Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Honest to Jesus
Gregory C. Jenks [1]

In 1906 Albert Schweitzer commented in The Quest for the Historical Jesus:

The critical study of the life of Jesus has been for theology a school of honesty.

That is a most revealing observation, and it comes from someone who had just reviewed the efforts by historical Jesus scholars over more than 100 years. It reminds us that coming face to face - or even reasonably close - to the historical Jesus may not be a comfortable experience. The Jesus who trod the pathways of ancient Galilee is a stranger to our times and to our churches. We may not find it easy to take on board what he has to say to us.

So: Jesus scholars, beware! Anyone with two good ears had better listen.

I will now provide a thumbnail sketch of Jesus best summarised as the "Jesus of the parables and aphorisms" [2]:

  • Jesus appears to have been an itinerant sage - a wandering wise man. He delivered his parables and aphorisms in public and private venues for both friends and opponents.

  • He never claimed to be - nor allowed others to call him - the Messiah or a divine being.

  • Jesus taught a wisdom that emphasised a simple trust in God�s unstinting goodness and the generosity of others. Life was to be lived and celebrated without boundaries and without thought for the future. He rejected asceticism.

  • For Jesus, ritual ceremonies had no value. Purity taboos and social barriers were never allowed to come between the people who responded to God and one another in simple trust.

  • There were no religious "brokers" in Jesus� vision of God�s domain. No priests, no prophets, no messiahs. Not even Jesus himself was to be inserted between a person and God.

  • To experience forgiveness one simply had to offer forgiveness to others.

  • No theological beliefs served as a test for participation in God�s domain.

  • Apocalyptic speculation with future punishments for the wicked and rewards for the virtuous played no part in Jesus� teaching.

  • Jesus was killed because he refused to compromise this radical vision of life. He may even have taken direct action in the Jerusalem Temple to express his view of God�s imperial rule. Those defending the status quo with its elaborate brokerage system for religious favors had to destroy him or lose their hold over others.

If this glimpse of Jesus is valid to any extent, it poses a significant challenge for the Christian churches. After all, we claim his name and to be his exclusive representatives in our society. Yet, on virtually every point in that sketch, the churches� views are in contrast to those which now seem to have been typical of Jesus.

  • The ordained sons of Adam have numerous places to lay their heads, offer little by way of original wisdom, and have become settled householders rather than itinerant sages.

  • The churches insist that Jesus was both divine and the Jewish Messiah.

  • We have often embraced asceticism, and we have certainly encouraged a negative attitude towards bodily life in this natural world. If it feels good it must be bad for the real, eternal, spiritual you.

  • Rather than teach a wisdom that supports simple trust, the churches have often cultivated a fear that feeds on guilt and anxiety.

  • Church experience is full of boundaries. Living dangerously in the freedom of God�s sons and daughters is rarely encouraged.

  • Ritual and sacrament have immense value, as seen by the steps taken to protect the privileges of those authorized to celebrate them.

  • Purity taboos and social barriers have too often crept back in, especially those based around gender and sexuality.

  • Religious brokers have established and sustained immense power within the church.

  • Many a saint and cleric have been inserted between Jesus and us, let alone us and God.

  • Forgiveness is meted out by the clerical brokers, and even sold for financial and other gain.

  • Theological beliefs have certainly served as tests for participation. Indeed, they have even been necessary for physical survival as when heretics and schismatics have been hounded and slain.

  • Apocalyptic expectation has been used to sustain a hold over people, and to validate accommodation with the present empires of human society.

  • Dying for the integrity of one�s radical vision is hardly typical of church life.

It is not hard to sense that the institutional church would most often vote with the Sanhedrin. The churches have had many hundreds of years experience in handing Jesus over to the Governor. I believe that we gladly accept Barabbas in place of the disturbing Jesus of Galilee. 

Were Jesus to arrive at many of our congregations today he might find us no more inclined to embrace his vision of God�s domain in everyday life than did his peers in ancient Galilee.

I want to consider now what might happen if this historical Jesus were brought into the picture. What if we set Jesus free from our Sunday School portraits and let him loose in our communities?

Would he be welcome there? Would he fit in? Would it be an explosive combination? Would it renew and invigorate the churches? I am also mindful of the Jesus sayings about new wine in old wineskins (or, new patches on old cloth). Could Christians handle a less supernatural Jesus and a lesser role for dogma and ritual? 

What are the implications of Jesus studies for the churches today? In very broad terms, they might be described as follows:

1. They include the assertion that the historical Jesus deserves to have a powerful say in the way people imagine and express their faith in word and symbol.

2. They include the idea that people have a right to know that there is a difference between the Jesus of history and the various frames of faith in which he has so often been presented by the churches.

3. They include the insight that we can learn more about being people of faith in our own day by listening to both the original voice of Jesus and also to the voices of his first followers.

4. They also include the realisation that the actual historical humanity of Jesus is the focus of his divine significance to us. It is in Jesus-as-human that Christians see God at work within and amongst us - not as the Holy Stranger, but as the Familiar Sacred. Jesus is the one who called us into being, who would call us out of our exile and into that reality beyond personal death that we presently label "resurrection."

If we now have an historic opportunity, what might form the agenda of a historical Jesus project?

First, we must integrate scholarship into the fabric of church life. We need translations of sacred texts which are ecumenical, interfaith and truly inclusive. We need networks and programs to offer well-informed education resources to raise functional literacy levels in religion. We need curriculum materials for children and adults. And we need to move beyond paper and into cyberspace.

