The Jesus problem
The newest view of Christ-activist, politician, not very Christian-is hard to square with the Bible's. Now some believers even say the faith might be better off without him.
BRIAN BETHUNE | March 19, 2008 |
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"Whom do men say that I am?" Jesus's own query to his disciples, asked in the oldest Gospel (Mark 8:27), has always been the ultimate question of the faith founded in his name. The answer has determined everything from core doctrine to the authority of the clergy. Even during his lifetime, Jesus's followers had differing answers: he was a rabbi with a new approach to Jewish law; he was the rightful claimant to the throne of David. After his death, it took more than three centuries of often violent contention, suppression, and historical contingency before answers emerged that still deï¬ne mainline Christianity: Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God and the Virgin Mary, both fully divine and fully human; cruciï¬ed for our sins, he rose from the dead and will come again to judge humanity. Orthodoxy's victory has never been ï¬nal, or else there would never have been an Inquisition. Still, reinforced by church and state, and by belief in the New Testament as an exact account of events (the "Gospel truth"), the concept of the divine Christ, our Lord and saviour, became embedded in Western civilization.
That legacy still dominates Western responses to Jesus today, affecting not just what the faithful proclaim, but the attitudes of Jesus's secular admirers. But over the past century, historians, archaeologists, textual and linguistic scholars in a steadily more secular West, unable to accept the miracle-working Christ of tradition, have uncovered the all-too-human way in which early Christians hammered out their dogma and holy scripture, recovered startlingly unfamiliar texts — such as the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, in 2006 — held dear by the losers in the long-ago orthodoxy wars, and arrived at new interpretations of Jesus based on the context of his life, his essential Jewishness and the socio-political unrest of ï¬rst-century Palestine.
For large swaths of the devout, little has changed. Fundamentalist Protestant churches — so-called because of their fundamental principles, one of which is insistence that the whole of the Bible is the literal word of God — looked hard at what was happening in the modern world and refused to yield an inch to modern science or Biblical scholarship. Other churches, like the Orthodox or Roman Catholic, who possess a body of tradition to buttress their scriptures, are open to viewing, and reviewing, parts of the Bible — particularly in the Old Testament — while holding fast to the divine Christ of the New Testament. Their Christ too remains an exalted ï¬gure; as does, ironically, the Jesus envisaged by so many scholars: Biblical experts have tended to feel (as much as think) that Jesus must have been a great moral teacher — and even a pioneering feminist — so incandescently holy that some of his disciples turned him into a god.
In Vancouver writer (and Greenpeace International co-founder) Rex Weyler's new survey of the latest research, The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message (Anansi), for instance, Christ emerges as a revolutionary sage, a man for the ages whose "words and deeds are sublime." Even in How Jesus Became a Christian (Random House), by Barrie Wilson, a religious studies professor at Toronto's York University — which is primarily concerned with arguing that St. Paul and later "Christiï¬ers" hijacked Jesus the Jewish rabbi through a campaign of anti-Semitism — Jesus still emerges as "a teacher of great insight."
But despite the common celebration of Jesus Christ, a chasm exists between the devout followers of the divine Christ and the seekers of the Jesus of history. Into that chasm falls the liberal church, according to Gretta Vosper, author of With or Without God (HarperCollins), a passionately argued case for a post-Christian church. Vosper is pastor of West Hill United Church in suburban Toronto and a leading Canadian voice in progressive Christianity, on the radical edge of what is already the most liberal denomination in Canada. The liberal Christian church, Vosper writes, is the original wellspring of the recent tradition-destroying Biblical scholarship, and it's liberal churches that have wrestled most painfully and — in a very real sense — least successfully with the implications of its discoveries.