The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith: Need There Be a Conflict?

Ian Harris responds to Noel Cheer's critique of the second part of his book "Creating God, Re-Creating Christ", which appeared in the December Newsletter.
I am grateful for Noel Cheer's critique of my attempt to rethink the Christian faith heritage and tease out its positive potential for the world as we know it today. This is a task which seems to me to lie within the parameters of the Sea of Faith Network, in so far as it is intent on exploring the possibilities of faith for the new century.
Obviously enough, rethinking the Christian heritage does not mean jettisoning everything that has been of value in the past. If we can get to the core of the tradition that has been instrumental in shaping the modern world view, and can find new ways of experiencing it, perhaps we shall find to our surprise that there is much that can be carried forward not only with integrity, but even with excitement. That may or may not involve certain sections of the institutional church. It will certainly mean people gathering and exploring a way forward in local faith communities. And it will involve more than endless talk: it will mean action, including the creation of new liturgies reflecting our own world view and faith experience — but that is another topic, and not one for now.
I agree with much of what Noel wrote in the December 2000 issue of this Newsletter. But I would question whether the stark choice he offers between the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar and the Christ of Faith which I begin in the book to explore is the only option the Judaeo-Christian tradition offers. The Jesus Seminar is adding a great deal to our understanding of the historical Jesus; but according to my approach, that is only creating a more certain foundation on which to re-create the Christ of faith. Half a loaf (the Jesus Serninar) is better than no bread — but why set out with a bias that says the whole loaf is not worth baking?
While it is important, as Noel says, to register the contrast between what Jesus proclaimed and the expanding interpretations of his person and work by the early church, it is also worth reflecting on the fact that it was not the historical Jesus but the creative expansion of his life and ministry in the Christ figure that has touched people's imaginations and emotions ever since. From that standpoint the agenda of the Jesus Seminar is scholarly reductionism. Could there be a more creative possibility? I think so. At the very least, I want to keep open the possibility.
By way of illustration, take the story of Christmas. The Jesus Seminar gives the "red" treatment (indicating that the scholars are pretty confident that the events recorded in Matthew and Luke actually happened) to only five details: Jesus was a descendant of Abraham; Joseph was Mary's husband; Mary was Jesus' mother; Jesus was born; they gave him the name Jesus. Wowee! Try writing the Messiah around that!
In our Ephesus group in Wellington we have felt our way in our Christmas liturgies into some of the poetic elaborations of the story — the census, the wise men, the star, the angels. We looked at them closely, concluded we could no longer regard them as actually true, but when we came at them as poetic elaborations, we did not wish to discard them. By trying to experience something of what led to the inclusion of these stories in the gospels, we found there was still a place for them, when viewed from the new perspective.
These, presumably, are among the "shadows" which Noel says the Jesus Seminar is intent to remove. I would suggest that if they enrich and enhance our experience of life in its wholeness — and the imagination is a crucial faculty for that — then they can still serve a positive religious purpose.
In my book I suggest that the continuity of religion lies in the realm of experience (which I locate wholly within human experience, without recourse to any supernatural dimension, because that is the framework within which we experience reality today); and that from within that secular world view we are as free to express (or re-express) the core Christian tradition as were Matthew, Mark and Luke for the Jewish setting, and Paul and John for the Greek. Noel says, quite correctly, that I "would have us learn from and then copy the gospel writers (and Paul)". However, I would want to clarify that I am talking about following their process, not copying their conclusions. The process requires us to engage with the core tradition from the standpoint and in the full integrity of our modern secular culture.
For we are secular people. We have a world view which has developed over the past 400 years and which is quite different from the world view of the Jews in Jesus' time or of the Greeks in the first few centuries of the church, or of the Middle Ages, or of the Protestant Reformation. There is no longer any authority or institution or confessional system capable of imposing a religious template on society. But still the search for meaning goes on and with it, for many, a yearning for experiences of wholeness, acceptance, worth and purpose which were once (and for some people still are) the province of worship.
I am intrigued by Noel's discussion of myth. I agree that identifying a myth as such robs it of some of its authority. But that is not to say it robs it of its truth (that is, the truth in the story, as opposed to the truth of the story). Any insight that throws light on the human condition and the possibilities of Godness in life and life in Godness seems worth having, whatever its garb. If a myth illuminates our daily living, that is enough to value it. I don't see any need to go on to "submit" to a myth.
As for a group sitting down and "inventing, in committee as it were, a myth", I confess that that had never occurred to me. Nor had the prospect of coercion to impose it on other people. This is one of a number of comments where Noel seems to have resorted to the old debating trick of dragging in things which are not part of my thinking and then proceeding to shoot them down as if they were.
The real problem with the Christ myth is that people bring to it so many preconceptions, many of them taught explicity or taken for granted by the church, that it takes a considerable effort to approach it with an open mind, looking for what it could convey in the modern, non-supernatural secular world. But that is precisely the challenge. Exploring it in its many dimensions should be what Christian churches are all about. On pages 90-91 I suggest only the starting flickers: the rest is to be tease out, experimented with, added to, subtracted from, experienced liturgically over time by those who think the task worthwhile.
I certainly do. And since this fundamental faith (that is, fundamental to the Christian tradition) seems too fraught for the churches to handle, it will have to be done on their margins or beyond them.
This is actually not a novel idea. People's understanding of Christ has taken a variety of forms and emphases over the centuries, as James Stuart sketched in his book The Many Faces of Christ (St Andrew's Trust, $10). They evolved in their own time and place and in their own way, often with a formidable authority structure undergirding them. There is, thankfully, no civil or ecclesiastical authority capable of imposing anything parallel in New Zealand today. The question now is whether it is possible to open up a new way of relating to the Christ — which is not the same thing as relating to the historical Jesus — that enables people of the 21st century to experience in our way, and in the world as we understand it to be, what people of earlier ages experienced in their way, and in a world whose fundamental nature they understood so differently.
Of course, as Noel implies, it is possible to dispense with the old myths that inform the Judaeo-Christian tradition. To those who want to go down that track, good luck. But it does not seem to me necessary to send the Judaeo-Christian vehicle to the scrapheap just because we don't like a lot of the baggage that has been piled on top of it. My preference for working out of the depth of that tradition is not because it is "uniquely able to provide us with a revisable substrate on which to write", but because it is the one which has shaped the culture of the West and me with it, which has provided the crucible for the modern world to emerge, and which has proved highly adaptable over centuries. From a purely practical point of view, starting from somewhere familiar must have some advantages. Even the Sea of Faith Network says in its statement that it "draws freely upon our spiritual heritage without being bound by it". I am pleased that towards the end of his critique Noel cites the need to go beyond certain traditional images of God. That, in part, is what the first half of the book (Creating God) is all about. Nor do I have any problem with his suggestion that the Christ image — or should be — inclusive. For me the invitation is to dig deep and follow the process, and not feel bound by other people's preconceptions about what "the rather nebulous entity called 'Christianity'" has to be. That includes even Noel's preconceptions, not to mention those of the Jesus Seminar.
One last point. Noel implies from time to time that I see the Christian path to Godness in life and life in Godness to be superior to any other, despite my disavowal of that in the book. What I do believe is that if Christian faith and experience can be radically re-imagined along the lines sketched in mybook, it can be both a valid path and, especially for westerners, a culturally congenial one.
Creating God, Re-Creating Christ is available from St Andrew's Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, Box 5203, Wellington, for $12.95 plus $2 postage and packaging. It has also been reviewed by John Bluck.



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