[A pdf copy to download, read and/or print is here.]
This Series explores new possibilities to be found in pushing beyond the constraints of theism and a-theism; and the blunt and limited question of believing or not believing in a “theistic” notion of “God.” We typically fashion our notion of anything we deem sacred “Oneness” in anthropomorphic terms, so we can more easily relate to the idea. The Christian then proceeds to incarnate that God notion with a Christology in which Jesus is typically construed as a co-eternal mediator and – peculiarly – a substitutionary sacrifice. *[In this regard, see the Postscript to this commentary.]
But for those progressives for whom such a construct is no longer viable or credible, what might still be found amidst the theological rubble in a post-modern – even post-deconstructionist – age? Indeed, what may have been there from the start of the entire imaginative process; known in the earliest days of a pre-Christian movement, known simply as the Way (of Jesus)? As near as we might be able to discern it with our own creative and interpretive imaginations, what resemblance might such a path bear to the “voice-print” of an extraordinarily imaginative character we might want to befriend?
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And he tells me I am His own
And the joys we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
Nineteenth century American hymn, C. Austin Miles
Probably every adult once had an imaginary friend when they are growing up. The reasons for it are easily understood, as well. With a child’s creative imagination, that friend of one’s own fabrication could be exactly who or what you wanted or needed them to be. You could talk to them endlessly; sharing your deepest fears and secrets, while unloading any burden or care. They would never interrupt you with their own needs and agendas. And you could always count on them to be there for you whenever you chose to conjure them up in your own imagination. Sometimes a child will imbue a toy doll, a teddy bear, or even a pet with such intimate powers.
I probably shared more about my young life when I was growing up with my beagle than any other two-legged or four-legged creature. I’d scratch his ears and he’d listen for hours, accepting anything I had to share without comment, opinion or judgment.
My daughter Emily’s young imagination was second to none. As a child she was thoroughly convinced she herself was an alien from the planet Jupiter. She lived a mile from the big red dot. Her real name was Hemou, and she had an older brother named Hacht. At least that would be the English pronunciation, she would explain, since the language spoken in her native tongue was far too difficult for us earthlings to comprehend. At some point in her own mind she applied for, and was granted, permanent resident alien status here on planet earth. We were happy to have her.
A colleague of mine recently shared this story:One of my daughters had a teddy bear called Rose Red. When she was very young, you could hear her talking to Rose Red when she was having a problem, or was hurt, or sick. She took a lot of teasing in her pre-teen years when she would haul Rose Red to slumber parties. She even took the little bear, always dressed properly, to her dorm room in college. And now her nine-year old daughter has a Rose Red Junior. But in spite of this wonderful memory, this little teddy bear never took on the role of a magical savior. Today she would explain it was a way for her to express her hurts, her pains and doubts out loud so she could sort them out. Yes, Rose Red was a comfort in her very young years. Although it is still a fond memory, it is something she outgrew. I think that is what a lot of people do with Jesus. Sometimes they just don’t outgrow the dependency.
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and grief to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.
Nineteenth century American hymn, Joseph Scriven
Joseph Atwill is a self-proclaimed biblical scholar who maintains the notion that the New Testament was written by some first-century Roman aristocrats who simply fabricated the person known as Jesus, and accorded him the messianic title, the Christ.
He theorizes that the emergence of Christianity was actually the result of a propaganda project created by the Roman empire as a means of psychological warfare. Why? In order to, once and for all, quell the Jewish insurrectionist movement by replacing a warrior-Messiah with a pacifist one instead; who would encourage his followers to “turn the other cheek.” In a word, Jesus existed only in the imaginative minds of those who cleverly created him, and the duped masses that subsequently then followed the fictional character.
On the other hand, after a lifetime profession studying biblical texts, Harry T. Cook proposes the hypothesis that Jesus not only existed as a figure of history and a real life person, but that there was possibly even more than one of them! That is, the figure presented in both the canonical and non-canonical scriptures may be a composite character; a combination of several different Galilean peasant sages who appeared during the first third of the first century CE.
