Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Christ of Faith: The Face of God

Regarding my post on "the historical Jesus"A thoughtful reader asked me if I cared so much about what the Jesus of history said because, perhaps, I thought "he was God." This is a question I've heard many times "was/is Jesus God?" I think the very question itself misunderstands the issue.

In popular imagination God is a supernatural (and usually male) person who "lives" outside of the universe somewhere and periodically intervenes in it to perform "miracles." If one believes in this kind of God and adds to it the un-nuanced belief that "Jesus is God." On believes presumably that Jesus was not really a human being, but simply God visiting us incognito. This perspective sees the humanity of Jesus as some kind of costume that he temporally donned before flying up back home to heaven.

I might take the view seriously if a kindergartner suggested it, but it is far from the view of any sophisticated Christian theologian.

First I repeat my own position about the reality we appropriately term "God":
I ascribe to a theology known as panentheism. To sum up this position briefly: I understand panentheism as the view that the term "God" does not refer to a separately existing supernatural and person-like being "out there" beyond us. The term "God" refers rather to reality at its ultimate level, "Being itself," "The ground of being," the all-inclusive whole. The best way to understand what these abstractions signify is through an analogy: We know from physics that reality has levels of being which require ever deeper descriptions of the same object. Take, for example, a table. At the level of human interaction the table is a solid object of such-and-such size, weight, height and so on. But at a deeper level of physical description the table is properly described as a certain relationship of interaction between fundamental particles. Both descriptions are correct, the latter simply describes the realty of the table at a "deeper" level.

The panentheist takes this basic claim about the table and extends it to reality as a whole. The universe at the level of physical observation is the total collection of matter and energy interacting in space and time. If we go deeper, however, we can think of the universe as being reality itself only at a less than ultimate level of description. If we think of reality at its greatest or ultimate depth, we must think of it has having no boundaries or limits of any kind (after all what could limit it?). Ultimate reality would then be infinite (no limits), eternal (no beginning or end), and self-caused. All things in our universe can be seen as simply various expressions of the one ultimate reality at a level of less depth. Panentheists call ultimate reality "God" partly because it is eternal, infinite, and self-caused, but also because reality as a whole is so awe-inspiring, mysterious, and tremendous, that we can only feel reverence, humility, and awe when we contemplate it. In other words, for the panentheist all things are parts of God, but the reality of God goes deeper than reality at the level of things, though God does not exist apart from things as another being; God is, rather, the "ground of all being."
Now, let us try to understand the traditional idea of the "divinity of Jesus" in light of this panentheistic understanding of God. To begin with, a great many theologians and New Testament scholars would never say, crudely, "Jesus was/is God." The position is usually stated with far more nuance. Theologians tend to say things like "Jesus is the decisive revelation of God," "the place where we meet God most clearly," "our fullest of experience of the divine in our lives," or other subtly worded variants.

Usually the theologian makes the following moves: 1) The truest way to God for the Christian is through love and justice. In other words, in fighting for justice, in compassion, in loving others, we meet the divine. 2) Jesus is the clearest expression of a human being dedicated to compassion and love that we can know (more on this point below). 3) Therefore, to the extent that Jesus incarnates the very compassion and justice that is where we find God, he is the clearest expression of God to us and for us.

In short, theologians need not - and typically they do not - say that the historical Jesus was/is God; but they are committed to the view that, for the Christian, God is made known most clearly, most fully, and most powerfully in the life, deeds, words, death, and abiding presence (for my view of the resurrection of Jesus click here) of this first century Galilean.

This is my position as well.

Let me now consider two objections to it:

Objection 1: Christians for many centuries called Jesus God, so you can't be a Christian without saying it so bluntly.

Reply: It is not the case that all Christian theologians said, so bluntly, "Jesus is God." But even if they did, the claim that religions can never change, and must always and forever express exactly the same ideas in exactly the same sense is both absurd and manifestly false.

Objection 2: "Why do you choose to follow Jesus as the decisive revelation of God? Lot's of people are committed to justice and compassion! Can't the same claims be made for Buddha, Muhammad, Gandhi etc?"

Reply: Yes the same claims can be made for other figures. In fact, to the degree that anyone lives a life of justice and compassion, that person incarnates God. There is a necessarily subjective element at play here in seeing Jesus as the fullest incarnation of God. It's similar to my love regarding my wife. I often tell my wife that she is "the most amazing, or the most beautiful, woman in the world." When I tell her this I mean it and believe it. But I'm not claiming it as some kind of objective fact about her; rather, I am proclaiming my commitment to her. My statements are statements of my commitment to her; not objective facts about her person. Yet they are not totally subjective either. If my wife turned out to be very different than the person I thought she was, say she turned out to be a cruel and evil person (she is not- don't worry!), then my commitment would end.

