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Can Christianity Rise from the Dead?

Text: Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. pp. 398-399

I have just returned from the Jesus Seminar in California. The Seminar has been at work for 11 years, scrutinizing the gospels, deciding what the historical Jesus really said and did, and what is legend and embellishment. Now that's done, and Bob Funk, the founder of the Seminar, announced a new phase of the Seminar's work. From now on it will become a theological think tank dedicated to revising and restoring Christianity.

Funk told how he has met a great number of people during his travels lecturing for the Jesus Seminar, and these people he called "Catacomb Questers." In other words, these are people who are hanging on in the mainline churches and, I guess, in fundamentalism, but who have long harbored doubts about the accuracy of the gospels, about the traditional dogmas and morals of Christianity. These were not rejecters of Christianity, but unrequited lovers of it. They were the loyal opposition but dared not challenge the party line.

Funk said that the mass of catacomb questers he met seemed to see new hope in the Jesus Seminar to free Jesus from Christianity. It was for them, he said, that he wanted to salvage Christianity. He thinks they're right. And what are they right about? Funk thinks they are right in believing that what must be rejected is not the Christian faith but its long captivity by the Establishment, by the Grand Inquisitor. To reject the religion about Jesus in favor of the religion of Jesus.

He would displace Jesus from the center of the Christian cosmos, a place that Jesus himself could never have wanted anyway. After all, he said, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." "He who believes in me believes not in me, but in him who sent me." "He deemed not equality with God a thing to be grasped." So Funk says the new Christianity would not view Jesus as the focus of spirituality. Rather, we would want to look with Jesus in order to see that which so excited him.

Here are a few of the implications as Funk laid them out. There would be no more legalism. On the classic litmus test for situation ethics, Funk said the new, or renewed, religion of Jesus would not condemn recreational sex between responsible adults.

There would be no dogma at all. Orthopraxy would replace orthodoxy. And what would that praxis be? It would be service to the poor, egalitarianism among all races, genders, etc. It would welcome the dissidents and deviants, the unrespectable, all the more since Jesus himself was regarded as a radical and a deviant. "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, what will they say of his servants? The disciple is not above his teacher, neither is a slave greater than his master."

Jesus will be deemed a man, a real human being, not a god masquerading as one. His divinity, as Scheler said, removed from us the burden of bearing his cross. We decided to forego the attempt to follow Jesus--because what would be the point? He did what he did because he was a god! All Christians have to do is to rest in the arms of Mother Church, even if those arms are in the shape of a full nelson!

Funk has tried to make the original, the shocking Jesus of Nazareth --and his challenge-- available again. And he would unleash Jesus to make his summons and he would make it just as challenging, just as difficult, and just as bewitching and beguiling as it was to those who first heard it in Galilee. He is sure that the searching Christians in the churchly catacombs are eager to hear that challenge again-like the Theravada Buddhists who had abandoned any prospect of ever hearing the saving truth from the degenerate Buddhism of their age, and who hoped instead to be there one day when a new Buddha, Maitreya, would appear on earth to make the true dharma available again.

In a sense, then, Funk is trying to arrange for the second coming of Christ, the retrieval of the first coming of Jesus of Nazareth which was so quickly obscured by the Church which imprisoned him for ages and ages, like Nelson Mandela languishing in the jails of South Africa. But now Funk means to free him from that entombment. It will be a resurrection. And Funk says to the questers, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?" He is not to be found in the church. "Come out from among them, my people!"

Funk will reorganize the Jesus Seminar to sift critically through the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the others. Of course, this will mean a simple rejection of them, maybe a kind of parody in which all the heresies of yesterday become the critical orthodoxy of today.

He will redo the canon of scripture, add, I'm sure, the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and others. He will trim anti-Semitic passages from John and Matthew, misogynist texts from Paul. There will be a new Bible. It will be sold and bought, and this will be the greatest single result of the Seminar's work. The market will bear what the magisterium will not. No matter the impotent sputterings of the guardians of orthodoxy, a growing number of people will in fact switch to this Bible and the Christianity for which it will have been tailored.

