The Third Way, 51: Saviours and Salvation, 7 – The Jesus Story, 3

Featured

Santa has returned to his Polar enclave for another year.  Gifts have been exchanged and appreciated.  Family and friends gatherings have been enjoyed.  The northern hemisphere is locked into its white winter blanket for the next few months.  Dieting and detoxing from the annual binge of “holiday cheer” is under way.  For many there is a residual glow of well-being abiding for at least a few days, perhaps even a week or two.  For those of us who have nodded in the direction of the old Christmas traditions of the Bethlehem birth by singing carols and attending a church service or two and having a ceremonial crèche on display, we can return such things to their closets and go on with normal life.

If only the rest of life were so conveniently classified.  As long as things hum along in their expected course with only fairly minor inconveniences, we can mostly manage to keep all the big questions quiet.  But… sooner or later … there is always something.  “Stuff happens!”  Nasty stuff, painful stuff, even deadly stuff.  Sooner or later, it comes, and we all have to face it.  As Maximus in Gladiator tells Emperor Commodus before their final combat (paraphrased), “Every man stares death in the face; all you can do is smile back.”  It is a question of how we face the hard moments when they come.

Shall we be “as those who have no hope?”  Or shall our answer be courageous as we take our stand.  Shall we rail and scream at the injustice of it all, like Dylan Thomas advising, “Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?

Ancient cultures typically offered little hope of anything looking like “salvation”.  It was more like facing what appeared finally to be “sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare).  But what about the cycle of samsara (Hinduism and Buddhism)?  After many reincarnations one could achieve moksha  and enter nirvana and so be (re)absorbed by Brahman, at last finding bliss and peace, although ceasing to exist as a person.

Perhaps a Buddha, a bodhisattva, would come along and show and teach the speedier way out of the cycle of suffering via the discipline of raja yoga, the way of very disciplined deep meditation.

Perhaps some prophet would reveal the strict path that would satisfy the wrath of the gods or the one God through a scrupulous adherence to these precepts.  Then, when you died, you might be promised a place in some realm of peace beyond the grave, or at least spared from the worst suffering of the spectral realm.

Or, perhaps, when you die you are just dead and no longer exist.  Then at least your personal pain is over, although the cosmos goes on in its meaninglessness (vanity), as Solomon put it in Kohelet.  If you are one of the most unfortunate for whom life has indeed been largely a “vale of tears”, this is quite possibly an acceptable outcome.  Solomon didn’t actually think so, though, with his cogent comment, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”

In the end it all boils down to what the universe really is, and who we really are in it.  “Why are we/am I here?”  That is the seminal question which, sooner or later, haunts everyone who thinks.  As long as we seem to have the strength and means to avoid it by finding temporary sources of meaning, or at least distraction, most of us run from it pretty quickly.

When it comes down to it, our final answers are faith-based.  Even an atheist answer is every bit as much faith-based as a “religious” answer.  Everyone who thinks takes a theological position for or against the existence of a Creator, a personal supreme Deity who made everything that is.  What one says about this foremost of all questions directs everything else in our life, consciously or not.

The real reason we have a Christmas time is The Jesus Story.  This story begins with affirming that all that is was created by a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.  Over and over in this blog we have discussed this as the very ground of reality.  It is the most economical and consistent explanation of why anything at all “is”.   Even great scientists who do not accept a Creator have admitted this.  By turning from it they are compelled to expend enormous time, imagination, energy and resources in searching for alternatives—such as evidence that matter is a constantly changing and morphing manifestation of eternal energy.

But even the most refined science and imaginative theoretical constructs cannot answer that still haunting question, “Why? Why does that energy even exist?  Where does it come from?”  (Usual answer: “Nowhere!  It just is!  It just came to be!  It is just always coming to be!”)  And on to, “Why am I here?  What does it mean that I am here?  Why does it look and feel like it really does have meaning?  Like I should have meaning?  Why do we spend so much time looking for this primal ground of existence and purpose if, after all is said and done, there just isn’t a purpose?”

And, perhaps more immediately applicable in a time of “Climate Crisis”, “Why are we so torn up about the crisis of our tiny little speck of existence called Planet Earth if it isn’t really special at all?  Why are we so driven to cling to our meaningless personal and species existence as if it is really wonderful and awesome in some way, and not just an illusion of being special and awesome and wonderful?”  Etc., etc, etc.

As we have said again and again, the best and most sufficient answer to all of this, the one answer that answers all the basic questions and is thus most probably the real truth (“true truth” as Francis Schaeffer put it), the “Ockham’s Razor” answer for any philosophic types reading this, is: “There is a Creator who made all that is, who made us to know Him/Her and be in relationship to Him/Her, and to learn about all that He/She has made as a way to knowing Him/Her and becoming all that we are made to be.”

