What's the point of Jesus? — Advent 1. To begin, a positive genealogy of weakness
|Outside the church this morning on Emmanuel Road|
The other readings can be found by clicking this link.
(NB: 15 December 2013 - the proper second part of this address can be found by clicking this link)
As I have noted many times over the past fourteen years, I think it is important for us to be clear about our genealogy as a liberal religious movement. I particularly mention this today because it is the first Sunday in Advent, the season when our attention begins, once again, to turn towards the birth of our founding figure, Jesus of Nazareth.
It is a time when we attempt to hear once more what might be the tidings so memorably spoken of by the writer of the gospel of Luke who has the angels say to the shepherds watching their flocks by night: ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people’ (Luke 2:10).
You will recall that I spoke of the importance of tidings in the context of interpretation at our Remembrance Sunday service. Tidings speak of a hoped-for future event in which, as human beings, our whole way of being-in-the-world is radically changed. So changed in fact that, were to happen, it would be as if a joyous new world has come about.
In all Christian traditions — even in one such as our own which has dissented radically from much of traditional Christian belief — Jesus is central to these tidings of joy. The question is, therefore, in what way, if at all, is Jesus still central to our religious community? Another way of putting it is simply to ask what today, for us, "is the point of Jesus?"
The problem is that, because our liberal Christian tradition is a very complex and still unfolding mix of Classical, Renaissance, Enlightenment and modern scientific and naturalistic elements, we cannot here, in twenty-first century Cambridge, look upon, understand and appropriate our founding figure in anything like the same way we did even a hundred years ago, let alone four-hundred-and-fifty years ago when the first openly Unitarian congregations began to form in Poland and Transylvania. We certainly cannot look upon, understand and appropriate Jesus in the way the New Testament writers did some two millennia ago.
To traditional, orthodox forms of Christianity our stance is profoundly problematic because we are quite clear that we simply do not think as the author of Hebrews did, that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8). The empirical evidence for this is fully on our side and that, with regard to Jesus, we can see, as Jaroslav Pelikan noted in his book Jesus Through the Centuries, that it is "not sameness but kaleidoscopic detail that is [the] most conspicuous feature."
It is worth noting at this juncture that the passage in Hebrews about Jesus Christ's unchanging character continues with the following words: "Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings". Because we have never sought *identity* with our past and only, instead, some kind of living, meaningful and relevant *continuity* with it, the way our tradition as a whole has looked upon, understood and appropriated Jesus has always seemed to the many Christians who seek only eternal sameness in Christ a very strange teaching indeed. Our strange religious teaching is, in a nutshell, that the example of Jesus somehow helped us - and, I will argue, still helps us - claim the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.
But, in order, genuinely, to understand this freedom, and to be tomorrow what we are not today, we need to have some sense of what we were and how we got to today. So we need, now, to go back through a bit of our genealogy with regard to Jesus. I could give a fine grained history of the way we have changed our view on "the point of Jesus" but for all the obvious reason here I must stick to a few, very brief, examples.
After the fourth-century, and before our communities began to form in the the first half of the sixteenth-century, the prevailing view of Jesus within Christianity had been decisively shaped by the highly metaphysical idea that Jesus was very God of very God, the second person of the Trinity. The "point of Jesus" was easy to grasp — he was the supernatural God in human form and, therefore, in order to secure a fulfilled life, you simply did what you thought he taught or desired you to do (or at least what you were told by the Church he taught and desired you to do).
However, once our communities began freely to read the Biblical texts independently of all formal Church authority, they found a very different picture of Jesus from the one they had been taught. They found, not God, but a man, best thought of as a divinely inspired, human teacher and exemplar. Although he was no longer himself God, he was still believed by our forebears to be God's unique representative on earth, the promised Messiah. Jesus' divinity, and therefore his authority, was for them now found in his office, not his person. This was, of course, a step change from understanding Jesus as God but the "point of Jesus" was still absolutely clear to our forebears: as God's divine representative on earth you still did what you thought Jesus taught or desired you to do.
As we move through the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries this view, very slowly, began to change. Jesus's status as a human being began to grow in our forebears' minds as, too, did their understanding of the highly plural nature of religious belief in the world. As a religious tradition we began to appreciate more and more that great and lasting wisdom was contained in other religious traditions and that their founders and prophets should be held by us in the highest regard. Consequently, Jesus increasingly began to show up to us, not as the *only* true teacher and prophet to human kind but as a representative, general type of human teacher and exemplar. Our forebears still thought him to be remarkable and worthy of respect and emulation and, until at least the early twentieth-century, Jesus remained for Unitarians clearly their central, normative and authoritative religious teacher and exemplar. The "point of Jesus" was still clear but it was now not an unchanging theological one but rather a shifting and culturally determined one. Because Jesus was still their respected teacher our forebears still did what they thought he taught or desired them to do but they now recognised that this central, exemplary, role was for "Christians" only and was not at all theologically necessary for the whole of human kind across the whole of time.
