Jesus was a Liberal
Reclaiming Christianity for All
By Scotty McLennan
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 William L. McLennan, Jr.
All rights reserved.
SOME LIBERAL PERSPECTIVES
Jesus, Science, Abortion, and Same-Sex Marriage
All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
For everything there is a season ... a time to be born.
Love is patient; love is kind ... It does not insist on its own way.
—I Corinthians 13:4–5
A PERSPECTIVE ON JESUS
A Hindu priest with whom I spent a college-era summer in India used to speak of avatars: people with clear mystical awareness who have direct knowledge of the infinite spirit that infuses the universe. In other words, they have true God-consciousness. Avatars, he said, help the rest of us see what God is like in human form. They are sons or daughters of God in a uniquely pure way.
The priest's avatar was Ramakrishna, a nineteenth-century saint who inspired an order and mission in India that has come to be known in America as the Vedanta Society. At the end of the summer, when I expressed a strong interest in becoming a Hindu, the Hindu priest said no. Ramakrishna, he said, taught that avatars have had different impacts from culture to culture and era to era. Yet, ultimately—although they use different names and different religious methodologies—they all point to the same God. So Ramakrishna advised seekers not to look outside their own tradition, but to follow the path they know best with wholehearted devotion. Ramakrishna counseled, "A Christian should follow Christianity, a Muslim should follow Islam, and so on."
The priest directed me back to the Christianity with which I had grown up. He insisted that Jesus was my avatar, not Ramakrishna nor the Buddha nor anyone else. It was in Jesus's footsteps that I should walk to know God better. That didn't mean I should bring along all my prior assumptions about Jesus being the only way to God for all people. I needed to develop a wider view of Christianity that included respect not only for other religions but also for everything I'd come to know scientifically, logically, and rationally.
When I returned to the United States, I discovered and joined the Unitarian Universalist denomination. Rooted in liberal Christianity, it is wide open to the religions of the world as well as to those who do not accept the label "religious." In seminary, I learned about the sermon that Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson preached in 1838 to the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School. Jesus's role as avatar came through loud and clear in that magnificent address:
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there ... He saw that God incarnates himself in man ... He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, "I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou thinkest as I now think."
That's how I'm drawn to be a follower of Jesus in the liberal Christian tradition. I'm also struck by how Jesus of Nazareth, more than two thousand years after his birth, continues to astonish and inspire so many people. His teachings are dramatic and surprising and challenging. He insists that we love our enemies, not just our friends, and that we pray for those who persecute us, forgiving their trespasses. He uncomfortably confronts us with our own hypocrisy: "First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." He also provides comforting assurance that we can let go of our material insecurities: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear ... Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap ... [and] the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin." These lessons are but a fraction of what he taught in one sermon—the "Sermon on the Mount," which Gandhi called us to drink deeply of and Martin Luther King Jr. credited as foundational to the modern American civil rights movement.
Genuine transformation is possible by trying to live in his ways. We can follow Jesus individually, with our studies, meditations, and private prayers, and by living according to his teachings. We can also follow Jesus by becoming part of the Body of Christ, a community of believers gathered together in church. But what do we really know about Jesus?
First of all, we can fairly say that he was a real historical figure. The facts concerning his life and work are so abundant that even atheist Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion concedes that Jesus "probably" did exist. Today, most people's understanding of Jesus is drawn not from the various contemporaneous Roman, Jewish, and pagan sources, but from the collection of writings that we now know as the New Testament. Current scholarship views most of the books of the New Testament as having been written between 50 and 100 A.D., starting a generation after the death of Jesus, around 30 A.D. The earliest materials are the letters of Paul, written in the 50s, while the Gospel of John may have been as late as 100 A.D.
Modern biblical scholars have used a variety of tools to try to generate solid data about the Jesus of history. For example, conservative N. T. Wright explains that "the scientific method of hypothesis and verification" is central to this work. Liberal John Dominic Crossan describes three critical sources for locating the historical Jesus: literary and textual analysis of the New Testament and other Christian documents, use of non-Christian texts to understand the Greco-Roman and Jewish context of the time, and cross-cultural anthropology. Liberal Marcus Borg also refers to the role of archaeology in this enterprise.
