Mythicism and the Christ of faith

I’ve blogged previously about my interpretational technique ( part of Idolatry and Eisegesis), but to refresh memory, I’ve preferred to form opinions about Biblical passages before reading much (or sometimes any) scholarship about them, using legal forensic technique and substantial prayer to illuminate them. After doing so, I’ll look at what others have said, and sometimes completely modify my thinking (back to the drawing board), sometimes tweak my thinking a bit, sometimes find confirmation from a different angle. I like confirmations from a different angle; it seems to me a form (albeit a weak form) of multiple attestation.

One area where I have been very dependent on scholarship which I can’t readily check for myself is in historical-critical scholarship which shows levels of redaction, extracts possible lost sources and, above all, sets things in a historical perspective. A lot of this has fallen in relatively recent years under the label “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”. In the post I linked to above, I did criticise rather gently one of the criteria for authenticity used by the Jesus Seminar, the poster children for “Historical Jesus” for some years until fairly recently. Nonetheless I read avidly, for instance, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and am inclined to agree with them far more readily than I do with more conservative scholars such as N.T. Wright, though N.T. Wright is himself no foreigner to historical-critical methods.

I’ve recently been reading more in the area of Historical Jesus, with some writers whose scholarship puts some of my thinking into question, namely writers who argue that nothing we can do in the field of scholarship can actually give confidence as to the words of Jesus. Such things as mnemonic studies indicate that even the very earliest testimonies (none of which we, of course, have) will have adjusted wordings, so accuracy at the remove of an entire generation seems almost impossible.

I have, of course, previously been at pains to separate the Historical Jesus from the Christ of Faith, with a dividing line at the Crucifixion. Insofar as I wish to follow Jesus, I feel I need to follow the Jesus who walked and talked among men 2000 years ago; the Christ of Faith is a creation of post-death (and post-resurrection) thinking (and experiencing) about what Jesus meant to his followers, and does not really give them practical instructions as to how to live as he did.

I have a clear conception of what he was (as an historical figure) in that he has to have been a God-mystic, as I am a God-mystic. I wish him to be the archetypal God-mystic on whom I can base myself; beyond that, other aspects of his meaning and importance to his followers are, to me, mythic elements. There is no real argument about myth, about story – it either works for you or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t work for you, you find another myth, another story which does (or amend the one you have slightly). As a result I argue minimally with my fellow-believers when it comes to looking at what we tend to refer to as the “spiritual interpretation” of a passage – I might suggest that there is more than one spiritual interpretation, and we can then talk about which we prefer and why, and which means most to us at this point. Call it eisegesis, call it application, I’m not unduly bothered.

But some of this recent scholarship (and I’m thinking here of, inter alia, “Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity”)  is making it impossible for me to perform this separation of historical Jesus and faith-created Christ; it would seem that even the earliest level of oral tradition or lost writing is already just “Christ of faith” as far as some of the writers in that book (and others) are concerned, and their arguments are beginning to look extremely convincing.

Having just spent some weeks arguing elsewhere with a Jewish mythicist, I have no time for the assertion that Jesus was nothing but a mythical figure. I agree with Bart Ehrmann that there is really no tenable argument that Jesus did not exist.  (My interlocutor there is a mythicist in relation to Jesus, but not in relation to anything within Judaism, in which he accepts the full orthodox position as a matter of faith – which he is prepared to concede is an act of faith, but not available for historical argument. It is history because he believes it to be so, and not for any other reason. If that seems to you a lopsided position, well, it seemed so to me as well.)

I am, however, a retired lawyer. I’m used to eyewitnesses, and to saying “there’s nothing quite so unreliable as an eyewitness”, which is only slightly exaggerating my experience. What is actually less reliable than one eyewitness is a group of eyewitnesses who have got together and agreed what actually happened, though that’s actually not what I meant by “only slightly”. At least with a set of somewhat conflicting accounts you have a reasonable change of putting them together and using forensic skills to reconstruct what probably did happen. I’ve never, therefore, been too wedded to the concept that any of the accounts we have, even if written down more or less contemporaneously, can actually be regarded as completely accurate. Yes, I know that it makes a significant difference if the policeman made a note as he was seeing or hearing something or if he went back to the police station to write it up (when it becomes far less reliable).

On the other hand, I have read plenty of accounts of people in oral cultures having far better memories for the actual words of sometimes quite extended speeches than anyone I’ve ever met could hope to achieve, and we are talking about an oral culture in 1st century Palestine. Add to that the fact that the group of disciples are very likely to have been “hanging on every word” and to have discussed that shortly afterwards. Perhaps in those circumstances the phenomenon of the colluding eyewitnesses getting things even more wrong than any single recollection might have been reversed, and they might have been self-correcting?

