Sunday, January 18, 2015

Where Does Jesus Fit In?

An explanation of my current thinking about Jesus is due by my promise to my secular friend who was kind enough to inquire where I was headed in my God quest. Specifically she asked among other things my thoughts about a Resurrected Jesus. Other readers might be interested as well so I'm making this post about it.

You know, this is really difficult and awkward. I heard the Jesus story (well at least a very conservative estimate of it) from my parents when I was a child. When I was six I saw a picture of Jesus carrying his cross on the way to his execution in one of the magazines that our denomination put out. That and the story of his death so impressed my young mind that I cut out that picture and taped it to the wall beside my bed.

My family also had a framed holographic picture of Jesus' crucifixion. Looking at it straight on you saw the crucifixion; move slightly to the side and you saw a depiction of his ascension to the heavens. I spent much time pondering that picture.

All these years later Jesus still energizes my imagination and haunts my mind. I do believe he was a historical person. I do believe he was a powerful Jewish teacher and religious leader whose influence has survived through the centuries and impacted other great religious leaders even in our times, such as Gandhi and MLK, Jr. I do think the synoptic gospels especially present us with traditions that date back to him, even if the copies we now have are the results of many hands and many years. I'm not unfamiliar with certain rationalist works that have attempted to undermine the historical tradition of Jesus and the gospels. I just don't find them overly persuasive.

But I haven't as yet been able to find my way back to Christianity. I doubt I ever will. I believe Christianity as we know it owes more to the Apostle Paul than Jesus the rabbi. I think I find myself more impressed with and closer to Jesus' Jewish monotheism than Paul's pagan-influenced mystical religion about Jesus. (That isn't meant as a criticism because I also share sympathy with both religious mysticism and pagan symbolism.)

Often I've thought about searching for a church where the power of the symbols in Christianity are exalted and the more irrational aspects of taking symbols as literal truths is downplayed. Fellowship is nice to find but hard to come by when you are a religious heretic in the eyes of many.

However, I presently find my most meaningful fellowship in the company of other non-dogmatic and open-minded spiritual seekers. For now I'm content to do so. For me morality and moral "oughtness" ties in too well with religion for me to be happy with mere humanism.

Having said that, I would still feel much more comfortable in the company of atheistic humanists than with religious people who use Jesus (or Mohammed or anyone) as an excuse to act harmfully towards their fellow humans.

As touching the alleged resurrection of Jesus, I don't think I have much to offer. If my sense of God and religious sentiments depended solely on the literal truth of that hypothesis, I think I would be in trouble. That calls for a type of faith I don't posses. I don't like a faith that puts too much emphasis on things based on second hand accounts. I'm more convinced by what I can directly examine and experience. I don't mean this as any type of argument, but rather as a statement of where I stand.

So I would not explicitly argue against miracles or the resurrection of Jesus. I don't deny he walked on water, either. It just seems to me that these are easier understood (at least for me!) as symbolic legends than actual events.

If the empty tomb could be demonstrated to be a historical fact (which I don't see how it possibly could), I would sooner think Jesus never actually died in the first place. Someone surviving crucifixion would be almost as "miraculous" as someone actually being brought back from the dead (as in complete and total cessation of life for an extended period of time). The advantage to this is that we have actual verification of folks surviving short-term life cessation, even under amazing circumstances - and none for the lengthy dead coming back.

But as a spiritual guide I find Jesus both inviting and relevant - not as a God-man, but rather as a God-intoxicated man. I quote Jesus often in my daily dealings with people because I do find him relevant and helpful. I only wish my fundamentalist Christian friends would take time to study the gospels in-depth for themselves and find out what Jesus really did have to say. As Gandhi put it: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."  


  1. Hi Doug, I was interested to read where you are on this.

    I wasn't raised christian though I was sent to Sunday School, and the Jesus I was taught about there was a fairly conventional evangelical Jesus. But when I decided in my teens that I believed in him and wanted to follow him, I soon discovered that there were problems with that view of jesus - the text showed he was different to that. So I have had a long interest since then in understanding the real Jesus in his context.