The best answer is the answer that most completely, directly, and simply answers the most basic questions all across the spectrum of our search for understanding and truth.  Out of all our contrasting theologies and worldviews, how can we settle on the one that is “best”?  How do we weigh the competing claims?

The Postmodern approach is, “Don’t bother.  Just choose one and go with it.  When it no longer works for you, just switch to another, or invent your own.”

The Modernist approach is to swear off all mysteries and religion and stick to “the facts, only the facts” as reason, logic, and Science, the greatest application of the first two, reveal the “true facts” to us via the proper methods of research and inquiry.

As to the claims of the Great Religions of human history – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in chronological order of appearance – it becomes a bit of a mug’s game to try to “prove” the superiority of one over another.  From an apologist’s point of view, all of them can be argued, although it can also be said that they do not all stand up equally well to serious examination regarding the integrity and verifiability of their sources, evidence, and the character of their major leaders in history.

For Christians and Christianity, it all boils down to Jesus.  And as to this faith’s founder, it all boils down to a series of “True or False” and “Yes or No” questions.  Theoretically, this should make Christianity a basically simple faith to discredit, if that is the agenda a questioner is adopting, as so many have since the 18th Century.  And what should make it even easier to discredit this particular candidate for “most probable true story” is that its most basic elements are historically based, or at least purport to be.  Just prove its history is false, and voila!  

But first, we must first hear/read the story.  Then we must consider its historicity and what it tells us about the historical person Jesus/Yeshua.  Only then can we examine what it might mean, including what others have said it means.  At that point, we are in a personal position to decide meaning, and what we will do with the decision we reach.

It all sounds very rational, even “scientific” in the methodological sense of the “Social Sciences”.  But no one comes to a quest unbiased.  All hold expectations of what will be discovered, what we hope to discover, however loosely formulated or consciously held.  We all have presuppositions.  

Today we will end with a short list of basic questions that must be considered by anyone wanting to find out the “truth” about Jesus.  The reader may have other questions, or may have better versions of those listed here.  I offer these:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as his followers claim(ed)?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

The Third Way, 50: Saviours and Salvation, 6 – The Jesus Story, 2

Featured

Our last chat in this series disposed of the two most egregious attacks on the Christian story of humanity’s need for salvation and its nominee for the role of universal saviour.  Any reasonable and serious consideration of this story and its leading figure must first accept that Jesus called Christ actually lived and died as an historic person in First-Century Palestine, then a minor sub-province (within the greater province of Syria) in the Roman Empire.  Next, any serious consideration of the story and of Jesus the person must accredit its main sources (the New Testament documents) with a considerable degree of integrity and validity.  To treat them with the sort of cavalier arrogance and blatant hubris that has so often been the case since the Enlightenment (e.g. the so-called “Jesus Seminar” referred to in our last post) can no longer wash if the scholars involved wish to retain any measure of honour in their profession.

As with “climate change”, a great many intellectuals of all stripes in our present cultural climate need to undergo a paradigm shift regarding the meta-story of Christianity.  They have latched and continue to latch onto a now obsolete and superseded “liberal orthodoxy” created by a concerted effort over two centuries to “demythologize” both Jesus and the Gospels and go hunting for the “historical Jesus”.  The underlying assumption in this “quest” has always been that the Jesus seen in the New Testament could be only superficially related to the “real Jesus” who lived and died in time and space.  Supposedly, the New Testament Jesus is a later divinized “Jesus of faith” created by manipulative theologians to keep the ignorant, superstitious masses in line so they could be manipulated, controlled, and used.

The continuance of this modern-postmodern myth about Jesus, the Gospels, and the early believers is a shameful blot on true scholarship.  Admittedly, the course of New Testament scholarship in the last sixty years has been far from smooth.  Old notions and preconceptions die hard for those who have invested most of their professional and intellectual capital in a preconceived framework which painstaking new archaeological and documentary research have shredded. 

I will not bore the reader with details about this bumpy journey.  Within its sphere, it is quite public for those wishing to explore it.  There are even some flirting references to it in revisionist historical fiction such as Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code, and the much ballyhooed finding of the so-called Feminist Gospel fragments about Mary Magdalen’s “secret marriage” to Jesus.  The popular and Internet media are quick to pick up such threads and trumpet them for their sensationalism, but usually neglect to mention their subsequent complete debunking by responsible scholars. 

The thrust of the new understanding of both the New Testament and the time and culture in which it emerged is that the documents are amazingly attuned historically and culturally to that era.  There is wonderfully detailed corroboration for this view through archaeology and documentary analysis of both the New Testament and an abundance of new and old sources (now better understood) from outside it.  It has become a question of openness towards what we actually find there rather than dogmatism determining interpretation.

