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Wednesday, December 28, 2011
History ... Religion ... Spirituality ...

The Christmas season makes Christians think about Christ. Or should make them so think, anyway. Ah yes, keep Christ in Christmas! Even thought I don’t practice Christianity despite my Catholic upbringing, Christmas still makes me think a bit about Christ, i.e. the idea of interpreting Jesus of Nazareth as the manifestation of God’s true Son. I once believed that Jesus was the Christ. I no longer do. Not because I don’t believe in God, nor because I believe that God would never send humankind a special envoy to convey God’s glory and disperse salvation.

It’s just that I can’t believe that God would make a “once for all”, one-shot appearance in Jesus and relegate everyone who hadn’t heard of Jesus (i.e., those who lived before him and lived in lands that would not hear the Gospels for many centuries after Jesus) to second-class status, unable to attain true salvation. And what about all those people who have heard of Jesus as the Christ and savior, but just couldn’t relate to what was being preached for any variety of reasons . . . which seems to happen quite a lot in modern times. Why should all these people be automatically barred from union with God’s kingdom?

I just can’t see God operating this way. Jesus may well have been a special messenger of God’s word. But that message, as preserved by the Christian church over many centuries, is inherently spoken through a limited human institution shaped by the lands and cultures from whence it sprang, and in whence it currently operates. I need to believe that God speaks to us in many ways, and did not “put all of his eggs in one basket”. I have to believe that God cares for every human being, and in some way tries to reach everyone, whether through the Gospel, through the Tao, through the story of Moses and Israel, through the Koran, through the many Hindu stories, or just through the wonder of sunrises and sunsets. God uses a lot of mostly small but never ending ways to reach us, IMHO.

However, I also feel that the idea of Jesus as Christ (as taught in Christian doctrine) can be rejected on historical grounds and replaced by an explanation having greater logical consistency. Although I embraced the Christian teachings until I was around 40, I changed my mind based upon what we humans can know about the past, about each other, about what happens in our social interactions and social networks, and about the picture that we can reasonably and logically draw from the many strong clues we have about Jesus’ life and times. The historians of today can and have drawn a very compelling picture of how Jesus, and the movement that followed him, were human phenomenon much like all the other historical and social events that have been documented over the centuries. We don’t need a virgin birth, a bodily resurrection, and a myth that Jesus and God were somehow one in a unique fashion, to explain what happened. There is a better way, IMHO.

In attempting to explain why I believe that the modern academic notion of Jesus as a prophet of a believed-in earthly apocalypse, soon to be wrought in Israel through God’s direct intervention, is the more compelling explanation for what we know, I will compare my logic and experiences with those of the great 20th Century Christian apologist, C. S.Lewis. In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis relies heavily on logic to prove that Jesus was the Christ, the true Son of God, and not just another good man.

If I understand correctly, Lewis’ logic goes something like this: through the New Testament, we know that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and to have the power to forgive sins on God’s behalf. If he was not what he claimed to be, then he was either a raving lunatic or a great liar. Other than that, he was the true God-Man, the second member of the Holy Trinity. No other relevant choices exist, per good old C.S. The unspoken implication seems to be that the final two options are unlikely given all the reverence that humanity has given the Christ story over more than 20 centuries. So, through process of elimination . . .

Hmmm, no other choices? For a man with such great imagination (take a look sometime through Lewis’ Nardia chronicles or the space trilogy), Mr. Lewis seemed to have severely limited his own intellectual scope on this issue. In my opinion, as stated above, there is another option . . . and a very good option. I.e., the notion developed in recent decades by various scholars that Jesus was a millennial Jewish preacher who forecast the coming Kingdom of God; and towards the end of his mission, he injected himself into his own prophecy, giving himself a role in the impending Heavenly apocalypse and judgment. And making himself a clear target for a Roman political assignation.

Most modern Christian churches do not emphasize one important aspect of what Jesus taught and what the Bible still says: i.e., that God was about to directly intervene in the politics, economics, and day-to-day life of Israel. That intervention would replace their traditional ways of eating and providing shelter and using money and marrying and raising children and struggling to eke out a decent life for a few decades despite disease and crime and famine and human greed, anger and discord. The scholars have studied the Gospels extensively, but have also studied the history of the land of Jesus and what was going on there when he lived. And as it turns out, what Jesus did and preached was not so unusual. There was a lot of apocalyptic expectation in the air amidst the Jewish tribes of Palestine, both before and after Jesus. We can find similar apocalyptic expectations at other times in history in very different lands and cultures. And we can even find traces of it today in our modern 21st Century culture.

