Historical Jesus Issues

[Course Idea is further down]

On 17 June 2008 the current facilitator of the In Depth Group gave an assessment of the historical Jesus by referring at some length to the findings and frustrations of Albert Schweitzer and the problem of ending up looking at your own reflection. He also referred to more modern historical studies and those later and altered Roman historians who were as much discussing Christians as any evidence of the existence of Jesus.
However, for me, Schweitzer had an impact because clearly his findings of a soon to come different reality that did not happen - a tragic figure who met his death - was at some variance from ongoing Christian beliefs. Later I said how the fact that histories get constructed from the outside in mean that there could be a division between the Schweitzer view and since and a view of C. H. Dodd that somehow the Kingdom was in your heart. The trouble with that view is that it does not explain the urgency of Jesus's preaching, teaching and healing, so to tell someone to go and sin no more.
A question was asked whether Jesus predicted his own death. My point was he went to Jerusalem, and another said he must have known in the Garden of Gethsemane.
They were "tooled up" in the Garden of Gethsemane, and were one cell among many cells (about which we no longer know). He saw clear parallels with a terrorist organisation today, to remove the Roman occupiers. My view (and some others agreed) was that this was too secular, and that this was not explainable in our terms but that Jesus was acting in order that God would act, and would have been well aware of the suffering servant model in the Hebrew scriptures, and that by his acting God would act and bring in a completely new reality, like paradise. Against that, the Romans would be swept away. People would become like angels. These are beliefs that we just cannot understand any more in our worldview.
One said that the view that Jesus's followers were militants stretches the possibilities. A reply was how a tax collector, for example, would have been a thug. These were often unpleasant people. My view was that Jesus was an in between person, not an Essene or as close as John the Baptist, and stretched across more groups. One said he was a pharisee, and I said of course. The opposition shown in the Bible is simply not so.
That people came to claim Jesus was divine has got in the way, said one, of Jesus and that he was wrong. Because he is believed to be divine, people started to say well he never said when the end would come, when it is clear that he was acting on it coming very soon. I did mention the view some say that there is a projection back from the events of 70 CE, but that (again) this does not explain Jesus's urgency, or actual biblical texts.
A point was made that going back in history is like going back to the big bang. You can get so far, but cannot get further. This was why I said the history gets constructed from the inside out. The techniques of the Jesus Seminar, e.g. take an embarassing reading on the Gospels and they are more likely to be right, have ended up with a very dull Jesus we can understand rather like the mirror that Schweitzer said.
One view was put that somehow the historical Jesus as one of many wisdom teachers has to shine through the others, to be the one that gave rise to a movement that continued. I and another asked why. Not so. I said it could be pure fluke, a circumstance of the others perishing along with Jewish movements. There was an issue of whether any Jewish movements beyond the reformed Pharisaical movement got through. I said someone had to have a form of Christianity for Muhammad to get it so wrong, and what of the Ebionites. Of course we don't know where they are from. Then there is the Kanai group that traces its origins (whether true or not) to one of those groups that switched to the Jesus movement after its own militancy failures: and it was said that the Jesus movement had a reputation for peace before 70 CE. The issue isn't just that time, but the second Jewish uprising and Bar Kochba.
The problem is that the historical Jesus is skewed by the resurrection belief, and the continuities and discontinuities between these. The possible connection was left undiscussed, just that taking the unlikely statements from the gospels and early Christians as historical tends to exclude those accurate historical links that also were fully part of the thrust of the early Christians.
After all this I introduced the adult education basis of a theology course that could be introduced as a means to structure future In Depth discussions. It would be on an adult education basis, which means voluntary gathering and a stress on discussion where it goes and on one's own experience. Christianity in the churches now, I said, is full of gaps: gaps between clergy and laity, between Readers and others, and I said how I discovered for my Ph.D English Anglican (usuall) theology never introduced into the churches (and experimenting with one book got me thrown out) and then for my theology MA a world of theology that I had never encountered that regarded English Anglican theology as a bit of a backwater. I had struggled to keep up but now I can understand the notes I wonder if the issues addressed, and the writing, cannot be translated into an adult education two year package. It was suggested that instead of leading with theologians as session titles that each time would be a topic as title with the theologian/s to match.

