Use and abuse of the historical Jesus

“The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” George Tyrell, Christianity at the Crossroads

When I was an undergraduate reading various reconstructions of the historical Jesus, I could not help noticing a pattern. All of them start with some sort of declaration that they are going to approach the topic as disinterested historians, setting aside considerations of faith, ethics or beliefs of the Church. But, by the end, very few could resist some kind of assessment of the implications of this historical Jesus, and overwhelmingly they approved of what they had found there. So we have the “Spirit Man” of Marcus Borg, the Cynic sage of John Dominic Crossan, the Jewish miracle-worker and teacher of Geza Vermes, the zealot of SGF Brandon and more recently Reza Aslan, and many others. There are of course a few striking exceptions, such as Hector Avalos, whose book The Bad Jesus gives a hint at his thesis.

This is not a new observation, as the quote above, from a book published in 1909, illustrates, and the metaphor of the well is widely quoted. This does not stop it being true. I thought of this issue recently when attending a course run by Dr Robin Meyers, pastor and self-described “Christian Atheist” who advocates following Jesus rather than worshipping Christ. The Jesus he commits to following is, it turns out, the one largely discovered by scholars like Crossan and other members of the Jesus Seminar. It is a Jesus who is a philosopher and teacher, with a radical system of ethics, concern for social justice and definitely not considered in any way divine.

I have very few disagreements with the ethical implications Dr Meyers draws from this view of Jesus, but his approach raised two questions which I think are a challenge to any project of this type. Firstly, if you are committing yourself to following a particular historical reconstruction of Jesus, then you are something of a hostage to fortune if and when scholarly views about the historical Jesus change. Given that competent scholars have come up with a variety of reconstructions, it is also not entirely obvious why this reconstruction should be treated as authoritative and final. If we are going to follow Jesus, can we know for sure he wasn’t the revolutionary zealot? And what if some new evidence turned up which changed our views completely about the historical Jesus? Does that mean revising all our ideas about faith and discipleship?

The second problem I find genuinely baffling. Unless you are a believer in the infallibility of the Bible, which Dr Meyers certainly is not and neither are the vast majority of scholars, it is not clear to me why the historical Jesus, even if we could find him, should be treated as an authoritative teacher in all respects. By all means we can take inspiration from him, use whatever of his teachings we find useful or relevant. But we do not have to assume he was right about anything, let alone everything. And, as the variety of reconstructions makes clear, we are a long way from knowing anything much about the historical Jesus with great confidence, and most likely never will, so even knowing what the teachings were is problematic.

Just to put my own cards on the table, briefly, my personal view is that there was no historical Jesus at all – he was a heavenly figure later written into history, with teachings from various sources attaching to him. The Jesus of the gospels is a composite figure, which is why so many reconstructions are possible. I will not defend this view here – I have touched on it elsewhere and anyone who wants to know why I think this should read Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, which to my mind sets out this case in a way that has not been answered. But, as anyone who has read my other blog posts will know, I take great inspiration from certain teachings in the gospels, particularly the parables of the kingdom and the emphasis on the interdependence we all have. I do not know who originated these teachings, and it does not much matter to me. They have come down to us in the tradition and I will take from them what I find inspiring. This approach means we can divorce the intellectually interesting historical question of whether there was a historical Jesus and what he said from the more urgent present-day question of how we are to treat each other and live together on this planet. Muddling them together does not do justice to either question.


On the event, elections and hope

The term postmodern may conjure up pictures of French academics writing incomprehensible papers and using strange arguments to justify unreasonable positions, but there is a lot more to it than that, and some ideas within postmodernism I find extremely relevant and useful. One of these is the idea of “the event”, particularly written about by Derrida, who pictured the event as something over the horizon, something almost unthinkable, but which can have an impact on our day-to-day lives and sometimes break through, if only “barely”. This idea implies another key lesson of postmodernism – that nothing is inevitable and things that appear to us to be “the natural order” are nothing of the sort. They can change in ways that are completely unimaginable, sometimes very fast. After such changes, the new state quickly becomes the natural order of things again and we rationalise why it was actually inevitable. But it was not.

