Follow by Email

Monday, August 19, 2013

Jesus again

Pat asked me to take a look at a book he is writing on the moral doctrine of Jesus. He indicated that this was an enterprise that Thomas Jefferson had started and never finished. He identifies five rules that Jesus taught which are antithetical to the evolutionary tendencies of humanity towards exclusiveness, violence, acquisitiveness, domination, and vengeance. They are good rules and I am all for them. But I'm not sure they are rules that Jesus pushed--and really don't care.

Because I've been educated in theology, thanks to my long Jesuit upbringing, I know enough to know how tentative conclusions in academic (as opposed to apologetical) theology are. I also know that a lot of scholarship has gone into the study of Jesus of Nazareth, but that we really can't know who he was or what he taught definitively. I don't base my own ethics and politics on religion or on what the Christian Church through its canonized gospels or doctrines say Jesus taught. In fact I no longer see value in theology except as a critical inquiry to relativize religion and its products.

But because Pat turned my head that way, I began reviewing my previous studies about Jesus, those of Raymond Brown, Joe DeVault, Oscar Cullman, John Bligh, Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg. Then I heard of the newly published book by Reza Aslan, Zealot, and read it. He retells the gospel story with knowledge of the place and times of the subject and telling of that story. He writes for non-experts, but his notes portray his own expertise within the community of Biblical scholars. It's a good read.

Some say that what he presents is not very new. Perhaps. But I think he sums up what the scholarly community agrees to and also make his own choices on some of the controversies that remain. But Aslan presents his evidence without being dogmatic while recognizing possibilities for different conclusions. I personally found his description of the Paul vs. James controversy intriguing and new for me.

Aslan interprets the historical evidence to discover Jesus as a peasant zealot--not of the Zealot Party which was organized well after he died and which led to the war against Rome and the destruction of the Jewish homeland. But following the Baptist, Jesus preached the sovereignty of the Hebrew God over Rome, enlisted others to contradict the Roman overlords and their Jewish priestly allies. He probably saw himself as the messiah or at least preparing for the messiah--a Jewish king in the line of David. This was okay when he stuck to Galilee; but, when he hit the Roman centers, the authorities crushed him as they did so many others who claimed the new Jewish order.

Marcus Borg also sees Jesus as a kind of revolutionary in opposition to the patronage system which rewarded the rich and enslaved the poor. And Dominic Crossan sees Jesus more as a Jewish Cynic constantly moving, no one place to lay his head, with all his belongings in his backpack, inviting people to a different way of life outside of the Roman/Priestly patronage and purity system.

Interpretation is objective and subjective. It uses the hardest evidence it can find, but at the same time interpretation is a creative work of the interpreter with her viewpoint, her questions, her motivation to know the truth. It is not the failure, but the richness, of historical enterprise to find many interpretations of an era or an event. The truth is not in any one of them, but in their conversion as they take each other into account.

And so it is with interpretations of Jesus. After much study, but with no claim to singular expertise, I have my own interpretation but realize that it may be saying more about myself than the historical Jesus event. I do not think Jesus was a moral philosopher like Plato or Aristotle, or as Jefferson would have.  Jesus did not preach a moral code with well argued propositions or well defined rules. More like Socrates before Plato, Jesus before Christianity was a critic of the prevailing morality.

While he was not a moralist, he did have an ethic, i.e. a life style, an approach to his world, a way of dealing with others that we can try to articulate. He lived in a way that was not complicit with the current practice or conventional wisdom. By traveling around with his possessions on his back, by never staying in once place to pay taxes or obeisance, by associating with the dispossessed, the poor, women, the abnormal, he totally opted out of the system of economy, of culture, and of politics that was oppressing the people he most cared about.

I agree with Aslan that Jesus probably accepted the Biblical code of morality, i.e. the Law, as did his brother James the Just who followed in his footsteps to lead the gathered disciples. What Jesus did not accept (and here I agree with Borg, Crossan, and Aslan) was the patronage system that Rome set up with the kings and priests of Israel, nor the purity system that oppressed the peasants, nor the use of the law and religion that sanctified that oppression. His main message was: the Kingdom of God that was coming and that was already here. This was a revolutionary and dangerous message which other messianic zealots had preached and for which they were executed because it was opposed to the sovereignty of Caesar. Give Caesar back his coins, but the land belonged to the God of Israel (and I trust he meant the peasants).

I think with Aslan that Jesus knew that this message would provoke violence which is why he avoided the centers of Roman and priestly power and promoted the "messianic secret." But with Crossan and Borg, I do not think he counseled violence. Jesus was no fool. He knew his ragtag following was no match for the Roman legions. But I think, as he began to assemble followers, he knew he needed to confront more directly the domination of the evil alliance of Rome and High priests even if that would unleash their violence.

At least that is how I, as a companion of Jesus on the way, like to see and encounter him. Learning as we go, not giving into the morality that extends the division between the rich and poor, choosing a lifestyle that least contributes to that morality, discovering what we are to do next even if that choice may be dangerous, never settling in, always in transition, pushing beyond beliefs and rules that are part of an oppressive society, seeking justice beyond the kingdoms of any king, general, president, priest, pope, rabbi, imam, court of law. That is my Jesus ideal and why I proclaim to be his companion.

Jesus was an agitator--i.e. he incited people to think and act. Socrates, Buddha, Lao-Tsu were agitators in this sense. They didn't present answers but stimulated persons to seek their answers apart from the ones that the authorities laid on them. He was more a rebel (in the Camus definition) than a revolutionary (in the Lenin definition). He was more like Nietzsche than Heidegger, not laying out a complete moral and political philosophy, but challenging people to think. Like a Zen Buddhist monk or a cosmopolitan, ascetic cynic, he used questions and riddles to shock persons out of their comfortable and conventional way of thinking.

Eventually his followers saw him as a way to go beyond the normal, ordinary, mainstream beliefs and rules; therefore as a way to transcend, and therefore a way to the divine. It was when the organization made him the Way, the Answer, the Divine that the Jesus movement lost its transcendence. The Christian Church and Christian morality with its priesthood and dogmas betrayed the Jesus event. The Grand Inquisitor knows that he must destroy the Jesus ethic to maintain the world order controlled by the new Roman empire and its patrons that the Christian morality and its messaging sustain.

But the Jesus rebel style of life and action continues--even within the Christian Church (I see it in my friend Al Fritsch, S.J.) and certainly outside. I hope it continues at least a little bit in me. So that I can be with others in my community a re-presentation of the Christ and a sign of his resurrection.


No comments: