Tag Archives: Jesus

Search terms: “rhiannon grant jesus”

What I love about this search term is that it’s suggestive, but ambiguous. What did the searcher actually want to know when they put “rhiannon grant jesus” into the search engine of their choice? They could have been implying that I am Jesus, but that seems unlikely. (Not impossible – the Quaker idea that Christ is within us all can come to something similar – but unlikely.) Perhaps they wanted to know about a course I’m teaching soon, with my colleague Mark Russ, called “Who is Jesus?” Or perhaps they wanted to know what I think of Jesus. What do I think of Jesus? That’s a simple question to pose and a complex one to answer.

Sometimes I think of Jesus as a character who appears in the Gospels and other stories in the New Testament. I think of him as a character when I’m thinking about things like how he compares to other characters – how he is like and unlike Adam or Moses, like and unlike Osiris or Odin. I also think about him as a character when I think about the symbolise of the actions he takes – about what performing a healing might mean as a metaphor, for example, rather than a story about physical health conditions. 

Sometimes I think about Jesus as a historical figure. I usually bounce of this pretty quickly, though, partly because I’m pessimistic about how much historical fact is included in the records we have, and partly because that’s not the question about Jesus which interests me most.

Sometimes I think about Jesus as an example which tells us something about a broader situation. I can think about Jesus and the stories about him as an example of the kinds of things the Spirit would do if the Spirit had a body. I think this is the closest I get to understanding what is meant by ‘incarnation’ and I might call this a view of Jesus as Christ – Jesus not as an individual but as part of a story about how God works, one particular version of a story which had happened before and continues to happen as the Spirit or Light of Christ speaks to people and supports us to act in God’s ways.

Sometimes I find Jesus profoundly annoying. Some versions of the story make him seem smug and know-it-all. Some of his followers hate my body and sexuality and are convinced Jesus would hate me too, which doesn’t make him seem friendly. Sometimes the Spirit asks me to do things I really do not want to do, and it can be tempting to blame that on Jesus. Sometimes he really is shown, in the stories we have, doing things which are either profoundly challenging (that is, doing things I should do but don’t want to) or profoundly disturbing (I don’t want to do that kind of thing and can’t understand why Christ would either). Of course, the story also says he got put to death by the Roman authorities, so perhaps this annoyance is a way into understanding the situation – and noticing what I cannot understand about his actions and why I sometimes find them baffling as well as annoying may be important to applying the lessons of this story to modern situations.

One way I don’t usually think about Jesus is as a saviour or redeemer. Those versions of the story are very important to some Christians, but I can’t make them fit with my other understandings of the world and God. 

Overall, thinking about Jesus always makes me think about what I don’t understand, both emotionally and intellectually. I have never experienced the personal closeness with some people feel with Jesus. I’ve had experiences I think are similar in some ways – a sense of the movement of the Spirit in my life, visions of and direct encounters with Brigid and Hecate and other goddesses – but the Jesus story doesn’t speak to me that way. Similarly, I’ve studied theology at various levels and although I can follow the philosophical moves well enough, the metaphysics around incarnation, redemption, and resurrection continue to feel weird to me. I’ve been reading up on Hebrews recently and one of the commentaries I looked at noted that the ideas often seem alien to modern readers. Perhaps they should: paradox and mystery are always part of the theological process.

The Centrality of Story: can Quakers go back to Christianity via nontheism?

My friend Ben Wood, among others, likes to talk about the centrality of narrative to theology, and especially the importance of the Christian story. I was thinking about this recently, partly reflecting on some ideas from Mark Russ‘s MA dissertation which I’m sure he’ll share in due course, and partly reflecting on recent discussions in The Friend about nontheism and meeting for worship for business (in Neil Morgan’s article and my own). One way to think about meeting for worship for business is to consider where it places us within the Christian story – Where are we in the plot? What characters are on the stage and who is speaking? The main players are basically two. One is the Quaker community, a group not always speaking together but trying to come into sync with each other (perhaps like a Greek chorus who, because the play is improvised, are constantly trying to catch up with each other). The other is God, a character who can appear in multiple guises (Jesus, the Spirit, that of God within, the Still Small Voice, the Light, Love, conscience, impersonal energy…) but who is understood to be a single speaking voice to which the community is trying to listen.

In terms of the plot, I think meeting for worship for business is a middle of the story event. It’s not the beginning – not a creation, not a birth, not a first awareness – and not an ending – after the meeting, we need to act on the minutes, come back to items later, and so on. The past and the future are both needed for it to be meaningful (previous minutes, preparation and arrangements, later meetings, things which will be affected by the decisions) but the process itself, through which the community seeks the path of Love, is also itself a step along that path. It allows us to access something of Eternity – the biggest picture possible – in the Now, without committing us to a single already shown picture (getting stuck in the past) or withholding information we need now until later (trapped by the future) or asking us to forget everything but this moment (with only the present). If this is mapped onto the Christian story, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that seems to me like part of an Incarnation phase – a part where God is manifest on earth in a new way. The community (not the individual, before someone reminds me about James Naylor) takes the role of Jesus and seeks to listen to and follow God’s instructions.

