. . . and everything is dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour.

The man Jesus on my Polish Socinian medallion  
One of our tasks as a liberal church is find a way meaningfully to remain a community trying to live in “the spirit of Jesus” (as our own church covenant states) whilst, at the same time, allowing for, and actively encouraging, the complete spiritual freedom of individual members that, something that is clearly part of the DNA of our free religious movement — a freedom, I might add, which has led to a radical reassessment of what we might mean by the word God and which has taken many of us away from any kind of traditional theism.  

A significant problem facing us in this task is that it’s two elements do not always sit together at all easily. The first seems to encourage a holding back and a general attitude of conservation whilst the second desires the complete freedom to run ahead and fully outplay itself in the always and ever coming new spheres of human knowledge and experience.

But, unless we take care to conserve a shared, communal story and history (in our case rooted in, but not confined to Jesus’ teachings and example) then we will lose that vital something which holds us together as a genuine family or people; and, unless we simultaneously allow ourselves the genuine freedom to follow up the implications of our own experiences and consciences then we have lost an indispensable element of the liberal tradition with it’s emphasis on the free spirit that blows where it listeth.

As your minister I have spent countless hours trying to find ways to undertake this task as effectively and coherently as possible but have never really found a straightforward way of showing how this might be done. It has often felt to me like the famed, and now proven to be impossible (in 1882 — following Lindemann–Weierstrass' theorem), attempt to square the circle.

Tom Sheehan
That is until just over a year ago when I began to read a book by the noted philosopher Thomas Sheehan who taught firstly at Loyola University in Chicago and then at Stanford University, where he remains a professor. I first came across Sheehan very late in the day thanks to a tip-off by our minister emeritus who, at the tail-end of 2012, kindly pointed me in the direction of an essay of his published by the Jesus Seminar in 2000 in which Sheehan asks and tries to answer the question of what, “Jesus[’s message] might signify in the future [millennium] that opens before us” (From Divinity to Infinity). Then, in November last year, Sheehan published a new and groundbreaking book, “Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift”. Very impressed by that (and a briefer essay on the same subject) I looked through his bibliography and noticed that, back in 1986, he had published “The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God became Christianity” and I quickly hunted down a second-hand copy, not least of all because I was puzzled about why I had not come across, or been introduced to, this book earlier, even whilst I was undertaking my New Testament studies at Oxford in 1997.

For me the particular genius of this book is not simply that Sheehan restores to us a Jesus whose basic teaching might meaningfully be available to us today — and what he thinks that teaching is I’ll come to in a minute — but that he does this in a fashion which clearly shows just how badly misunderstood Jesus was by both his earliest disciple, Simon-Peter, and then by St Paul and what eventually became the Christian church. By implication he also gently reveals why we really could (and perhaps should) leave all vestiges of traditional Christian belief behind.

Sheehan offers us a clear and very readable account of how on earth the man Jesus became, firstly a coming Apocalyptic Judge, then the Reigning Lord and Christ, and then the Divine Son of God, an idea which later turns Jesus into God himself as the second person of the Trinity. Throughout he uses good mainstream historical scholarship to show how these increasingly problematic ideas (problematic in terms of what Jesus seems actually to have taught) slowly took hold of the Jewish-Christian and then Hellenic-Christian mind and came utterly to obscure the basic, simple but still startling message of Jesus. Nowhere does Sheehan make any wild, unsubstantiated claims and he always approaches his subject in a measured and even-handed way. In short, for his historical scholarship alone, I’d recommend the book without reservation.

But I’d also recommend it for Sheehan's own, constructive summary found in the final chapter of his book called “Recovering the Kingdom” because he is a man who, as an individual, wishes to engage in a ‘“retrieval’ of the still living possibilities latent in the prophet’s message of the kingdom of God”.

So, we need to start with what Sheehan thinks Jesus was teaching. He suggests that, at heart:

Jesus signalled that God was immediately and intimately present, not as a harsh judge but as a loving and generous father. His presence was a pure and unearned gift, and one could relate to him without fear. “Be not afraid,” Jesus told his followers. “Do not be anxious about your life,” “Do not worry.”’ Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:25-30). Nor did one have to earn this Father’s favour or bargain for his grace by scrupulously observing the minutiae of the Law. One simply had to call on him.’ Ask and it will be given to you. … What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you, evil as you are, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him (Matthew 7:7, 9-11), When you pray, say “Abba …“ (Luke 11:2). ’This immediate presence of God as a loving Father is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom.” (pp. 59-60)

Holding this presence of God in mind Sheehan feels that '[t]he radicalness of Jesus’ message consisted in its implied proclamation of the end of religion, taken as the bond between two separate and incommensurate entities called “God” and “man.”’ Sheehan goes on to say:

That is, Jesus destroyed the notion of “God-in-himself” and put in its place the experience of “God-with-mankind.” Henceforth, according to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven but was entirely identified with the cause of men and women. Jesus’ doctrine of the kingdom meant that God had become incarnate: He had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but there. This incarnation was not a Hegelian “fall” of the divine into history, or Feuerbach’s simplistic reduction of God to the human project of self-fulfillment. But neither did it mean the hypostatic union of two natures, the divine and the human, in a God-man called Jesus of Nazareth. The doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one’s neighbour. Jesus dissolved the fanciful speculations of apocalyptic eschatology into the call to justice and charity.