As a result of these scholars in mnemonic studies, however, I am now thinking that I may be in the position of having no discernible fact about Jesus left from which I can start to reconstruct him, aside that he was Jewish, lived in the first 30 years of the first millennium, was a teacher, preacher and reputed healer and wonder-worker, probably from Galilee, and that he was executed by the Romans under Pontius Pilate in about 30 CE, probably by crucifixion. This is really little better than Jesus having not existed at all, so far as extracting what he actually said is concerned (an argument made by some in the mythicist camp which is, effectively, mythicism lite – but which seems quite likely to become a future scholarly mainstream).

We thus have just the “Christ of faith”, whether it be a very early, partly-formed impression or a later and better formed faith. Except, we don’t just have that, and we can’t just have that. I can’t because it is important to me that there be a real person who once lived to be followed (as otherwise I have no indication that the path I seek to follow is in the slightest practicable), Christianity generally cannot because, like Judaism, it is a historical religion; it bases itself in events which have actually happened in history, as Ernst Kasemann argued. Those events are beginning to become indistinguishable from myth, and the cherished beliefs of 2000 years are thus undermined.

I suppose that, to me, it shouldn’t matter too much. At root, I regard all of what we talk about when we talk about God (thank you, Rob Bell!) as being ways of talking about something which inherently defies human description, so I consider it firstly as all being basically myth (by which I mean stories which illustrate truths in a non-literal manner) and secondly as all being at least in some measure wrong.

But it does matter. I gave one reason above, namely of my need for a real exemplar, not an imagined one. There is another, and that is that I try the best I can to function within a Christian church. I find that it is all very well being a contemplative mystic, but I also grow in understanding through interchange with others This argues that I need a community of fellow believers, so what this development in scholarship does to my fellow Christians it does to some extent to me. This is particularly true as I am highly likely to be the “go to” man to explain it and try to apologise it out of existence to a significant number, even if I do not find myself actually teaching about it (and the bit of my consciousnes which I call “GF” assures me that that’s a potential outcome as God seems to be moving me in that direction at the moment). That would lead me to the problem of not being able to teach what I can’t bring myself to believe other than as a “possibility of thinking”.

It is not likely to be much consolation to them to hear me say that I ultimately regard nothing in anyone’s statement of faith as saying anything accurately about objective reality (see my comment about myths earlier in this piece). Nor are they going to want to hear me say that this impacts very little at all on any statements in scripture when regarded as valid statements in the history of thought, so long as they can be placed reasonably on a timeline and in a milieu (i.e. Sitz im leben, for those who are into technical terms).

Perhaps, however, we might move down the road which it seems was travelled by my Jewish mythicist interlocutor. It seems that he can at the same time perfectly well accept that, for instance, the stories of Rabbi Eleazer are fiction (probably from the 2nd or 3rd century) and yet that they are absolutely true occurrences of the 1st century, that the Oral Torah was developed over many centuries and yet that it was given by Moses at Mt. Sinai. There is historical fact, and there is traditional belief, and you can (apparently) hold the two without tension and actually assert traditional belief as superior to history.

I doubt it, though. I think the degree of cognitive dissonance which that requires you to accept is just too great. In addition, it seems to me, and it’s going to seem to a lot of my listeners, far too close to asserting a six-day creation (happily for me, there are few six-day creationists in my church and a general feeling against them) and therefore far too close to rubbishing science. Granted, having started my further education as a physicist, I suppose I could explain again how you know what a particle is, you know what a wave is, yes, the two are very different, but light is both. At the same time… No, I haven’t had much joy with that one so far.

Maybe, though, there’s another way via tradition, and that’s just to teach that the Jesus we know is the creation of the memories and of the living experience of Christ in the lives of his followers and that this is sufficient fact for us. I could say that this way of thinking about the world has worked well for many years and, actually, continues to work very well as long as you don’t ask it to be historical or scientific. And that the only demonstration you need of that is in your experience and that of your friends here and now. How does what happened 2000 years ago really matter when you have current experience of the Holy Spirit and of the Living Christ? Granted, there was a historical Jesus and what he said and did was clearly extraordinary and has, in one or another way, led to the situation we are in now. However, that Jesus is now gone and we live in and we experience only the now, which includes experience of the living Christ.

Open your hearts, and give your brains a rest, I may say.