Exactly the same is true of my commitment to Jesus as the clearest and fullest incarnation of God for me. In saying, "in Jesus is where I see God most clearly." I am making a claim about my commitment to Jesus; not simply stating facts about Jesus (e.g. that he was 5'3). But again, this claim is not without objective content. If historical research revealed that the Jesus who actually lives was not a man committed to compassion and justice, but was actually a violent sociopath, then I could not follow him, could not see God in him.

To use another analogy. Suppose I declare that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist in history. One way, perhaps the most helpful way, to understand that is to say that this is how Tolstoy effects me: the power and beauty of literature comes to me most clearly and fully in Tolstoy. Furthermore, although there are many other novelist I also find great, none quite effect me like Tolstoy does. This claim does require, I think, that Tolstoy actually be a remarkably great writer, but to call him the greatest instead of say Dostoevsky or James Joyce requires an element of subjectivity.

Similarly, I do see God made known in lives like Gandhi and Desmond Tutu, but other lives just don't quite bring God to me like Jesus does.

I believe that we all incarnate God to the degree that we are passionate about justice and have compassion for our fellow human beings. Jesus of Nazareth, both in the gospels and, as far as I can tell, in history was a person who manifested these traits to a remarkable degree. I do not, of course, claim he did so to an unparalleled degree. But, in a way similar to my love and commitment to my wife, or my personal view that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist of them all, I find that it is Jesus who most clearly makes God known to me.

That is how I understand the divinity of Jesus.

Update (8/24/11):

In conversation with a Theologian friend on this post, I mentioned to him that:
The suffering of Jesus and the failure of his mission is clearly part of this revelatory package too. In the brutal death of this man, his betrayel by those close to him, etc, we learn, clearly, that God is present - maybe even most present - in our moments of pain, sorrow, suffering, defeat, and loss.
He replied to me by adding:
I would add that in Jesus Christ God pronounces a final verdict on the choice human beings have made and continue to make for violence. But instead of inflicting violence on his enemies, God chose to absorb their violence in himself, in the one nailed to the cross.
It is clear to me that these insights have to be added and developed to my account of the "divinity of Jesus."

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Angry White Voters: The Truth about the Tea Party

I have long thought that the tea party was nothing more than a group of far-right extremists that have long spewed their uninformed, bigoted, and angry opinions toward all things they perceive - with fear and trembling racking their frightened forms - as "liberal," "progressive," "humanistic," and "secular."

The only difference between them now and over the past 50 years is that obscenely rich and self-interested charlatans like Dick Armey and the Koch Brothers - feel free to snicker at the thought of a "Dick" and the couple of "Koch's" funding the "tea-baggers" - have given them odd signs and banners, and bankrolled their crank rallies.

It appears, unsurprisingly, that I was correct. Hard data now demonstrates that the so-called tea-party is, in Joan Walsh's words:
Scholar Robert Putnam, best known for his study of American atomization in "Bowling Alone," has produced new data on the Tea Party and it's being billed as a shocker. Sit down before you read this: They are older, white conservative Christians "who were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born."
Putnam's article is available at the New York Times. According to his research:

Beginning in 2006 we interviewed a representative sample of 3,000 Americans as part of our continuing research into national political attitudes, and we returned to interview many of the same people again this summer. As a result, we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later. We can also account for multiple influences simultaneously — isolating the impact of one factor while holding others constant.

Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s “origin story.” Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.

What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

In short, the tea-party is nothing but a new name for the same old right-wing bigots who have opposed every socially progressive policy since the Civil Rights act! The same bigots who wanted to make sure black people could not vote, live in their neighborhoods, or attend their schools, now oppose a black president. The same right-wing religious extremists who want Genesis taught in their kids' biology courses and think America should be a nation for Christians only, now want Michelle Bachmann to lead their country.

Enough nonsense! There is no such thing as the tea-party; it's just the same far right cranks and loons we've had to deal with for a very long time. So let's do what you ought to do with such quacks: let them rant and rave like the madmen they are, and ignore their wild chants when we actually sit down as rational people to attempt policy.

It's time to throw the tea-bag in the trash.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jesus: Proclaimer of the Now and Future Kingdom

When I first created this blog my purpose was to discuss politics. But it appears that religion has come to dominate more and more of my posts. Things change of course and I will, no doubt, return to politics as a primary focus eventually. For now, however, I shall continue to post on the matters most in my thoughts, and presently those matters pertain to religion.