This is a bold enterprise. For many it will only serve to confirm their suspicions that the Jesus Seminar was never really a group of objective researchers, but really a liberal theological clique of self-appointed censors for the gospels, razor-blading what they did not like there. And I fear this is correct, even though I agree with many of the decisions of the Seminar, having voted on them. But many are way too traditional and credulous for me. I would leave fewer trees standing that they do.

Funk and the Jesus Seminar will try to reform Christianity in light of what they believe to be scientific study of the gospels. But I suspect their sculpture of the historical Jesus was in large measure dictated by what they already believed in terms of social ethics, liberal theology, and demythologizing. In this they sought not to deceive anyone, but they did deceive themselves.

But Funk's agenda is not without precedent or contemporary parallel. What he proposes is quite close to what Anglican radical Don Cupitt advocates in his Radicals and the Future of the Church. The left-wing caucuses of the mainline churches are already saying the same thing, especially the feminists. But you have to go back further than that. Funk is really trying to re-live the liberal Protestant theology of the 19th and 20th century liberals like Harnack and Ritschl. They, too, quested for the historical Jesus, in order to use him as a fulcrum to tip over the heavy edifice of oppressive orthodoxy. Jesus was the figurehead for their Argonaut ship as they sailed to gain the Golden Fleece of Modernism.

All the scholarly questers for the historical Jesus were, as George Tyrell said, like a man looking down a deep well, seeing a face at the bottom and thinking it was a man down there who needed to be rescued. But when he climbed down, he discovered the face was simply his own, reflected off the water. And, what do you know, the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar, is pretty much the Jesus of Politically Correct Radical Liberals like Dom Crossan, Richard Horsley, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.

It is a Jesus who is seen as a Cynic sage like Diogenes and Demonax, a Jewish Socrates, a Hebrew Zen master. This portrait comes fairly easily: all you have to do is to reject much of the evidence as spurious (which I would do, too), and them impose the picture of an ancient Cynic philosopher on what's left. And it seems to fit. But then from this they shift subtly to a Jesus as first-century Gandhi, a first-century E.F. Schumacher. An economic and social reformer. This is a chic Jesus, too good to be true. He fits too well the predilections of the age.

And one cannot help suspecting that he has been made to order, made to buttress the claims of Liberal Protestantism by means of a covert retreat to fundamentalist proof-texting. "The historical Jesus is on our side, not yours!" Only a fundie would be won over by such a claim, and what's more, only a fundie could make such a claim!

The result of such exegesis of the gospels is what the feminists call, in a piety of jaded opportunism, "a useable Jesus." In my view this is all a blatant case of confusing the reader's response with the author's intent. "This is what I think of when I read the gospels, most likely because of the lenses through which I read them, but I'm going to assume that Jesus wanted me to get exactly that out of it. Thus Jesus thought like I think. He's as smart as me." Hermeneutical ventriloquism. It is what the New Critics called the Affective Fallacy. This Jesus is an anachronism. It is all quite similar to the fundamentalist attempt to make it look like Jesus already knew that the earth was round.

And the new Christianity of Funk is already repeating the most egregious self-delusions of the old Liberal Protestantism. It pretended to make Jesus a prophet of truth. But then they would have done what Socrates told his followers, "Think not of Socrates, but think of the truth." Instead, Liberalism became a pathetic hero-cult of a human Jesus. At least it made sense to worship a divine Christ. But once we realize he was not divine, is not divine, we cannot worship him.

This was the point over which David Ferencz was left to die in the dungeon. Fellow Unitarians threw him to the wolves because he dared to point out the obvious: if you no longer believed Jesus to be God, then it would be idolatry to pray to him! But Liberalism still worships him. It is a fan club for Jesus, essentially no different from Bob Swersky and the Superfans. Jesus as Ditka. Jesus as Elvis. Jesus as the Grateful Dead and Resurrected.

