Sunday 30 June 2013

Jesus In a Box

"History is overflowing with different portraits depicting the way that Jesus is the answer - Jesus the Marxist, Jesus the capitalist, Jesus the meek, Jesus the mercenary, Jesus the social reformer and Jesus the social conserver, to name but a few. This enigmatic figure who died naked on a cross over two thousand years ago has been clothed in various colourful ideological garments over the millennia.

"With so many conflicting ideas, where is one to start? Did Jesus come to abolish religion or set up a new one? Did he seek to show us a way of escaping the world or a way of embracing it? Did he die to save us from our evil or did he die because our evil could not bear his presence? Did he even exist, and what is known about him beyond the doctrinal claims of the Church?"

(Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God)

You buy your Jesus in a box. It's a package deal, and the various brands slug it out. Most of us inherited a model from our parents, some of us traded it in as we got older for something that seemed more satisfying. A few of us, following the rule "once bitten twice shy", have put Jesus back in the box and moved it to a corner of the garage or attic, out of sight out of mind.

I grew up with the long-haired calendar Jesus, a devotional Christ often pictured with small children clustered around. Later I moved to the macho-preacher Jesus, a kind of newscaster foretelling a bleak future preceding his future millennial reign. This guy definitely had short hair and a no-nonsense approach.

But the evidence is both slim and capable of multiple readings. Even with a minimal understanding of how the gospels were formed it's pretty clear that, whatever historical bedrock there might be, the details are the product of creative storytelling.

Which makes the Jesus of Progressive Christianity just as subject to critique as any other. There's a feeling that this Jesus is the Jesus we now need, and therefore simply must be the real Jesus. I sympathize, I really do. But the trouble is I've encountered explanations of "the real Jesus" before - as I'm sure you have too - and they were no such thing.

Jesus - or Yeshua - was a man of his time, living within a culture very different from any found in our own age. To imagine we can repackage him in a sanitized, organically certified version for liberal Western consumption is simply arrogant.

Even worse is to emasculate him into warm and fuzzy green ether, as Bruce Sanguin does.

"[I]f we imagine Jesus to be an emergent form of Earth - an occasion of miraculous cosmic and planetary creativity - we ground the Jesus story within the universe as we know it to be. Salt waters coursed through his blood, ancient bacteria were alive in his gut, and the neurons that fired in his grey matter were gifts of an ancient exploding supernova. He was, in short, a child of Earth and Cosmos. Before the various and necessary doctrines and dogmas developed to address the mystery of Jesus, he represented, inside and out, soul and body, an occasion of cosmic coalescence and creativity. The evolutionary pressure coursing through the whole universe also gave birth to Jesus. In short, I believe that it's important to present him as a child of Earth and Cosmos and not only a child of Heaven."(Bruce Sanguin, "When Christ is Cosmic," in Why Weren't We Told, edited by Hunt & Smith.)

Very poetic, in a vacuous sort of way. Salt waters, though, course through my neighbour's dog also, and I've no doubt that there's a full complement of ancient bacteria in its gut (you can sometimes see the evidence on the lawn). Does Rover also represent an occasion of cosmic coalescence?

When you strip the mythology away from the Jesus of the gospels, do you really end up with anything usefully biographical? My best guess, and it's somewhere along the continuum from possibility to probability, is that the historical figure was an apocalyptic prophet and an exorcist. Not a very helpful  portrait for a progressive reinterpretation of Christianity. Of course you could, like Sanguin, "imagine" him otherwise. But what would be the point?

No wonder this version of Jesus in a Box isn't selling well.

Monday 24 June 2013

Who are we talking about?

This is a famous person in history, a name we all recognise.

"We know amazingly little about the man who spread everywhere. Even basic facts are obscure."

Filling in his biography "is a noble but necessarily futile endeavour."

Even a "necessarily limited and fastidious approach to the historical record has the danger of slipping into the realm of fiction..."

"dubious legends sprang up about him."

The answer is Shakespeare.

Stephen Marche, author of the recent book How Shakespeare Changed Everything, is the source of the quotes. It's a great read even if, like me, you're no great devotee of Shakespeare's work.

Is this the man?
Here is a man who both shaped the English language and left a paper trail that will endure to the end of time, and yet we know next to nothing about him. Even the things we do think we know - details of his marriage to Anne Hathaway (or was it Anne Whately?) - are not as certain as they might seem. Nor is his most famous portrait, known as the Flower portrait, necessarily an accurate representation. In short, the man is a mystery.

Which is a preamble to the question I want to pose in the penultimate part of the Progressive Christianity series. How come the enthusiasts in this camp know so much about Jesus, a man who lived long before Shakespeare and never, so far as we know, wrote down a single word? With what degree of certainty can they find in him the embodiment of all those wonderful, progressive, inclusive values which we all want to promote in our own age?

To that mystery we turn shortly.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Elitism and Impotence

To begin, here's a disclaimer. There are a lot of people who are lumped together under the "progressive theology" label that I hugely admire. Michael Morwood, Lloyd Geering, John Shuck, Don Cupitt, Norman Habel, Jim Veitch... to name just a few. I shudder each time one of the "bah, humbug" brigade tries to pass them off as anything other than the highly insightful people that they are.

