Wednesday, July 13, 2005


The universal Quest

While pondering about Tillich's ideas of Jesus as "an image", I stumbled across Re-visioning Jesus: The Quest to Universalize Christ, by Dirk Dunbar (Quodlibet, July 2003).

Dunbar sketches five ways of interpreting Jesus: the "orthodox" version (which he calls the "mythologized version"), a "reconstructed Gnostic version", one that is "demythologized", one that is "remythologized", and one based "on the findings of the Jesus Seminar". The article provides a reasonably clear summary of the interpretations of the person of Jesus Christ that are seen the most.

I shall only say here that the very term "universalize Christ" sounds to me like a patent attempt to build yet another myth. Indeed, the very concept of myth is linked to an horizon that is beyond historicity, striving to embrace broader, or more universal, truths. While this seems like an obvious conclusion, I think it is the source of the major theoretical flaw of any pretense to deconstruct Christ's figure into mythical vs. non-mythical components (or, historical- vs. faith-related) in the quest to universalize its significance. (á la Tillich, for example.) Dunbar himself admits this when he says, "I realize that the notion of a global, cosmic, and universal Christ—to which I subscribe—is a modern and contemporary invention." (italics mine.)

I then read N.T. Wright's The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology. One of the points that charachterized many of the scholarly debates on the historical Jesus is the idea that Jesus must be freed of his apocalyptical overtones (in reaction to Schweitzer's "consistent eschatology", for example; cf. J.D. Crossan and the Jesus Seminar). Wright answers to this by noting that apocalypticism should really be regarded, given Jesus' context, as the "symbolic and richly-charged language of protest, affirming that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven—not in some imagined heavenly realm to be created after the present world has been destroyed." I think this is an excellent point, and links apocalypticism well with Jewish wisdom and prophecy. I should explore the liaison Jesus/Jewish prophecy more in detail. (the main bibliographic reference in Wright's article is Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, 1985.) The key concept is the difference between an eschatological prophet and a visionary teacher. Out of the strict academic context, this dualism provides an interesting way to verify how we regard and live our own faith, whether more according to the former, or to the latter; and we should then consider the comparison also with our understanding of faith as a social reform movement.

Wright himself proposes (more fully in his New Testament and People of God - another book to read) a general "worldview model", here applied to Jesus, based on the following points:
  • Praxis: Jesus understood himself as a prophet, was seen by others as acting as a prophet, was associated with a prophetic guild. This praxis is manifested especially in the parables. (many times seen as an allegedly privileged way of getting a glimpse into the "original" Jesus.)
  • Story: to what extent and in which way Jesus' stories are alternative to similar contemporary kingdom stories? And what are their perhaps distinctive points? (Wright suggests to consider Jesus' anti-nationalism linked to his political involvement.)
  • Symbol: think about the use that Jesus made of common Jewish symbols and how he proposed an alternative set. Wright notes how Jesus gives a different twist to common symbols like Family (who is my mother, and who are my brothers?), Land (abandon riches, i.e. at the time mostly land; this can be easily linked to family), Torah (cf. the debates over Sabbath and food, and in general against artificial rigorism), Temple (to be destroyed and rebuilt; this can be easily linked to the Torah). A very interesting point is that all this needs to be seen within the context of Judaism, not opposed to it. ("an inner-Jewish debate") An easy application to our own life is in checking how much inner-debate, prompted by Jesus' words, deeds and history, there is, if any, within our communities. And another thing that I believe is important is, rather than thinking about an abstract de-mythologized and de-symbolized Jesus, to consider how fundamental it is that symbols (and awareness thereof) take part in our life. As they did in Jesus' life and time.
  • Question: the "five major worldview questions", namely Who are we?, Where are we?, What time is it?, What is wrong?, and What is the solution? ("I am"), are answered by the preceding points of praxis, story, and symbol. How are these five questions present in our life? (are they, actually)
This "I am" which summarizes the answers to all the questions above, is incarnated, so to speak, in Jesus' message of YHWH returning to Zion through him; he would be the Temple to be destroyed, he would be the one enacting the final Exodus: "I am". According to Wright, this is the key to Christology and to the gospels. If this is right, it seems to me, there is simply no place for a universalistic mythological interpretation on the one hand; nor for an arid study of the Jesus of history, on the other. The two points, universal myth (or, perhaps better, conveyance of a salvation path) and earthly life seem inextricably interwoven in the essentia of Jesus.

Wright concludes with some remarks on the relation between history and theology. His considerations on the resurrection being real since it is the only event that could have ever made sense of the death of the messiah-Jesus, and that could justify, from the point of view of an historian, the continuing existence of his movement, are probably simplifying the issue a bit. For example: the thesis that the reality of the resurrection is somewhat proved to an historian because of the continuing existence of Christianity seems similar to me to the thesis that the existence of God is proved to an historian because of the continuing existence of the humanly insignificant Israel. But they are interesting nonetheless. Indeed, I would be keen at this point of reading more about the fate of the leaders of messianic movements that were close in time to Jesus - and about the fate of the movements themselves, of course.

But the other point of Wright's that rings a loud bell to me is his statement that "the story of Jesus does not generate a set of theological prepositions [... but] a set of tasks." The "solution", the "I am", is interpreted as the final answer, the victory over what is wrong, but at the same time the actual "implementation" (or "incarnation") of this victory in everybody's life is left to renewed and personal praxis, stories, symbols, and questions/answers: "For Jesus’s followers, finding out who Jesus was in his historical context meant and means discovering their own task within their own contents."

It seems to me that this is The Quest, a quest that is sourced and constantly fuelled by the essence of Jesus the Christ, but an existential, rather than a theoretical, or scholarly and merely intellectual one.

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