This idea is extremely topical because we have experienced a number of “events” recently – things considered inconceivable until they happened. We are now used to the idea of Brexit, but do recall that every major political party, nearly all business organisations and nearly all trade unions favoured remaining in the EU. The unthinkable became possible, then inevitable, with remarkable speed. Ditto for the election of Donald Trump. In both cases, I personally deplore these results, but then no one ever said the event would be benign.

But what these votes do prove is that real change is possible, and if it is sometimes change in the direction of isolation and xenophobia, it can also be in the other direction. The election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France is also an earthquake – a political novice offering a vision that is socially and economically liberal, pro-European, pro-business, pro-environment brushed aside the entire political establishment. The UK election last week was not quite as dramatic but consider this. Just over two years ago, in May 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was an obscure 65-year old backbencher known as a firebrand left-wing activist and frequent rebel against the party leadership. Rumours are that he was planning to retire at the next election, and only stood for the leadership because he and some colleagues felt there should be someone in the contest from the left of the party. He has now led the Labour Party to its biggest increase in vote share since 1945 and, if he had managed to add just a few more points to that share, we would now be discussing the future of Britain under Prime Minister Corbyn – something quite literally unthinkable two years ago. The reasons for his rise are complex, but no doubt one of them is that he is offering a fresh, radical vision to people unhappy with the status quo and feeling there has to be a better way.

Indeed, it is striking that Macron, Trump and Corbyn are about as far apart as you can get on their politics, but they have some very important things in common. All of them bring passion and authenticity to a public tired of cautious politicians explaining why things cannot be done. All of them proclaim that things can change, a different way is possible. All have come from outside politics as normal. Millions of people are responding to that.

As a Liberal Democrat, I am of course disappointed with the overall result. However, I absolutely see grounds for hope as well. Like him or not (and I don’t especially) Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in expanding our sense of what is possible, of making people believe that change can happen. And, as we have seen, if enough people believe that, then it will happen. This is a theme in Jamie Bartlett’s new book “Radicals”, which I am currently reading and enjoying. His argument, reiterated in a talk by the author which I attended, is that the people prepared to think differently about the world, who are pushed away from the mainstream, may well see their ideas become commonplace if we are to tackle some of our deepseated problems. I argued on the night that liberals were the radicals now, or at least could be, an argument he found interesting, judging by a subsequent tweet:

So it would be very foolish to make any predictions about the next few years, but, like Mr Bartlett, I am convinced that things will happen which no one is currently expecting – the events will not stop here. Despite the headline results, following the election I can feel a glimmer of hope now that, just perhaps, in some way that no one can now foresee, maybe we will find a way to stop, or at least soften, this criminal act of self-destruction that is Brexit, that we may find a way to present a radical vision of change that is based on looking outwards to each other and the world in tolerance, understanding and co-operation, not looking inwards in fear and suspicion.

I am fairly sure that big unpredictable, changes are afoot but in what direction? That is up to us.

God in each other

“Today, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other – that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister. If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we would still need tanks and generals?” Mother Teresa

It does not take a great deal of reflection to see that, as individuals, human beings can achieve next to nothing. Turn any of us loose on our own in the wild and it is doubtful we could even survive a few days – a few experts might manage that, but little else. The truth is that to achieve anything at all worthwhile, we need each other, we need to work together. If we work together, we don’t just survive, we can thrive and create entire, magnificent civilizations. We can solve the most difficult problems and meet almost any challenge. If we work together. To do anything, we need each other. This is the most fundamental fact of our existence.