While this does not “prove” that the account of the life and teaching of Jesus and his Apostles contained in the Bible and the early Christian writings is “true” in its conclusions about who he is, it certainly creates a good probability that the record is “authentic” in its recounting of events, and probably in the content of what the participants and early witnesses tell us of those events.  In a court-case based on circumstantial evidence, the verdict would have to favour the genuineness of the testimony.  It then becomes a question of assessing the best and most accurate accounting for the evidence and testimony.

Of course, for those determined to automatically dismiss and reject the elements of the story that “smack of” divine power and the miraculous, this will not change their mindset.  The issue then is their own operative worldview and that of our culture as much as that operative in First Century Greco-Roman and Jewish culture and of our witnesses. 

Our culture’s operative worldview discounts and disqualifies a priori the action of God in time and space, even when the person observing something “outside the box” may intellectually accept the existence of God/a Creator/spiritual things.  The observer therefore prejudges as in error the reports of such happenings from the culture of two thousand years ago.  In or superior wisdom, we now “know”  that that culture was open to the miraculous, which we also “know” stems from as simplistic ignorance, credulity, and superstition.  In the same way, the modern-postmodern observer automatically discredits current reports about miracles and amazing, mysterious occurrences as either impossible or erroneous in detail or interpretation, or both.

After all, we “know” that it is simply impossible for anyone to walk on water, calm a raging storm by commanding it to stop, raise a dead person by telling him/her simply to “get up”, heal the eyes of a person born blind by smearing saliva-mixed mud on them, commanding “demons” (who we are certain do not really exist) to “come out” of a person and finding the person immediately afterwards “in their right mind”, etc., etc., etc.  And, to top all this off, we have the totally incredible report of the person accredited with performing all these marvels having been crucified after terrible torture, being incontrovertibly dead (water flowing from the heart-cavity as per an eyewitness can mean nothing else), and, thirty-six hours later, being seen and reported very much alive and completely over it, except for some scars.

How are such things to be believed by any self-respecting, rational person?  Even in antiquity the rationalists rejected such reports, as did even the religious leaders of Judaism who, theoretically at least, believed in miracles.  And if, by some insane freak of the quantum, that person did come back to life, what could it possibly signify?

Here we have the crux of the matter.  Did this Jesus person not only actually live and die, as even the hostile extra-Biblical sources amply confirm, but actually resurrect!?  To accept that as an actual historical happening is simply beyond the pale.  If that really happened, it is an utterly unique event, as far as we know.  How can we avoid asking some truly enormous and significanct questions about that, if it’s true?  And the first question is, “Is it actually true?”

We humans are remarkably adept at ignoring what we don’t want to look at and hear about (Sergeant Schultz or a five-year-old child blocking his/her ears and eyes illustrate this nicely).  It’s so damn inconvenient to have to consider things that really disrupt our personal comfort and sense of proper order, or at least my/our sense of proper convenience for me/us and my/our particular sense of priorities.  We/I are/am also especially skilled at blocking out things which contradict the way we/I construct reality within our/my personal space.  A man self-resurrecting from stone-cold death should challenge my personal universe, but even two thousand years ago most refused to look upon it or hear of it!  So much for gullible, ignorant, superstition!

In our in-turned self-orientation, it is easy to forget  that our personal constructs are still very much formed by the larger culture and society in which we “live and move and have our being”.  In this age, our society and culture have been very much reshaped by the Enlightenment and its ensuing waves to drive the religious and supernatural elements of the human psyche out of serious and conscious consideration.

This governing paradigm characterizes humanity as a purely animal phenomenon, neither morally good or bad in itself, and certainly not “sinful” or “fallen” and therefore in need of “redemption” and “salvation”.  Therefore, there is no need of a “saviour” as per the old tales, which are simply mythological and legendary memories of the prehistoric emerging human consciousness and self-awareness.

The eruption of this Jesus-character into time-space is a most unwelcome distraction which must be contained within the operant “laws” of proven science and reason.  He is tremendously inconvenient.  It is actually impossible to overstate how inconvenient he is.  He was even then, two thousand years ago.  After all, that is why the powers-that-be of that day took so much trouble to remove him.  They were every bit as skeptical and scandalized by this guy as our powers-that-be are now. 

For us, he must be “put back in the box” of uniformity and conformity within the known, predictable parameters of the laws of standard-model science.  It was the same story two thousand years ago, although culturally nuanced.  But people back then knew every bit as well as we do that dead people stay dead.  Even in our age of supremely individualistic reality construction and quantum unpredictability where everything becomes at least theoretically possible, this remains an absolute.  After all, even within a quantum universe, the universe itself is a freak exception against all “laws of probability”.  How much more is God-as-man-in-time-and-space, even if the “God-hypothesis” is allowed?

Nevertheless, that is the outlandish, extraterrestrial claim made for Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth in Galilee of the First Century CE.  Even more outlandish is that this claimant seemed utterly sincere in what he said and did and believed.  His followers were shockingly sincere about it too.  How could such a claim be made for anyone, even by first-century simpletons and bumpkins?