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Who was Jesus

Posted on: February 18, 2018

Category: Theology

Who was Jesus

Quest Thoughts: Jesus as a Post-Durkheimian Figure.



In the past, I have tried different ways to approach Jesus as a unique historical figure by talking about a "secular" Jesus, a non-apocalyptic Jesus, and a cynic Jesus. In all of these expressions, I have wanted to indicate how the Jesus of history never talked directly about "God" but only indirectly about an empire of God, that he did not employ theological language but story or worldly language, and that while he could have held beliefs about the world ending, the language of the parables never centres here. In the parables we deal with daily things like looking for lost items, baking bread, taking a dangerous voyage, or worrying about our runaway kid. Since this week I've been reading Charles Taylor, I thought we might look at Jesus in another way in light of Emile Durkheim (to whom Taylor refers).

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a founding figure in the rise of modern sociology. He interpreted religion as a social phenomenon that had one main task: to keep a large group of people bound together in a shared worldview. Religion, in other words, was a significant part of what made the French, French and the English, English. If the main function of religion is to unite people in a society, then, he argued, supernatural beliefs are not the main characteristic of religion. To believe in a supernatural world distinct from the natural world is a modern form of religion. Ancient people did not make such a distinction. The supernatural was the natural and vice-versa. Everything worked together. The gods and nature combined to explain the world and to mark the identities of different peoples. The ancient Jews and the ancient Romans were, to Durkheim's way of thinking, to be distinguished sociologically rather than religiously. They were different national identities or peoples, but, of course, their religious practices help us understand how the two groups can be identified as distinct social formations. Durkheim advocated the understanding of religion in this social way.

Charles Taylor argues that we live in a "post-Durkheimian" world. Taylor indicates that in a postmodern society, religious differences, national origins, and ethnic background no longer make any difference between people and no longer express a conscious religious identity. Anyone today can be of any ethnic background and practice any religion or no religion at all. True, some of these old ties still exist. A national identity often assumes a particular religious heritage, but such ties are not essential in postmodern times and no longer necessary for anyone's identity. There is no reason, anymore, for anyone to follow a particular religion just because he or she is from a particular ethnic background.

Durkheim is an important figure and Taylor's comments are interesting, but there is still something else to religion that Durkheim failed to note. Religion is more than a force of social unification. Religion is also iconoclastic. Religion can work as the very element that names false gods (icons) in society. Nationalism is one such false god, but so is wealth and privilege. Divisions that create enmity between peoples are invariable based on false information, latent fears, and group mentalities. Aside from all the language used to understand Jesus today (secular, non-apocalyptic, cynic), the Jesus of history was at the very least iconoclastic. He was in a certain sense a Durkheim critic long before the life of Durkheim. Rather than religion being restricted to a rallying cry, Jesus, like other great teachers of the past, used his ethnic identity and religious customs to express a contrary worldview. His empire of God lay beyond divisional markers. His use of Judaism went beyond the limits of class, sexual and social divisions, and even Judaism itself. Like other iconoclastic figures, Jesus challenged the default settings of the gods in his life and times.

Durkheim's examination of religion can seem distant and dated except when we notice and think about the part he left out: religion as iconoclastic. When religion challenges power in society, the attempt is to name the false forms of religion that promote false forms of unity and control. Iconoclastic forms of religion invert the role of religion. Instead of being the force of union, it questions the nature of the "union" and what such language means. Is it a false union? Is it a false union where the advocacy of gun control is named divisive instead of sensible? Is it a false union where national pride and winning a medal is more significant than world peace? Is it a false union where the divisions between class and the privileges of wealth are more important than the well-being of the whole? Is it a union where language about the social good is unwelcomed? If this is the "state of the union," then Durkheim's thesis about religion working to unite does need to be challenged. Union might be good, but naming a false union is the role of the iconoclasts of history. Jesus was one such iconoclast.

By David Galston

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