But, as I see it, the movement (if it can legitimately be called that) has at least two major problems. The first of these is elitism: an inability to communicate in the real world.

The apocalyptic Jesus movement that arose in the first century was anything but elitist. It's founders were ordinary folk, and most of it's followers were illiterate. The demographic was young; after all, life expectancy then was nothing like today. And the fanaticism that inflamed the earliest believers was just that, a passionate set of beliefs. It wasn't a carefully cultivated mysticism, or the fruit of deep meditation on the human condition. We read those things back in, and the tale is probably the better for the retelling. But to do that is to succumb to well intentioned wishful thinking.

Progressive Christians today are a very different proposition. The demographic is overwhelmingly grey-headed, well educated and economically comfortable. These are, to generalise horribly, refugees from the kind of faith that characterised their younger years. While some of their contemporaries just walked away, these people began a process of high-minded accommodation. Tetchy old Yahweh was retired in favour of panentheism; a journey from God to Gaia. Concern over the biblical view of baptism, or suspicion of "worldly" pursuits like dancing or a glass of wine over dinner, was replaced with eco-spirituality, or one of the other causes that so appeal to folk who are keen to shine the healing rays of enlightenment into the dank, dark corners of a piety whose time has passed.

And good on them. But does anyone "out there" really care any more? If they did we'd see some sign of it. The result is that those of us who are attracted to the cause tend to end up simply talking to ourselves in a sophisticated game of "ain't it awful." And let's face it, it's a painfully earnest conversation, and therefore one that few others are willing to join. It's good to be Green, but really, what's the Bible got to do with it? There has to be some sort of irony in such an introverted approach grandly setting out to be inclusive. Some PC theologians (Cupitt and Geering spring to mind) understand this.

But there may be an even bigger problem.

Part 3 - Jesus in a Box.
Part 4 - Aromatherapy.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Of Puritans and Progressives

The tendency toward a dour, grey view of life, infused with earnestness and a worthy but world-denying approach to the dominant culture, has always characterised a certain significant segment of Christendom. Even today the word Puritan evokes images of bluestockinged disdain of fun, wowserism and negativity toward all but the most disciplined expressions of sexuality. Puritanism much emphasised the "thou shalt nots", fostering an understanding of our shared humanity that declared the whole thing dubious at best, and at worst corrupt and utterly foul to the core.

You won't find too many of these classic Puritans in evidence today. Consumerism and globalisation have swept like a tidal wave over the First World, finishing off what the Enlightenment began just a few centuries earlier. Apart from a few tiny enclaves - Exclusive Brethren and Laestadian Lutherans for example - the battle is long over. Jehovah of the thunderbolts has gone the way of Zeus and Odin.

But Nature abhors a vacuum, and perhaps it's inevitable that as one form of Puritanism collapses, another must arise. I want to argue that a latter-day form of Puritanism can be found comfortably nestled in the movement often called Progressive Christianity (PC).

Of course that seems completely counter-intuitive. Progressive means, well, progressive. But therein lies the irony. Look behind the outer shell of progressive rhetoric at the underlying messages, the view of the human enterprise it promotes, and some unexpected patterns emerge.

Naturally, to say this is to apply a very broad brush, and there are certainly exceptions. Dig behind the Oxbridge facade of Don Cupitt's work, for example, and you'll find a ready wit to defy what I describe as "the prune-fed Methodism" of many of his supporters. Progressive Christianity is, like all so-called 'liberal' movements, hard to tie down. It's diversity means the boundaries are fuzzy. Cupitt and Geering are revered figures (and rightly so), along with John Shelby Spong (despite the sneering indifference toward him in certain academic cloisters), but their perspectives are hardly identical. Those who follow their lead, including fans of the Jesus Seminar, cross all denominational divides: Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians... even an occasional Baptist.

What they all seem to share is a desire to reread the scriptures (and restate the Gospel) in terms that affirm a contemporary view of the human condition. Heaven and hell have been pensioned off, Jesus' humanity is emphasised while his divinity has been airbrushed into the realms of metaphor. There is no Original Sin in the Augustinian sense. People of other faiths - or no faith at all - are equally embraced in the inclusive Ground of All Being.

Sounds great. If you feel like calling for a hallelujah from the pews, please don't let me stop you. And best of all, they're probably right about most of this stuff. It's a generous and informed version of Christianity, attempting to retain the traditions of two millennia by performing an act of intellectual transubstantiation. Into the machine go demons and angels, miracles and mitres, gopher wood arks and edenic apples, and out comes something good, compassionate, and best of all congruent with our emerging understanding in a world coming of age.

So how can this well intentioned radical revision of Christian faith be dismissed as dishonest and tainted with the virus of Puritanism? It seems a harsh judgment, but I suspect it's true. Feel free to argue to the contrary.

Coming up:
Part 2 - Elitism and Impotence
Part 3 - Jesus in a Box
Part 4 - Aromatherapy