I may even get away with it…

Holding out for a Rapture

(to the tune of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding out for a Hero”:-

Where have all the good men gone
Why don’t you help me, Lord?
Where’s the angel of revenge
With mighty flaming sword?
Isn’t there a rider pale upon a whitened steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream
of what I need


I need a rapture
I’m holding out for a rapture ’til the end of my days
‘Cause I don’t want to work
For the Kingdom on earth
Or to fellowship with all the gays
I need a rapture
I’m holding out for a rapture ’til the end of my life
As I can’t get no ease
With no liberals here
And I want to leave them to the strife

Somewhere after midnight
In my wildest fantasy
Somewhere just beyond my reach
There’s someone reaching down for me
Corpses rising out of tombs and trumpets blaring loud
Lifting up into the air and feeling mighty proud


Now with the rate with which my Humvee burns gas
Soon there will be none left at all
Seasons are changing with all my exhaust
Always fall

We can’t have any peace in Iraq
Nor Syria or Israel
Armageddon must happen
It can not fail


I need a rapture. I’m holding out for a rapture ’til the end of my life.

What’s the point of historical Jesus?

Joel Watts writes in “Unsettled Christianity” linking to some sources talking about Historical Jesus research (or as one would have it, speculation). I feel moved to write a bit about this, given (if nothing else) that I have been throwing posts to and fro on The Religion Forum over the last few weeks with a couple of Jewish friends, one of whom remains convinced that Jesus was a fictional character made up by “the Church Fathers”, in which I’m pretty sure he means more Paul and the four Evangelists than those we tend to call “Church Fathers”. I don’t link to that discussion, as I don’t think it sheds much light; it can be found in the “Interfaith” section under “The Genesis of God…” thread.

Like the anonymous Irish Atheist of the second link, I don’t find it reasonably feasible that there was not a genuine historical individual called Jesus, so the complete mythicism of the first link seems bizarre to me. And yet, is it?

I do notice in practice that most Christians of the more conservative and/or more evangelical bent seem fixated virtually entirely on “the Christ of Faith” (as opposed to “the Jesus of History”). Yes, if you consider the major impact of the Christian message (that is, hopefully, to say the message of Jesus) to be that a god-man came into existence and died nastily {and was resurrected, though that is not necessarily as important} to produce a metaphysical change in the universe ( i.e. in God’s attitude to humanity) which benefited those who could induce themselves to believe certain things about him.  

I don’t. Somewhat naively, perhaps, I think that the major impact of the resurrection was to validate the lifetime words of Jesus, which in turn I see as centred on the announcement of the Kingdom of God as being a present and growing reality at that time, into which he invited his followers. I see the Kingdom of God as being, in part, a vibrant personal relationship with God verging on unity with him/her/it/other. I can understand that; it is something I have experienced, off and on, for most of my adult life.

Resurrection? Well yes. I am admittedly far closer to the Irish Atheist than the majority of the Christians around me – no, let me rephrase that, than any of the Christians around me. I don’t really do supernatural (with some provisos, which do not affect this argument). However, going back to the acknowledgement that there HAD to be a Jesus in order that within 20 years or so of his death there would be a rapidly growing group of followers who had penetrated half way across the Roman world in numbers, there also, to me, HAD to be something radically different about their experience shortly after their leader’s maximally painful and degrading death at the hands of the then world superpower from, say, the several previous and later Jewish resistance leaders whose followers disintegrated immediately after their deaths, insofar as they themselves survived their leader.

I read the various accounts in the gospels, and note that if you attempt to harmonise them, you do not get a physical resurrection in the body which was buried; as Paul says at an early stage, you get a Jesus resurrected in a radically different form. One which can walk through walls and very nearly bilocate. I grant you that there are stories of eating (could be illusion) and touching (I’ve personally experienced a tactile hallucination of Jesus) and that several people have seen the same thing at the same time (I’ve witnessed group hallucinations, even if I were unaware of the tendency of groups to provoke false memory in each other), but they don’t shake my conclusion that the primary location of these events was in the minds of followers. OK, there may have been some actual physical component, I suppose (as a scientist I can never say something thought scientifically impossible could absolutely NOT happen), but I don’t need that in order to explain the accounts, and the accounts are more than ample to explain why the cult spread.

For completeness, the accounts said there was an empty tomb. The number of possible naturalistic explanations for this are legion, and not all of them involve an agent who would then have been delighted to produce the remains.

So, I have an experienced, if not a photographable, resurrection as a very probable historical fact.

