Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jesus and politics

Many of you may be aware that there exists a small but vocal school of thought that claims that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. The basic argument is simple: there is no direct evidence that Jesus walked the earth-- no hair, no bones, no clothing (unless you consider the Shroud of Turin authentic), no writing directly from his hand.

It's easy to see why such a school of thought might form: the ancient evidence for Jesus' existence boils down to the canonical gospels, the Pauline epistles, and a few other canonical and non-canonical writings. Two other ancient extra-biblical authorities are known to have mentioned Jesus: the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus. Neither spends much time on the man from Nazareth.

The writings of Paul are, chronologically speaking, the earliest writings of the New Testament. Most or all of the Pauline epistles would have been written late in Paul's life, putting them generally in the 50s-- that is, about two decades or more after Jesus' death. This makes it very unlikely that anything written about Jesus was actually written by eyewitnesses.

My point in mentioning all this isn't to agree with the "Jesus didn't exist" school of thought; it's simply to reinforce the fact that over two billion people base their faith in Jesus on almost no historical support (doxastic practices will have to be a subject for another post; much of the current debate in philosophy of religion focuses on epistemological issues related to belief-formation). Given what we know about human psychology, it seems natural, to me at least, that we might try to fill in the gaps of Jesus' life and, as often happens when humans approach the divine, to re-create him in our own image.

This point was reinforced recently when I heard two interesting claims while at the Metanoia Peace House. One claim was that Jesus preached socialism (a claim I've heard several times before); the other was that Jesus preached against capital punishment.

I'm a bit leery of seeing Jesus as the advocate of or spokesman for a socioeconomic theory, especially in light of the general tenor of his preaching, the dominant theme of which was the coming Kingdom of God (or "the KOG," as it was joshingly called in a christology class I took in grad school). We have far too little evidence to say for certain what economic system Jesus would have been partial to, so I'm equally leery of the "Jesus was a capitalist" crowd. In both cases, I sense an effort to remake Christ in the image of the theorists.

I do, however, find it at least somewhat plausible that Jesus would have had trouble with capital punishment. It was this past Monday morning, during the Peace House prayer session that included a reading from the beginning of Chapter 8 of the gospel of John, that I heard the claim put forth that Jesus, in the story about the condemned woman saved from stoning ("let the one without sin cast the first stone"), was essentially saying that, because none of us is sinless, none of us has the right to condemn another to death. It was noted that Jesus, who was being tested by his detractors, had cleverly given an answer that remained consistent with Mosaic law while also providing what was, effectively, a compassionate solution to the woman's situation.*

But the Jesus of the scriptures isn't easily reducible to Gandhi-style pacifism. If the scriptures are to be trusted, Jesus spoke casually about hellfire and famously said he had come not to bring peace, but the sword. This isn't consistent with the Indian notion of ahimsa, nonviolence or no-killing. The Christus Victor of the Book of Revelation also strikes me as far removed from the pacifistic image we normally have of Jesus. Here, too, as with the socialism issue, scripture will be interpreted by different people according to their different orientations.

I suppose the meta-issue here, that of creating God in our own image, is tied to the axiological issue of whether it's good or bad that we do so. Is it necessarily a bad thing that we see what we want to see when we look at Jesus or the Buddha or Krsna or Allah? I have no quick or easy answer to that, and I leave the issue on the table as something for my readers to dwell on.

But before I sign off, I should note that great things sometimes happen when we see those we love the way we want to see them; it's not always a matter of self-delusion when we view others resolutely through the prism of our own perspective. After all, what other perspective is truly available to us, yes?** Imagine a relationship in which both partners took a crisply realistic and harshly pragmatic view of each other. How long do you suppose such a relationship would last?

*One person at the session astutely noted that the woman was a pawn in the proceedings, as the real point of the confrontation between Jesus and hoi iudaioi was that hoi iudaioi wanted to snare Jesus and thereby find a reason to condemn him).

**Remind me to write more about Nick Rescher's concept of orientational pluralism sometime. This concept informs the fascinating (and, to me, frustrating) work of S. Mark Heim, an evangelical Protestant who has been a prominent critic of John Hick's more classical philosophical model of religious pluralism. Heim, riffing off Rescher, takes seriously the idea that perspectives are "one to a customer." Or if you'd rather read thoughts I've written on Heim's work, go buy my book (see this blog's sidebar), which devotes a good deal of space to examining and critiquing Heim.


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