Time To Get Serious

Recently, while discussing Matthew’s description of the star that paused over Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth, our pastor first asked rhetorically if this story is believable, and then responded to her own question by asking, “Does it matter?” My answer is yes. It does matter. This and a myriad of other fictions that persist as part of the Christian narrative do matter; they matter because they undermine the credibility of the church, and its message. If we want to be credible in this, the 21st Century, we need to get serious about saying what we do, and do not, believe.

For some time now, Progressive Christians have distinguished themselves from Fundamentalists and Evangelicals by ignoring gender differences, rejecting Biblical literalism and emphasizing the importance of Jesus’ vision for a “kingdom of God on earth.” But the primitive belief that propitiation can be attained through substitutionary atonement still lives on in most Progressive Churches.

Anthropologists tell us that some primitive human beings have attempted to assuage the wrath of their god, or gods, by offering up other humans as sacrifices. Maidens were thrown into volcanoes, beautiful children were buried alive and other horrendous sacrifices were made, all as acts of appeasement. The Hebrew Patriarch, Abraham, made it clear that he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but ultimately, a ram was sacrificed in his place. And, as we are told in the ancient text, particularly in the book of Leviticus, the practice of animal sacrifice served as the main organizing principle for Hebrew worship for several millennia. Paula Fredriksen, the noted Historical Jesus scholar, reported in her book, Jesus of Nazareth, that even in the time of Jesus, the Temple was fitted with wide troughs, extending out of its sides, that were used to transport the blood from the day’s animal sacrifices out of the sacred space.

Ironically, those who practice the Jewish faith today no longer use blood sacrifices to atone for their sins, but Christians do. The Jews have attained a more evolved understanding of the Ultimate. They no longer see God as an angry and jealous personage who demands blood sacrifice for atonement. But sadly, Christians, including those who identify themselves as Progressive, still “cling to the old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame.” They have not been able to give up the misbegotten belief that Jesus was the Lamb of God; thereby, confirming Paul’s primitive belief that God required a horrific shedding of blood as the price for his love. I don’t know anyone who still believes the human sacrifices of the ancients had any efficacy whatsoever. So, why should we believe the death of Jesus on the cross had any redemptive efficacy? How would that work? In my opinion, a God who requires the shedding of blood for his love would not be worthy of our worship.

Paul, who identified himself as an Apostle, was obviously a highly intelligent person, with a rich imagination. And, as his prolific letters to the early church reveal, he was also a gifted writer. But as a prescientific person, his epistemological “quiver” only contained a few dull “arrows.” He was highly trained in the Hebrew religion and was also conversant with the religious traditions of other ancient cultures. But he was obsessed with the mythological problem of Original Sin, and believed the Law, including its provisions for animal sacrifice, was incapable of resolving it. Any fair reading of his letter to the Romans makes this abundantly clear. So, believing as he did in the sacrificial system, it was natural, and quite convenient, for him to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus as the Ultimate Sacrifice; as a grand gesture that could atone for all of the sins of the world.

There are many contemporary leaders in the Progressive Christianity Movement who no longer believe the Lamb of God claims of earlier times, but most progressives have not yet mustered the courage to tell it as it is on this topic. Instead, they continue referring to Jesus as “The Savior” and feel obliged to include the so-called “Words of Institution” in their Communion services. Furthermore, even those who question the claim that Jesus was God’s sacrificial lamb, persist, compulsively, in referring to him as “The Christ,” which makes no sense unless we accept Paul’s claim that he died for our sins.

And to those who say we should accept Paul’s understanding of the meaning of the Cross simply because he was God’s inspired messenger, I would simply ask, “How do you know that?” Metaphysical claims such as they are, by definition are impossible to prove. The only evidence we have that Paul was inspired by God to speak for him is Paul’s own claim that he was.

Robert Funk, the Co-Editor of The Five Gospels, is famous for once saying, “Jesus deserves a demotion.” Many, but not all, Progressive Christians agree with Funk. The spin that Paul and other early Christians put on the crucifixion resulted in a whole new religion that Jesus never intended to create. In the view of most of the historical Jesus scholars, he was a devout Jew, intent upon reforming his own culture. Paula Fredriksen once observed that the best way to understand what Jesus was about is to look over his shoulder, as it were, as he speaks to his people.

Still, there is good news. Although it really makes no sense to think of Jesus as God’s agent of expiation, he still stands as a salvific figure in history, and in our lives, because his vision for a world of justice and love would save the world, if it were to be taken seriously.

Whether or not this kind of demythologized Jesus is sufficient for modern Christians, even for those who call themselves Progressives, remains to be seen. Most people like magic, and the traditional understanding of Jesus offers a plethora of it. A demythologized Jesus would have several important advantages for all Christians. It would be honest and, because it would be honest, it would also be credible. In addition, demythologizing Jesus would free us to focus our energies on his Gospel, rather than that of Paul. For me, however, the most important advantage of demythologizing Jesus is that it would be fair to him. The person hanging on that “old rugged cross” was a real human being, without a get-out-of-the-grave pass. Viewing him as God, playing human, robs him of his humanity and cheapens the price he paid for his vision.

I believe Robert Funk was right; Jesus deserves a demotion, and we should give it to him.
Dave was born in Whittier, California, in 1930. He is married and has four daughters, seven grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Dave has been awarded four academic degrees, including the Ph.D. from Stanford University. He was first appointed to the San Jose State University faculty in 1957 and retired in 1997. He has held numerous positions in academic governance, both on and beyond his own campus, including Chair of the San Jose State Academic Senate and Chair of the California State University (CSU) Academic Senate. In addition to serving for three terms (12 years) as Chair of the SJSU Department of Communication Studies, he also held several university-level administrative positions at SJSU. At the system level, he served as the first permanent Director of the CSU Consortium and as President of the CSU Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association.

Retirement has made it possible for Dave to return to his early interest in theological studies. His first academic degree was in Theology. His house church, the United Disciples Fellowship (UDF), is in partnership with the First Congregational Church (UCC) of San Jose, which provided the venue for a ten-year series of distinguished lectures that were hosted by UDF. Dave had the privilege of introducing all of the lecturers to large Bay Area audiences. They included: Paula Fredriksen, John Dominic Crossan, Amy-Jill Levine, James M. Robinson, Bart D. Ehrman, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Harvey Cox and Thomas Sheehan.

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