According to a number of scholars, we can feel confident now about making the following six claims for the historical Jesus:
1. Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew. He acted and taught within Judaism in a particular eastern Mediterranean outpost of the Roman Empire. Jews were convinced that their god was the one true god, and that the gods of other nations and cultures were mere human creations or idols. Jews also believed they were elect among all the nations as the chosen people of this one and only god. Jesus was certainly involved in critiquing his own tradition, but his criticism was always from the inside. Rather than calling for his people to abandon Judaism for a new and different religion, he was asking them to become the true people of the one true God. Jesus wanted Israel reconstituted—nothing more and nothing less.
2. Jesus was a prophet of Israel. I don't mean the type of prophet who primarily foretold the future, but one who called the Jewish people (and sometimes other nations) to account, speaking on behalf of God. Jesus referred to himself as a prophet, acted like a prophet, and didn't correct other people when they referred to him as a prophet. Early in his public career, he seems to have been in the circle of another prophet, John the Baptist.
3. Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. John baptized Jesus when he was about thirty, and his public ministry lasted only a few years at the most before the Romans executed him. During this time his primary mission appears to have been announcing that the "kingdom of God" was breaking into the world, like light coming through a crack in the wall of a dark room, and eventually would achieve the total transformation of all that was known. This wasn't a matter of military rebellion against the Romans, as many Jews of the time were hoping. Instead, Jesus seemed to mean that God's rule was coming to replace that of all political authorities.
In order to begin living in relation to the emerging, in-breaking kingdom of God, Jesus called for a radical equality. Class, rank, and gender were to be commingled. Eating together was central to Jesus's mode of operation, and he invited everyone to the same table—women and men, slaves and free people, socially privileged and socially excluded, ritually pure and ritually impure. A world with God totally in charge, rather than a Caesar or a Herod, requires social justice. The poor become rich and the hungry are fed.
4. Jesus was a political radical. He came from the marginalized peasant class in a marginalized village in Galilee, a region north of Jerusalem that was undergoing rapid social change at the time. His hometown of Nazareth was just a few miles from the largest city of Galilee, Sepphoris, which was also the political center for King Herod. So Jesus could easily compare huge differences in wealth and culture within Judaism. His preaching and actions demonstrated an unusual sensitivity to the poor and the oppressed.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, near the end of his life, he went to the temple and violently disrupted its fiscal, sacrificial, and liturgical operations, as reported in all four gospels. He threw over the tables of the moneychangers and ran them out of the temple. He also threw over the seats of people selling animals to be sacrificed. The account in John 2:15 has him using a whip to drive out not only the moneychangers and sellers, but also large sacrificial animals like sheep and oxen. This was likely the immediate reason for his arrest and execution, since neither Jewish nor Roman authorities could tolerate this kind of dramatic disorder at the very center of the capital's life during this busy holiday season.
5. Jesus was a healer. This activity also had political and social implications. He ministered to those who were rejected by society—the lepers, the insane, and the disabled—and gave them back some degree of control over their own lives.
John Dominic Crossan claims that Jesus didn't actually cure illnesses like leprosy or correct physical conditions like lameness. Instead, Jesus healed in the sense of removing the personal and social stigmas of uncleanliness, isolation, and rejection associated with these conditions. He opened his arms and brought the sick and the handicapped back into the community from which they'd been excluded, making the world humanly habitable and hospitable again for them. This didn't endear him to those in authority, but it made him very popular among the dispossessed.
For Jesus, living in expectation of the coming kingdom of God was a matter of action and a way of life, not just a matter of words. Marcus Borg points out that Jesus explicitly connected healing with the coming kingdom of God as a time of deliverance. N. T. Wright reminds us that this activity was a major part of Jesus's public work and that it included the healing of societies and institutions, along with psychological healing, healing of memories, and a wide range of other phenomena.
6. Jesus was a wisdom teacher. As he described how to live in relation to the incipient kingdom of God, Jesus's teachings became a kind of wisdom, and they felt subversive and challenging, rather than conventional. He used aphorisms and parables to prod others to see the world in a radically new way. The kingdom of God demanded a new social and ethical vision, with compassion and love at its core: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." "Do not judge, and you will not be judged."
So, this is all well and good. But the critical question for many people is this: "Was Jesus the Son of God?" For liberal Christians, the question of whether we can call Jesus the Son of God can't be answered with a simple yes or no. Jesus himself never uses the term "Son of God" to describe himself in the first three gospels. He does speak of others being sons or daughters of God: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9). This was common phraseology in his day, as when the apostle Paul says, "All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God." Scholars generally agree that the exclusive use of the title "Son of God" would have been incomprehensible to Palestinian Jews of Jesus's time, although not to those who later taught or learned about the post-Easter Jesus in the non-Jewish, Hellenistic world outside of Palestine.
Part of the answer might be found in making a seventh claim about Jesus. He can fairly be called a mystic. It's entirely appropriate for us to refer to the historical Jesus by the term "spirit person." Jesus is reported in Luke 4:18 to have said, quoting Isaiah, in his first moment of public ministry: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me." Like the prophets of Israel before him, Jesus had intense mystical experiences in which he felt totally in the presence of what he would call God. These were ecstatic moments—nonordinary states of consciousness.
For example, when John baptized him, Jesus had a vision of the heavens opening up and "the Spirit descending like a dove on him." Jesus also had a number of visions during the following forty days that he spent alone out in the desert on what a modern anthropologist would call a vision quest or wilderness ordeal, which is typical for mystics. It is also clear that Jesus regularly engaged in spiritual exercises common for mystics, like fasting and long periods of extended prayer.
His mysticism helps to explain Jesus's power for others as a wisdom teacher, healer, and announcer of the kingdom of God. Mystics have historically found themselves in trouble with mainstream members of their own religious tradition and with political authorities, especially when they took actions that radically challenged the status quo.
Although Jesus during his lifetime on earth would never have recognized certain titles later applied to him—"coequal with God," "of one substance with God," "the second person of the Trinity"—the early church began developing these ideas about him soon after his death. There's no doubt that his followers after his death moved from considering him a spirit person or mystic to increasingly speaking of him as having qualities of God and then as being divine himself.
Yet, many liberal Christians like me see Jesus as the Son of God only in the sense described by the apostle Paul in Romans 8:14: "All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God." Jesus was surely led by the Spirit of God in a very special way—as a true avatar in the words of the Hindu priest, and as a mystic who also had extraordinary abilities as prophet, healer, and wisdom teacher. Yet, personally, I don't believe that Jesus was or is identical with God, nor do I think that's what he believed either, based on the biblical evidence.
But that has no impact on my decision joyfully to choose to try to walk in his footsteps. In fact, in makes him more accessible to me as a fellow human being to whom I can relate. He is as Spirit-filled as I can imagine, and I proudly call him my "lord and savior"—in the sense of being my spiritual master and bringing ultimate meaning and purpose into my life. As Emerson said, "He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul." We can too, if we follow him.
CHRISTIANITY CAN BE RATIONAL AND SCIENTIFIC
There are a number of hot-button issues that separate liberal and conservative Christians, including views on evolution, abortion, and marriage for same-sex couples. I'll take on these three directly in this first chapter in order to clear the air, or at least to put my cards on the table, in these controversial areas. Then, I believe I'll be freer to look at essential dimensions of Christianity from a liberal perspective, including love, God, Jesus, the church, the Bible, and faith.
So, what do we do with the biblical claim in Genesis that the universe as we know it—including the earth with vegetation, living creatures of every kind, and human beings—was all created in six days? How does Christianity square with modern science? What would really have happened if Jesus had thrown himself off the temple, when he was tempted by the devil to defy the law of gravity early in his ministry? He wisely responded, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."
Questions about the relationship of religion and science were at a high pitch in 2008 at Stanford. We were treated to lectures on this subject by journalist Christopher Hitchens and scientists Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Hitchens is the author of a best seller entitled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In the first chapter of that book he states one of his irreducible objections to religious faith: "It wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos." He explains that he "distrust[s] anything that contradicts science or outrages reason." One of the major problems for religion is that it "comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody ... had the smallest idea of what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable need for knowledge ... Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion ... All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule for precisely these reasons." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Jesus was a Liberal by Scotty McLennan. Copyright © 2009 William L. McLennan, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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