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Troubling Quests

Posted on: August 31, 2013


(c) David Galston


To be on a quest is to be willing to explore questions without, if possible, predetermined answers. Depending on what the quest is about, this simple definition can cause a lot of trouble.

If we take as an example the three main quests for the historical Jesus, usually called the First Quest, the New Quest, and the Renewed Quest, we can see how the trouble starts. To quest for the historical Jesus means to raise questions about who Jesus really was as a human being without predetermined religious convictions or beliefs. It is a simple premise but can quickly disintegrate into ideology because, after all, it is impossible not to have convictions about things.

A topic like the historical Jesus is not alone in this predicament. Other topics such as What is Society? or What is Education? or What is Justice? are just as controversial and involve just as much personal and political conviction. The case of Jesus is a good example because each of the three quests were intended to be non-ideological but always invited outside ideological interference.

To claim that Jesus was human like anyone in the 18th and 19th centuries explicitly contradicted the historic Western relationship between Church and State. The Church was supposed to be divinely instituted by the power of God through the explicit work of Jesus Christ, God incarnate and saviour of the world. The sword of Christ was handed over by the Church to the State to keep the "peace" and to implement civil law. Meanwhile, the Church was to attend the spiritual well being of (and presumably kept an eye on) the State. To claim that Jesus was human like anyone threatened this foundational social agreement. Getting too close to the historical Jesus could mean losing your livelihood. In those days, it was no fun being a scholar of religion.

The New Quest started up in the 1950's, and the Renewed Quest began in the 1980's. In both cases the political situation was vastly different, plus scholars had tenure to protect their right to independent research (though it doesn't always work that way). Still, the historical Jesus caused trouble. By the 50's the Church had lost the battle to oversee and bless secular society, so there was an entrenchment of Jesus Christ inside the walls of the Church. Since the end of the First Quest in 19th century it was assumed that nothing of the historical Jesus could be known, so the Church centred itself on doctrinal beliefs (what was called the kerygma or proclamation). The New Quest of the 50's however insisted that there were things to know about Jesus, and the main thing was that for the historical Jesus no distinction between the sacred and the secular existed. But politics quickly entered the picture again (this time, Church politics). The Church redoubled its efforts to teach its seminarians dogma and the distinctive sacred space of the Church. In the Church, the historical Jesus of the New Quest was not welcomed.

Finally, the Renewed Quest came along in the 1980's and continues in our time. The controversy it has sparked reminds us that the historical Jesus is as scandalous as ever. Within the Church, extremist do not like history or anything related to history, such as evolution. The historical Jesus is ignored in these quarters because to talk about Jesus in this way required accepting the Bible as a historical document. Then, among moderates, the Church continues to prefer keeping a safe distance from the historical Jesus. Even for moderates and moderately liberal Christian people, the historical Jesus seems to spoil the Church party. With a purely human Jesus, the centrality of the crucifixion, the meaning of sacraments, and the doctrines related to salvation dry up. Without these traditional foundations of authority, there is a great psychological fear that a Jesus, who was only human like anyone, will foster social chaos and ecclesiastical collapse.

This long preamble on the troubling historical Jesus allows me to make one point: there is a difference between the historical and the historic. The historical Jesus is about historical research, but at the same time Jesus is a historic personality. He is not just any subject. He is historic in the sense that he is a mythical representative of the purpose and meaning of life. Jesus is historic because he is a centre that attracts conviction and belief. We can talk about other issues in the same way: there is a history of education, but education is "historic" because it is a centre of human value systems and convictions. There is a history of politics, but politics is historic because it is a centre of value systems and convictions. We cannot just talk about the history of politics or education in casual ways because these topics represent value centres. Jesus in Christianity is like that: he is historical but he is also historic.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said about how important it is to talk about historic figures in historical ways. The quest for the historical Jesus, no less than that for the historical Moses or Buddha or Mohammed, asks us to cross a line. The line is drawn between myth and history, and it is an important line to acknowledge. The Church has tried in its relation to the three quests for Jesus (the First, the New, and the Renewed) to keep Jesus on the myth side of the line. Here he remains in a three-tiered universe where divine beings come down to earth from above to visit, to instruct, and, in the case of Jesus, to die on a cross. The difficulty with this Jesus is twofold. One is the obvious fact that we no longer understand the universe in this ancient way; the second is that a mythic Jesus will always be actively shaped into a cultic icon. He becomes the property of a specific theology or a specific denomination of the Church. In other words, a mythic Jesus is exactly who we need him to be but never allowed to be who he was. The historical Jesus is the opposite. He is the person who once was but never the person we need him to be. Rather, that second part is up to us. We must work to be the ones we need to be.

So curiously when the line of myth is crossed and when Jesus is allowed to be human rather than mythic, something "historic" has happened. Embracing the humanity of Jesus, simply due to the power of his historic personality, causes many new questions to arise. Now we must allow Jesus not to be the saviour and ask what does salvation really mean? We must allow Jesus to be human and ask what values ought humanity embrace on its own without the assistance of gods? What is the foundation for human values? And it seems important to ask in what way religion can have a future within the human family? These are all big questions and historic questions, and they are truly human questions that emerge from the troubling quest for the historical Jesus.

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