I want to write briefly about the central message of the Historical Jesus.* But first some necessary preliminaries:

1) By the term "Historical Jesus" I refer to the actual flesh and blood person who walked the dusty roads of ancient Israel, insofar as that individual can be reconstructed by means of historical-critical scholarship. This Jesus is not to be confused with the "Jesus of Faith." The latter is Jesus as he is experienced in the religious life of Christian believers. The difference between these two is crucial to solid scholarship.

2) The four New Testament gospels are not straightforward historical accounts. This is a fact that no serious Bible scholar or historian doubts and it has been well known for around 200 years now. The gospels contain myths and legends (e.g. the birth stories, the temptation by the devil, walking on the sea) exaggeration, theological musings projected into narratives about Jesus, propaganda, and so forth.

3) Despite (2) the gospels are not useless as historical documents. Two centuries of painstaking historical research has established beyond reasonable doubt that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have a solid historical foundation. The gospel of John is not close to history and is not accorded the same status as the synoptics by historians.

4) The narrative spine of Mark (and thus Matthew and Luke who used Mark as a primary source) is broadly historical: Jesus came from Nazareth, briefly followed and was baptized by John the Baptist, shortly after John's arrest went out on his own mission, chose disciples to follow him and do what he was doing, taught in parables, gathered people together around a common meal, worked as an itinerant healer and exorcist, and, at Passover in the year 30, journeyed to Jerusalem, confronted the leaders there with the judgment of God by word and deed (the demonstration in the temple) and was crucified by Rome for his troubles.

5) Scholars also generally agree that much of the teaching in a hypothetical document called "Q" is authentic to the Jesus of history. Q is a source that was used by Matthew and Luke (they also used Mark). We have no copy of this source as it is lost. But it is clearly visible in the passages that Matthew and Luke have in common but that are not in their other source, Mark. It is also fairly clear that the majority of the parables (though not the interpretive gloss gospel writers sometimes give them) go back to the Jesus of history as well.

6) But, even in "Q" and Mark we do not have unbiased plain history. And scholars are careful to point out that in those two early sources some material is still suspect. In particular, passages that too obviously reflect the theology of the later Jesus movement (as evidenced in, say, Paul's letters) is unlikely to go back to Jesus. Passages in which Jesus speaks to the conditions of his followers in the 50s and 60s (see Mark 13) are clearly not from the Jesus of history, nor are passages in which Jesus speaks of himself as a heavenly judge and one who will come again - this rules out all future "son of man" passages, which has very important ramifications, as will be seen below.

With these preliminaries in place we can now ask who Jesus was? Or better, what picture of Jesus emerges from our earliest sources (Q and Mark - excluding the obviously unhistorical passages)?

I will here restrict myself to the core image in the teaching of the historical Jesus: The Kingdom of God. Better translated as the "ruling activity of God" this phrase refers to the concrete activity of God in the world whereby He establishes that He is in charge. The phrase does not indicate a place or nation in which God is actually the king.

Though the phrase "Kingdom of God" could mean many things, by the time of Jesus it serves as an eschatological image. Eschatology is that branch of theology dealing with "end-times," death, judgement, eternal life, Heaven and Hell. But used in reference to the period in which Jesus lived it refers rather to the expectation and hope, shared by many of the Jewish people at the time, that God would soon act decisively in human history to once and for all end injustice, oppression, and evil and usher in an age of prosperity, peace, and harmony.

Some scholars misleadingly speak of the time that God would do this as "the end of the world." But that is not what most of these Jewish people expected (Crossan The Greatest Prayer, 79). What they expected, rather, was that God would transform this world, not end it. Many did expect that only a supernatural act could accomplish this and thought also that events like the raising of the righteous dead to new life would accompany the eschaton. Indeed, most early Christians thought that the kingdom would be decidedly established by a return of Jesus to earth, to end evil and usher in an age of everlasting peace.

Many scholars have claimed that Jesus' own eschatology was close to that of the early Christians. He too, so they argue, expected a supernatural event in the very near future that would transform the world forever. On this view, Jesus' message was simply "the kingdom is coming soon, so you better repent and get ready for it."