Clearly, I don’t have any miracles as very probable historical facts, as massive scientific improbability makes them – well – miraculous. No, this doesn’t incline me to think that they may actually have happened exactly as reported, it merely inclines me to believe that the writers has the same attitude to reporting supernatural events as most previous “historians” in the Greek speaking world had had, namely that they were quite likely explanations anyhow and that if a person were important, they were absolutely guaranteed.

Is this remotely important to me? No. I am not likely to be convinced by a miracle I actually witness, let alone one reported by someone living in a far more credulous age. I am likely to look for a naturalistic explanation and, if one does not come to hand, put it in the category of “strange events to be investigated later if at all” (i.e. “anomalous experimental results”). In any event, the concept of a God who is obliged to transgress the remarkably wonderful systems of nature which he may possibly have had some hand in creating in order to put right something which was probably not broken in the first place and which could have been far more simply put right by the transgressing of a lot less natural principles is not one which I can reconcile with my own experience of God.

However, we need to go back to what I said almost at the beginning: it is important to me, it is always going to be important to me, to know what the message actually was which Jesus brought with him, expounded in person, and in order to extract that from the writings of his followers, who were far more concerned about what Jesus meant to them and to the world as a whole than they were with what he actually said, I need Historical Jesus study.

I do approach Historical Jesus study cautiously, even though I am looking to use the skills of the experts in this field to give me a set of giant shoulders on which to climb in order, hopefully, to see a little further. Many of the scholars in this field discount things which I might not discount; notably, few, very few, are identifiable as practising contemplative mystics, and they therefore discount things as inauthentic which I look and say “Yes, that’s a figurative description of what this or that aspect of the mystical state is like”, or is a consequence of such thinking.

Given that I indicated earlier that I was well acquainted with a state of quasi-unity with God, why am I bothered about this? Can’t I just use that state in order to gain my own more direct knowledge? Well, no. Firstly, I am not much (if at all) in control of what happens when in such a state, including what information I may receive. Secondly, the picture I have formed of Jesus over the years from those writings which I am reasonably confident DO reflect his lifetime teachings indicate to me someone who was massively better acquainted with that state then me, and whose information would therefore be hugely better.

And lastly, I know personally of no way to ensure that those around me have a similar experience to my own, which I would wish on all of my friends (should they wish it for themselves) and, yes, all of my enemies, irrespective of whether they might wish it for themselves (they deserve the total comprehension of personal wrongdoing which tends to come with it, even if not the associated comprehension of forgiveness…). I believe there are clues and possibly more than clues as to this in Jesus’ statements. But then, I believe there are clues and possibly more than clues as to this in the statements of some of his followers; I just don’t regard them as equally reliable with those of Jesus.  I do think that following what Jesus suggested at least improves everyone’s chances – and even if it doesn’t improve a particular individual’s position, it produces a better world through their actions.

That, too, is God’s Kingdom, and no deferred gratification is needed for a small advance of it day by day.

Bauckham and Four Gospels

Always interested in new perspectives, and noting he had written “Jesus and the eyewitnesses”, I listened to a talk given by Dr. Bauckham entitled “The Four Gospels and other Gospels: is our canon right?”. I was disappointed, and probably will not be reading his book.

The generality of what he had to say was entirely reasonable in relation to the plethora of Infancy Gospels, post-resurrection appearance accounts and the like which are now known to us, but with one important exception, the Gospel of Thomas. He was, to be fair, able to point out that there was argument as to whether the Gospel of Thomas was in fact Gnostic, a label he used for the remainder (and he admitted he used the term loosely; I cannot argue with that).

I was waiting for him to say at each point he made “but this does not, of course, apply to the Gospel of Thomas”, but he only came close to that on one occasion. On two other occasions the point he was making might possibly have applied to the Gospel of Thomas, but would have required further argument before I felt it reasonable to apply it (that it was not narrative and therefore did not include a wealth of detail about the Palestinian circumstances of the time is true, but not as far as I am aware a reason given by the Church Fathers for non-inclusion of a work; and that it did not present a view of Jesus entirely consistent with that of the four canonical Gospels, which I would argue but which has some measure of validity).

As a result, he ended up dismissing what I consider to be possibly the least redacted early source for Jesus’ actual words, by association with other works, under a number of headings which it plainly does not fall within. I hope that this was sloppy scholarship and/or presentation rather than deliberate evasion of the issues surrounding Thomas. It would have been trivial to note at the beginning that the scope of his talk did not extend to Thomas and that it was therefore a separate issue; more reasonably, he should have addressed Thomas entirely separately and at length.