Why is it that we must strive to see what it was that Jesus saw? Why not what Gotama saw? What Lao-tze saw? Bodhidharma? What we have here is fan worship, mimetic modeling, such as Girard describes. We admire someone and try to be like him. We begin to espouse his ideas, to want what he has, to want what he wants. And we want it not because it has inherent value to us, but just because our model wants it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Thus Jesus Seminar Christianity, Liberal Protestantism, wants to see what Jesus saw because Jesus saw it. They want to follow Jesus' path--simply because it is Jesus' path. Like fans of a movie star who travel all the way to that Chinese Theatre in Hollywood to see their idol's footprints in the sidewalk. They are tagging along with Jesus for Jesus' sake, not for the sake of some truth he supposedly espoused. As Jesus hero-worshippers, they are more traditionally Christian than they know.

This is the point Theodore Parker and, later, Kenneth Patton saw. If Jesus' example really sparks your imagination, you will not hang upon his every word. No, you will do what he did--enter the wilderness to find your own truth and then come back out and start living it.

We can trace the same progression in the history of Buddhism. First there are the Theravadins who take the Buddha's word as their rule. We will do what he said to do, and we will be saved. Then there is the Mahayana school. They said, no, we must not just do what the Buddha said; we must do what the Buddha did: become Buddhas ourselves, so as to live for the salvation of all beings. But what you did to become a Buddha was to repeat step by step what legend says Gotama did to become a Buddha.

The third step, in my opinion, is to be found in Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, in which a young man encounters the Buddha and is quite impressed by him, but decides not to join the company of his disciples. He sees that what the Buddha did was not to accept the way of another, of some expert or guru, but rather to break his own path. And that is what, inspired by the Buddha he must do. Hesse has the character called Siddhartha, the same first name as Siddhartha Gotama the Buddha, because he wants to say, this is how to follow the Buddha--not to follow him or anyone else!

Even so, Parker, Patton, and the Universalists saw it was time to break their child-like attachment to Jesus if they ever want to mature spiritually. And they did. Universalism today gives Jesus first place in our Valhalla of revered guides and mentors. But Gotama is there, too, and so is Muhammad, Lao-tze, Akhenaton, Meister Eckhardt. And we are going our own way. If we decide to be politically correct or politically incorrect, we need not reshape Jesus into our image in order to legitimate it. We do not draw up a new Bible, because no book can any more be for us an authority like the Bible was for traditional Christianity--not an old one, not a new one. We will argue our case on its own merits, not take refuge under the banner of "biblical authority," as if to short-circuit all debate by pulling rank.

I agree with Bob Funk that traditional Christianity, whether in its Catholic, Mainstream Protestant, or Fundamentalist versions, is both absurd and pernicious. It is simply a false religion. Funk prefaced his talk with the comment that though some may not think Christianity worth saving, he thinks it is worth a try. There I do not agree. When the result promises to be so drastically different from anything which bore the name Christian before, is it significant to create something new and just put the old label on it? Wouldn't that be just another sneaky appeal to the imagined authority of an ancient pedigree, as when the nobles of Paris used to claim descent from the kings of ancient Troy? You only need credentials when you don't have anything more tangible going for you. Like in the movie Animal House, when poor Flounder only gets into the fraternity as a "legacy," i.e., only because his older brother had been a member, not because he himself had anything in particular to recommend him.

What would be the benefit, the advantage, to claiming still to be Christians of a sort? Only that it would make the transition to a new faith a bit less painful for many of these "catacomb questers" who still have a sentimental attachment to Jesus. And that includes Funk himself. Personally, this is what I love about Universalism: it does not reject Jesus but transcends him. For us, as Don Cupitt says, "Christianity is our Old Testament." It is still an important reference point. We cannot escape, and do not particularly want to escape, its mythic language. But we are into the next stage. Christianity grew out of Judaism but then transcended it and became something else. Islam grew out of Christianity, then transcended it to become something else. The Baha'i Faith grew from Islam, transcended it and became something new. So with us.

The Soviets, as you know, closed down the churches and made them into museums. But it seems to me that the churches had already done it to themselves! They are storehouses of antiquities: fossil doctrines, outmoded morals, wax statues of dead gods, musty treasuries of superstitions and theological boogeymen. And I want some fresh air. How about you?

Robert M. Price
November 4, 1995

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