Thursday, 26 January 2012

Looking at Jesus

Recently, I was involved in an online discussion about some of the problems we have in the church, and someone said we should get people to look at Jesus not at the church, or words to that effect. I can't remember the exact phrase they used.

I've heard things like that many times over, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. It's a standard response to criticisms of the church, which I suppose sounds a bit more 'spiritual' than another one I've heard: 'Look at that lot over there, we're nothing like as bad as them'. We are, after all, supposed to be following Jesus.

Unless someone claims to have had a vision like Paul's - in which case we might wonder about their sanity - our one source of information about Jesus is the New Testament, principally the Gospels. These were, of course, written by people in the church, for people in the church. They were preserved by the church, selected and labelled 'holy scripture' by the church. They were interpreted and reinterpreted over a couple of thousand years, by the church. So how can we separate Jesus from the church, when everything we think we know about him is mediated by said church?

This comes down to the relationship between scripture and church tradition. The Orthodox maintain that the Bible is part of the tradition, albeit a rather special part. I don't know a lot about how this works out in practice, but it seems realistic. The New Testament is wholly a product of the tradition; the Old may have been inherited from the Jews, but the fact that the Orthodox use the Septuagint, the Ethiopian Orthodox add 1 Enoch to that, the Catholics use the Hebrew scriptures, but add the extra books form the Greek, and the Protestants eliminate everything but the Hebrew books, is all down to the various church traditions.

The Western Church traditionally exalted tradition alongside the Bible. This is all very well, but it makes me uncomfortable. What happens when it's wrong? How do you correct it?

The Reformation was both a reaction against the corruption of the late medieval church, and a political movement. In many ways, inevitably given the bitterness of the time, it over-reacted. The Reformers needed an alternative authority to put in place of the Roman Catholic church hierarchy and tradition, and chose the Bible, meaning, of course, the Bible as interpreted by them. However, the reality that it's always the church which interprets scripture remained unspoken. The result is a tradition where most people are unconscious of the church's influence on their understanding of what they read.

At the same time, Protestants don't have much theology of the church. Most of the time, they think in terms of the local congregation; if they think of the wider shurch at all, it's normally in terms of the denomination. When it comes to church unity, there's a tendency to slip back into the western tradition of monocephaly; and dream of 'visible unity', the church as a single organisation under a single head. This is, of course, the Roman Catholic model which broke down before. The part-Catholic, part-Protestant Anglicans try to maintain a version of this model, and all I can say is that it doesn't seem to work very well.

It might be more practical to work towards something more akin to the Eastern tradition of polycephaly, where churches retain separate orgaisations, but fully recognise each other. We'd have to get a bit less precious about the things which divide us, whether that be the 'Apostolic Succession', baptism, women bishops or women's hats (seriously, I was once told that Methodists don't worship God properly because we don't make the ladies wear hats in church), but I don't think that would be any bad thing!

There's a fissiparity in the Protestant tradition which has both good and bad aspects. On the one hand, it can renew itself relatively easily. On the other, anyone can go off and found a church if they're disgruntled or want to be important. At the extreme and of this, we get something like the Westboro Baptist Church, which seems to be little more than a single family with a gift for rather nasty attention-seeking. Anyone can take whatever little snippet of the Bible they like, and use it to justify pretty well anything. The widespread use of God's name to legitimate pure homophobia is a perfect example of what can so easily go wrong.

The problem here, of course, is that homophobia is part of the tradition, though it's never been emphasised before. So it's as easy for Catholics to trot it out as for Protestants. It may, perhaps, be harder for the former to move on, just as it took them longer to adapt to Biblical criticism, and it still can't handle the idea of women priests. When they adapted to criticism, though, they managed to do so together, while Protestants split, with some adapting - though we still lack a tradition of liberal exegesis - and others reacting and heading off towards the slough of young-earth creationism, just as we remain divided over homophobia, wonens' ministry, and a host of other things, from the essential to the utterly trivial. Very often, people remain dogmatically wedded to traditional positions, without realising that tradition is what underlies their claims that their positions are 'biblical'. Because they've never considered the relationship between scripture and tradition, they have no idea of where they actually are.

Occasionally, I've come across people trying to contrast scripture and tradition; essentially, they were engaging in a polemic against churches which they maintained 'follow tradition'; they were 'biblical', and hence better. Yet these people were more firmly wedded to tradition than those they criticised. This is the danger when we try to contrast Jesus and the church; there's a failure to examine our idea of Jesus. The Jesus we're supposed to look to is always traditional, always utterly tame and unthreatening. So much so, if fact, that I wonder why they wasted wood and nails on crucifying someone so transparently harmless.

We have, of course, got four portraits of Jesus in the New Testament. Unfortunately, we don't often read them side by side, and people don't normally become aware of the quite significant differences. However, they portray him as someone who could get quite narked with people from a different strand of Judaism, who had a major quarrel with the religious set-up and the people who ran it, and who seems to have been quite happy with one of his disciples carrying a couple of swords. He allegedly predicted that his followers would get into dire trouble with the authorities, but his portrait has been reworked into something which could efficiently transport butter in its mouth. The groggy old church has gone toothless, as James Joyce put it, but because we're not aware of the real relationship between the church, its tradition, and scripture, we're not able to correct ourselves. The real Jesus was a dangerous fellow to know; most of his inner circle got themselves martyred, according to tradition. If we start looking seriously for that Jesus, the church won't know what's hit it.

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