A good friend suggested that I owe an explanation to people of progressive religious faith as to why I still concern myself with the Jesus traditions in light of my published views that the Jesus tradition is historically unreliable, and traditional Christianity is based on mythology. He was thinking like a progressive pastor, preacher, and prophet of social justice; I, on the other hand, am a retired academic and a historian of Christian origins. Our perspectives are quite different. Critiquing the Jesus tradition is something I do professionally, and my friend is a practitioner of a new form of traditional faith based on social justice.
The explanation he asked of me is nothing less than describing what the Jesus tradition contributes to contemporary human life; that is, what in the Jesus traditions might be embraced by people of progressive religious faith and what should be consigned to the bulging trash bins of dead religions. Fortunately he asked me to address the entire spectrum of the Jesus traditions; that is, to address not only what originated with the historical Jesus, but also what others have found of value in the Jesus traditions. In his challenge all of the Jesus tradition is given an equal weight.
Here are two reasons for my continuing interest in the Jesus tradition, and why I think it will continue to remain relevant. These two reasons only scratch the surface. Judging from the pervasive influence of Christianity and the iconic status of the Bible in contemporary American culture, it is obvious that the Jesus traditions remain relevant in 21st century America. Hence, the critical study of the Jesus tradition (what I do) will remain a legitimate public service until it happens that traditional Christianity and the Bible lose their influence in modern society. For the foreseeable future, however, there remains a need for critics of the Jesus tradition to separate beliefs about Jesus from the probable views of Jesus in order to call into question illegitimate uses of the Jesus tradition.
A second reason relates to early Christian ethical values. Early Christian writers have preserved certain ethical concepts, which have inspired much that is beneficial in Western civilization. One such concept is a liberal humanitarianism grounded in the concept of altruistic and unconditional love, which has embedded itself in Western culture. Altruistic love is an unselfish concern for and devotion to the welfare of others, without regard either for personal benefit or personal cost.
The Jesus traditions have brought over from the ancient Israelite tradition the idea of loving one's neighbor (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31). In the Israelite tradition the neighbor was not one's fellow human being of whatever ethnic background, but rather one's fellow Israelite (Deut 15:1-3); that is to say, their neighbors were of their own tribe. Love was also extended to those sojourning among the Israelites; that is to say, to the stranger in their midst (Lev 19:33-34). In the Hebrew Bible love for neighbor appears in Torah as a commandment of God—hence it is a religious ethic of the Israelite community, which through Jesus passed into early Christian communities. Paul, for example, writes:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. All the commandments are summed up in this sentence: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)
In this statement "neighbor" is not a fellow human being of whatever ethnic background, but rather a religious community ethic—love for your fellow Christian (as in Romans 15:1-2; Gal 5:13-15). Nevertheless, James 2:1-13 does seem to shade over into a universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings.
One of the clearest expressions of a kind of secular altruistic love is found 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Love in this passage does not appear to be a Christian attribute, which is motivated by religious belief and empowered by divine sanction; rather it is a nakedly human quality. There is no mention in this chapter of theology or Christology; neither God nor Christ is mentioned as motivating or enabling the act of loving.
One hard saying unique to Jesus in antiquity unquestionably illustrates an altruistic unconditional love; Jesus said "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27b; Matt 5:44b). The literary context in which this saying is found struggles against the concept of "loving enemies" by offering lesser actions that involve minimum risk, which can be done without actually expressing concrete love for the enemy. In my view the world would be more impoverished without the concept of unconditional love, and it is precisely the Jesus tradition that has imported this concept into Western culture.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
I think if you extend the Jesus tradition to include the history of Christian thought generally the case for studying Christianity becomes overwhelming. Secularism begins as a Christian idea. Apocalypse (everywhere in society and tv these days) is a Christian idea. Various Christian forms of asceticism (sexual, physical, intellectual) inform modern liberal ethics. Marxism is profoundly shaped by Christianity. Historicism is to a great extent a product of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and the "search for the historical Jesus" is in fundamental ways the first modern historical project. Even the current environmentalist movement can be traced to Christian ideas about the relationship between man and nature. And on and on.
What is interesting in all of this is the repression of the historic role of Christianity in shaping the life, politics and intellectual ideas of the contemporary world: it points to a fundamental insecurity about religion among intellectuals.
Good Morning Anonymous.
Could you say a little more about secularism beginning as a Christian idea?
Charlie, I have to admit that I'm unfamiliar with what you refer to as "a new form of traditional faith based on social justice." What are the basic tenets of that theology? And how are they executed on a practical basis?
While I admire your exaltation of unconditional love- how is sending someone to hell who doesn't believe in Jesus unconditional love? I'm not seeing that connection. We are taught that Christianity is a "higher" religion because Jesus "paid the price" for our sins.... Because the wages of sin are death. Which kind of judge is the more merciful one- the one who says "Charlie, I'll wipe our your debt by making this Jesus person over here pay the price for you."
Or- "Charlie, I'll wipe out the debt you owe by giving you a clean slate and removing it from your record and no one has to pay any price, it's entirely gone." In other words, there is no "price" for forgiveness... If you confess your sin to God and repent, you're forgiven. Period.
What is your definition of unconditional love? Elizabeth
PS: Charlie, I just saw what I think is your definition of unconditional love: "universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings." I don't know how much Jesus spoke about hell or damnation, but if he did... it wasn't compatible with unconditional love.
