Wednesday, February 28, 2007

    Certainty?



    Listening to NPR the other day, I heard a guy offer this old chestnut: "Either Jesus was a liar, a madman, or everything he said about himself was true" (otherwise known as the lunatic/liar/Lord trilemma). I instantly thought of the reader who posted about this quiz on theological worldviews:

    I'd like to point out that many of the statements with which a participant is presented represent false dichotomies. Take, for example, "There is little or no human element in the Bible, it is a divine book." This statement excludes believing it is both divine and contains human elements (and choosing halfway between "agree" and "disagree" is not a satisfying response!).



    Similarly, the above statement about Jesus offers a false choice because it suggests that you can only consider Jesus from one of three perspectives: as liar, mentally disturbed, or self-proclaimed Messiah. It is assumed that we just accept that Jesus declared himself the Messiah. What is missing here is at least one other possibility: what we have in scripture is, in part, the words and witness of the early Christian community and their understanding of Jesus, rather than the actual words of Jesus himself. Thus, in the Gospel of John when Jesus makes the well-known "I am" declarations, it is possible that what we have here are not the historical words of Jesus, but rather assertions of how John's community had come to understand Jesus (e.g. for them he was "the way, the truth, the life.") Thus, the "I am" statements are the words of John's community--not Jesus. Nevertheless, they speak truths about Christ.

    To understand the text this way is to see it not as history recorded (e.g. reading forward in time from the occurrence of the event to the recording of the event) but rather reading it as the way in which the Christian community tried to interpret the Jesus Experience (e.g. reading backward in time). Another example: Last Sunday's lectionary text for Lent dealt with Jesus being tempted in the desert. Not too long ago, I was discussing this passage with a group of youth ministry folk and one person said that this passage is an example of how Jesus sort of had a "Superman switch." He could have done all the miracles the Devil is suggesting, but he chose instead to turn off his "Superman switch." The question was then posed "Why did he do that?"

    To read the passage this way is to read it as a straight forward piece of history. In a sense, reading it forward in time. I find it much more interesting to read it in the opposite direction -- backward in time-- not as history but as metaphor and ask "Why does Luke/Luke's community tell this story in this way about Jesus? What does it say about how they had come to experience him?" For me, it is partly a story about the temptations of power. We are all tempted, I think, in some way by the need for power, even if it is just enough power to keep our lives/families/jobs/belongings secure and safe.

    Those who encountered Jesus, it would seem, experienced in him one who did not (and perhaps could not) use coercive power. He did not use coercive power to stop the Romans. He did not use coercive power to end poverty or hunger or to make the Jews suddenly the "bosses." Instead, they experienced in him humility, servanthood, compassion, and love -- all characteristics that we do not associate with POWER.

    And so they tell this story to explain their experience of one who relies not on his own power or on worldly powers, but on the power of a God who works in the world through humility, servanthood, compassion, and love.


    I share all this as an example of the crucial distinction between the way the "progressive" Church encounters biblical texts differently than, say, the fundamentalist Church. I do not discount the possible historicity of these texts. Rather, I only share that I'm much less interested in whether or not things happened in such-and-such a way than I am in what they mean...and why the early Christians remembered and told these stories in a particular way. I have found that to make these texts relevant to young people, it is crucial that we help them find meaning in this witness of our spiritual ancestors. And if I am able to help them see that at least some of what we find in the text is not just a news report of events, but rather the witness of those who have gone before, perhaps the youth will come to understand that they, too, are part of that ongoing witness to the presence of Christ in the world. Food for thought.
    --Brian

    5 comments:

    aey! said...

    love your point of finding the meaning and not the history of things. history is easier than meaning. one is finite the other has life to it.

    Benjer said...