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Archive Taxonomist & Heuristical Educator In St Mary's: Developer of Education with Information Technology, Innovating for an E-parish Setup.

Part of my project over the next three months is this:

  • An evaluation of the provision of adult theological education provision within the area (church/town/hinterland) and the level of demand (this may require liaison with the WEA and like bodies).
  • Consequent on the above, the designing of a possible syllabus/ outline for theological education based on adult education principles.
Prior to these guidelines I had already proposed a theology course on my weblog and I have made some changes to this already.
Now if this is followed through then we might end up with a theology course for St Mary's or The Parish of St. Mary Barton-on-Humber or for Barton and the area. The issue is whether this is wanted, and indeed what it is for.
One potential focus for this is the In Depth Group, but it depends how we understand this group. Here is what I think at least. It is an educative group, and it concerns theology, but it isn't a formal education group. Even so there are overlaps with the Bishop's Course and, say, Lent groups. As I understand it, the In Depth Group is just what it says on the tin - an attempt to get In Depth. I hear that there has been Bible study in the past, but then there are Bible study groups anyway and prayer groups too. It would be good to keep a group based around theology.
The suggestion is a need to relaunch the In Depth Group. Its numbers are small, though that need not be a problem if it meets a specific need. Secondly subjects are raised ad hoc, usually following Anglican and other liberal or radical writings.
Some questions follow. Would a theology course be so different that it would in effect turn the In Depth Group into something else? Also, who says about the content, the level or what? We might have a steering group to consider this, even if one person (ie me) did the donkey work and the effort of translating theology into adult education. Or I might just get on with it and be approachable and accountable.
Such a course is primarily the means of generating discussion on Adult Education principles. Those principles basically mean voluntary assembly, participation from experience and (used to mean) less emphasis on formal examinations. In other words, the social role of such a group is as important as the educative. The discussion can go which way it will. It may not be so different from the In Depth Group, as of now, but be more structured.
With that in mind, here is the idea behind it. There are, in the world of churches, many gaps: there are gaps between clergy education in theology and lay people and lack of education - sometimes we get the phenomenon of the skilled cleric in the pulpit who means one thing by his or her use of words and what the congregation might hear. Actually, we don't get that here but I have heard it myself on many occasions. It is like the learned professional talking terminology to other professionals while the clients hear something other. Well, that is a gap. Then there is a gap between the Readers and the rest too, and oh there is a gap between residential training and non-residential training, and there are gaps between forms and functions of different types of theology. I'm not proposing we do pastoral theology, for example.
In my own past existence I did a Sociology of Religion Ph.D and thus read some standard mainly English theological material, and the question in my mind was why none of this or anything translated for easier consumption was in the churches. Why was church religion and university or seminary religion different? When I tried a little experiment with one of these theology books, I was shown the door of that Methodist church. Bizarrely it was both "old hat" and too threatening to be discussed. Yeah, we've made it up since.
Then in the later 1990s I did an MA course in contemporary theology and its application to society, and it was an eye opening. Clearly English theology was a little backwater compared with the German and the American stuff. You know that Anglican theology isn't very highly rated around the world, but the material I tried to keep up with was utterly unlike anything that gets assumed in the popular press or the churches.
I've kept some of the handouts of the course, and I do understand them now, but I struggled then. Now all these different schools of theology were basically answers to ongoing questions thrown up by theology itself, by culture, by society, by other intellectual disciplines. I'd like to hang on to that: the problems that give rise to theology, and theology as answers to its own and external problems.