Alongside this development, especially by the mid-nineteenth century, there was, of course, also a slow ebbing away of belief in the truth of the idea of the Christian God, in fact in the truth of any kind of absolute, supernatural deity. In our forbears' minds and hearts God, or better the divine and the sacred, was slowly coming down more and more to earth and penetrating ever more deeply into the natural world. The fulfillment of life was becoming this- and not other-worldly. Religion increasingly became for them a natural, rather than supernatural, phenomenon.
So in our own time, with no absolute divine authority left in heaven above and only culturally relative, human authority left below the question is, what is for us the "point of Jesus" in our own liberal communities?
It might seem that a person can only commit to Jesus out of either mere cultural habit and/or nostalgia or because they simply prefer the general sub-brand of liberal religion that Jesus' teachings may be said to promote over, say, the general sub-brand of liberal religion that seems to be promoted by the teachings of the Buddha. Many people here today (and reading this blog) will, of course, look at both teachers, and more besides, and take a little from each.
It's clear from this that a real blurring of the central "point of Jesus" for us has occurred such that it seems there is now way he can be seen, understood and appropriated as being central to our communities in any important, structural way. Given this it should come as no surprise that during the twentieth-century many of our churches no longer wanted to discriminate in any way between followers of Jesus and the Buddha or, for that matter, most other teacher of other religious tradition.
I want to make it clear that I'm not dismissing, nor am I laughing at, this move. After all, once the old theological, metaphysical, structural point of Jesus had gone for us there was — indeed is — a real logic in throwing open our doors to all other spiritual teachers and traditions.
But please note an important dynamic in this genealogy that is often missed or ignored. The argument often runs that what we see fulfilled in the throwing open of our churches' doors to other traditions and teachers is a wonderful *leveling-up*; all are now welcomed, with equal, high regard into our company. The height of this leveling-up being measured by the high-regard with which we hold (or, rather, held) Jesus.
But I hope it is clear that the general, felt mood of our genealogy has been, throughout, chiefly characterised by an *ebbing away* of confidence in Jesus's divine authority. Our regard of and confidence in Jesus, metaphysically speaking, has been going down and not up. Consequently, when our doors were flung open to other religious teachers and traditions the act was, subliminally, more often than not simply an act of general theological leveling-down. Naturally, for politenesses sake, we generally don't admit this even to ourselves let alone to the followers of other teachers and traditions.
Now one might hear what I have said about a levelling down as wholly negative but in it I hear some wonderful, positive Advent tidings of joy which speak to the two key sacramental energies of religion about which I have spoken many times since 2009. The first energy is that which can limit us in the face of hubris; the second is one which can transform us in the face of complacency (James C, Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things - The fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism, p. ix).
Next week I will look at something connected with a non-metaphysical "point of Jesus" that is full of the second energy, the one which can transform us in the face of complacency. But today I want to conclude with an indication of how our genealogy is powerfully filled with the first energy, that which can limit us in the face of hubris.
In the highly edited version of our genealogy I have just given we see develop a radical challenge to human hubris in the field of religion and belief. We see in it the growing recognition that no religious teacher or tradition can look into a supernatural realm beyond this world and bring back a universal, unchanging, true and perfect, one-size-fits-all religion that can, or should be imposed upon all people through all time. So one positive "point of Jesus" for us today, that is of central concern to our communities, is, I would argue, related to the need constantly to be reminded of this important truth.
And I think there is something very, very good and joyful indeed about this (strange) kind of tidings and today I value highly and encourage the weakening of all such ultimate theological and metaphysical claims (see this link to read more about the Weak Theology of John D. Caputio or click here to read something of about Weak Thought of Gianni Vattimo). Followers of such "weak" kinds of religion — of a "weak" Jesus or a "weak" Buddha — are much more likely to live peacefully with each other than those who believe they are following infallible "strong" divine teachers who bring them only unchanging religious truths. So, another important "point of Jesus" for us today, that is of central concern to our communities is his very weakness, epitomized most memorably in the stories about his birth in a stable and his death upon the cross.
If nothing else this weakening of our old absolutist religious certainties about a divine Jesus in favour of the "weaker" human wisdom of the man Jesus has more hope of bringing to pass the joyous message Luke imagines the angels brought to the shepherds: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (Luke 2:14).
(NB: 15 December 2013 - the proper second part of this address can be found by clicking this link)