Friday, July 25, 2008

The Real Jesus

James Carse, in the Religious Case Against Belief, provides an overview of the 2000 year old attempt to capture the essence of Jesus through creeds, theologies, and historical quests. Here is his 20th century list:
... a world-reforming messenger of the kingdom of God, which he was determined to translate into something resembling a nineteenth-century socialist utopia; a divinely appointed son of the god, who, some six thousand years ago, fashioned the earth in six days then all but destroyed it fifteen hundred years later in a worldwide flood resulting in such phenomena as the Grand Canyon; a mysterious Galilean preacher whose proclamation to the world (or kerygma), although encased in mythic thinking we know now to be false, still causes us to confront our own inauthenticity; a pop icon and rock music sensation as "Superstar"; a pure-blooded and exemplary Aryan, first member of the Master Race; a messiah who magically transports himself to the Americas after his resurrection in Jerusalem, speaking a language and describing a holy life only vaguely resembling the gospels of the New Testament; a black man who has "the blood of all races in his veins"; a fun-loving, partygoing preacher of joy who happens also to be a paragon of efficient business discipline, a master advertiser, and in effect the founder of the modern corporation; the representative in relatively modern history of an omnipotent but secret craftsman who billions of years ago assembled a universe that has been evolving since in a process of clockwork perfection; an agent of God whose life on earth, dedicated to the salvation of the human race from sin, was only partly successful and who must therefore return to call his faithful children home in a dramatic event referred to as the "rapture"; an obscure itinerant preacher and wonderworker who once lived in Galilee, something of a commercial and cultural crossroad, preaching a message not particularly distinct from the Judaism in which he was raised, whose reported resurrection is most certainly fictional; a blondish long-haired and non-Semite staring at us slightly off camera, a bit sad-faced but unmarked by suffering, and dressed in elegant and freshly laundered robes; an enigmatic figure who, according to the best current scholarship, is properly to be understood as a "Jewish peasant Cynic"; a singing, dancing incarnation of ecstasy; a man of the people who confronts the political, social, economic, racial, and sexual policies of a repressive capitalist culture; a merciless military commander whose army crushes the forces of Satan on the plains of Israel (known also as Armadeddon), then casts the losing generals into a blazing hole that opens just after he rejects their pleas for mercy; a private voice guiding elected leaders responsible for America's salvific mission to the nondemocratic world. This is not to mention more trivial suggestions that we consider Jesus as a shaman, user of hallucinogenic mushrooms, homosexual, Maoist, father of secret children, Roman spy, pharisee, dupe of political powers, extraordinary athlete, carpenter on a year's sabbatical, member of the Essene cult, protomystic, Egyptian, spirit traveler to India, psychic, one's favorite philosopher, deluded victim of a messianic complex, avatar of Krishna, and just plain fictional, nothing more than an imagined character in a children's story.
He finishes this list off by noting that the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote more than 10,000 pages of books and articles in attempt to capture the essence of Jesus. For some reason not everyone found his answer satisfactory.

So, then, can we find the real Jesus?
The question answers itself...

What does it mean then to "believe" in Jesus, or "believe" that Jesus was God... It means at the very least that we have to hide from ourselves how much we do not know; we have to call in our selected Jesus and close the door against the clamorous horde of alternative Jesuses surrounding our enclosure.
But the quest continues. There is something about the man that compels us to keep looking; there is something yet to be resolved. Recognizing this fact gets us closer to understanding the genius of religion: its ability to continue to generate over decades and then centuries fresh thinking, new approaches, renewed spirituality. It is what we have yet to know about it that is the source of its strength:
It is ignorance and not belief that is the source of the faith's vitality. What remains unsaid, even unthinkable, and what still inspires disagreement, is far more powerful than what is known and intelligible.
To reference a previous post, every belief system is an attempt to nail down the details of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Muhammed. But every belief system is bound to fail because it won't answer every question or solve every problem or translate into another generation or age. We are bound to try to find a belief system that works for us, but if we are wise we will continue to listen to the voices of those who are living out of different belief systems and we will recognize the limits of our own. We will be faithful to what we "know" to be true but we will keep our eyes and ears open for that new horizon that is continually unfolding before us.

1 comment:

Kay said...

Wow, this post lines up quite well with one I wrote recently, and the comments that ensued. The post is called "How Would Jesus Live Your Life?" I was speaking from a particular perspective about Jesus, all the while in the back of my mind, knowing that there were dozens of others. I'm not sure that my readers appreciated by subtle attempt at "devil's advocacy."

I might borrow this quote. :)