Two other points in his talk were, to me, dubious in the extreme. Firstly, he considers all the canonical Gospels to date from the period within living memory of the events and, therefore, to have been written with access to the eyewitness accounts of apostles. Now, I have written elsewhere about the testimony of Papias as quoted by Eusebius which, to me, makes it impossible that the narrative Matthew and Mark were written in this period (and if narrative Mark was not, neither was Luke). Textual criticism, to me, makes it beyond reasonable argument that all four canonical Gospels were multiply redacted; this of itself renders this timing and association dubious. The manifold errors of geography in the synoptics (a point he uses against some of the Gnostic writings) make it very unlikely that they were written by people with first hand knowledge of the Holy Land or by people who had access to eyewitnesses. Lastly, they appear to have been written in Pauline influenced churches, which would mean that access to the majority of the immediate disciples and particularly apostles would be extremely limited (those adhering to the Jerusalem church), Peter being a possible exception.

The second point I take issue with is his comment that historians of the period were careful to rest their accounts on eyewitness evidence if they themselves were not eyewitnesses. This attitude was, it is true, becoming counsel of excellence in the Roman world (although Roman historians of the times were not necessarily particularly good at following it and were sometimes abysmally bad at checking the veracity of statements they had heard) but had not by any manner of means been the case in Greek “historical” writing to that date – and we are talking about the Greek-speaking rather than the Latin-speaking world here. Frankly, what I would expect from a Greek writer of this period is uncritical fabulation as much as actual reporting of fact.

I will grant that Josephus, who like the majority of the gospel writers was a Hellenised Jew, displays a much higher standard, but he was not writing as an adherent of a religion. For an indication of the historical accuracy of Jewish writings of adherents of the period, we need only look at the tales recorded rather later in the Mishna, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as careful history (that tendency was still largely unchanged five centuries later with the assembly of the Talmud).

As I say, I was disappointed. I am open to argument that this was an aberration on his part, or persuasion that despite this, I should actually read something of his (which, it is fair to say, might be better argued).

More Alpha

Some more thoughts about “beyond Alpha”

This follows on from “not the Omega” and the Alpha postscript.

I referenced deindividuation and personal suasion as two factors which I thought may be at work in Alpha; that should not be taken to indicate that I do not think the Holy Spirit works through Alpha, just that those are factors to be taken into account and may, indeed, be among the methods which the Holy Spirit uses to produce the result of personal experience.

The acknowledgement that these factors do exist does, I think, mean that a programme should be in place to follow on from Alpha and work on the basis of any personal experience to produce an individual centred on God through Jesus aided by the Spirit (rather than the dangers of centring on the group or on the individual who prayed with them when they experienced the Spirit).

In fact, though, I think some follow on is essential in any event. There are parts of Alpha which deal to some extent with this, primarily Session 13 “What about the Church”, but to some extent in Session 14 “How can I make the most of the rest of my life” and even Session 11 “Why and how should I tell others”.  I could argue that Session 5 “Why and how should I read the Bible” and Session 4 “Why and how do I pray” also have a role to play, as they are the two sections dealing with personal as opposed to communal practice. Nothing in the course at present seems to me to bring all these threads together. Perhaps that should really be the job of Session 14.

At that point, I suppose much depends on what groups and programmes the church running the Alpha course has to offer (or could refer people to, if we’re feeling ecumenical!). Just worship services is not, I submit, going to be enough. I’ve seen Alpha courses follow on with a “First Steps” programme of introduction to Bible Study and then morph the resulting groups into cell groups, which seems an option.  

In any event, I think substantial consideration should be given to continuing the discussion groups created during Alpha as something approaching cell groups, if not actually as cell groups. This would, I think, capitalise on any group-centring or individual-centring which may have occurred; it will then take work in the cell group to delink those centrings. If persistence is too low to make a sensible sized cell group out of a discussion group, they could be combined or, possibly, tacked on to an existing group.

In any event, though, I’d want to see a stress on developing an individual spiritual programme, a personal praxis, in order to refocus on a personal relationship with God rather than one mediated by the group or another individual and, of course, because that is desirable. Either a portion of each cell group meeting could be devoted to discussing how individual praxis was developing (and talking through any issues which arose) or every third or fourth meeting could focus on this entirely; I suggest the first of these, as otherwise people might decide to skip the relevant sessions.

The “Journey” approach of Rev. Dr. John Vincent might well provide a good template for such follow-on groups, though it is possible they may go in unanticipated directions. So might the Emmaus Course material (probably concentrating on the “Growth” sections).

It occurs to me, though, that it would be possible to capitalise further on any individual centrings which arise by taking a leaf out of the book of 12 Step programmes, and encouraging a system of “sponsoring”. In this model, anyone who wished to follow on from Alpha would be encouraged to form a link with one of the helpers, who would then be responsible for supporting them, taking them through something akin to the 12 Steps and encouraging and assisting them into attendance at core services and membership of other groups within the church, including, of course, some form of service (an important concept within 12 Step and one which any missional, social gospel or radical church would be encouraging in any event.  I hope any church would be doing this, actually).

Clearly, in the light of my reservations earlier in this post and in the “postscript” post I link to above, one of the primary objectives of a sponsor would be to get the individual to develop their own praxis. I think it would also be worth considering that this “sponsorship” should be time-limited, both to encourage de-centring and to reassure individuals that this sponsoring was not a lifetime commitment, although I note that for many forms of personal praxis it is very desirable to have a Spiritual Director on a permanent basis. Perhaps, therefore, there should be an objective eventually to hand over to one of a group of people specialising in spiritual direction within the church?

It does seem to me that the assumption of the Alpha course is that a “one size fits all” personal transformation will be the result; a kind of standardised “born again” major transformational, paradigm changing experience. Most of the people I’ve met who are involved with Alpha are able to testify to such an experience, after all, so why should they assume anyone would be different? However I think from my own observations that many people are different; for one reason or another they are not susceptible to having such an abrupt paradigm change.

I anticipate, therefore, that there will be significant numbers who feel something as a result of going through Alpha, but nothing which they can identify as “born again”. I would like to think that their needs are being met; there may have been the start of an awakening which, if carefully nurtured, could blossom into something much greater. My suggestions above are designed to add an element of care for them.

Above all, I do not want to see people leave Alpha having not had an experience they could call “born again” feeling that they are failures, that they are excluded or, at the worst, that they are damned. I will therefore add one last element – everyone who leaves an Alpha course should have the opportunity of a one-to-one meeting to glean from them what their experience has actually been like, where they are now, to counsel them as to ways forward and to assure them of a continued welcome and support if they are still seeking. I say “opportunity”; I would prefer this to be a default, which someone could opt out of if they felt very strongly, but would otherwise be the norm.

Lastly, anyone with experience in sales will realise that these suggestions will also help in establishing persistence and in giving feedback to improve future Alpha courses. It may be impious to regard Alpha as a sales exercise, but it’s realistic. Granted, what is being “sold” is arguably a free gift (or, according to some theologies, a benefit already paid for), but what else is evangelism than sales?

Never ending story

I read at Experimental Theology in a comment from Ragamuffin Me:-

“How can Jesus be the “eternally begotten” Son”

My answer would be “In the same way as he is the eternally dying Son”.

In a recent post I wrote “In the first century, Christ was crucified by men who sinned at the behest of other men who sinned; today he is crucified again every time harm is done to any human being anywhere. We, humanity, crucified him by, not for, our sin, and we are still doing it every minute of every hour of every day.”

Paul writes strongly of “Christ in us”, for example Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the Life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”, and of “us in Christ”, for example 2 Cor. 5:17-21 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

I dismiss the obvious suggestion that Paul is only speaking to Christians here, and that anyone not a Christian cannot be thought of as being “in Christ” or of having “Christ in” them. It is only in this way that I think that Matthew 25, vv 31-40  “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ ” can make sense. Only if Christ can already be found in any of these people can he speak in this way.

Where I differ from Paul’s conception, therefore, is that I think our death and rebirth in Christ is a process of realisation, an internal, psychological process, the identity being there in the first place. We can therefore ourselves be eternally begotten and eternally dying with Christ in a constant process of self-realisation, of self-correction, of self-perfection.


Gnosis- Beyond Belief?

(This post follows on from “No Gnosis” and covers some of the same ground, hopefully not too repetitively)

I bought Elaine Pagels’ “Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas” primarily because I wanted to see her arguments for the Fourth Gospel being to a considerable extent a reaction to the Gospel of Thomas; there is some interesting insight there; a convincing argument was made for John being a reaction to Thomas, which brings up the probability that Thomas is actually earlier than John, promoting its status to something far more in line with Jesus Seminar thinking than with more conservative views. It also included a spotlight on the idea that the experiential basis of the two authors is very similar, but John is very strong on the concept that all experience of God is through Christ, while Thomas considers direct experience of God to be the aiming point; John then uses typical gospel-writers’ licence to cast Thomas in a bad light wherever possible.  Using my own terminology, this is the typical conflict between the Christ-mystic (John) and the God-mystic (Thomas).  