    Brian:
    Oddly enough, though you illustrate your point regarding the trilemma by quoting me, I must disagree with the view that the three perspectives (liar, lunatic, lord) present a false trichotomy. I agree that there are other perspectives that can be considered, such as the one you present. However, the liar, lunatic, or lord argument was originally (I believe by C.S. Lewis, but I am admittedly unsure and cannot look it up at the moment) made only after a strong case has been made for the reliablity of the words of Jesus in the gospels. When the premise is granted that we can trust the words of Jesus in the gospels, I believe one is justified in presenting the trilemma as the only three intelligible options. I understand that you do not accept the historicity of many of Jesus' words in the gospels, but I hope you see that if you could be convinced that his words as recorded in the gospels are true, the trilemma would be an effective argument. It is unfortunate that the trilemma is misused so much, because it often does more harm than good for the evangelical viewpoint.
    Thanks for a great blog...I've really been enjoying it.
    Benjer

    youthminister66 said...

    "When the premise is granted that we can trust the words of Jesus in the gospels, I believe one is justified in presenting the trilemma as the only three intelligible options."

    Benjer: I can certainly agree with that statement, though I would assert that I can find truth in the words of Jesus without taking them as historical reports of things he actually said. I also think, as you seem to allude, that SOME who preach the trilemma support it not out of reason and thoughtful study but rather as dogmatic assertions passed on to them by others. These sort of dogmatic assertions just aren't going to reach all people searching to understand Christ. For some outside the faith who cannot get past the idea of Jesus asserting his own divinity, I find it helpful for them to consider the possibility that those assertions are truth because they are the witness of human beings who found, in Jesus, an experience of the love of God. We modern folk often put great stock in personal experience over what seems to be dogmatic assertion. So, I think it's always useful to at least raise the possibilty that what we have in the text is at times the voice of the community interpreting Jesus. For me, seeing the text as more human than divine presents no problem in accepting the ultimate truth of the teachings, for the Jesus of scripture puts amazing trust in a handful of ragtag humans to carry on his message and ministry. The Jesus of scripture certainly seems to put great faith in the ability of the human community to continue forward with his movement.

    Ok, all that said, I will mention that up until recently I was pretty well convinced that Jesus probably never declared himself the Messiah. Then I led a book study at church on the book "Jesus: Two Vision" by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. Through the course of the study, I found Wright's argument that Jesus did understand himself to be in the Messianic tradition to be very compelling. I'm planning to read some more of Wright's texts. So, my journey continues! : )

    Benjer said...

    "For some outside the faith who cannot get past the idea of Jesus asserting his own divinity, I find it helpful for them to consider the possibility that those assertions are truth because they are the witness of human beings who found, in Jesus, an experience of the love of God. We modern folk often put great stock in personal experience over what seems to be dogmatic assertion."

    Because I do not consider the inerrancy of scripture to be an area of freedom (see Romans 14:1-8), I would object to this. This is not to say that I would tell someone that they cannot be a part of the body of Christ while holding reservations about the inerrancy of scripture. I agree that our culture in general values experience over propositional truth, but I do not see this as a reason to abandon or contradict propositional truth. Even if you do not hold to the inerrancy of scripture, I think you can see my point.


    "So, I think it's always useful to at least raise the possibilty that what we have in the text is at times the voice of the community interpreting Jesus."

    Remember the question on that silly quiz when the quiz-taker was required to choose between the Bible being divinely inspired the Bible having some human elements? I agree that the gospel-writers in some way interpreted their hearing and experience of Jesus. In fact, I believe that's how the Holy Spirit intended it. I think that we can trust the reliability of the gospels while allowing human interpretation. Two eyewitnesses to the same event can give different interpretations and yet both be faithful to the event. I believe it is "both/and" on this issue.

    I'm glad you enjoy Wright. I love his straightforward style, and perhaps as an Anglican I have a special affection for his work. I encourage you to keep studying the subject, as will I.
    -Benjer

    Derian said...

    @ Benjer: Yes it was CS Lewis who wrote the Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument


    I think a good distinction to here is to differentiate what you believe and how you present it. If you are so confident in your theology can you allow space for other's doubt? To often theology has been framed in the context of a debate (winning and losing) rather than a journey (much like the pilgram's progess).

    On the other hand my theology tells me that I will never fully grasp the mystery of God; therefore, even in the things I think I get, I choose to leave room for doubt (call it a teachable spirit).