Christianity is in crisis - and in a deeper crisis, in my view, than many Christians are allowing themselves to believe. I start from a simple premise. There can be no conflict between faith and truth. If what we believe in is not true, it is worth nothing. The idea that one should insincerely support religious faith because it is good for others or for society is, for me, a profound blasphemy if you do not share the faith yourself. I respect atheists and agnostics who reject faith; I find it harder to respect fundamentalists - of total papal or Biblical authority - because of the blindness of their sincerity; but I have no respect for those who cynically praise religion for its social uses, while believing in none of it themselves. Sadly, a critical faction of the Straussian right has been engaged in exactly that kind of cynicism for a while now.
But if religion and truth cannot be in conflict, Christians who believe in a God of logos have an obligation to make sense of those moments when modern learning disproves certain religious preconceptions. No modern Christian, it seems to me, can claim the literal inerrancy of the Bible without abandoning logos.
No educated Christian today can deny that the scriptures we have - copies of translations of copies of copies of oral histories - are internally and collectively inconsistent, written by many authors, constructed in specific historical contexts, reflecting human biases, and supplemented by several other gospels that at the time claimed just as much authority as those gospels eventually selected by flawed men centuries later. Anyone who believes that the Holy Spirit automatically guides every church leader to the perfect truth at all times need only look at the current hierarchy to be disabused of such childish wish-fulfillment; or cast an eye on church history for more than a few minutes.
So the solid architecture of the faith we inherited has been exposed more thoroughly in the last few decades than ever before. There is no single authoritative text, written by one God, word for word true. There is a much more complicated series of writings designed by many men, doubtless under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that help us see some form of the figure Jesus through languages and texts and memories. I think the character and message of Jesus are searingly clear and distinctive even taking into account that daunting veil through which we are asked to see. But we can only begin to see this once we have understood the veil that both obstructs and made possible our view.
The same, I think, is true of the papacy as an alternative to Biblical literalism. This is in some ways a more durable defense against logos than Biblical literalism, but it is just another form of fundamentalism, deploying total obedience to total authority as an alternative to a living faith that can both doubt and yet also practice the love of God and one's enemies, Jesus's core instructions. I do not see how the limits and flaws of such total authoritarianism could have been more thoroughly illuminated than in the recent sex abuse scandal. When the man whose authority rests on being the vicar of Christ on earth consigns children to rape rather than tarnish the image of the church, he simply has no moral authority left. Yes, his position deserves respect. But its claims to absolute authority have fallen prey to the human arc of what Lord Acton called "absolute corruption".
So we are left in search of this Jesus with a fast-burning candle in a constantly receding cave where we know that at some point, the darkness will envelop us entirely. We will catch Him at times; He will elude us at others. We will have to listen to many words he may have spoken before we can each discern the words he may have meant; we will have to keep our eyes and ears open for science's revelations about the world, while understanding that science is just one way of understanding the world and that poetry, history, and practical perspectives have things to tell us as well. The cathedral at Chartres; the long story of Christian debate and theology; the rituals and daily practices that help us stay trained to intuit the divine we cannot understand and the divine we do not always see in every face around us: these too tell us things that go beyond fact, archeology and hermeneutics.
Yes, this intellectual sifting is hard and troubling to faith; yes, it may end with more mystery than clarity. But if our faith is to be true, it must rest on something more than denial of reality. It must rest on being the greatest experience of reality.The Christianity he seems to describe is one of humility and constructive doubt in the face of scholarship and science. It is not a statement of despair, but one of hope that these tests will ultimately reveal the true face of Christ. Later in the day he follows up this post with a readers response, who puts the challenge for Christianity in starker terms, resting on the validity of Christ's physical resurrection.
I am a Christian because I follow Christ before anyone else (not to say I don't believe that we have a lot to learn from the other faiths!), and there must be a reason for that, in my opinion.
If Jesus was little more than a uniquely-adept Jewish mystic with a profound experience of the Divine (God-as-"Daddy," a pretty great idea), then while that is profound, it's no reason for me to follow him uniquely as opposed to the path of the Buddha, the Hindu mystics, or the Kabbalah. I could follow him as one sage among many, but not as something unique. This is fine, mind you, but let's not kid ourselves by saying that we (or anyone else of any other faith, for that matter) could keep our special spiritual identity in this way. We fall into an amorphous blob of "Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, and the Gita are all saying the same thing!" philosophy, and while that may be good for the Kumbayah campfire, it's not good for serious scholarship in comparative religion (Protherto is making the rounds with this point, thank God). This is where
Resurrection comes in, I think. I don't believe the early Christians viewed this as a purely spiritual phenomenon (see research into the Semitic Totality Concept for just one reason why), but something real and physical (one of the earliest Christian creeds that we have on record is a bit crude about it, in fact, saying that, in regards to the Resurrection, "the corpse stood up").