Then we must also destabilize the canon of the Bible. That sounds like a radical proposition. But why should decisions made under the constraints of long-vanished philosophical and political realities continue to shape the way we hear the diverse Christian tradition? We must draw on texts beyond the canon so as to broaden the range of those voices that we hear within our communities of faith.

Next, our lectionaries and liturgical resources will need a thorough overhaul. We must draw widely on texts within and outside the canon. We can use Scripture in different ways than those we have favored in the past. We need to move beyond text as content - as information or correct ideas - and discover text as dialogue. We must rediscover myth and symbol in reading biblical texts, and help our people to escape the leaden touch of literalism.

The Church as an Inclusive Community
The communities that comprise the Church have been tamed to be instruments of the powerful. We are no longer communities with an alternative vision of life. Churches rarely speak for real people (who are mostly in any case absent  these days). We rarely serve as vehicles for their hopes and hurts. Our structures are collapsing under the weight of their own baggage as our memberships age and decline.

The contrast with the historical Jesus is clear. The sign of cross that decorates our churches spells it out. It is the price of integrity. There were neither national nor imperial flags in his meeting rooms. God�s domain belonged to those who did not fit in with others� expectations. The communities formed by his followers could not be co-opted by any empire - at least, not for 300 years or so.

As the old ways of being church collapse we have an opportunity to develop new forms of being church - ways that set the people of God free. We can - and must - develop forms of community as people of faith that are free from co-option by ruling powers (including grants from foundations and government agencies). 

They will be communities free from clerical ownership (and thus require a fundamental rethink of the role of clergy). Most importantly, they must be communities of freedom: places where it is safe to be as a human person - somewhere to doubt as well as to believe, somewhere to make mistakes, somewhere to grow in grace.

One of the features of the future Church that reflects the character of Jesus is clear: it will be a lay church. Can we imagine churches without brokers? Are we willing to work for lay ownership with new structures? Can we imagine a role for clergy that celebrates leadership and vision, but does not assume that power - and payrolls - should be limited to the ordained?

Worship as celebration
As many of us are painfully aware, worship is losing its character as community celebration. It reflects the churches� loss of significance in the wider community. This is possibly not yet so profound in USA, but it is dramatic in the UK and Europe. It has always been so in Australia, even if now seen more clearly (as in the alienation from church life of those seeking baptisms and weddings). Sadly, worship is too often centered around the symbols and concerns of a long-lost world.

Jesus lived within a religious tradition we�ve been taught to disdain. He was nurtured by a tradition still linked to the everyday concerns of his community. This is not to say that he was uncritical of organized and doctrinaire forms of religion , but it is to warn ourselves to put aside traditional Christian stereotypes of a legalistic and barren Judaism. Time and again, the early Jesus tradition portrays Jesus as invoking an interpretation of Torah observance that presupposes integrity rather than literal compliance.

Let�s apply that principle from the historical Jesus to our liturgies as the people of God. After centuries of rigidity we have new opportunities to renew and reform our liturgies. We have access to new understandings of scripture and tradition. We also have a new appreciation of human nature, as well as of the power of symbol and myth. We enjoy fresh understandings of the universe and our place in the cosmos. And we have access to multicultural and multi-faith perspectives not available to earlier generations of liturgists.

Worship that reflects the heritage of Jesus will be marked by celebration, not judgment. Our liturgy will be truly inclusive. We will pay attention to the question of who our liturgies are supposed to serve. And we will escape Sunday morning.

Discipleship as faith integrated with life
For too many people - within the churches and outside them - faith or discipleship ("being a Christian") is seen as assent to doctrines and morals. Assenting to particular (and mostly incredible) beliefs, and behaving in certain (and mostly conservative) ways, have come to be seen as fundamental to Christian identity. Worse, there has been a collapse of the essential link between values (or faith) and everyday life.

As a window into the perspective of the historical Jesus, let�s take the well known encounter with the "rich young ruler". This young man had it all, but he did not have what he needed. I conclude from this episode - along with many other episodes in the authentic Jesus materials - that beliefs and behavior both matter, but they are not central to God�s domain.

What is needed is willingness to put oneself at risk. Those called to discipleship were not called to a formula, but to an open ended journey into the unknown.

If so, then the legacy of the historical Jesus is a glimpse of life as God�s domain that is essentially affirming and celebratory. Rather than being negative and antagonistic towards a world seen in terms of opposites, our churches should be embracing and celebrating life.

If we stopped being so religious and became more authentically human, churches might indeed have a future rather than being leftovers from the past. We might even deserve a future.

The first priority is surely to fashion communities of meaning and hope. These will require us to work at creating and sustaining communities that get beyond formulae. They will be places where both beliefs and actions will matter, but even more valued will be the willingness to act out of trust into the future. In that kind of community people find meaning and hope, not answers or control.

Of course, faith communities of this kind will integrate faith with life in its various dimensions. Such communities will draw on the real life skills of their members, and learn to reflect on their shared experience. These communities will look outside their own lives. They will engage deeply in the issues and concerns of everyday life - as a church, as individuals and as clergy. Social justice cells will be as common place as prayer chains.
[1] This article has been somewhat shortened to better serve online reading.
[2] Worked out by the controversial Jesus Seminar.

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