Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Are You Ready For The Magazines...Again?

Well, Good Friday and Easter are approaching and we all know what that means. It means magazines at the checkout counter, all the big named ones, with Renaissance paintings of the Crucifixion or of the face of the Risen Jesus and banner headlines such as: The Cross--What Really Happened? or The Resurrection--Myth or Truth?--Scholars Debate, etcetera, etcetera, you know what I'm talking about.

Ugh, here we go again.

If we're lucky, we'll find some kind of coherent statement from the "believers'" side: usually its a Protestant; sometimes its a "Catholic theologian" who--OUCH--doesn't seem to get it quite right. We are generally left wishing that the believers had more of a say.

But this is the day for the skeptics to air out all the same old "arguments" so that journalists can conclude that the issue is still "up in the air" but leaning toward the skeptics' side. And what does the skeptical position consist in?

Inevitably, it's a rehash of the reduction of the figure of Jesus by the "historical-critical method" in its worst form--in which the Gospels are tossed out as historical sources insofar as they say anything supernatural about Jesus. Then, with what is left, these "new" religious scholars and historians (whose theories are actually 300 years old and showing it) reconstruct the figure of Jesus according to their own imagination. The figure of Jesus becomes a preacher of love and justice who challenged the political authorities and was executed. That is all we can really say about Jesus. All the rest is "Christian theology" (as I read in a recent article), which is one of many polite ways of saying, "stuff that the early Christians made up." This is more than just an insult to the wonder and the miracle of early Christianity. It is bad history. It ignores the real sources and the only reasonable conclusions that can be drawn from them.

Over the past 300 years, actual scholars have learned a great deal about the New Testament and how close much of it is in time to the actual events of Jesus's life. As a historical person, the documentary testimony for Jesus, and its textual accuracy, are better than that of any figure of ancient times (and quite a few more modern ones).  And there is no historical reason to throw out this testimony. The reason it is disregarded is that the pseudo-scholars have a preconceived rejection of the possibility of what the texts say. Their preconception is that Divine Revelation cannot happen, that miracles cannot happen, that the supernatural is unreasonable, and therefore anything in the texts we have that talks of such things must be human invention.

Says who?

Why does this have to be so? One would think that World Wars, concentration camps, and totalitarian regimes might have cured us of the assumptions and ambitions of a limited human rationalism. Do we really still believe that empirical science, or any other kind of purely human reasoning, can encompass and resolve every question? There is a strong hangover of this attitude, certainly, but I think we are entering an age in which people are becoming more ambivalent about the absoluteness of human reason. This in itself is a reasonable attitude. It is reasonable to be open to the possibility of mystery. What do we see if we approach the testimony to Jesus without prejudices about what might be possible? What will the historian find if he or she approaches these texts with an openness to reality?

Such a historian can't escape the fact that we have four extraordinary first century accounts of the life of a man who preached many things but above all preached...Himself. He performed miracles, preached profound wisdom, and claimed to be equal to God. He said, essentially, "the true meaning and fulfillment of your life is ME." "Follow ME." "He who loses his life FOR MY SAKE will find it."

According to the allegedly sophisticated pseudo-historians, we are supposed to assume that these sayings--indeed the whole Person who practically reaches out of the Gospel pages and grabs you--are essentially something made up by the first Christians. But we are not really, seriously allowed to ask the question,  "where did they get these ideas? How did the figure of Jesus get transformed from a Palestinian preacher to the Savior of the world so quickly?" His followers not only understand Him that way, they portray Him that way. There is no way that the man in the Gospels could have been contrived by the milieu of first century Judaism, not even with the help of Hellenism. It is far more realistic, from a historical point of view, to assume that there must have been an extraordinary man who said these things, made this claim about Himself, and backed it up in a compelling manner.

The fact that the Gospels are founded on eyewitness testimony has plenty of historical verification. But all this is ignored by our skeptics. The "Jesus-philosopher" that is created in the imaginations of these "scholars" is not backed by any historical witness. There is no one in the first century who claims to follow Jesus the preacher of love and justice. On the contrary, the earliest evidence of disagreement among Christians (evident already in John's gospel) goes precisely in the opposite direction. The first century Christians had to defend the claim that Jesus was a real man, rather than a mere apparition of the Divinity. What the reductionists ignore is that, from the very beginning of Christianity the central focus has always been on who Jesus is.

The fact is that an explosion occurred in history. A man came into the world and claimed to be the fulfillment of everything, the purpose of everyone's existence, the ultimate lawgiver, the One to whom we must abandon our entire lives. He claimed to be God and He acted like God and He demanded the submission due to God alone. But he was not a fanatic, a cult leader, or a deceiver. Everyone acknowledges this. So how can He speak this way? If He really spoke and acted the way the Gospels portray Him, then Jesus was not a "good preacher" or a "good man." He was either a very bad man, or He is GOD.

Not even our contemporary pseudo-historians and religious scholars want to say that Jesus was a bad man. The miracles narratives are not simply magic tricks; they display a man of extraordinary compassion and goodness. Even for those who reject the possibility of miracles, the radiance of His goodness, in the texts that witness to Him, and in the lives of those who have truly followed Him, is too great to ignore. So they try to keep the "good Jesus" but rule out the testimony of the witnesses. Then they ignore or, at best, give a superficial and unsubstantiated answer to the huge question: Where did the disciples come up with the words and deeds and the man that they do present to us, if not from that man Himself?

What remains? They must make up an imaginary figure from whatever pickings are left: a few Gospel details that they can bear, some first century Jewish practices, and a highly speculative interpretation of provincial governance in the Roman empire. They take these lean pieces and construct the supposedly "historical Jesus" out of them; along the way they have to make up the motivations of the people, of the disciples, of Pilate. This is more than the denial of the supernatural and the possibility of revelation. This is fudging with history, pure and simple.

If we don't want to fudge, we have to face the man and His claim. This is what we are all afraid of, to one degree or another: "Abandon your life to ME." The fundamental form of that abandonment--faith--means embarking on an adventure, a new life in which we are not the ones who are in control. It means that God has entered history. It means that grace and revelation are not only possible, but have really happened in history and are really offered to us as the shape of our lives, and our ultimate destiny.

The true response to the person of Jesus is faith, hope, and love. The real historical testimony to Jesus of Nazareth, and the continuing witness of the Church through which He remains present, show us that our response is not to a myth perpetuated by the imagination but to a real man who is God.

Let us pray for the skeptics and all their readers who are left scratching their heads. Let us pray that Jesus might conquer their fear. And let us pray for our own weak faith to grow stronger, for our own fears to be conquered by Love.