The work of Westar has never been done in a vacuum. From the outset the purpose of the Jesus Seminar was twofold: to detect the profile of the historical Jesus in his words and deeds and to report the Seminar’s findings to the public. The latter purpose brought with it severe criticism from the scholarly community, accustomed to its isolated (albeit comfortable) existence. But the Fellows of the Seminar pledged that the implications of their investigation would not be confined to the gated academic community.
When the Seminar began, serious public discourse on matters in religion was dominated by the televangelists’ monotones. Critical discussion was shunned in the media. This was due in great part to the fact that many in the media had little or no experience with the resources of religious traditions. Others thought that religion had run its course in a secular world and was best relegated to a quaint or private place, far from significant affairs. Consequently, the ranting of the religious voices still lingering on the airwaves only confirmed the uselessness of religion.
A funny thing happened on the way to its burial. The trauma of 9/11 woke many from their uncritical assumptions. Religion still mattered on the other side of the world. Since then we have seen how in this country a simplistic vision of religious rectitude has been compounded with a feckless disregard for political conditions and differences to usher in what appears to be a never-ending tragedy.
This all seems light years away from the time when there were thoughtful theological voices that contributed to the building of the world. Slowly we are beginning to hearken back to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray, who sought to deepen our public life by their theological contributions. They did not issue political communiqués, nor publish marching orders for “dittoheads.” Instead, they took their religious traditions seriously in order to challenge and to make better society as it stood.
Just recently the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has commented on the American religious landscape. The Pew Report indicated that mainline Protestant churches are teetering on the verge of becoming a religious minority (now at 51%, down from two-thirds in the 1970s), that the Catholic Church has suffered significant decline (shored up only by an immigrant influx), and that the largest growing population is that of the unaffiliated (from 5% in the 1980’s to 16% of the present population). The American religious marketplace is shifting in and from its traditions (44% have changed their religious affiliation in some fashion). Yet, it is not the case that America is becoming unreligious. Neither atheism nor agnosticism is the coming wave. Rather, the “unaffiliated” are “spiritual but not religious.” They are moving from what they see to be the confinements of their religious communities. In effect, they are indicating that some significant recombination may well be underway in American religious life.
These findings are hardly surprising to anyone who has been engaged in a Jesus Seminar on the Road. It has been my constant finding that the news media has missed much of the religious activity in North America by its myopic concentration of the supposed religious talking heads. What have been flying under the media radar for some time now are the numbers of people who couple their religious quest with intelligent discourse. They refuse to separate their hearts from their heads. They take seriously their place in a global reality in all its evolutionary entailments. At the same time they do not give up quickly their religious inheritance. Instead, they want to see with new eyes what their traditions can offer to our planetary survival.
At the spring 2008 Westar meeting it was quite evident that the historical research of Karen Armstrong spoke to many of the participants. She noted that the last Axial Age of religion emerged as a response to the violence of imperial times. From Confucius, the Buddha, the Jewish prophets, and the Greek poets, came a diverse and yet constant attempt at a transformation of consciousness. It was not simply a matter of thinking but of living out a
vision of disciplined compassion. The search for truth is not an academic game; it is a critical search for how we can wisely negotiate our life together.
Then what about the work of Westar’s two ongoing seminars? How do the Acts and Christian Origins Seminars contribute to this public discussion? At present the work of each seminar is far from complete. Yet, this should not stop the Fellows from discerning and testing the implications of their findings. The dating of Acts to the second century, for example, has significant consequences. Our entire image of the origins of Christianity must be re-envisioned. We cannot use Acts as an uncritical “given” in our construction of the beginnings of the Christian tradition. Instead, we can now see the text as evidence of a much wider discussion of how the second-century Jesus communities were developing and competing. Indeed, The Da Vinci Code pales in comparison to the actual history of the shifts, debates, experiments, and aspirations of the early Jesus groups. It should not be lost on us that this more complicated appreciation of Christian origins actually speaks to our own experience of shifting religious impulses and social reconfiguring.
What happens to those who begin to live with the implications of this research? This is where the Westar Associates can make their presence felt. They can contribute much by thinking these implications through along with the Fellows. In fact, they need to challenge the Fellows to articulate the consequences clearly and in plain English, for there is the matter of how this affects our life on this planet. We need to ask one another how this research contributes to our life together. What happens when we bring a vision of complexity to our religious inheritance? What are the consequences of unraveling our religious DNA?
From The Fourth R
A Westar Institute Quarterly Publication