And yet it is a fact that is often well disguised, and we flatter ourselves that we can achieve something called independence. The major culprits here seem to be money and power, those gods of our age, and most others. With money and power, we believe that we need no one else, that we have independence, but this is a dangerous illusion. The richest and most powerful person must still rely on other people to grow their food and make their clothes, to say nothing of meeting other needs. We are, all of us, bound together by a complex web of laws, morality, rights, obligations and exchange. Mother Teresa was absolutely right when she identified forgetting this fact as being the root of so many of our problems. Not only do we forget that we belong to each other, we seem to have an uncontrollable urge to demonise certain groups, to isolate them and blame them for our problems, to regard them as being outside our circle of concern. Whether they are Muslims, terrorists, immigrants, foreigners or simply “them”. Like them or not, they are all part of our web and we forget this at our peril.

More often than not, religion provide convenient cover for this demonisation. Those of a different faith, or no faith, can be conveniently blamed for our problems. If only everyone believed the same as us, the religious sigh, everything would be ok. In saying this, they are making the same mistake. They have forgotten that we belong to each other, regardless of what we do or don’t believe. If religion serves to divide people, if it encourages groups to think of each other as enemies, then I for one want no part of it.

But there is an alternative perspective if we choose to see it. In the parables of the gospels, no one kids themselves that they can achieve independence. Instead, our interdependence as a community is celebrated and encouraged. The phrase “the kingdom of God” refers to a place of justice, where everyone cares for each other and on that basis we can have peace. A place where every single individual is valued down to the hairs on their head being numbered, where shepherd leaves his flock to look for the one sheep that is lost and banquets are held to which everyone is invited, especially if they are the last people you would really want to see there. When the kingdom of God is discussed, God is not there as an overbearing presence, or intervening to perform miracles for a select few, or a remote figure we can flatter and sing hymns to. Instead, “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17,21). As the famous parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25, 31-46) makes clear, the way we treat God is nothing more nor less than the way we treat each other, and particularly the other who needs our help. If we take this at seriously then for all intents and purposes all we mean by God is our neighbour, i.e. other people. We must find God in each other and treat each other accordingly, or, as Mother Teresa observed, we face war and quite possibly extinction. If we do not recognise our inderdependence and treat each other with compassion, then religion is simply a cloak for human selfishness and God is a self-help guru at best, a monster at worst. In this life we have each other. There is no other God.

This is how change happens

This post will veer into politics as I have a couple of times before, discussing the aftermath of Brexit and the tensions in democracy, but I like to think it is still driven by the main theme of the blog – questions about life, faith and values, about how we decide what is important in our lives. Because if politics is about how we use the powers of government and make decisions as a collective, it is not that easy to separate it from my topic. Personally, I have always seen some sort of political engagement as being part of my values – at a very minimum exercising my vote in accordance with those values and contributing to our debates. But, until last June, I had not joined a political party or engaged as an activist of any sort.

And maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe too many of us took for granted that our values would always be reflected by governments, at least to an extent that we could live with. But June 23 was a wake-up call. Without wanting to rehearse the Brexit debate, which had many complexities, the most tragic thing about it for me was the belief that complex questions can have a simple answer. We are faced with many serious challenges, from climate change to economic inequality to the de-skilling of jobs. Faced with these challenges, the leaders of the Leave campaign pulled the oldest political trick in the book – they blamed foreigners for our problems. If we can have fewer foreigners coming into the country and less “interference from Brussels”, the belief goes, we will have fewer problems. It is hopelessly misguided, but it is a seductive message and this time it just about worked.

As part of my personal strategy to respond to Brexit, I decided to join the Liberal Democrats, the only wholeheartedly pro-European party and the one most in line with my values, now by some margin. At that stage, my priority was to work together with others to resist in any way we can the increasing intolerance and nationalism in the UK. I thought I could contribute some expertise in social media. But as I attended meetings and got to know more people in the LibDems, I realised something else. Online campaigns and party membership are great, but building sustainable change requires something more. It requires sustained effort over time and it must start at the most local level possible. So, with the elections for Shropshire Council coming up on 4 May, I have applied, and been approved, to stand as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the ward of Belle Vue, the beautiful and lively of suburb of Shrewsbury that I am proud to call home. Shropshire is a Conservative-controlled Council and their values in terms of decision-making, funding, environmental issues, support for the community and other matters do not reflect mine nor, I believe, those of the residents of Belle Vue. With the support of the local LibDems, I will start fighting back here.