As only part of his evidence for such a hypothesis, he points to the widely varying ways in which the otherwise singular figure is depicted and portrayed in the various gospels and earliest Pauline epistles. [See the Words & Ways guest commentary, Is Jesus a Composite Figure? The Evidence and the Implications] To continue reading click the ‘Read More’ button …
What can we then say with any degree of certainty whatsoever about this Jesus character? First, it is almost universally agreed there exists no first-hand, eyewitness accounts of the life of one or more such historical figures we would call Jesus; though there are non-biblical sources to attest to the existence of such a figure in the historical movement that emerged as a result of him; whether fictional, multiple or not! As a commonly noted example, the Jewish historian Josephus makes mention of such a historical character in his work, Jewish Antiquities.
But second, what is also clear is that, from the earliest strains of oral and written traditions that passed down the stories and sayings attributed to one or more Jesus characters, each subsequent individual orator, writer, or their collective early faith community employed their own active, creative and interpretive imaginations to configure, or reconfigure, whoever, or whatever, that original figure may have been!
Every subsequent individual orator, writer, or their collective early faith community employed their own active, creative and interpretive imaginations to configure, or reconfigure, whoever, or whatever, that original figure may have been.
This should not come as news to anyone who approaches the various texts with an open mind. It has long explained much of the obvious variations found in the canonical gospels that may draw on the same source material, but nonetheless individually revise or redact the same sayings or stories to reflect what is most important to them and resonates most deeply for them. Only those who would insist there is one, and only one, understanding of every verse of scripture that must be consistent with every other verse of scripture — and therefore not open to interpretation — would refuse to acknowledge how the human imagination plays a pivotal role in engaging sacred texts to find what is alive and life-giving in them for those who would undertake such an inquiry.
Not only that, it is precisely our own interpretive imagination that draws us into the same sacred activity that is so central to the life and teaching of the Jesus character so consistently portrayed in what so many biblical scholars believe are the most authentic words of that historical figure (or figures).
If nothing else, it seems clearly apparent that the Jesus character portrayed in so many of the tales and teachings with which “he” is credited, is clearly that of a social visionary with the most active and creative imagination. His ethical teachings and whacky parables routinely upturn conventional wisdom and common assumptions.
Who – except perhaps in their wildest imagination — would turn the other cheek, walk a second mile, give without measure, or forgive without counting the cost to one’s own self? Or reconsider what imaginative nonsense is found in the story lines of the lost sheep, the prodigal’s unwarranted gift of grace, the “good” Samaritan’s unstinting compassion. Can you imagine such a thing?
Every injunction how to treat others, give to others, care for others, forgive others, arises out of the act of imagining the way things could be, or ought to be, instead of the way things are. Every similitude this Jesus character offers when he gives us another pithy saying about how the “reign of God is like this,” or “like that,” strikes a resonating chord for those who might have eyes to see and ears to hear.
In short, every image of that other “kingdom” is borne out of an extraordinary imagination, by a character that may have either been the most imaginative character that ever lived, or we could ever imagine.
Every image of that other “kingdom” is borne out of an extraordinary imagination, by a character that may have either been the most imaginative character that ever lived, or we could ever imagine.
Where others may squabble over whether Jesus is nothing more than the figment of our own longings and wild imaginations for some, or the composition of a whole compendium of different people’s imaginings for others, it may be of little consequence to the rest of us. It seems the greatness of every great figure in human history is enlarged as their real life human imperfections fade with time, and their legendary importance for what they represent to us with their words and visions grows in disproportion to their human shortcomings. With those for whom a very human Jesus clearly stirred the imaginations of his earliest followers, it may have been that brief and vivid glimpse – as through a looking glass (e.g., I Cor.13:12) – that is all-sufficient.