Jesus’ message of the kingdom radically redefined the traditional notions of grace and salvation and made them mean nothing other than this event of God-with-man. Salvation was no longer to be understood as the forgiving of a debt or as the reward for being good. Nor was it a supernatural supplement added on to what human beings are, some kind of ontological elevation to a higher state. All such metaphysical doctrines are forms of religion, which Jesus brought to an end. His proclamation marked the death of religion and religion’s God and heralded the beginning of the post religious experience: the abdication of “God” in favour of his hidden presence among human beings’ (pp. 61-62 emphasis mine).

It’s no wonder that my New Testament teachers at Oxford — all of them committed in some way to the continuance of both the Christian Church and Christian belief — did not put Sheehan’s book on their list of recommended reading. They may have agreed with most of his historical scholarship but they would not have agreed with his claim that Jesus’ proclamation marked the death of religion and the beginning of the post-religious experience in which everything was dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour.

It will come as no surprise to you that I think Sheehan’s right in saying God is for us today dissolved into this world and the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour, indeed, as you know, I’ve been saying as much for years in my explorations with you on the matter of what a secular Christianity or religion might look like. But what’s particularly powerful for me is that Sheehan is able to show (convincingly to my mind) that this basic idea can plausibly be shown to stem from Jesus himself.

In other words, to return to the beginning of my address, Sheehan’s book offers us a way to see how it is possible to be a community trying to live in “the spirit of Jesus” whilst, at the same time, allowing for, and actively encouraging, the complete spiritual freedom of it's individual members. Sheehan shows that Jesus seems highly likely to have been calling for something remarkably similar in his own, first-century Jewish context.

Having heard what Sheehan thinks was Jesus basic message it is worth, I think, briefly bringing before you the three major ways Sheehan thinks the interpretation of Jesus as the saviour distorted that message.

(NB: Which is not, incidentally, to rule wholly out of court orthodox Christianities as interpretations that, potentially, have great benefits, but it is to say that they are only interpretations and, likely as not, ones that do not accord well with what Jesus originally seems to have taught.)

Firstly, Christianity failed to see Jesus was talking about God being present everywhere and it made the mistake of identifying this presence with Jesus alone: ’It took the mystery [Jesus] proclaimed — the utterly unfathomable mystery of God’s disappearance into humankind — and reduced it to the Procrustean dimensions of the one who proclaimed.’

Secondly, ’Christianity abandoned [Jesus’] radical sense of time. By interpreting Jesus as saviour, the church surrendered the present-future — the only place where the Father henceforth would dwell — and in its place constructed the mythical past-present-future of a cosmic “salvation history,” according to which God had become man in the past, was reigning in heaven at present, and would return to earth in the future. In so doing, Christianity lost the core of the prophet’s message of forgiveness: that the future was already present — grace was everywhere.’

Thirdly, ’Christianity reconstituted religion. Jesus did not undertake his prophetic mission in order to bring people more religion (surely there was enough available already) or a different religion (Judaism was quite adequate, as religions go) or the true and perfect religion (which would be a contradiction in terms). Nor was his goal to reform the religion into which he was born. Rather, Jesus preached the end of religion and the beginning of what religion is supposed to be about: God’s presence among men and women. And the paradox of the prophet’s message was that God’s presence meant God’s disappearance — into his people. In a sense then, yes, it meant the death of God, his kenôsis or outpouring of himself.’

As I have said to you at other times, what this gifts us with is a highly minimal, post-Christian, non-theistic religion and that won't suit everybody but it has it's charms, not least of all that it is possible to say that it's genesis is to be found in Jesus' original preaching of the kingdom, a preaching that Christianity singularly failed to hear.

And so, to conclude, here are Sheehan's own words once more:

'[W]hat survives the dead Yeshua [Jesus] is not himself but his words, his interpretation of the meaning of life. When we cut through all the theological red tape and get to the core, Yeshua [Jesus] was not about the Christ, not even about God in heaven — because his God was entirely about human beings on earth, enacting justice and mercy — that alone defined his God' (What comes after Christianity).


Two videos with Thomas Sheehan

A short five minute presentation for the Jesus Seminar on "Christianity after Christ"

An hour long lecture at Stanford University on "Transcendence, Mystery, Religion"