I don't think this position is particularly well supported for several reasons. First the only gospel passages in which Jesus speaks of an imminent and spectacular arrival of God's kingdom are in the passages in which he speaks of the coming of the son of man (himself) from heaven. But the work of such scholars as Geza Vermes and Norman Perrin (as well as many others) demonstrate clearly that such passages do not go back to the historical Jesus, but are products of the early Jesus movement and depend upon the belief that the executed Jesus is raised up to God's right hand and that he will return from there to establish everlasting justice and peace. These passages reflect the view of Jesus' followers after his death, not the view of Jesus himself.

Second, Jesus' message in Q and Mark is simply not "repent, pray and wait for God to act." On the contrary his message reads more like "This is what the kingdom is, you are called to live out and participate in that kingdom, so get to work!" (Crossan The Greatest Prayer, 90)

So the overtly apocalyptic or end-of-the-world Jesus is not the Jesus of history. Nevertheless, I cannot quite agree with those scholars who claim that for Jesus the Kingdom of God is only a present reality made known to those who realize it in themselves. Even without the son of man passages there are enough texts that show that Jesus did teach that the kingdom, though clearly a present reality to enter now, in its full glory lies in the future (Matthew 5: 3-11, Mark 14: 25, etc.).

Did Jesus then believe that the great eschaton was soon to come? That God would indeed radically act so as to transform the world forever?

It seems to me that a careful reading of the earliest sources does not support the claim that Jesus spoke of a Kingdom of God about to burst upon the world in the future, either immediately or at some unspecified time. Nor do those teachings support that Jesus denied this in favor of a mystical present kingdom. Geza Vermes has expressed the position I am reaching for well:
[Q]ueries concerned with whether the kingdom had come, was on the way, or would come later, must be irrelevant. At issue in New Testament eschatology is the actual movement itself of turning back, of entering into the kingdom. It is in the surrender of the self to God's will that his sovereignty is realized on earth (Jesus in his Jewish Context, 35).
And Norman Perrin expressed it similarly:
In the teaching of Jesus the emphasis is not upon a future for which men must prepare, even with the help of God; the emphasis is upon a present which carries with it the guarantee of the future (Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 205).
In short if we are to understand the eschatological mindset of the historical Jesus we must look to what he actually says about the kingdom. Jesus speaks of the kingdom as a reality that people can enter now (Luke 16.16), that is among us (Luke 17:20), but that will be our destiny in the future as well (Mathew 8:11). The kingdom is known in acts of healing (Luke 11:20) in the embracing of social outcasts, forgiving each other, in peace, non-violence, love for others, and the fight for justice (Matthew 5-7). In short, it is in healing each other, forgiving each other, battling injustice, and ending oppression that the kingdom is entered into by all who choose it here and now.

For Jesus, it appears, the full fruits of the kingdom do lie in the future, but it does not seem that his message is about waiting for that future. Rather than seeing the kingdom as imminent - as about to burst forth on the earth - it seems that Jesus saw the kingdom as ultimate. The Hebrew God of justice and compassion would, in the end, perfect the world, would eliminate injustice and usher in a time of everlasting peace and plenty for all. This is the heart of prophetic Judaism, and the core of the vision of the historical Jesus. Where Jesus takes his faith in God's kingdom a step further is in his clear conviction that the coming kingdom is even now already present. Like the leaven in the dough that has not yet risen, or the mustard seed that has not yet grown into a great tree, the kingdom is here, now and we may enter it, confident that the tree will grow and the bread will rise, and we must work with it.

So the message is not to wait for God to fix things. The message of the historical Jesus is rather, embrace the outcasts, combat injustice, forgive those who have wronged you, heal the sick. Do all this and you have entered the kingdom. As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
[Jesus called others] to do exactly what he himself was doing: heal the sick, eat with the healed, and demonstrate the kingdom's presence in that reciprocity and mutuality. It is not, he said, about intervention by God, but about participation with God. God's Great Cleanup of the World does not begin, cannot continue, and will not conclude without our divinely empowered participation and transcendentally driven collaboration (The Greatest Prayer, 90).
*My understanding of the Historical Jesus is most indebted to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. But I also draw considerably on Geza Vermes and Norman Perrin. To a lesser but non-trivial extent I am indebted to the work of N. T. Wright and Richard Horsley. I find the Jesus of such scholars as Paula Frederickson, Ed Sanders, and Bart Erhman to be historically problematic (given its rejection of politics and its reliance on "the son of man" style eschatology), and the very non-jewish wondering sage (who seems to have no relation to Jewish politics or eschatology!) of Robert Funk and Burton Mack even more so.

Note: The Picture accompanying this post is from a BBC documentary which attempts to construct a face for Jesus that actually looks like a 1st century Galilean.

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