Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Historical Jesus: Symbol of Human Liberation

On the High Road to Taos
Last week, Palm Sunday, I related anecdotes from a 1995 sabbatical road trip I framed during the Season of Lent.  My study theme, to justify my peripatetic idleness, involved a search of Religion in America.  I kept a log of my experiences trekking from New Orleans during Mardi Gras to Chimayo, New Mexico, where I visited the celebrated Sanctuary, the “Lourdes of America,” on Good Friday.  (Part of my discipline was to write daily.)  From that journal, I have an unpublished manuscript titled The Quest for the Light Green, Glow in the Dark, Plastic Jesus

The title references a doleful Cajun man in an electric blue jumpsuit, with raccoon eyes and deeply tanned skin, enveloped in a cloud of pipe tobacco smoke, whose handiwork I found in his wife’s second store in New Iberia, Louisiana.  He had a story, a scheme, and a design for making crosses from native wood gathered in nearby swamps.  He asserted he was on a mission of God.  He maintained that Providence guided his work.  And after he learned of my road trip, he declared I was a divinely sent emissary to locate what he needed to complete his project:  light green plastic glow in the dark corpora. [These were the innocent days before the Internet. Now a Google search results almost immediately in an outpouring of corpora, including the phosphorescent sort my acquaintance sought.]

A focus of my journey was New Mexico, the High Road to Taos along the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I hoped to experience the remnants of the Penitentes, the secular brotherhood that arose in territorial times when Spain lost control of these northern settlements during an Indian uprising.  The laity formed a brotherhood of mutual exhortation, when there were no priests.  The brotherhood gathered small groups and built their own stark meeting houses, known as moradas.  Much of the secret activity in the moradas reached a high tide during Holy Week.  They flagellated themselves with yucca whips as penance and even staged mock crucifixions during which some brothers may have died.  (The novel Brave New World has images of Penitente behavior and the hero John‘s demise echoes Penitente self-flagellation and sacrifice.)

In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains I found active Penitente activity that culminated in a small town on the East side of the mountains, near the source of the Pecos River, Anton de Chico, where I went for a Good Friday service at the traditional three o’clock hour.  I found the church empty, the town, too.  However, I discovered that the townspeople were processing to a morada on the outside of town—a genuine Penitente procession.  Witnessing this phenomenon made my trek a success.

Earlier on that Good Friday I crossed from the west to the east side of the Sangre de Cristos.  At the top of the pass between the two sides, I was listening to NPR’s Terry Gross of Fresh Air.  She was interviewing my favorite theologian of the day John Dominic Crossan of DePaul.  He was talking about his new biography of Jesus that resulted from his association with the monumental Jesus Project of the 1980s.  I will not forget the final question Ms. Gross asked Crossan, a priest who had left his order and married.  “And where will you go to Church on Easter Sunday?”  Crossan didn’t hesitate, “I don’t go to church anymore.  I prefer not to get upset by what’s spoken from the pulpit.”

That was one of my truly unexpected perfect days.
As most of you know I grew up nominally Catholic in the 1950s in a rather sterile star-up parish in suburban Wilmington DE, around the corner from a large Unitarian Church. There wasn’t much that engaged me as a Catholic youth. What I knew about Jesus came from the mass’s weekly New Testament reading, often from a gospel, and from the homilies that the priests quickly dispensed with, even when trying to make transparent the parables that Jesus often spoke.

When I decided to become a Unitarian minister in 1970, I reckoned I should at least read the Bible.  I bought a fat Oxford annotated edition of the Old and New Testaments before leaving Burlington VT and UVM’s graduate school, where I studied history. I intended to read it from Genesis to Revelations. I vaguely remember trying to comprehend it while sunbathing on a Canadian beach the year before I made my great leap of faith and attended the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal.  The little of the Bible I managed to consume without assistance made scant sense.

At McGill, I learned the rudiments of traditional Protestant ologies and isms, including Christology—the nature and meaning of Jesus.  I did well in these academic studies, maybe because I didn’t have a dog in the fight, as did my more traditionally churched classmates who had their creeds and beliefs challenged by a purely scholarly approach to scripture and doctrine.

Simultaneously, I was reading up on Unitarianism and Universalism, particularly Unitarianism.

Albert Schweitzer and The Quest

From the academic side, Albert Schweitzer’s epic study The Quest of the Historical Jesus had great influence on me.  Schweitzer was an eminent theologian of the turn of the century era.  He declared that what is now called the “first quest for the historical Jesus” beginning in the 18th century, had reached its limits, because nineteenth century scholars had exhausted evidence of the biblical materials.  I quickly surmised that the Unitarian point of view that emerged in the early 19th century was influenced by an historical understanding of Jesus, an aspect of what Schweitzer call at the end of the century “the historical quest of Jesus.).

Schweitzer’s conclusion considered Jesus’s point of view as apocalyptic and the resulting ethic he preached was therefore an interim ethic for his immediate generation. In his own life, Schweitzer left a brilliant career in theology and became a physician attending natives as a medical missionary in French Equatorial Africa.  Schweitzer’s work reflected the reality of helping to save a world without.)

As a fledgling “theolog” my earlier impression of Jesus incorporated a large piece of Schweitzer’s outlook.  (I began to think Jesus’ ethic as purified because of an anticipated imminent end.)  In particular, I maintained that Jesus must be seen in light of Jesus’s clear contention that the world would soon end.  (This was also the message of John the Baptist.) Jesus’s message, as well as his demanding ethic, wasn’t well-suited for later generations.

