Jesus : History, Mystery & Doubt

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Jesus: History, Mystery and Doubt

It simply MUST be the way I was taught as a child!

Often we encounter the suggestion that if Jesus were to somehow appear in this day and age his own reaction to who and what Christianity believes him to be might be surprising. There is a vast variety of images that come to mind among practicing Christians.

On one hand, Jesus is expected to return in a supernatural and dramatic context, coming to judge and backed by a righteous army of angels – justifying a relatively new belief (perhaps 150 years) and investment in a concept of rapture, end times and judgment day. For these, the supernatural is an absolute must: the end times when God will intervene and overturn the negatives in life and set things right once and for all.

For others, the return of an all-powerful deity who will set things right once and for all, execute judgment with vengeful, righteous and indignant wrath has little or no bearing on how attitudes and actions are justified. For these, the supernatural external God is not necessary to make real the life and teaching of the historical Jesus.

What then is there of value in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth if the ultimate intervening God is left out of the picture?

From a fundamental perspective the litmus test seems to be “Do you believe Jesus is God?” Or, “Do you believe Jesus was/is the Son of God?”

I’ve been asked this question many times. From some, the question is asked with an intent to understand more about who I am and what I think. From others, the question has seemed more a test of orthodoxy, a means by which I may or may not be then perceived as “Christian.”

Someone recently wrote to me that the whole foundation of Christianity and believing in Jesus is in fact pointless if one cannot believe in the Synoptic miracles. Without the miracles, Christianity is nothing.

From my perspective, the implication is that without the supernatural, Christianity as a spiritual practice - a way of approaching life - is useless. If, once upon a time, long ago and far away, a supernatural deity did not beam down and live as an anonymous “superman”, defying the limits of natural law and processes, then Christianity is a lie, a hoax and a waste of time.

A supernatural Jesus Christ is by no means the sole basis for seeking a life of goodness in thought and action. To many, the prospect of an indignant returning judgmental God has little to do with why a choice is made to join or remain within a Christian context. For these there is little of the either/or thinking that is spawned by exclusivity taught in a literalist obsession with orthodoxy.

Historical Jesus has become perhaps the biggest stumbling block to literalists while a Christ-like life is the motivational mainstay for those who have sought the Jesus of history with a desire for understanding and an attitude of inquiry based upon critical thinking.

A stubborn insistence on the Jesus of the end times is at best adolescent in its blind trust and refusal to question. Questioning cannot happen if one is afraid of the answers.


How much of what we first learned in childhood – that which we accepted and believed uncritically – was discarded as we grew older and acquired a greater experiential understanding of life?

The pattern for a child is that of gradual maturation toward the world as it really IS rather than permanency in what was dished out as a necessary foundational pablum. We all learned to negotiate life with a beginning vocabulary of spiritual and environmental concepts. Yet, what comes to our maturing pereception, regardless of the accuracy of any outside teaching, enculturation and societal programming, is most powerfully defined by experience interpreted through the assumptions of our personal story.

A very young child, without any awareness in vocabulary, will experientially develop an attitude towards parents as the source, environment and power behind all things seen, learned and understood. Parents in these early years can be truly God-like to children. Yet as the children grow and mature, there is less sense of being in total subjection to the will of a parent and more a sense or urge toward defiance, independence and self-proprietorship.

In this regard, young parents will also undergo a maturing. I remember asking my oldest daughter, now in her thirties, “Remember when you thought I was God?”

Her reply, “Yes, when I was two. But I remember when I was 12 and you still thought you were God.”

“Indeed,” writes Dr. Marcus Borg, "for many Christians, especially in mainline churches, there came a time when their childhood image of Jesus no longer made a great deal of sense. And for many of them, no persuasive alternative has replaced it.”

Many of these have fallen back on the childhood teachings of a supernatural religion, perhaps because of a perception that any alternative will not fill the void with sufficient meaning.

Paul speaks of this from inside the early Christian belief and practice:

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.”
As we grow out of childhood and into the greater independence of adolescence, we begin to loose more and more of what Borg calls pre-critical naivetÚ:
“an early childhood state in which we take it for granted that whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us to be true is indeed true.”

For example, Borg describes how we come to doubt the existence Saint Nick.

As we continue our sifting of what is still useful and what no longer works, we develop that absolutely essential ability to practice critical thinking which Borg defines as:

“Critical thinking begins in late childhood and early adolescence. We sift through what we learned as children to see how much of it we should keep."

Perhaps influenced by authority, intellectual charisma and peer pressure, we find that our attempts to think critically become more and more difficult as our own internally programmed assumptions assert themselves. This activity is a natural part of growth and while it contributes to harmonizing with one’s culture and society, it may also hinder a sense of independence and the growing natural urge to feel self-reliant, self-confident and assured in where our “automatic stance” is founded.