If you’re anything like me, and I think a significant number of British Quakers today probably are, this is a point at which you might stop. You might say something like: But I don’t believe in the Christian story, surely it didn’t really happen that way. Or: That’s all very nice, but I can’t take Jesus with all those miracles. This is where nontheism comes in. Specifically, not just Quaker but Christian nontheism. I’ve sometimes thought that it might be easier to be a Christian nontheist in another denomination, with a really clear story to be fictionalist about, than to be a specifically Quaker nontheist. The firmly Christian nontheist can say – and writers like Don Cupitt do say things like this – the Jesus story is just a story, but wow, what a story. (Of course, ‘Wow, what a story’ is also a reaction people might reasonably have when they do believe it happened like that, too.)

If that’s right, then we as Quakers might be able to use the Jesus story, or perhaps the wider Biblical story, in a new way, a way which reinvigorates our language for describing our processes and the spiritual experiences we have when using those processes, while reducing some of the difficulties we currently experience around using religious language and metaphors. Some people will still feel uncomfortable with making Jesus central to their spirituality, and I suggest we keep open possibilities for using other stories to explore the experience of meeting for worship for business (if it’s like Jesus hearing and following instructions from his father, then is it also like the community gathered at Sinai, like Arjuna in dialogue with Krishna, like a coven hearing a priestess reciting the Charge of the Goddess?). The story method, though, has two demands: firstly that we get to know these stories, and secondly that we discuss them openly and honestly with each other. Even if we end up not taking this approach, the side-effects – a better knowledge of the Bible and perhaps the stories of other faiths, and a better understanding of our other and how we think about our processes – seem unlikely to be damaging.

Book review: Jesus for the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong

(Amazon; Bookfinder)

This book is basically an overview of John Shelby Spong’s view of what Christianity should be. In the first part of the book he spends a long time breaking down why traditional or literal Christianity is no longer believable, and looking at the historical circumstances of the writing of the Gospels. The upshot of this is that he ditches miracles, supernatural stuff generally, and a lot of historical claims (not all – he offers a clear explanation for his acceptance that there was a historical Jesus, about whom we know very little but more than nothing). He expects his audience to be upset about this, and he often offers reassuring asides or encouragements to hear him out. I found these unnecessary because I wasn’t upset, but I accept that I may not be his intended audience.

In the second part of the book, he looks at the stories we have about Jesus in the context of the first-century synagogues in which they were (he argues) created. Throughout the first part of the book, he was constantly relating stories about Jesus to stories from the Hebrew Bible – mainly as evidence that they are stories, recurring motifs borrowed from elsewhere, rather than history. In this second part, he builds on this awareness of the Jewish origins of Christianity, and describes very clearly how the synoptic Gospels can be understood as liturgical texts within the context of the Jewish calendar. I’ve heard of this theory before, but found Spong’s presentation of it both clear and convincing.

The third part of the book, meant to be a discussion of the core of Christianity as Spong understands it, felt a little weak in comparison with the foregoing. It’s slightly less carefully argued. Some of the concerns about historicity are dropped before the reader has fully understood why they are no longer relevant – Spong’s point is actually that the stories are spiritually true rather than historical, and that if we understand them as non-literal attempts to share the heart of the Jesus experience, rather than the facts of the life of Jesus, we can learn a lot from them. He does make this explicit, but I think it would have been better said slightly sooner. He also – and this is interesting in light of my previous post – uses the term ‘theist’ not for all God-belief, but for the kind of God-belief he doesn’t like (external, interventionist, supernatural, patriarchal, paternal). I found the explanation of how theism came to exist, which is framed in terms of evolutionary psychology, less than helpful – to do it in this space, or, I fear, at all, one must generalise so much that it becomes almost meaningless. Rather than trying to go back in evolutionary time, and falling into some of the same problems which Freud encountered in Moses and Monotheism, it would be enough to point out that now and in recorded history people have experienced self-conciousness, fear of death, and a desire to survive even at the cost of other lives. It’s probably safe to assume that the human condition is known to your readers, and skip the bit about it dawning on prehistoric people – although I suppose it does serve to demonstrate that Spong fully accepts evolution as an explanation of our existence.

Spong is, then, a non-theist (under his own understanding of theism) and a Christian. In particular, he is a Christian in that he takes the character and story of Jesus to be primary. The message which he derives from the Jesus story, and which he wants to detach from unhelpful baggage and express in modern terms, is that we come into the life of God when we are fully human. When we drop tribalism, prejudice, and boundaries between people, we can “step into a humanity that opens to all people the meaning of life and thus the meaning of God” (p247).

Overall, I found this a good read – it’s dense but clear, and contains a lot of material, especially in the first part. For people who are interested in whether/how Christianity can reform itself into something for today and tomorrow, it’s got a lot to offer. For those who are interested in the history of Christianity and the relationship of the New Testament texts to the Hebrew Bible, this book lays out one common and scholarly approach in an accessible way. Those who have already made many of Spong’s early moves, such as rejecting a supernaturalist reading of the New Testament and embracing a more poetic approach, might find some of this disappointing in that it covers old ground, but also reassuring and at times illuminating of details. In particular, Spong’s positioning of the Jesus story as a continuation of the Elijah/Elisha and Isaiah/Zachariah stories, and his continued and respectful attention to Judaism, are helpful.