Unitarianism Reforms Jesus

Around the same time, my Unitarian and Universalist ramblings began a study of rational, foundational assertions of our founders at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. These formative thinkers found that there no Doctrine of a Trinity in the Bible, therefore Jesus, though inspired, perhaps divinely, was not God. (Hence the moniker Unitarian.)  I encountered the significant, original texts of Unitarianism’s great three founders: Channing, Emerson, and Parker, c. 1820-1850.

William Ellery Channing, recognized as the founder/voice of early Unitarianism, offered this portrait of Jesus as summarized by a current scholar of New England Transcendentalism, Robert Michael Ruehl:   “His message was not new; he was communicating the truth of God, which had been around from the beginning of creation. Jesus had another mission in this world besides the articulation of God's divine truth; his mission was to model a godly life. He was a role model for the entire world who was disclosing how people should live their life with love and compassion.  In this way, Christ's example passed on to the rest of the world the need to take seriously our predicament and the need to alter our lives. Christ, for Channing, was a role model who revealed a morally flawless life that urged people to morally perfect their own life through their free choice.”  Channing’s Jesus was a moral exemplar and a practical inspiration, the shining example of salvation b character.

“Jesus, then, is a means to an end. People need to give their allegiance to Jesus in order to follow his example. By following this example, we paradoxically will go beyond Jesus by becoming more Christ like. In other words, the more people strive to follow the example of Jesus, the more they will cultivate the divine likeness within themselves. This will bring them closer to God. By perpetually becoming closer to God, the centrality of Christ diminishes.”

The Transcendentalist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker took Channing’s notion of Jesus’s divine likeness even farther in a famous 1842 sermon” The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.”  Parker asserted that the person of Jesus though historical, isn’t essential to Christianity. In that long ago sermon Parker declared that if there had been no Jesus and therefore no Christianity as we have come to know it, still there would be the same absolute religion though but with a different name. The divine presence that is part and parcel of every human being would have found another person or persons to utter selfsame imperatives. This absolute religion, named by some Christianity, is inevitable and universal, for we know it through historical Jesus.  But it is not particular to Jesus, for it is within all souls.  (We just sang a hymn, penned by our founding minister William Channing Gannett:  “It sounds along the ages, soul answering to soul…”)

In his “Divinity School Address,” Emerson expressed the notion of innate divinity, once, perhaps most eloquently; “Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’”

What today we call our first UU principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” echoes the natural revelation Channing, Emerson, and Parker recognized in Jesus. I can draw converging line from then to now.

The Jesus Seminar

Through the mid-1990s I held Jesus to be a moral exemplar, a mythic personification of the notion of divinity: “the best in you and me.”  (Here I nodded to Joseph Campbell’s popular The Power of Myth.) I believed that Jesus had been ravished by a sense of an imminent apocalypse, so his teachings and ethics were rarified—and therefore curiously pure.  Adapting the metaphorical language of this day, Jesus’s teachings and his life represented a “bucket list” outlook—how to behave before the world ends.

My appreciation of Jesus expanded in the 1990’s when I became familiar with the results and findings of what was called the Jesus Seminar—important theologians and philosophers who fueled what is known as the “third quest for the historical Jesus.”  This extraordinary group of scholars proved Schweitzer was wrong nearly a century before, the quest hadn’t been exhausted.  In the final decades of the 20th century, new scholarship, including a storehouse of information from archeology and refined forms of biblical criticism, opened up an unanticipated door of interest in the person Jesus who lived two thousand years ago.  The Jesus Seminar first took upon themselves the task of deciding what could be reasonably attributed to Jesus as authentic utterances and activities from New Testament and extra-Testament source—most notably the Gospel of Thomas. They secretly voted on the authenticity of text and published their results.

Once they reached consensus, the individual participants began to write their interpretations of the historical Jesus.  I remain excited by the new portrait of an historical Jesus that emerged.  I became fond of the works of the previously mentioned John Dominic Crossan, particularly his slim work titled Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography

My favorite takeaways from Crossan’s books involved the significance of the stories regarding the meals that Jesus ate and a related term commensality—the fellowship of the table.  That Jesus sat with women and tax collectors, according to Crossan, indicated the radical egalitarianism that Jesus practiced, breaking down class and status distinctions.  Jesus also sought to tear down all the barriers that stood between an individual and her or his God—unmediated relationships.  (Incidentally, Crossan challenged the Traditional teachings regarding Jesus’s death and resurrection concluding there was no tomb and his physical body may well have been ravaged from a shallow grave by animals.)

The Jesus Seminar’s work, in my estimation, revivified the person of Jesus, consonant with the contentions of our UU tradition, further taking him into contemporary expressions of personal spirituality and social justice, as in liberation theology.  Two millennia after his crucifixion, he remains a revolutionary threat to religious and political realms.  I like what another Chicago philosopher, Thomas Sheehan, then of Loyola and member of the Jesus Seminar, declared in the mid-1980s:  “Jesus is a symbol of human liberation.” 

In what may be my final Easter sermon, I’ve returned to the traditional theme of Jesus, and offered a UU answer to the timeless question Jesus posed to his disciples, according to the Gospel of Mark:  “Who do men say that I am?”

He is a symbol of human liberation, not for some but for all.

To each of you: may you be free enough and open enough and wise enough to encounter the historical Jesus. 

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