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
On your first question: here is the church's web page that among other things contains a brief description and video tapes of the pastor's preaching:
On your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs: Jesus did not teach a version of the Pauline gospel and did not share Paul's views, which are what you are describing in these two paragraphs.
Unconditional love is love continually extended in concrete ways to others no matter who they are or what they do.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
If one understands that the gospel writers made mistakes in what they attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, then one can check the report of the Jesus Seminar to see what scholars of the Jesus tradition regarded as most probably originating with Jesus: Robert Funk, Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1993). It is the only complete assessment of the entire tradition in the first two years after Jesus. It gives both the majority opinion and the minority where appropriate. A good book to have because it empowers the reader to make up his or her own mind.
I provided my own list in The Wisdom of Jesus. For the sayings pages 93-118; for the parables pages 119-44.
Charlie and Elizabeth,
Regarding the cross and atonement interpretations of Jesus' death, the matter becomes more complex when considering that the cross is the only story about Jesus where he loves his enemy.
Walter Wink outlines an alternative "no atonement theory" (The Human Being (2002) 110-111):
His death was not an atoning sacrifice...It was a political murder meant to sow terror and undermine hope. His violent death exposes the domination system as oppressive and violent. His resurrection challenges the ultimate power of the system and invites us to be people of God here and now where oppressive systems remain powerful and must be challenged. Jesus teaches us how to live and shows us the risks of living..."
I'm not sure how "new" we are. Maybe we just took Tillich more seriously than most churches do? But I think our roots are in the liberation theology movement with high esteem for the Biblical critical movement of the past century.
Beyond that, if I may ask you to sharpen your reply a bit... to say that the Jesus tradition remains popularly relevant in society and therefore your work as a Jesus scholar is still an important service to this public seems to perpetuate the disconnect.
Would the Jesus tradition still be so important to people if they read your books and believed that your conclusions were correct? That is, once you dismiss the magic and superstition of traditional Christianity, and you have identified the little we know about Jesus with certainty, THEN why would anyone care?
Your article this week really "resonated" with me! Even though I no longer attend the Lutheran church of my "nearly lifelong" membership, the traditions established within me during the many decades of my involvement there are still within me. And although my more recent church affiliations are within the "progressive umbrella," my Lutheran background is very much the basis of the person I am and the focus of many of my most meaningful memories.
Your column seemed to support my framework of experience. Thank you!!
Good Morning Friend Roger,
I do not think that the traditional Christianity that produced you and me, allowing us to grow in different directions was a totally negative experience. As a religious option for faith in the modern world, it can and does have positive features, as the comment from Sandy just below affirms. My books and other publications are not aimed at overturning traditional Christianity or leaving it behind for something wholly other, but rather at reforming it by equipping those still living in its House of Faith to think critically about their faith. Some of my readers may eventually reject the magic and superstition (as you put it) in traditional Christianity and as a result reject Christianity as a source for thinking about future forms of faith; other readers will nevertheless continue to value aspects of the tradition and their experience, and incorporate them in some fashion into future forms of faith. I like to think that I am one of the latter.
And that "other readers will nevertheless continue to value aspects of the tradition and their experience, and incorporate them in some fashion into future forms of faith" is exactly what I am pushing you to articulate both for yourself and in the larger sense of the faith community.
Charlie and Roger,
I hope we can agree that the desire for truth puts us all on an equal playing field. I describe myself as a 'Jesus follower' for two reasons: 'loving one's enemy' is the ultimate value, and conquering death is the ultimate hope. In their own way, each functions in the arena of myth and magic, with both falling short on believability and demonstrability.
That's my own answer to "valuing aspects of the tradition," certainly not "superstition" but replacements for the conditions which promote hate and death.
In a sense what you want me to do is precisely what my blog and other publications are all about. But becoming a prophet of religion in the new age is not my calling. I will leave that to you and others who have sensed such a calling. I have no demons or perhaps better angels urging me in such a direction in behalf of "the larger faith community." What I blog is not part of a conscious program for reforming the church, harming the church, or for creating new forms of the faith; it is simply something that my curiosity has led me to ponder with respect to religion. I assume that people will make of it what they will. If it helps, that is a plus, but if it does not, at least I satisfied my curiosity.
Gene and Charlie, I completely agree with Gene about the atoning aspect of Jesus's death... It was definitely politically not spiritually motivated. Gene, I heard a rabbi openly wonder what would Christianity look like if all we had were the gospels and none of the Pauline epistles? It's an interesting imaginary situation to ponder.
The other two religious traditions are Islam and Judaism... Neither of those are a good fit for most Westerner who value individuality. So of all the traditions to choose from, Christianity does contain more elements of freedom and individuality than the rest of the world's. Charlie has pointed out many times that Jesus is whatever the individual imagines him to be and most people do not seem to care one whit about any historical accuracy regarding his existence or his teachings. They only know what they are TAUGHT (sorry for the caps) about him. Traditions are made up of men's teaching, not God's. So we have people like Charlie to thank for showing us how little (if any) of Jesus's actual words or teachings are preserved in scripture... but what little there is, some people deeply cherish.
We can only pass on the elements of our traditions to those under our influence, but we have no control over whether or not they choose to keep that tradition or change it into one their own making. Elizabeth
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