Many Jesus scholars disagree with what I will next say, but I think this is important in developing a credible story of Jesus and the Christian movement and institutions that came forth after him. Jesus obviously left a quiet, normal life to gather followers and wander about preaching the impending Kingdom and what needed to be done to prepare to benefit from it (i.e., repentance from past evil deeds and attitudes, embracing faith and kindness and truly unconditional love). Given how well he was later remembered, he probably spiced up his preachings with warnings of what happened to those who did not cleanse themselves and ask forgiveness in preparation.

I.e., the Kingdom would arrive with judgment, and those who did not commit themselves to absolute goodness would be condemned to an ugly fate, a life that was somehow even worse than the poor Galilean experienced in his and her struggle to stay alive in a cruel, dry agrarian land that was dominated and exploited by a rich, uncaring power from afar (i.e., the Roman Empire). This probably helped Jesus get the fame and following that he did. But in his final months, maybe final weeks, he kicked it up a notch by casting himself as “the Son of Man”, as God’s guy, as the one whom God would rely on to make the Kingdom happen. I.e., Jesus started telling people that he was the Messiah.

That obviously got him a lot of notice. So much notice that the Romans decided to put an end to Jesus before things got out of hand. Jesus figured that God was going to put an end to the Romans, at least in their rule of Galilee and Judea. Someone had to be wrong. Turned out it was Jesus.

Still, Jesus left a huge impression on his followers despite his inglorious end. They were obviously moved by the fact that he willingly accepted torture and death at the hands of the Romans, through his faith that God would deliver him. Maybe that was stupid, but it was also inspiring. So inspiring that they couldn’t believe that it was all for naught. So they quietly kept his memory alive, altered and tweeked their memories of what he said and did, and passed it down to others in a way that seemed to make sense and could be remembered. I.e., that Jesus was God, he proved it through his miracles, and that he would return once God was ready as to finish the job. Jesus proved his faith; the present “stall time” when Jesus was gone but the Kingdom had not yet arrived was simply a test of his follower’s faith. If they could be as brave and sure as Jesus was, surely the day would come.

This may have left a mark on Jewish history, but it took another “sparkplug” to ignite these strong feelings into a fiery movement, one that would truly change the world. And of course, that sparkplug was named Paul. Paul was the guy who took the franchise beyond Judaism and sold it to the greater Roman Empire. He set Christianity on the path to becoming the colossal social institution that withstood two millennium, spread to almost all corners of the planet (although it never really caught on with the 50% of humankind living in what we call “the East”), and became the religion that we know today.

That is how I best make sense of what I heard and experienced as a child brought up in a Christian world (in the Catholic sub-tradition), considering all that I have come to know of humankind and society in my own life. This largely embraces much of what the modern Jesus scholars such as E.P. Sanders, Gerd Theissen, John Meier, Bart Ehrman, Paula Friendriksen, and Dale Allison are teaching and writing about – i.e., Jesus as a Jewish first century apocalyptic, whose life and followers were swept up by the dynamism of the Roman Empire in such a way as to become a major, long-lasting social institution (and religion, of course) of unique character.

Some of these scholars would disagree with parts of what I said above; and there are other scholars who present a very different Jesus, one focused more on social activism and the power of organization and revolution, and less on God as the agent of change. There are still others who accept all of this “greater history” and yet still arrive at a divine Jesus, a Jesus who is the Christ. Over the years, I have sampled the writings of many historical Jesus scholars, and have pieced together what seems to me to be a likely (although ultimately not really knowable) story, a story based on humankind as I find it. And not on a unique, extraordinary one-time intervention by God.

So that’s my Jesus. He’s not the Christ, as the Christians define that word. So I guess that I don’t celebrate “Christmas”. I have no Christ to keep in Christmas. But of course, there is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus was born on Dec. 25; that was simply a Roman solstice festival that the early Christians co-opted in order to help popularize their cause. This is another interesting example of the way that the Christian tradition has “developed” the truth in order to bolster its cause.

If C.S. Lewis could be completely aware of his inner emotional and psychological workings, I believe he would admit that the Christian story does NOT meet modern standards of historical veracity. (Modern works on Jesus by the scholars that I cited above come much closer to that.) Lewis’ false choice of seeing Jesus either as true Christ, madman or pathological liar was clearly charged by something else going on in deep in his head.

But I don’t think that the stuff that was going on in Lewis’ head was all bad. The Christians put Christ in Christmas, just as Lewis put Christ into a logical trap in Mere Christianity, for a good but unspoken reason. Really, for the sake of an unspoken inspiration. Although Jesus was wrong about God’s political intentions, he was truly inspired by God; ditto for his followers. If we could somehow live the way that Jesus envisioned that we would once The Kingdom arrived, it would be a much more heavenly world than the often hellish reality we experience today. There is obviously a greater truth at stake, so great that those charged with preserving it aren’t bothered by using lies (“white lies” might be a better way to say this) in order to convey those greater truths to others. Techniques are often judged by their success, and this technique has been very successful in preserving and conveying the Christian inspiration regarding Jesus’ true love of God across the generations for over 2000 years.