On the other hand, Jesus the Christ figure has long been considered by many Christians to have been greater in death than he ever was in life. As a lot of orthodox Christian thinking has put it, the reason for his birth in the first place was so he could die and be raised from the dead. Talk about a wild imagination! But even the wildly different versions of Jesus’ birth and resurrection stories bear witness to the human imagination at work.
From the very first time these stories about such a Jesus character was recounted, each of us have imagined for ourselves both what it may have meant, and what it still means. This may be all well and fine, except for one little problem. At either extreme, some would say he is the one-and-only Son of God, and co-eternal with the one-and-only God; while others would assert he is the none-and-only figment of someone’s scheming imagination. So what does it say about Christianity’s savior figure; and in particular about the claim of Jesus’ exclusive divinity?
When I was in graduate theological studies in the mid-70’s in southern California, the standard gag line going around when students turned to wrestle with the New Testament texts in the original Koine (vernacular) Greek was, “If Jesus was a Jew, why did he have a Mexican name?” Fact is, there were so many day laborers in the Pomona Valley roaming the streets and working the migrant fields whose name was Jésus, that it was just as common as Mateo, Marcos, Lucas or Juan. It wasn’t hard to imagine, I thought to myself, that among that peasant class of earnest, hard-working and religiously devout types, more than one representation of the real Jesus might still be found.
It was at that time at Claremont that a new so-called “quest” for the real historical Jesus was underway with the work of James Robinson and the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. The original so-called quest had begun with Albert Schweitzer more than a century before, but the attempt remained the same. Pealing back the layers of early tradition that had quickly overtaken and shaped whatever original source material had given rise to this early 1st century CE sect of so-called Jesus-Jews was not unlike the search for a needle in a haystack. Or better yet, a diamond in the rough.
In the ensuing decades, little has changed. And the so-called “Jesus wars” battling over which Jesus is the real deal have continued unabated. While at Claremont, for example, I wrote a paper about Jesus and the socio-political revolutionary Zealot party, who took up arms to wage war on the Empire. Presently, a Muslim author-turned-evangelical-Christian-returned-Muslim, Reza Aslan, has been making the book tour and talk show circuit with his “thrilling” N.Y. Times bestseller, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Damn.
But I’ve often wondered how so many second-generation followers of that itinerant Galilean peasant sage – known to them only by those legendary tales we ourselves still read about him in the gospels to this day – could have known the one-and-only Jesus any differently than how we’ve sought ever since to know him; let alone the christological title some ascribe to him and call him Messiah.
Recently in Newport, Tennessee, a judge ordered a baby’s first name changed from Messiah to Martin, after the boy’s parents went to court to fight over their son’s last name. The boy’s mother, Jaleesa Martin, said she was shocked by the judge’s action, and said she’d appeal the order to rename her baby. When the boy was born last January, the mother said she chose the name Messiah, because she liked the sound of it. She also thought it went well with his sibling’s names, Micah and Mason.
But the Child Support Magistrate disagreed with the mother’s choice. “The word Messiah is a title,” the judge argued, “and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.”
“I was shocked,” the mother was reported to have said. “I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means ‘God’. I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.”
Fact is, the name Messiah (whose Greek equivalent, of course, is Christos and does not mean ‘God’ but rather simply ‘the anointed one’) has steadily grown in popularity in the United States. It now reportedly ranks among the top 400 most popular names, according to the Social Security Administration. Just imagine.
The judge however reasoned the name could put an unfair burden on the boy later in life. “I thought out into the future,” she said. “And the name could put him at odds with a lot of people.” If history is any judge, she might be right on that score.
Asked what she thought about other parents who name their child “Jesus,” the judge said, “I thought about that as well. But that’s not relevant to this case.” Some might dispute that, of course; along with her view of messianic exclusivity. But here’s the thing:
Like the Christ of faith, the Jesus of history has been known to so many would-be followers in so many different ways that the search for him has been a little, well, schizophrenic, to say the least. It could make anyone wonder if we’re dealing with multiple personalities. Literally. Instead of simply wrestling over how we could possibly come up with a coherently singular and exclusive person.