It does sadden me that there has been so much historical conflict, but I can well understand it; I spent quite some time being antipathetic towards the Christ-mystic governed theology of the mainstream Christianity I was brought up in, and to Paul, who I fixed on at an early stage as being primarily responsible (along with John). I didn’t much like Trinitarian theology either; as a God-mystic, my sense of a fully immanent and entirely unitary God was so strong that I did not want to support what I considered a dilution of monotheism.

However, it is just that Trinitarian theology which allows for meeting of mind between the God-mystic and the Christ-mystic (and I assume for this purpose that what both are experiencing is in fact the same root experience, modified in its description through the thinking and particularly the belief-structures of the individual mystic).

There is to my eye little functional difference between mainstream Christian theology’s view of the nature and activity of Christ from that of the nature and activity of God, save perhaps for the insistence that such of God’s nature and activity as we are able to experience or witness is to a nearly exclusive extent Christ, insofar as it is not the Holy Spirit (and possibly the ascribing of events of natural evil {i.e. evil events which do not flow from man’s doing} to God rather than to Jesus).  Conservative theology is, perhaps, identical to mainstream on this point, but the results in practice in conservative evangelical churches seem to be a focus completely on Jesus/Christ where more mainstream churches would insist on focus on God. It thus follows that mainstream-to-conservative theology and practice would see the God-mystic’s actual experience as being experience of Jesus, were the God-mystic not to insist on using God-terminology rather than Jesus-terminology.

I cannot see that a mere difference of descriptive language where it is clear that the essence of what is being talked about is the same should be sufficient to fuel an 18 century long antipathy, dating this from the time of Irenaeus, and frequently attended by cries of “heresy” and more dangerous actions based on that charge.

It is, in fact, Irenaeus who is the hero or anti-hero of Pagel’s book, rather than Thomas. I found her picture of him and his stuggles with a very early Christian community under persecution, a community fractured and still with no really clear single identity, to be surprisingly endearing, and certainly conveying an understanding of the motivations behind his Five Volume “Against Heresies”. To understand all is to forgive all, or so it is said, and I may have moved some little way towards forgiveness of a man I see as the first main mover in the heresy-persecuting strain of Christianity which resulted in the destruction of so many ancient texts which would have been invaluable to historians and the lack of which moved the centre of the developing Christianity away from the experiential to the doctrinal, a trend which is perhaps now beginning to be corrected. Most seriously this antipathy towards supposed heretics caused many millions of deaths of “heretics” over the ensuing 18 centuries.

I’m moved a little way only; it is still difficult for me to feel empathy for someone who will advocate killing people for having what he considers an erroneous intellectual definition of a technical theological term.

The thing which most strikes me from Pagels’ account of Irenaeus is the difficulties he faced bringing together a coherent group where various elements seemed bent on going in widely different directions. Of course, what resulted was his condemnation of two things which have since become very major threads of Christianity; firstly the reinterpreting of scripture by individuals or small groups to produce views divergent from his orthodoxy (or rather proto-orthodoxy, as orthodoxy had not yet been defined), thus undermining any sense of coherence of the movement; secondly an insistence among the “Gnostics” of the importance of personal experience and it’s primacy.

Of course, the first has since the 16th century been the result of the principle of “sola scriptura” which is the watchword of the Protestant Churches, and which has contributed to their fragmentation into thousands of different denominations; the second results in the charismatic movement which to some extent crosses the other bounds of denomination and theological complexion, and not infrequently leads to variant theological concepts.

There was another thread which Irenaeus disliked intensely, that being the very Gnostic idea that (to put it trivially) spirit was good, the world was bad. His arch-enemy in this was probably Valentinus; for Valentinus the world of matter was a mistake, and to be escaped from, initially via Gnosis giving consciousness of the spirit within and then on death to be fully freed from the taint of the material. For Irenaeus, as for most proto-orthodox Christians, the world was created by God and was good; the problem was with mankind, not with the entire creation.

Again here, the more conservative churches seem to me to be preaching that the one important thing is salvation, that what matters is the state of one’s immortal soul, to the effective exclusion of what is done here and now. This is a position focussed on what happens after death, not on what we do in this life; in other words the Gnostic’s “escape from this world” theology.

So far as eschatology, “end times”, was concerned, Irenaeus held to the view of a thousand year reign on earth, a reign of God on earth over a perfected humanity; the Gnostics on the other hand looked to an end to the tainted earth and its possible eventual reconstruction. They had no proper attachment, in other words, to what was done here and now; no engagement in the church which Irenaeus looked to promote and extend.