    I find that (historical) Jesus to be an immensely interesting and challenging person, I think much as you seem to (from your comments here). But I don't find such a split between Jesus and Paul as you do. I see the difference, but it seems to me to be one of emphasis and development more than total change. It was the same early christian community which preserved and valued the letters of Paul and the stories that became the gospels, and they didn't seem to find them incompatible.

    The resurrection is certainly a big one to swallow. But I note that the majority of secular historians and scholars of antiquity who have written on the subject apparently believe as historical fact that either the tomb was empty, or Jesus disciples had some form of visions of him, or both. This means the historical evidence for the resurrection is good, it is the extreme miraculous nature of the event that makes it difficult to believe.

    I don't have any authority to speak, but I would think Jesus would be pleased you find him "relevant and helpful". I suspect many who identify as christians don't respect the real Jesus as much as you do.

    1. Hi unkleE, and thanks for you nice response to my post.

      I'm open to the split between Jesus and Paul being more apparent than real. It just seems to me that Paul in his missions to the Gentiles worked hard at making the Jewish religion palatable to them and that this eventually resulted in a new religion. Also I'm impressed by how conversant patristic theology is with pagan thought.

      Yes, Jesus' resurrection is "a big one to swallow." The empty tomb is compatible with either theft of the body or his reviving in the tomb.

      Of course it is also compatible with the resurrection of Jesus. But I can't bring myself to lay yet another burden on my belief in the God-hypothesis - although I confess to an enduring fascination with the Shroud of Turin! Again, my mind is open.

      As for Jesus' relevancy, even the atheist Bertrand Russell could proclaim that what the world needs is Christian love. I certainly agree.

    2. Expanding on Russell's proclamation. Couldn't we just say what the world needs is love? Of course then we have to ask, What is love? The evangelical will say, love is going into the world and preaching the gospel. The evangelical will say, God is love. Their God.

      Expanding on unkleE's comment: I don't have any authority to speak, but I would think Jesus would be pleased you find him "relevant and helpful".

      Does "relevant and helpful" get you into heaven?

      Thank you Doug B.

    3. To be fair I should give Russell's whole statement:

      "When, in a recent book, I said that what the world needs is 'love, Christian love, or compassion,' many people thought this showed some changes in my views, although in fact, I might have said the same thing at any time. If you mean by a "Christian' a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then, certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian. And, in this sense, I think you will find more "Christians" among agnostics than among the orthodox. But, for my part, I cannot accept such a definition. Apart from other objections to it, it seems rude to Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and other non-Christians, who, so far as history shows, have been at least as apt as Christians to practice the virtues which some modern Christians arrogantly claim as distinctive of their own religion."

      Okay, if "Christian love" makes you uncomfortable, just say the world needs more love. But for my part, if the atheist Russell didn't have trouble with the phrase, the ethical theist Doug won't either. :-)

      And I do mean love of fellow humans and the suffering.

      Will "relevant and helpful" get us into Heaven? I just think of it as putting us right before God.

      Just stating my own opinion here, I think the fundamentalists and evangelicals got Jesus quite wrong. I can't find any grounds for thinking Jesus placed correct knowledge over right behavior.

    4. Just stating my own opinion here, I think the fundamentalists and evangelicals got Jesus quite wrong. I can't find any grounds for thinking Jesus placed correct knowledge over right behavior.

      I have to agree to a point, Doug. I even got into trouble with a reader once by suggesting that in the sheep/goat seperation passages that Jesus talkes about them being judged by their works. GASP!

      I wonder if the "right knowledge" thing is a way to get people off the hook for doing right things. ??????

    5. Hi, Alice. Lots of folks here where I live know little more than the pray-the-sinner's-prayer form of religion. Just acknowledge Jesus died for your sins and all is good. He paid for your sins so you're "in like Flynn," no matter how you live. And as you point out, when you mention that in the Bible's judgment passages people are to be judged according to their works, it goes over like a lead balloon. Ah, well....