To catch a glimpse of the real man of Galilee, and give ear to his teaching—Address for Christmas Day 2018

The Nativity in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
READINGS: Luke 2:1-12

Leo Tolstoy’s reinterpretation and representation of the opening of John’s Gospel found in his “The Gospel in Brief: The Life of Jesus” (composite translation by Aylmer Maude and Dustin Condren)

In the beginning stood the understanding of life, as the foundation of all things. Understanding of life stood in the place of God. Understanding of life is God. According to Jesus’s proclamation, it stands as the basis and source of all things, in the place of God. All that lives was born into life through understanding. And without it, there can be nothing living. Understanding gives true life. Understanding is the light of life. It is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it. The true light has always been in the world and it illuminates every person born into the world. It was in the world and the world is living only because it had that light of understanding within itself, but the world did not hold on to it. It revealed itself to its own, but its own did not keep it. Only the ones who understood the enlightenment, they alone were given the opportunity to become like it, by virtue of their belief in its essence. Those who believed in the fact that life is based in understanding did not become sons of the flesh, but became sons of understanding.


To catch a glimpse of the real man of Galilee, and give ear  to his teaching—Address for Christmas Day 2018

It has become de rigour in churches that belong to the radical liberal Christian and Enlightenment traditions to remind people that the Nativity stories which lay at the heart of Advent and Christmas are fictions through and through. The stories need to be understood first and foremost as myth (even if beautiful and powerful) and not as history.

We remind people of this because, as our order of service says, here “we affirm but one orthodoxy, namely, a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it” and we have come to trust that when good, sound, honest critical evidence-based scholarship — whether scientific or, in this case historical and literary — shows us what we once believed to be true is not, we must be brave and wise enough to acknowledge this and find new ways to understand the world and a new intellectual, religious and spiritual place within it.

This stance of ours often reminds me of something the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) once wrote to a friend with which we could, I think, never agree. He wrote:

If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth” (in Letter XXI to Mme. N. D. Fonvisin, 1854)

Although it is still shocking to some, were we forced to choose between Christ and the truth in this binary way, we would — unlike Dostoevsky — unhesitatingly choose truth every time.

Over the centuries this practice of choosing truth over Christ has slowly brought us to the conclusion that many other stories recounted in biblical texts were also not true and that many of the beliefs they served to encourage about such things as Jesus’ status as very God of very God, his messiahship, the miracles and the resurrection were also to be firmly but gently set aside as being untrue.

But, and this is important, the reason for our undertaking this task in the first place was a basic intuition — always open to revision of course — that, were we ever able to uncover it, what the historical, fully human Jesus had actually said and done would be able to offer us a form of life that was still truly worthy of our own, whole-hearted religious, philosophical and political commitment. Beyond all theological double-speak it was this human teaching we were seeking and we, today, remain a religious community which is attempting to live a contemporary, humanistic version of the religion of Jesus rather than a religion about Jesus — to practice a religion in which (following what we now seen to know about the historical Jesus) Jesus dispensed with the notion of “God-in-himself” and put in its place the experience of “God-with-humankind” and gave us a set of teachings where everything is dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour — and, remember, according to Jesus our neighbours included even those whom we considered our (real or potential) enemies. This is why it says on the hand-lettered notice to the left of the door as you come into this church that “our religious thinking is related to the teaching of Jesus and its application in the modern world.” But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

During the nineteenth century, our love of truth led us ever more deeply into historical study and our own scholars were amongst the first to take seriously the revolutionary work of David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) and Ernest Renan (1823–1892) both of whom wrote famous and, at the time, scandalous “lives of Jesus” which rejected ideas such as that Jesus was the Son of God, was the Jewish Messiah and that Jesus’ life was a fulfilment of certain Old Testament Messianic prophecies. They also both rejected as untrue all the supernatural events recounted in the Gospels including the resurrection.

This was all good and necessary work but — as is always the case — the law of unforeseen consequences began to play out and it slowly became possible to see that this noble task had a serious downside.

This was the development of a certain kind of scholarship which — in seeking to speak from some imagined, ideal, neutral view from nowhere — succeeded in losing real, living, existential contact with the very subject it was trying to study. No one I know summed-up this downside better than Leo Tolstoy. Whilst Tolstoy was in full agreement with historical truths scholars such as Strauss and Renan were uncovering he was scathingly critical of them as representatives of a certain class of interpreters who had absolutely no interest in putting Jesus’s ideas into practice and using them to change the world “with its designs of prisons for solitary confinement, alcazars [castles], factories, magazines, brothels, and parliaments” (cited in Hugh McLean's essay Tolstoy and Jesus).

Tolstoy could see that a tradition of historical scholarship was being set up that was becoming fatally passive and which no longer felt the need or, indeed, had the ability firmly and bravely to commit to any practical reforming social or ethical goals. The quest for the historical Jesus was becoming for many liberal scholars simply a game or pastime, a purely intellectual puzzle to be solved and one with no real life consequences.

In our culture this general tendency has only increased since the end of the nineteenth century and our modern systems of education have increasingly and dangerously detached us from the actual subjects we claim to be studying — this is especially true in the areas of economics, politics, philosophy and, my subject today, religion. It needs to be said that, because liberal ministers of religion like me and the liberal Christian and Enlightenment tradition to which this church belongs are themselves products of these systems of education we, too, have all too often come to see our own reflections about Jesus as being of little more consequence than the playing of an interesting intellectual game.

But we are living through times when passivity and detachment are no longer either viable or, indeed, possible. Issues such as climate change and Trump and Brexit with the associated resurgence of national populism cannot hope to be addressed and challenged by us if we continue to see our religion and politics as merely abstract intellectual, academic games.

To slip into the colloquial, the rubber of our truth-seeking critical scholarship must hit the road of our lived reality.

Although we here in this liberal church accept many — if not most — of the findings of good, critical, historical study about Jesus, today more than ever, we must guard against failing to see that what we have discovered when the Gospels are stripped as best they can be of their unhistorical and supernatural elements, is a teaching that remains utterly relevant today. Jesus’ human teaching, where everything is dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour (the “rubber” if you like), remains full of ideas and provocations that are still capable of changing the world for the better (the “road” if you like) and that it is a teaching worthy of our whole-hearted commitment. As our first minister here, J. Cyril Flower, wrote in 1920 in his book “The Parables of Jesus applied to Modern Life” when we “catch a glimpse of the real man of Galilee, and give ear to [his] teaching” then “like the seed growing in secret” it remains capable of germinating in our hearts and able to “revolutionize our social life, our industrial order and our religion” (p. 9).

So, today, although as good, truth-seeking scholars we acknowledge that the Christmas stories are fictions — beautiful myths and not histories — let us not forget that they can still represent to us the mythical moment when a genuinely new light and understanding of life was felt to have entered the world. It was a radical understanding of life which has always privileged the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the orphan and the stranger. That light and understanding of life has not yet been overcome in our world or among us, even though our liberal, detached, scholarly concerns has sometimes come perilously close to putting it out.

I trust we have all come here today to pay homage in our own ways to the small, vulnerable new-born human child named Jesus, not as a mere intellectual game or entertainment, but as a genuine thanksgiving for the new light and understanding of life he would later come to teach us and which, across generations and geography, still calls upon us to change and better the world in favour of the many and not the few. So, today, let us celebrate without reserve this new light and understanding of life, let us rest and be joyful, and may our festivities serve to prepare us well for the important work of love and justice that is still to be done.

Happy birthday Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth, our exemplary brother and comrade in the struggle to bring into being a better world for all.


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