A liberal stands up for Jesus - and a few others

Last week I introduced an Advent theme, namely, the urgent need for religious liberals to stop prevaricating and to step out into the world, to get down and dirty and once again learn how to live and act in it with hope and confidence. But I am acutely aware that our post-enlightenment culture has, for a long time, encouraged us to live at a dangerously sceptical distance from the world and this, in turn, has meant that our lives often have the feel of being more observed and theoretical than actually lived. Life for the religious liberal has come to resemble merely a theoretical model - always on the drawing board but never quite put into prototype form and actually sent out in the world to be tested. As our reading of At the Smithville Methodist Church by Stephen Dunn eloquently showed we have developed crippling fears particularly about our own community's prototype - Jesus of Nazareth - who used to help us learn how we, as human-beings, might live fully and passionately in the world.

To become fully human we need human exemplars to follow who can help us frame and ground our potentialities. As I noted in an address I gave earlier this year my work in jazz-education has enabled me to articulate this matter. Of great help was the following comment by the American jazz double-bassist Chuck Israels which summarised the experience of many of us working in this field:

Over the years, as I have assumed the role of "Jazz Educator", both within and outside of "institutions of higher learning" . . . I have learned to ask (of students) a revealing question. "Who is your favourite musician?" It is remarkable that more often than not, I get no clear answer. There is sometimes a period of uncomfortable silence broken by occasional throat clearing noises, while the prospective student searches for a name or perhaps tries to guess what name might create the most effective impression. Sometimes an embarrassed silence yields nothing and occasionally there is an equally uncommitted claim to have listened to and liked "everything".

Yet nearly every year there is one such student, standing before me, claiming to want to play jazz but knowing absolutely nothing about the music or claiming to love it all but who is unable to point to any specific example of the music. What is going on? Well Israels believes (and I agree with him) that the student is motivated by the 'idea of the potential pleasures of performing with and for other people, with the attendant rewards of attention and shared activity.' These are, he notes:

. . . worthwhile values and have served as a part of the motivation of many artists. But this is a broad image which is insufficiently concrete to serve as a focus for attainment. There is no clear place to begin and the mentor is reduced to helping the applicant to find something to love. Get a model. Find a prototype. Without this there is no image and no passion.

I know from experience that people who come to check out a liberal church tradition such as this are motivated by the many worthwhile ideal potential gains they feel such a community should offer - they include wisdom, religious insight, community and a certain sense of mental and spiritual stability as well as an exciting openness to all kinds of ways of being spiritual. But this general feeling alone is such a broad canvas that, alone, it is wholly 'insufficient to serve as a focus for attainment.' If an individual church allows people to remain at this general level there is simply no clear place to begin to learn how to be religious liberally.

So as mentor - whether as a music teacher or minister - my role is often reduced to helping people find something to love, to get a model and find a prototype. In the case of my music students I have to send them away to go and listen to something - anything - and, when they have found something they actually like, to come back to me and begin the real task of imitating that model and of figuring out how and that player is playing the things he or she does. To the disappointment of many of them this turns out to be hard work which takes, I'm afraid, years to complete. But, if you haven't got a role model about whose playing you are very excited then you will have 'no image and no passion' and this huge task quickly becomes too great to see through to the end. That student will either give up or, if they keep playing, will drift around at the general level of wanting all the fruits of being a jazz player without doing any of the required foundational work and, in consequence, they turn out to be directionless players with no substantial grip on anything real about the music. At best they will be mediocre players at worst they will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure. Another solution some try to use is to start to believe that the good players have some magic about them - had magic dust sprinkled on them at birth - that they don't have. (It is, of course, the same excuse which, in the minds of many, turns Jesus from being a great human teacher into God.)

The same is true in religious circles - including liberal religion - and merely desiring the fruits of a liberal religion without, at the same time, seriously seeking to follow the religious prototype or model of that faith in action means you will never get a real grip on what you need to be doing in any religious life. Everything will remain terribly unfocussed and unfulfilling; there will be no attainment and no progression. At best you will be mediocre in the matter of living, at worst you will experience feelings of utter frustration, hopelessness and failure to live the abundant life which Jesus promised could be ours. Well it is that or you turn him into God and let yourself off the hook . . .

It is true, of course, that there are other models or prototypes one might follow other than Jesus but I am not making here some covert claim for his uniqueness and value over all other great religious teachers - I, too, have a number of other figures who continue to hold my loyalty, primarily Lao Tse, Spinoza, Epicurus and Lucretius. No, my point is much more prosaic and practical than that - it is simply that historically Jesus just happens to be our particular family of faith's trusted primary model.