It is curious that the conservative-evangelical tendency these days seems to be a focus on “end times” very different from this proto-orthodox (later to become orthodox) position; no kingdom of God on this earth is really looked for (even if there is an advent of the end times, the faithful will be caught up in the “rapture” to heaven) Rather salvation is described which gives an afterlife in heaven (rather than hell), a heaven removed from the earth except when the earth has been destroyed and remade. This is, of course, the position of John Darby and those who have followed him (and the Scofield Reference Bible which was based on his speculations).

Irenaeus would have hated Conservative Christians, particularly Rapture-believing Conservative Christians, and more particularly Charismatic Rapture-believing Conservative Christians. Even more so if they also had the bad grace to be members of any group separate from the Catholic Church.

Which is curious, considering that Conservative Evangelical Premillenial Charismatics commonly allege that they are “fundamentalist” in going back to the principles and beliefs of the early Church, in which Irenaeus is the effective father of orthodox creedal doctrine, the original heresy-hunter.

Somehow, I find the idea of a cage fight between Irenaeus and a modern Fundamentalist a particularly heart-warming concept.

However, Irenaeus would also have hated anyone who espoused the idea that personal experience was vital, so not only my friends the charismatics, the “born again” would be targeted, but also the mystics, and that includes me. Also, in all probability, Saints Athanasius, Gregory of Thessalonica, Maximus the Confessor, Basil, Gregory Palamas, Simeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Sinai, Isaac the Syrian, John of the Ladder, Augustine, Francis, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa de Avila and John of the Cross, just to name a selection of those actually sainted among Christian mystics since Irenaeus’ time.

His reasons for hating those espousing personal experience included, of course, the fact that this gives a new source of inspiration potentially at odds with the organised “one church”. This is true.  All those I mentioned in my catalogue of Saints managed to keep their expressions of their inspirations sufficiently within the bounds of doctrine for the time being not to be declared dangerous heretics – in St. Athanasius’ case not to remain so declared -though in some cases, notably that of St. Francis, I find it difficult to work out how; many others have just about managed the same but have had their works sidelined (for instance the writer of the Theologica Germanica and Meister Eckhart), but others again have been anathematised. I regret all those sidelined or anathematised whose thoughts we have lost. A little more flexibility of doctrine, a little more willingness to contemplate either change or at least a re-examination of past theology, and that need not have been so.

However, there is another aspect of Irenaeus’ criticism which I have to take more seriously, this being that privileging personal peak spiritual experiences produces a division in the church, a two-speed Christianity.

I’ve been very conscious of this for myself, as there frankly aren’t very many contemplative mystics in Christianity, or at least not very many who are prepared to be open about their spiritual vision. For a long time I found it extremely difficult to understand why anyone who had not had a peak spiritual experience would actually bother with or gain much from Christianity, and since reading excerpts from the Oxyrhyncus sayings when I was 15 I’ve been convinced that Jesus was actually pointing at personal experiential (i.e. mystical) faith as the goal of his followers (I’ve since come to think he was pointing at other things as well, but am still confident my 15 year old thinking was right).

It has certainly been difficult learning to talk with Christians who have not had similar experience, particularly as, unlike all the other contemplative mystics I’ve encountered within Christianity, I didn’t have a background as a practising Christian at the time of my experience, so I lacked personal experience of being where others seem to be. I’ve hoped to find similar experiential focus among the “born again”, but been hampered by the fact that until very recently all those who would testify to me of a “born again” peak experience were also wedded to a very conservative theology which I can’t cope with (quite apart from not considering it justified by scripture).  All my efforts in that direction to date have yielded a situation where I have an experience which non-peak-experience Christians haven’t shared; they may wish (and often do) fervently to share it, but I cannot tell them how to achieve that.  There is a gap, and it’s a damaging gap.

Equally, there’s a damaging gap between the “born again” and those long term Christians who haven’t had the same experience, so far as they can tell, and frequently can’t adopt the same route to get there as the “born again” testify to.  I can understand Irenaeus’ concerns here, but his route of denying expression to the mystic or the born again (if different) does not work for me.

This gap of experience is something I am looking to work on. That may, I think, be as simple as learning to find a weaker form of the same root experience in those who don’t think they have it and help fan it into flame, but in that case I am still in need of better techniques. It may just mean strong advocacy of personal spiritual practices alongside any more public devotion, though I have major difficulty in promoting a strong personal spiritual praxis to those who have no “feeling” for what may be gained.

Then again, it may be that the “born again” experience is actually accessible even to those who seem immune, given some adjustments in presentation.

This is something I am praying for a solution to.