None of this is to disparage those who make different political choices – that is a personal matter that each individual must decide. But, for me, the choice in the current political landscape is not even close. I am a patriot who loves Britain, and I strongly believe that we have always been at our best when we have been most international in our outlook, encouraging trade, cultural links and, yes, migration, proclaiming that our key values are tolerance, respect for the individual and for difference, a sense of fair play, pragmatism and compassion. Here, in my corner of Shropshire, I want to try to promote those values in the way we govern ourselves. Because here, in the local issues that directly affect lives and the messy business of decision-making, here is where change can happen.

Experiencing the Death of God

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

“True, every man today who is open to experience knows that God is absent, but only the Christian knows that God is dead, that the death of God is a final and irrevocable event, and that God’s death has actualized in our history a new and liberated humanity.” Thomas J.J Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism

The theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins is currently running a series of online seminars which I highly recommend, explaining his project of pyrotheology, taking questions, and following up with an online discussion group. Listening to the second seminar, I could feel a couple of things falling into place for me, which I will share in case they do for you too.

Rollins opened the seminar with Nietzsche’s famous parable of the madman, one of the key foundation texts of the radical theology movement. There is an important detail in the opening, quoted above. The people the madman addresses are not the devout ones, who we would expect to be deeply shocked by his views. Rather, most of the audience do not believe in God, they are the urban sophisticates, the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of their day. We can hear their rather embarrassed laughter at this fool banging on about a God who has surely for all practical purposes been left behind. The madman, and Nietzsche, are not addressing themselves to believers but to unbelievers.

Why is this? Why does this proclamation of the Death of God matter to a world in which, as Nietzsche so clearly foresaw, God is becoming less and less relevant? This made more sense to me in the light of a distinction Rollins makes – the madman has experienced a loss of connection with meaning and knows how painful this, whereas his critics, even though they disavow belief in God, still cling on to an assumption that there is a cosmic order of some sort. Their God has simply changed name, whereas the madman’s God is dead. Put another way the death of God is not an intellectual experience but an existential one.

What does this mean? It means that belief in a supernatural Deity is intellectually untenable for many, perhaps most, modern Westerners. But often, the Deity is replaced by some other way of thinking about cosmic order. I have previously commented on the number of people who seem to think that “Things happen for a reason”. Others might think of human reason, or the scientific principle, or the progress of civilization, making money, or even having fun as giving order and meaning to life. What has happened in this situation is that one Deity has been swapped for another – possibly for a less harmful Deity, but another Deity nonetheless. In Keep The Aspidistra Flying, written in 1936, George Orwell satirised the “money-god” almost universally worshipped in his society. It is hard to argue too much in that respect has changed since.

So this is where Christianity has something to say to us. At the very centre of the Christian religion we have a person, who in some way is himself God, hanging on a cross being tortured and crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15, 34 & Matthew 27, 46). The essence of Christianity is separation from God, and from all source of meaning. And this is not just something we can accept as a proposition. It is something we experience, maybe when we go through painful loss or bereavement, disability, redundancy, or something we have worked hard for being destroyed or taken away. As we rage, we can know that God, and any idea of transcendent meaning, is truly dead.

At such times it is tempting to rationalise these things, to think that we are being made a better person or being tested by them. Such explanations are occasionally examined in the Bible but are ultimately rejected. Accept there is no meaning, no transcendence and no guarantees, grieve for them however you must. But the story doesn’t quite end there. The resurrection accounts are confused but, after the death of God, it is very clear what represents him in the world – “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4, 7-8) or, as Kahlil Gibran put it more poetically,

“And if you would know God, be not therefore a solver of riddles.
Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.”