Like the Christ of faith, the Jesus of history has been known to so many would-be followers in so many different ways that the search for him has been a little, well, schizophrenic, to say the least. It could make anyone wonder if we’re dealing with multiple personalities.
In the introduction to his new book, Embracing the Human Jesus, A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, David Galston tells this story:“When I was in seminary I remember a New Testament class in which our teacher said that there was only one sentence in the Bible that Jesus certainly said. When the class eagerly asked which one, our teacher said he forgot. Of course he was joking. But his point was that no one really knows whether or not Jesus said anything attributed to him in the Bible.”
What we do know, of course, is that plenty of things have subsequently been attributed to him; to the extent one might say either Jesus, or all his consequent followers, clearly suffered from some kind of multiple personality dis-order! Is your Jesus the same as my Jesus? Would you follow my Jesus, if I told you who he was? Heated debates, heresy trials, splintering sects and denominational divides have sprung up as a result of just such questions. But in the end, perhaps it is only the test of resonance meeting and matching the creative interpretation of our own imaginations that will tell the tale.
Those of us who would “demote” this Jesus character, stripping him of the divine authority and deity-status he never claimed for himself, do so fully cognizant of how such imaginings are diametrically at odds with much of historical Christendom; to the extent we must ask ourselves if we might still represent an expression of Christianity, of some sort? This is where we must return to the elusive character – or characters – known as the historical Jesus, and who we imagine that imaginary friend to be.
In the end, perhaps it is only the test of resonance meeting and matching the creative interpretation of our own imaginations that will tell the tale.
Again, Galston observes, “To take the historical Jesus seriously means not only to open the door to debate about history, doctrine, and belief but also to put in practice features of the momentum of the historical Jesus that define a community pattern.”
That momentum can be traced from the earliest and emerging faith communities that began to recount and re-shape those Jesus tales out of their own experiences of resonance.
Furthermore, that momentum very likely began before any of them were ever known as “Christians.” In the struggles of their daily lives, it may have had little to do with belief systems in an afterlife or the rigorous observances of religious doctrines.
And finally, that momentum seems to have continued to this very day; as bands of would-be followers still gather to employ their own creative and interpretive imaginations the same way that Galilean peasant sage seems once to have done; and envision a would-be world that once bore – and might still bear — more resemblance to a more authentic reality than the one we have that would feign to represent the same.
As was noted in the Preface to this commentary, Christian orthodoxy has historically constructed and perpetuated the belief system of Jesus as the co-eternal and incarnate presence of a theistic God who is Lord of lords, and King of kings. As such, Jesus’ death at the hands of those lesser lords and kings is explained as a necessary, but redemptive sacrifice that is ultimately trumped by either a literal understanding or metaphorical interpretation of resurrection and “eternal life” for all who believe any of this. The question remains, is any of this what that imaginative Galilean peasant sage and wisdom teacher had in mind?
In 2012, in a project sponsored by the Adelaide Catholic Cathedral Parish, children and youth were all given the same size sheet of paper, and asked to draw what they imagined Jesus looked like.
In viewing dozens of renderings, I could not help but notice how the majority of the younger artist’s depicted a Jesus that bore a happier face, with sunbeams for haloes; and, in one case, his vulnerable blood-red heart was clearly visible.
But as the artists progressed in age, the portrayals of Jesus with the crown of thorns, the tears of sadness and suffering seem more prevalent. The oldest artist’s rendering of Jesus showed a very talented, but colorless, stark and stylized depiction of a crucified Christ figure. Any hint of those joy-filled stories and life-giving ethical teachings are absent.
Perhaps some of those earlier happy faces of Jesus were intended to portray what we might imagine to be his resurrected life beyond the grave, for those who still hold on to such a notion.
On the other hand, I can better imagine my imaginary friend is one who is more real in terms of what the real world in which I live might become. jb
© 2013 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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