Personal spirituality is very much the lifeblood of embracing life as it IS rather than naively embracing life as it might be according to someone else’s magic. That magic may be very accurate and totally useful, but until personal experience confirms such a knowing, someone else’s magic remains a borrowed attribute. This borrowed spiritual attribute by na´ve assumption can become habitual and addictive; more internally defined with conscious insistence and lazily labeled "faith" than by honest and critical testing.

Such is an appeal to the lazy in us for it basically offers us the use of someone else’s kayak- which works in their reality - when in our own we need something with which to negotiate an uphill climb on a mountain path. However, if we are convinced that the kayak is the only way to climb the mountain, we will remain in our state of pre-critical naivetÚ, struggling upward at great loss of opportunity for personal wisdom and an honest faith attained thru critical thinking and experience.

“ Is it not time to present this matter of Christianity exactly as it is, to take away all false reverence for Jesus, and not mistake the stream for the source? God is in every man. God is in Jesus, but let us not magnify any of the vehicles as we magnify the Infinite Law itself. We have defrauded him [Jesus] of his claim of love on all noble hearts by our superstitious mouth honor.” – Emerson, quoted by Stephen Mitchell in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS.

Who is made uncomfortable by such thinking?

Writers like Emerson and others who have publicly proclaimed a powerful personal spirituality seem to have always aroused the greatest concern – so great at time as to engender even violent resistance – from those who remain stuck in pre-critical naivetÚ.

“Jesus’ faith doesn’t prove itself, either by miracles or by rewards and promises, and least of all ‘by scripture.’ It is, at every moment, its own miracle, its own reward, its own proof, its own ‘kingdom of God.’” – Nietzsche, quoted by Stephen Mitchell in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS.

Can we believe in Jesus without the background of supernaturalism?

A child is able to learn at a very young age not to walk into the street, understanding from parental instruction that danger lurks in such an action. Yet comes the time when the child must – absolutely needs – to learn to cross the street independently and alone. Such an action is not a betrayal of the earlier “don’t go into the street” injunction from god-like parents. Nor is it a refutation of respect or regard for both the status and wisdom of parents.

Such learning is in fact a restructuring of the relationship to the parent in a positive way that builds independence and self-reliance. To carry the analogy further, the ability to cross the street on one’s own enhances the child’s ability to participate in life over an expanding range of abilities with the parents. Putting away childish things does not necessarily mean destroying or refuting what was once true in a necessary way for a child.

What is there about Jesus that we absolutely cannot nor must not give up?

The answer to that question is not up to group-think. For some, there are things about a childhood understanding of Jesus that will and probably should remain in place for a lifetime. However, those things may not be useful for every person regardless of whether or not “someone else” insists that it has to be part of the magic.

The more we worry about the proven or provable facts of Jesus, the more we remain stuck at the image of Christ given us by someone else. Although we may insist that we are in the right place, so long as we refuse to look in the direction to which Jesus taught and pointed, we remain in a stuck place, regardless of our sense of security and assuredness.

The focus of Jesus’ teachings was in opposition to the notion of God as a God of purity with rules and policies emphasizing purity and obedience as the primary virtues. Who would argue with the idea that to Jesus the Spirit of the Law was more important than the Letter of the Law?

Jesus in fact taught not a God obsessed with purity so as a God of compassion.

A literal reading of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament can easily leave us with an idea of God as wrathful, selective, judgmental, punishing, even cruel. In more contemporary terms, many Christians see God as a kind of benevolent Patton rather than a powerful but gentle Gandhi.

It is precisely the gentle attribute of compassion that Jesus sought to portray in practically everything He said. It is precisely the tender relationship of son to father that Jesus portrayed. He most certainly did not come to teach or pattern a relationship with a God who looked like a more powerful alternative to Julius Caesar.

The God of Israel as Jesus knew God, was more than that. Christ as a mortal man was a devout and practicing Jew who never departed from His Jewish perception and understanding of God, and who certainly did not “remake” God into something else.

Neither should we.

Jesus said that if one had seen Him one had seen the Father. I say that if one has heard the words of Jesus, one has heard the words of the God of compassion.

The God of compassion has no need to practice supernatural intervention.

The God of compassion is the God of internal emotions, the God of the Spirit of the Law, the God of understanding as something superior to blind obedience.

The God of compassion does not need to come and judge, for as we learn, understand and appreciate compassion, we become our own harshest judges. For when we “sin” - a word that does not denote an evil act in it's original non-English meaning -we have missed of the mark. Our sense of missing the mark and not measuring up to standards we ought to have internalized will be more spiritually grounded than the idea of accountability to a clipboard full of evil behavior.

Until we define Jesus for ourselves, we will not succeed in developing an internal and comfortable “fit” of what we know about a Christ-like life and how we will be able to live in such as way as to experience what He promised.