But techniques don’t work for everyone, nor forever. If the intellectual sophistication of the average human continues to climb as we progress into future centuries, the “white lie” technique of spiritual inspiration could become less and less effective. Humankind will need more direct ways of finding God. The story of Jesus as an historical figure could be one such way, IMHO. But only in the context of many other pathways leading up the mountain. And those pathways will include both historical stories and the stories and experiences of each person’s own life. God will be found in the Scriptures, with the Saints, and in the blade of grass; in the churches, in the galaxies, and in the incredible mathematical relationships of our universe that awed Newton and Einstein.

One such mathematical relationship involves the sun and the length of the day. At Christmas, the math shows that the hours of light no longer recede and start to increase again, due to the relationship of the Earth and Sun, as mediated by gravity and many other forces and physical processes. So yes, let’s keep God in Christmas. Let’s keep Jesus in Christmas, along with cosmology and sociology. The ultimate message is that Christmas – and every day of our lives – are even more of a miracle, more of a gift from God, than the Christ story can convey. I think that good old C.S. Lewis, were he alive today, could join me in a Christmas toast to that notion.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:33 pm      

  1. Jim, Can’t say there’s too much I disagree with you regarding this blog. But I do have some comments.

    What I’ve been thinking about lately is what I’ve read in more than one place: That Christianity is the religion that dares to say that God could become human—or a human being. (A slight difference, perhaps, in meaning there.) It’s the only religion to say that—or so say some scholars. I find it an interesting tho’t to ponder.

    As to C.S. Lewis: I am sorry but I have to take issue with him—I guess big issue with him. I think that the majority of people who follow Christianity hardly consider *logic* when it comes to religion. I *do* think that for most people religion is much more about the emotional or even the psychological than the logical. For some smaller group of people I don’t doubt logic plays a role in thinking about Christianity, but for the majority? I doubt it’s logic. All one has to do is think of any Baptist preacher (to say nothing of any of the other many religions that lean towards the emotional aspect of religion’s place in human life) and consider where logic might come into play in his/her message? Very little—most of it is emotional.

    Others, needing a structure to hold on to, tend to hang on to belief in this or that. But I tend to think of that in terms of the psychological rather than anything logical.

    As to the institution of Christianity itself: Well, there are many institutions within Christianity—a big one is the Roman Catholics; others are the various Protestant religions, etc. In the end if one looks back on how the institution itself of Christianity started, it was all a power struggle—as far back as Paul. Who was right? Paul who said one didn’t have to be a Jew? Or James in Jerusalem who said one had to first be a Jew? Who would gain the power there? This struggle for control of power can be traced down through the history of Christianity from its very start. So, as far as the *institution* itself is concerned, it seems to me that it’s a purely man-made thing.

    Another point I may be misreading but am not sure: The Gospels were not written as history as we know it. They were written to emphasize the ideas the writers wanted to get across, that is, the ideas about Christ’s life and teachings they wanted to get across. It’s almost certain that as far as “history” goes, the Gospels are *not* history. But maybe you didn’t mean to convey that they were history.

    Lastly, I am not sure exactly what it is you are saying in your reference to not celebrating Christmas. Perhaps what we all should be doing is simply being glad, as our primitive forebears were, that light is returning. But I could then see an argument that that is certainly silly because we now know that it’s not a “higher power” that is bringing back the light; it’s simply the rotation of the earth around the sun.

    Perhaps we need to make room for some of the mystery and the mystical and the emotional and let the logical take just one step back at this time of the year. We might celebrate the birth of a man on whom a whole religion (or even several religions) ended up being founded. We might celebrate the fact that the sun is not going away forever but is starting to return. I’ve noticed now and then in my life that often a little suspension of belief results in the best stories told. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 30, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

  2. dear jim, i must say that I have to agree with you in most accounts. I will say though that if you lived in the middle Ages with this Mindset, you may have been labeled a heretic and burned at the stake. Now I think the vast majority of thinking people would laud you for your incisive view and your ability to extrapolate into the future. I know that i desire to be accepted by a thinking majority. I also know that at this point in my life, {I hit double nickels on the 5th of January} I too have a hard time seeing God as some being i can fully understand. The anthropomorphic view smacks of my conflicts with my deceased father. Any way I don’t think it is necessary to be a radical atheist

    Comment by frank penotti — January 7, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

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