential "facts" of "what really happened. Historians today would generally be less sure of themselves. It is now more or less universally acknowledged that while we have a scaffolding of historical facts, we are able only to create our individual and cultural interpretations of those facts.

J D G Dunn gives an excellent summary of Strauss's position in this regard:

In previous centuries such accounts had raised few questions for those who took for granted a continuous traffic between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the natural, between God, spiritual powers and creation. But now the realm of the observable had begun to determine the scope of the reasonable.

For a history concerned with the (in principle) observable trail of cause-and-effect events, the suggestion that observable events might be caused by the intervention of causes outside the historian's range of observation had to be treated as an explanation of last resort.

In reality such an explanation was unnecessary in virtually every case, since other explanations from within observable history could be found which were quite sufficient to account for the facts. [4]

As understanding changes, so does the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. It's therefore neither impossible nor surprising that we should perceive reality fundamentally differently from our ancestors. Our offspring will no doubt experience much the same kind of difficulty with what we take for granted.

One of his main targets was the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus from death. Strauss held that the resurrection, like other mythical parts of the gospels, was invented - not necessarily consciously or fraudulently - in the years between  the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels in (as he thought) the second century. The resurrection thus became essentially the product of Christian imagination and endeavour, rather than of God's intervention in history.

Strauss located belief in the resurrection in a subjective state of mind on the part of the disciples. He thought that they were so desperately in need of the person in whom they had placed all their emotional trust, that they projected this need into a "�recollection of the personality of Jesus himself". This idea is still often punted in varying forms by Christians of all sorts - from academics to preachers.

One of the great bonuses deriving from Strauss is the immense amount of work which has subsequently been done on the theory of history as it applies to the Bible. The implications for modern Christians of the clash between traditional doctrine and the rest of modern knowledge are now much clearer. 

According to A E McGrath, "Perhaps Strauss's most acute re-interpreter in the twentieth century has been Rudolf Bultmann" [5]. The latter's first aim was to study the New Testament and other records in an attempt to distinguish between historical truths ("what really happened") and created myths. His declared intention was to explain "... the origin of faith in the resurrection of Jesus without any corresponding miraculous fact."

While studying at the University of Berlin, Strauss heard lectures given by the famous philosopher Hegel (who unfortunately died of cholera soon after Strauss' arrival) and by Schleiermacher. He entered his working life as a convinced Hegelian idealist.

In Hegelian terms, the gospels are poetic expression of an inborn human need to go beyond the limitations of reality. They are a good example of a natural human desire to realise Hegel's "Spirit" ("Geist" in German) as it journeys towards "Being-in-itself" (which, I suppose, most of us would call "God"). 

In a sense, Strauss rescued the gospels from total dismissal. Even if they were not historical records of divine intervention in human affairs, at least they were an expression of the deepest human sense of the divine. As such, they remained vital to human well-being and worthy of long an concerted examination. He took these ideas too far. Van Austin Harvey remarks that in his Life of Jesus

... after a thousand or so pages of reasoned historical argument ... [Strauss] took pen in hand and charted a theological program for the future in which the doctrine of the Incarnation was to be supplanted by the idea of the deification of humanity. [6]

Later in his life, however, Strauss moved away from a purely Hegelian position. He proposed that, rather than being a movement of the Geist in history, the early Christian endeavour in creating the Christ of faith was a purely natural emotional and intellectual process, given the outlook of the first century. Individual transformation (repentance)  issued in the vibrant social process we now call the rise of Christianity. This position is still held by many today. 

His last book was The Old Faith and the New. Appearing in 1872 it went to many editions.

He was greatly influenced by Darwinism. Strauss argued that "...everything that happens, or ever happened, happened naturally." The Christian myth had proved highly valuable to humanity, he thought, because the scientific and technical advances of the 19th century had been stimulated by it.

It's important, I think, to realise that the tides of modern thought typified by Strauss still flow strongly. His basic approach to the New Testament has survived the one-and-a-half centuries since he wrote.

Two aspects are of note:

[1] As far as I can tell, the conclusion that the gospels are more the creation of their authors than good history has been confirmed. They contain some history. But they are [a] not intended to report "what really happened" and 
[b] are theological interpretations in a liturgical framework of the meaning of Jesus to the early Church (that is, to the pioneering Jewish-Christian communities).

[2] It is rapidly becoming more and more difficult for many people to either understand or maintain interest in the world-view expressed in the Bible and by traditional Christian religion.

One implication of the above is that the Christian faith and the meaning of Jesus may have to be re-worked from scratch in the 21st century.
___________________________________________________
[1] M Borg in David Friedrich Strauss: Miracle and Myth, Westar Institute
[2] The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1910
[3] The Historian and the Believer, SCM Press, 1967
[4] Myth in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 1992
[5] Christian Theology: An Introduction, 1994
[6] The Historian and the Believer, SCM Press, 1967

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