There are those who view God as a deity of requirements, rewards and punishments and who say that there is only one internal “fit” given by God and if that "fit" is uncomfortable, it is because we are not on the true path.

In response, questions need to be asked:

With such a view, what absolute internal necessity exists that implies a terror of doubting someone else’s magic – the pablum by which we have been nourished since childhood?

What if a singular and exclusive “true path” is not what Jesus was about?

What is conjured up in the mind if one cannot know God as an external super-natural deity “up there” or “out there” who remains outside of our lives but occasionally used to do divine interventions?

What is conjured up in the mind if God is not and does not have to be the “Boss of the Universe” who runs things according to strict prescription and ignores the majority of petitions sent His way?

If Jesus patterned a relationship with God as “within “ us, permeating our spiritual mind with a loving constancy, why is that not enough?

Thomas Jefferson offers an answer as to how to decide:

“In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudices on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it.

Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision. I forgot to observe, when speaking of the New Testament, that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well as those of whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us, to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists, because those Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration, as much as the others, and you are to judge by their pretensions by your own reason, and not by the reason of those ecclesiastics.” – quoted by Stephen Mitchell in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS.

Dr. Borg offers an equally powerful objective:

“Now I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing. The experiences of my mid-thirties led me to realize that God is, and that the central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God or believing in the Bible or believing in the Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoke of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit. And a Christian is one who lives out his or her relationship to God within the framework of the Christian tradition.” – MEETING JESUS AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME, Marcus Borg, HarperCollins, 1994.

Jesus: History, Mystery and Doubt II

 Reference Marcus Borg: "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time"

In speaking of what has been called "modernity," Marcus Borg describes two central features both closely connected with each other:
"First, modernity is characterized by scientific ways of knowing......unlike people of earlier eras, we know something to be true today through experimentation and verification.
"Second, modernity is marked by what is sometimes called 'the modern worldview' or 'Newtonian worldview.' ... The modern worldview is based on scientific ways of knowing what is real is that which can be known through the methods of science."
Further in his writings, Borg mentions what he considers two deeply destructive effects upon religion in general and Christianity and the Bible in particular:
"Modernity has made us skeptical about spiritual reality.....It is the logical outcome of absolutizing the modern worldview.
Second, modernity has led us to be preoccupied with factuality - with scientifically verifiable and historically reliable facts. ...... Indeed, modern Western culture is the only culture in human history that has identified truth with factuality. We are 'fact fundamentalists'."
Our fact-fundamentalist society has discovered an almost insatiable appetite for identified truths based on factuality. As a result, using scientific methods, scholars and researchers have aggressively gone off in pursuit of the historical Jesus with surprising results.
These results have not, as one might expect, brought Jesus into a clearer and more specific focus. Rather, a plethora of verifiable biographic details has engendered an even wider focus and venue of speculation. In addition to the long-time scholarship around Jesus based on assumptions very much in harmony with traditional Christianity's theology and doctrine typified by the description found in the Nicene Creed, we can easily encounter research that has resulted in a myriad of other perceptions including:
Jesus as a 2000-year-old mythical creation originally intended to compete with and override existing pagan mystery religions of that era,
Jesus as a cynical creation of Roman political officials as a means of competing with and altering Judaism into something less radically opposed to Roman rule,
Jesus as a fictional elaboration of the Apostle Paul who constructed a new religion using Christ concepts as his basis (much is made of the almost total lack of biographical and life-incident references to Jesus in Paul's writings),
Jesus as a mortal heir to the throne of David who married, fathered children and lived to an older age. This includes a sub-perception of Mary Magdalene as Jesus' wife and the disciple who most clearly understood Jesus' teachings. Magdalene is believed to have migrated to Southern France and a popular speculation links Magdalene to the Knights Templar, hidden riches and Roman Catholic conspiracy to suppress the truth.
Fiction about early Jesus has always been in abundance. Most recently, the Magdalene theme has been popularized by Dan Brown's, "The DaVinci Code". Other books and movies speculate on what might happen if, for example, a 2000-year-old body showing marks of crucifixion and other bodily injuries written of in the gospels is discovered with the implication that the body is that of Jesus who therefore did not resurrect.
There are fiction works about the implication of the discovery of ancient texts that refute traditional New Testament teachings or reveal that Jesus was not resurrected or that the resurrection was faked.
Scorcese's movie "The Last Temptation of Christ", based on Nikos Kazantzakis' 1955 novel, enfolded several of the notions mentioned above, was highly controversial and bitterly opposed by the majority of Christians when it was released.
Mel Gibson's movie, focusing our "modernity-based fact-fundamentalism" on the reality of crucifixion blended with his strictly conservative Catholic fundamentalist interpretation of scripture, has impacted millions, many of whom would describe themselves as having been finally moved by Jesus after decades of adulthood ignoring religion completely.
However historical research of Jesus turns out, it is as the Christ that Jesus' influence continues to matter.

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