Now, I am aware that some amongst our number may seek to resist the message of this address because they believe it would tie them down, unduly restrict them. But a model only ties and represses when it becomes a fixed dogma, a dead theory to be slavishly repeated without variation and creativity. But that is not a true model. The true model can only free because it is precisely in the process of modelling oneself on something tangible that you are helped into the real world to test and experience it yourself. The conception of following Jesus I have in mind is much more like the exciting and fruitful relationship I continue to have with my musical heroes. It was only by copying them that I learnt how to move from an idea or theory about how to play jazz to playing jazz. I don't sound precisely like any of them but without them I could not be free to be me, Andrew Brown, jazz musician.

However, once personally freed you cannot then simply bequeath others who follow you (such as our children) - with no cost - your freedom. You also have to offer them real models to follow themselves and attach them to wonderful stories. In music I offer up Miles Davis and the wonderful story of the Birth of the Cool, Round about Midnight, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, John Coltrane and the wonderful story of A Love Supreme and Ascension, the Beatles and the wonderful story of their transition from Please Please Me to Sgt Pepper and beyond, The Kinks from You really Got Me to Autumn Almanac. In this pulpit I offer you a variety of models to learn to love but primarily I hold fast to offering up Jesus and, at this time of year, the wonderful story of Christmas.

The tragedy of institutional Christianity was to turn Jesus from a startling and inspiring human model into a dead dogmatical held metaphysical theory about the world. Standing up for that kind of Jesus - with its associated slavish support of the institutions that support these theories - is something I, too, am profoundly uncomfortable about.

But the genius of our liberal tradition was to see that when Jesus was followed, as a true human exemplar, Jesus inspired and enabled a person to begin experience, not a pale imitation of Jesus' life nor that of some religious institution, whether the Temple or the Church, but their own life in all its fullness - the only life any of us can experience.

The truth is we don't have to become crippled with worry about affirming Jesus as a model because, when followed with imagination, intelligence, wisdom and some real anarchic rebelliousness, his example still provides us with a practical method of entering fully into the world beyond all theories and beyond all religions. We, too, can still stand up for Jesus but for us, if we do it properly and consistently, then this is simply to help every man and woman to stand up in their own ways as truly free sons and daughters of God and together to improvise a better future for the whole world.


In case it is of any help to anybody reading this blog the texts I use to help me follow Jesus as a teacher remain, of course, the four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but, even with many years of studying them in both a faith context and in an academic environment, they remain, even in modern translations, incredibly difficult to read and understand, let alone follow. So I find it very helpful to use on a daily basis - they always sit in my knapsack - a couple of edited and re-presented versions of the Gospels that take some quite drastic decisions on what a Gospel according to Jesus should contain. They are Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief (which has interesting connections with Wittgenstein) and Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus.

This approach will send some faithful Christians (including some liberals) and scholars into paroxysms of despair saying that this is simply to make the Gospels resemble to my own views about the world rather than keep it close to anything historic Christianity has taught. Perhaps - but to read any text is to interpret it and make some decisions about what is in it worthy of being followed and what is not. Tolstoy and Mitchell make interpretations that are simply amenable to my own. It seems to me that as long as you keep the canonical texts in mind as you read and use these other edited texts you will be critically engaging with the tradition as much as any other person - it is just that you will also be clear about your commitment to becoming an independent thinker about what Jesus was actually trying to teach.

In the end, as I argue in this blog in general, that is to do nothing other than what the first disciples did, namely increasingly to become alive to their own possibilities as human beings commingled in a world eternally suffused with the Divine.


Yewtree said…
Interesting thoughts, but how can we be sure that Jesus really was the liberal that we would like him to be?

According to some (Jewish) commentators, the Pharisees were the religious liberals of their day and the Nazarenes were the puritanical party.

That said, it is noteworthy that Gandhi and Martin Luther King both used Jesus' methods as their blueprint for bringing about change.
Good point - thanks for taking the time to comment.

I don't think we can be sure. Father Tyrell memorably wrote that when we look down the long dark well of catholic history to see Jesus all we see is our own face reflected back at us - I think he is right.

But, as I try to say in my Christmas Day post, the figure we inherit via the texts still has the ability to create certain conditions in which 'our minds are set in motion' which, in turn 'allows something to well up in the inner reaches of our consciousness.' The texts about Jesus still beckon towards deeper experience which in turn resonates with the texts. The result being, I think, that we can be helped to discover the source of the resonance that beckoned. Importantly that source is not Jesus - so what one 'sees' down the well of history becomes somewhat less important than it would be if I were trying to recover the historical Jesus - which I'm not. I'm much more interested in discovering what the Jesus of faith can teach us about the Divine source of things.
Dear Yewtree,

I'm terribly sorry but I accidentally deleted your second comment by accident - I pressed the wrong button! Could you send it again.
Yewtree said…
I can't remember what I wrote and it doesn't appear in my email until after you have approved it.

It was something along the lines of agreeing with you about the Jesus of liberal faith being the catalyst for new ideas and insights - and I would hope that any genuine contact with that image of the Divine would lead to fuller humanity and not the diminished version of it espoused by the Fundagelicals.

I joined Unitarianism because I agree with the values and most of the theology.