Thursday, January 1, 2009

Many Rooms

I'm fascinated by the historical Jesus, which is to say that I'm fascinated by the various "quests" for such a Jesus and the literature that is generated from those quests. I certainly haven't read all of it -- I haven't even read the classics like Schweitzer or Sanders. My exposure consists mostly of "new quest" types, and what I enjoy about this literature is not its ability to shed light on the historical personage of Jesus, which I consider a fool's errand, but what it can tell us about the sociohistorical context of the texts in which Jesus figures prominently.

As for the historical Jesus, there is no habeas corpus, no body in custody that we can present. The tomb is empty. All we have are texts, a literary corpus. Or, if you like, the Corpus Christi, the gathered eucharistic community, the living tradition left behind in the wake of the Christ-event, whatever that might have been. Like any project of meaning-making, the Christian tradition is suspended over an abyss, flailing about in a cloud of unknowing. We are always just this side of a semiotic event horizon.

On one end of the spectrum we might find those for whom the Jesus of the Gospels and the "historical Jesus" are coterminous. The Gospels are history to this way of thinking, a position that is naïve but understandable. While the idea that all four Gospels are historical in this way creates intractable problems of harmonization (anyone who has read a Gospel harmonization, or worse, had to create one for a class on the Gospels, knows what I mean), I suppose we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that at least one of the evangelists -- Mark seems the most likely candidate -- is pretty much giving us the straight dope.

At the other end are the biblical minimalists, who argue that the Gospels are complete fabrications. For those of us who grew up in church, this sounds utterly batty, but it's really not that absurd; however many gospel manuscripts we might have, none of them can be reliably dated early enough to point unambiguously to a real person, nor is there slam-dunk extrabiblical evidence of Jesus' life as described in those manuscripts. The light of the world is shrouded in shadows.

The value of the minimalist approach is that it places the focus entirely on the texts and why the communities out of which they sprang might have told such stories. If the charge of fabrication seems a bit strong, it can't really be ruled out, and focusing on the social context of these stories and the rhetorical purposes to which they were put seems a responsible and fruitful way of handling the texts. That a real person is somewhere behind the texts seems reasonable to me -- Jesus is more like Daniel Boone than Paul Bunyan -- but I certainly can't prove that, and wouldn't bother trying.

In between, then, we have the historical Jesus questors, those who believe there was an historical Jesus, but that he is not -- or not quite -- the Jesus of the Gospels. N.T. Wright finds a largely orthodox Jesus, one who is consistent with the Gospel accounts even if those accounts are not straight history. (Wright's reconstruction does not completely avoid the harmonization problem, but his approach to the texts at least bears an attentiveness to history that he seems to have lost by the time he gets to the wretched Surprised by Hope.)

Crossan and Borg (whom I enjoy quite a bit) look into the well and see a sapiential, or wisdom-focused Jesus, a cross between a sage and a revolutionary. In this episode, the part of Jesus is being played by Ghandi. Dale Allison sees an apocalyptic Jesus a la Schweitzer, a reluctant prophet-turned Messiah expecting a ngab gib (the opposite of a big bang) that never comes.

It's tempting to suggest that we find whatever Jesus we need, and to some extent this is true. I think it's way too cynical, however, to assert that historical Jesus scholars simply find a Jesus that looks like them. I think Crossan's Jesus makes demands on him that he's not prepared to live up to, and Allison knows full well that if he's right about Jesus, Jesus was wrong about the end of the world. Surely Wright needs his orthodox savior, but what he comes up with does not seem exclusively Anglican, and it's hard to imagine Wright's Jesus as the Bishop of Durham. Jesus is pliable, but he is not exactly a Rorschach test, and he's hardly a mirror.

To be sure, we are human, all too human, and when we stare into the abyss it stares back. When we speak into the void we hear a unique voice but it is not necessarily, not always, not simply ours. Or it is ours -- it is for us -- but it is not our own. We get the Jesus we need, but this does not mean we get the Jesus we want, which would be far too obvious. When we become too conscious of our personal mythologies they stop working for us.

Even if the historical Jesus cannot be found -- does not, in a word, exist -- the reconstructions are still helpful. They're interesting to read, some of them piss off conservatives, and their immense popularity justifies the existence and salaries of academics who like to write about religion, a project that I'm wholly in favor of. One should be able to make ludicrous amounts of money writing about religion, and one should be supplied with free coffee while doing so.

A guy can dream, can't he?

What fascinates me is the sense that we're collectively looking for some lost or hidden truth, hoping the real Jesus will please stand up not just because he's an important character in the drama of Western history but because we think he's holding out on us. We want Jesus to give up his secrets. We are wrestling with the angel, hoping for a blessing. The unspoken assumption is that if we can just figure out what Jesus really said, or who he really was, there will be some magic left in that old silk hat we found. Even people who have deep misgivings about Christianity in general sometimes feel compelled to do something with Jesus.

I think we want Jesus to mean something beyond our constructions and the slippery bastard refuses to cooperate. James Carse argues, in The Religious Case Against Belief, that it is precisely Jesus' protean and polysemic character that makes him so valuable to Christianity as a religion -- by which Carse seems to mean a living and long-standing tradition of cultural meaning -- and so troublesome to Christianity as a belief system.

Nobody gets the last word on who Jesus was, or is, or is to come. He can't be just anything, but he's certainly been a lot of things, and there's no reason to think he's going to settle down and start a family any time soon. He has no home, no place to rest his head, nothing but a borrowed tomb. Even dead he was a squatter. At least he folded the sheets.

Jesus is God in the Christian tradition because he stands in for God as the plastic signifier of something beyond ourselves. We project onto Jesus our deepest fears and most profound longings, but he is not a tabula rasa, taking anything we might dish out. Those projections would be different if they were aimed somewhere else, just as they would be different if they came from somewhere else. It is this intersection, this nexus, this liminal space, that I think defines Christianity as a tradition. We are a part of this tradition, in the broadest possible sense, as long as we insist on doing something with Jesus, whatever that might be.

There are many, many rooms.