The central issue then is whether it is possible to simplify these down to the basic questions that led to the various theological schools and forms of writing. We can take the main theologians of the twentieth century and issues then and coming into this century. Each time we ask, what was the problem to which they were responding, what did they say, and does it address the problem, and what do we think in our own thoughts and experiences and ideas. And because it is along adult education principles, it is the latter that must be dominant.
After an introduction, the course could kick off with Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian in German context who was one of the few to resist Adolph Hitler. The problem was an inability of the religious culture of the churches to resist an evil like Hitler, and another problem was that the religious culture, and culture in general, simply did not reflect the essence that was in Christianity - the gospel, the kerygma, of Jesus Christ. Put more simply, when the culture secularises, where is God and how does God operate? Barth was clear: God operates from without, and does as God pleases, in utter transcendence. No human can find God: there is no support in culture for Christianity or Christ or anything. Rather, God interacts with this world in the kerygma of Christ. Even the Bible is not the centre of this: the Bible is a witness to the kerygma. For all the labelling of Barth as a neo-Calvinist, it is the pure Kerygma of Christ and the saving of all people by God's initiative that is crucial. It is myth-free, religion-free salvation.
This theme of culture and gospel as separating, as problematic, is a central issue throughout all these theologies and with different solutions. We start with Barth, because he heads up the problem.
The adult education side of this might be something like how you live in this real secular world that seems to give no means of support to belief, yet with a human striving for answers, and how we can talk about faith. And you might say there are grounds for asking questions, natural grounds for faith, for ultimate questions: that you can seek and find, and that you can have experience. What of symbolism and language? Is Karl Barth, a pessimist who is optimistic for humanity, wrong about optimistic liberalism (he is no friend of fundamentalists, by the way)?
Now each session there would be a resource sheet to outline the issues and some of the problems. The sheet would have some sort of activity that would get us away from the purely dry and academic, but it would still put discussion to the fore. Of course people could go off and pursue any extra reading themselves - on websites, books or articles. It would require quite some creative writing by me, and oversight by David Rowett, or anyone else interested, and try to use some principles of education. We are talking about accepting input from anyone interested and indeed there can be rejection too.
Assuming it went ahead the course would be road tested, probably here at In Depth, and the end product could indeed be a product that might even be for St Mary's to flog around the world. It could be a nice little earner.
Here is a suggested syllabus - 26 sessions of two years duration at least:
  1. Introduction session
  2. Karl Barth - neo-Calvinism (and Emil Brunner)
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer - on to secular theology
  4. Reinhold Niebuhr - pragmatism
  5. Paul Tillich - ultimate questions
  6. Rudolf Bultmann - demythologising
  7. Hans Kung - all rounder
  8. Modern theologians - summary
  9. Traditionalisms from the past (eg Thomist theology, Anselm, Puritans, etc.)
  10. Victorian Oxford Movement and after
  11. Victorian Evangelicalism and after
  12. Essays and Reviews
  13. Background and shadows - summary

  14. 1938 Church of England Doctrine Commission
  15. Honest to God and Debate - metaphors and mixing Bultmann, Tillich and Bonhoeffer
  16. The Myth of God Incarnate - meanings of myth
  17. Theology of David Jenkins - using Barth and Bonhoeffer
  18. Evangelical reactions - National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC) 1967 and after; the rise of fundamentalism
  19. After the Shoah: a theology of suffering and Jurgen Moltmann
  20. Theologies of liberation and alliances with politics and radical education
  21. Eco-Feminist theology - Sallie McFague and Rosemary Radford Ruether
  22. Faiths - John Hick and exclusivists, inclusivists, pluralists and universalists
  23. Real Absence and back to Transcendence: raw, cold theology and the poet
  24. Postmodern theology - nihilist textualism and Radical Orthodoxy
  25. Movements summary

  26. Theological issues for the future
It is quite possible then to have the course running at two levels, so that having gone through it once people could start all over again and, having got some theology under their belts, could get a little more in depth still.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful