Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Post-Religious Jesus

My reading is generally divided into what I term my "daytime" reading and my "nighttime" reading. The first is material that require some thought and the ability to stay awake, and might be scientific, philosophical, or theological in content. The second genre of books are generally about some seriously flawed detective or agent who despite of his flaws is able to solve the crime and save the day.  If I fall asleep a few pages into the book, then there's no harm done. No scientific details require recall the next day either.

The most recently read "daytime" books are all theological/philosophical, Two of them are written by an Episcopalian bishop whom I have previously read and listened through online podcast, and a third from a relatively new writer who has a newly released book on the bestseller list addressing the historical Jesus.  This is one of those occasions that I periodically observe in which I read several books that are seemingly disconnected in arthurship and orientation, but when read simultaneously deeply interrelate.

The first of these books is "Zealot: the life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" by Reza Aslan.   I have read several books addressing the "historical Jesus," and this certainly rates among the best. It is authoritative, compactly complete, and imminently readable. I am not a biblical scholar and certainly not any sort of knowledgeable person regarding ancient Palestinian history, and I feel considerably more educated having finished this book. The introduction  establishes the basis for the existence of an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in first century Palestine. The prologue paints a sociological and political and religious background into which Jesus of Nazareth was born. Following this are three major sections, the first giving the background for Jesus the person, very difficult since there is virtually no written record from his actual life. The second has to do with his life and those with whom he interacted including family, John the Baptist, and the politicians and Jewish priest, and the circumstances of his execution by crucifixion. The final section is a review of the theology of Jesus of Nazareth, and its evolution through the Council of Nicaea. The final third of the book, provided as an appendix, is an extensive discussion of his source material and explanation for the conclusions that he reached, material that would have interrupted the flow of the book if inserted within each chapter, but which is at least as interesting as the main text itself.  A note about the author; he comes from an Iranian family that left for the United States with the fall of the Sha. He as a young man had a fundamentalist Christian experience, but it is very difficult to pin him down as to his current theologic perspective, except that he is definitely not a biblical literalist. For me personally, the value in this book was an education in the sociologic and political history of first century Palestine, and a view of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, his religious preaching, the rejection of Pauline theology by the Jerusalem Jewish hierarchy (James, etc.), the turn to the Gentile population for conversion, and the early evolution of Gentile Christian theology. 

The other two books are by a retired Episcopalian bishop, John Shelby Spong, a priest that has been somewhat of a thorn in the side of Episcopalian/Christian orthodoxy.

In his recent book "Jesus for the nonreligious" he of course overlaps substantially with the time and events covered by Aslen in "Zealot" but differs in  emphasis and direction, going into less detail about first century sociology and politics, and more extensively into the development of the canonical Gospels of modern Christian religion.  In his early personal growth, he began to find he could only accept the synoptic Gospels as extensively symbolic and allegorical  and difficult to accept literally. At the same time, he found the Gospel of John somewhat "offputting."  With his own personal maturity, however, he thinks that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written within the framework of historical Judaism, and tried to overcome the limitations of narrative language by using extensive symbolism while trying to make sense of Jesus's life within the Jewish context, while it was the writer(s) of John,  breaking from the Jesus constrained by historic Judaism, who finally got it right. Thus, Bishops Spong extends beyond historic narrative, and superimposes his theological interpretation, producing a text about the historical Jesus that is considerably different from Aslan's. For this reason, I found reading "Zealot" and "Jesus for the Nonreligious" complementary, and worthwhile individually and jointly.  

Spong, though having lived his life almost entirely within the Episcopalian faith, has for some time been advocating a maturing of modern religion that accepts the Bible For what it truly is in the light of modern biblical scholarship, and the growrh beyond Fundamentalism and literal interpretation of the Bible; not only for the individual, but for Christianity as a whole.  In his own words "we do not need to be born again, we just need to grow up."  He does not ask the Christian to deny their religious past but that they simply mature beyond it in order to recognize the fulfillment of their own humanness.  Much of this writing could easily be that of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or others who have criticized organized religion for either outright dening modern science, or making theological arguments that attempt (but without success) to reconcile the literal interpretation of the Bible with current scientific knowledge.  Spong is different only in that while he accepts all of modern science, he still finds value in his understanding of the life of Jesus.

Spong's final book, "eternal life: a new vision" overlaps substantially with "Jesus for the non-religious", but has a different direction.  Spong, as is common in the aging individual, has in this text tried to address the issue of the possibility, or absence of  a possibility, of a conscious afterlife; in other words the survival of the individual consciousness beyond physical death.  To arrive at his answer, he reviews the history of humans, starting with the Big Bang, extending through the formation of Earth and the appearance of life, and the appearance of a conscious animal, human, who has to deal with the problem of conscious awareness of their mortality and ultimate death.  The last book addressing this issue in depth which I read was sometime ago, Ernst Beckers "Denial of Death." Spong addresses this topic in a substantially different manner, probably because of his life as a theologian, but the two men are not incompatible in their thoughts.  

His ultimate conclusion is to me a little difficult to condense into a sentence or two, so I will let you read  (and interpret) his thoughts on this matter for yourself. I do find considerable similarity in Buddhist philosophy to his conclusions, and while Spong made no such comparison, I do Find that Spong's Jesus, as I read Spong, is not totally distant from the Buddha or other Eastern Religious godheads that do not include in their philosoply/theology a physical rebirth into an eternal, blissful, heavenly existence.

These are among the books that I wish I could have read 50 years ago, as they might have changed my life. On the other hand, now that I read them with that additional 50 years of life, they are likely more meaningful, and will perhaps have a greater impact. If these books sound interesting to you, they probably will be, and, if not, they probably will not be.