God is dead and we only have each other now to depend on. If we experience the death of God, of transcendent meaning, then we can understand that all we have left is to love each other as best we can. And that, my friends, is the good news.

The will of the people and the democracy to come

“Historically, fascist and Nazi totalitarianisms ascended to power through formally normal and formally democratic electoral processes. . . The aporia in its general form has to do with freedom itself: must a democracy leave free and in a position to exercise power those who risk mounting an assault on democratic freedoms and putting an end to democratic freedom in the name of democracy and of the majority that might actually be able to rally around to their cause? . . . When assured of a numerical majority, the worst enemies of democratic freedom can, by a plausible rhetorical simulacrum . . . present themselves as staunch democrats.” Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason

This is not intended to be a political blog, but it does stray there sometimes, and politics is hard to avoid at the moment. Current events are forcing us to reconsider the nature of our nation, our democracy, our allegiances, and that in itself may not be a bad thing. And as a contributor to our rethinking I would like to invoke Jacques Derrida. As an Algerian Jew who became a French philosopher and a world-famous intellectual, he may be about as much out of fashion as is possible. Nevertheless, I am finding some of his ideas resonating in the current political climate.

Derrida is a notoriously complex thinker, but one of his more accessible ideas, at least in part, is that of the “democracy to come”. When Derrida speaks of things “to come” (à venir), he does not mean that they will happen in the future but is rather highlighting their impossibility. They are things we can and should strive for, work towards, but in the knowledge that they are never fully achievable. In particular, democracy, he argues, is fundamentally incompatible with sovereignty. Sovereignty is about the unfettered exercise of power, but in a democracy this cannot happen because decisions must be discussed and approved. But then to carry them out requires sovereignty again. The tension between the two ensures that we will never be able to say that we have a democracy and, as the quote above notes, there is always a risk that anti-democrats will achieve power by democratic means. There will be an ongoing restlessness that will make us critique the democracy we have and should spur us on to create something better. And voting, while an essential aspect of a democracy, is only one aspect and not the last word.

This is important to consider when politicians invoke “the will of the people” as a sovereign entity. The phrase is being used now more than I can ever remember and seems to be a device for short-circuiting the tension between democracy and sovereignty. The government is justified in doing what it does because “the will of the people” is behind it. Actually, if by this we mean the result of the referendum, then “the will of the people” must be interpreted extremely narrowly. On one day last June, a narrow majority of those who voted voted to leave rather than remain in the European Union. That is all we can say. There was nothing on the ballot paper about the Single Market, immigration, trade deals, the European Court of Human Rights or any of the other issues that have become caught up in the debate. Politicians who invoke “the will of the people” to justify positions on these issues are at best avoiding their decision-making responsibilities, at worst downright deceitful.

Because Derrida teaches us that solving the tensions in democracy by one particular tool, in this case the referendum, does not work. Referenda are not necessarily bad and may have a role, but they are simply one part of the messy, imperfect, political process. Being aware of the “democracy to come” should make us very suspicious of those who treat one part of the political process as absolute. The results of referenda or even elections are important, but they do not give politicians the automatic right to override other parts of the process, whether the law courts, the press, regional authorities or legislatures. Democracy is a process and all these things are part of it. It is not an end state which we have arrived at.

The idea of democracy to come is not meant to make us despair of the democracy we have. On the contrary, the imperfectibility of democracy is a cause for hope, the tensions keeping it constantly open to the possibility of change. But there is no reason for assuming that the change will be for the better – it is squarely up to us to decide that, not just in our voting but our political engagement and activism. The next few years are very uncertain for the UK and decisions taken will have a significant impact on what sort of country we become. This is no time for cynicism or despair, but a time to get involved, whatever form that takes.