It was the thing that separated Jesus from all the other miracle-working Torah commentators of his day (as stated previously, if one just takes Jesus at face value, he's pretty unremarkable). The Resurrection divinizes Jesus and humanizes God (the most amazing part, I think), and as such, makes Christianity unique. To say that there was a first-century Jew wandering the highways with whores and fisherman and breaking the bureaucracy of his religion and drinking like a fiend and bringing God to the masses is one thing. To say that it was God that was doing all that is quite another.Therein lies Christianity's real trump card.
It's not that we have a unique experience of God, it's not that we have a monopoly on God, it's not that our ceremonies and rituals are better (they're pretty terrible sometimes). It's that God knows what it's like to be a human being. God eats, drinks, sleeps, cries, gets angry, bleeds, dies, and then shows us that death is not the end. If we're to believe the whole "We are the Body of Christ" bit, too, then that means this mystery is continuing. Our eating, our drinking, our joys, our sufferings, and our deaths are all our participation in the life of God, and God's participation in ours.
If Jesus did not rise, if he really was just chewed up by dogs after the crucifixion, then let's be honest about it, see Christianity for the bankrupt system that it is, and move onward into other faiths of our choosing (I'll probably be bathing in the Ganges.) I can't do this yet, however, because I believe the scholarship doesn't allow it.I remember having an animated discussion some years ago with a Christian campus minister, and he asked me what I thought the single proof of Baha'u'llah's revelation was. I responded with some exasperation, claiming that there were too many proofs to recount. "Just look at the history, or the teachings, or the fruits, or the prophesies", I said. He waited calmly for me to finish, and then asked again, "but what is the one thing that proves the validity of your faith, without which the whole religion would crumble?". It was clear that I didn't know what his point was, so he told me that the one thing that he was sure of was that Christ's physical body resurrected and therefore salvation is real and the church is alive. Anything else could be disproved or reinterpreted, but that is the linchpin. Otherwise, Christianity is dead.
I thought about his argument for quite a while, and it gave me great insight into why many Christians insist on the historical Jesus being the only path to salvation. With so many religions available, with so many uplifting and complementary teachings, how does one not get lost in the "amorphous blob" that the reader refers to? To believe that "The Resurrection divinizes Jesus and humanizes God" is to have a solid foundation (not unlike Peter's rock) in a relativistic world. On the whole, I believe that the New Testament scripture supports the idea that Christ resurrected spiritually, not physically, an argument I have made in another post. On the other hand, I also acknowledge that persuasive arguments can be made either way, which leaves most of us inclined to follow our predisposed intuition. Unless and until the body is found, or the body is proven missing, we are left with interpretation and speculation.
But does the belief in many manifestations leave us in the "amorphous blob". I think the Baha'i conceptualization of progressive revelation is very attractive. Baha'u'llah exhorts us to
Beware, O believers in the Unity of God, lest ye be tempted to make any distinction between any of the manifestations of His Cause, or to discriminate against the signs that have accompanied and proclaimed their Revelation. This indeed is the true meaning of Divine Unity, if ye be of them that apprehend and believe this truth. Be ye assured, moreover, that the works and acts of each of each and every one of these Manifestations of God, nay whatever pertaineth unto them, and whatsoever they may manifest in the future, are all ordained by God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose. - Gleanings XXIVAnd later he says
Contemplate with thine inward eye the chain of successive Revelations that hath linked the manifestation of Adam with that of the Ba'b. I testify before God that each one of these Manifestations hath been sent down through the operation of the Divine Will and Purpose, that each hath been the bearer of a specific Message, that each hath been entrusted with a divinely -revealed Book and been commissioned to unravel the mysteries of a mighty Tablet. - Gleanings XXXIOn the contrary to the "amorphous blob", by recognizing the evolution and coherence of progressive revelation, I believe it is much easier to have a living faith that is in harmony with science and the emergence of a global consciousness. It is much harder, in my view, to credibly tie salvation to a particular point in history, for a particular group of people, using claims that rely on the faith in a single supernatural event. But that is my belief, I could be wrong. I suspect that the majority of Christian's will resist joining the Baha'i Faith until this issue is put to rest.
(Painting: Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), 1954, by Salvador Dalí.)