Even if we can’t find heaven: love in a post-truth world

“When someone wants to tell me the absolute truth it is because he wants to put me under his control, under his command.” Gianni Vattimo After the Death of God

“Oh, truth—I guess truth is what you believe in
And faith—I think faith is having a reason” lyrics to “Stand by You”, by Rachel Platten

The parallels may not seem obvious. On the one hand we have an eminent Italian philosopher in his eighties, a Marxist and a Catholic who proclaims the death of God. On the other hand, we have an American singer-songwriter in her thirties, who happens to be Jewish and best known for upbeat rock anthems with a bit of personal bite. But what I find so intriguing are the similarities in the messages they proclaim.

Vattimo draws a contrast between Dostoevsky, who said that if forced to choose between Christ and truth he would choose Christ, and Aristotle, who said that Plato was his friend but truth a greater friend. Tyrants, he points out, have always been on the side of Aristotle, willing to trample over all relationships and human wellbeing in the interests of what they see as the truth. This issue has become very urgent in our current “post-truth” era, where it is more obvious than ever that different groups within society have very different, competing versions of the truth. As someone who works in education, and believes in its power to change lives, I like to emphasise the value of evidence and logic to arrive at some form of truth. This approach is extremely valuable and has led to extraordinary advances in science and human wellbeing. But, painful though it is for me to admit it, it has its limitations. Evidence rarely leads directly to conclusions – it usually requires interpretation. It also requires some form of consensus about what constitutes valid evidence. Within quite narrow confines where these things are established, such as empirical science, academic debate or courts of law, this works quite well. But in wider public debates it carries problems.

In 2016 those problems became painfully apparent, especially with the British vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US president, both strongly against conventional wisdom and the views of nearly all those in both countries who considered themselves to be opinion-formers. One way of interpreting both movements is a rebellion by those who considered that the truth as they saw it had been suppressed and ignored for a long time. Both votes were characterised by a debate that did not take place at a level of evidence and rational argument but howling slogans at each other and a frightening level of personal abuse. To use my earlier language, there is no consensus on what constitutes valid evidence, so arriving at an agreed truth is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Indeed, to use Vattimo’s insight, the really scary thing about the “post-truth” era is not so much lying and misinformation – we have always had those – but the denial of the validity of alternative viewpoints. When the Daily Mail proclaimed three High Court judges as “Enemies of the People” they were claiming a unique insight into the interests of “the people” and implying that anyone resisting this interpretation of “the people”‘s views needed to be silenced or removed. The Nazi echos of this headline were commented on at the time.

So this is what brings me to consider the argument put forward by Vattimo and Platten. The ability of truth to guide us may have been weakened, so what can we use? At this point I would like to join Shakespeare to my argument, and quote what for me is the most powerful and harrowing scene ever put on the stage. At the close of King Lear, the mad, homeless, broken king is restored to the daughter whom he rejected and sent away.

Lear: Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
Cordelia: And so I am, I am.
Lear: Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.

Cordelia is of course dead wrong – she has every cause not to love her stupid, headstrong, pompous and selfish father. But she does not at this point value truth. Instead, in a Christlike gesture, she forgives him. This actually is a repeated theme in Shakespeare – Portia eloquently advocates for mercy and Prospero ends up forgiving those who tried to kill him and his daughter. Conversely, failure to forgive leads to dire consequences – consider the pointless body counts in Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth.

The message is pretty clear and is echoed in the chorus of “Stand by You”, which takes on heavy echoes of gospel music:

“Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you”

I find this a beautiful poetic summary of what I am trying to say here. I certainly don’t think we will ever “find heaven”, or for that matter, absolute truth, in this life or the next – all we have is this world and the people in it. But what we can do is “walk through Hell” with each other, showing support, solidarity and yes, love. Rather than focusing on power and trying to prove ourselves “right”, or impose our views on others, maybe we can make more effort to “stand by” each other. Without compromising our views, maybe we could use a bit more kindness and forgiveness in our public debates. Because after all, what is the alternative?