The Future: Christianity, Humanism or Both

The Future: Christianity, Humanism or Both October 27, 2014

Editor’s Note: Our favorite “post-supernaturalist follower of Jesus, the first century wisdom teacher” is back. This time he comes with news about communities of the historic, human Jesus. I think it sounds like humanism for Jesus aficionados. See what you think. 

                               =============================

large__318143091By Mark Rutledge

I was recently asked to speak to a group of clergy on “doubt” as related to young adults and the church.   I framed the issue in terms of the journey I’ve been on before and since joining the Clergy Project several years ago. The issue also came up last May in a Rational Doubt post, in which I said that once I left all supernatural beliefs behind, there was still something left worth calling, “Christian.”  Some readers wondered what that was—here is part of my answer.

I think I may be moving toward a perspective I’ll call “trust.”  As one who still calls himself Christian, I don’t think Christianity requires believing the right things, but it does involve several important elements of trust or faith:

  • Living in trust under the mystery of meaning which surrounds us;
  • Following the historical, human Jesus—living in his vision of the Kingdom of God on earth and updating it for our time;
  • Living as if the arc of the universe really does bend toward love and justice;
  • Living in daily awareness of the unity of all beings;
  • Joining the unending conversation which defines the church throughout its history—reforming and always reforming;
  • Living faithfully/trustfully as expressed through our ethics, how we live, who we are and what we do.

I am aware that not all churches see things this way and that more and more people have no interest in identifying themselves as Christian. But for those of us who do, one of the most important decisions one can make is with which church (or humanist) community to connect and how that gathering is constituted. Since I still identify as a Christian (maybe a secular one), I think churches of the future should honor a diversity of beliefs among members.

Here are some marks of emerging churches of the future which I affirm and which are currently being formed, so this is not just hypothetical: There is a growing network of communities of the historical, human Jesus, based neither on belief or disbelief. Each community intentionally designs its own renewable covenants, which create and sustain it.   For example, David Galston, author of the new book, Embracing the Human Jesus, is animating one such community in Canada. While Galston is a Jesus follower, he makes clear his benign attitude toward atheism:

“I would remind the reader that I am not a critic of atheism.  In fact, I think we live in an era of post-atheism.  We have to accept the conclusions of atheism and move forward with new forms of human spirituality that are not inconsistent with our best knowledge about the origins of life and the nature of the universe.” (footnote, p.216.)

A few characteristics of these historical, human Jesus communities, as I am coming to understand them, are:

  • Pondering the enigmatic parables of the human Jesus as a teacher of wisdom by becoming his students, bringing his vision into the 21st century, working it out as we go along and/or making it up
  • Becoming learning communities because the only way of reaching the historical Jesus is through analytical study of the Bible
  • Forming systemic arrangements to care for each other, our community and our world
  • Re-imagining patriarchal traditions through feminist lenses, interpretations and challenges
  • Drawing on resources from the world’s enduring religious traditions that contribute to our journey
  • Gathering to learn, study, sing, meditate, reflect and eat together in the spirit of the inclusive meals of the historical Jesus
  • Integrating action and contemplation
  • Planning and designing the practical logistics for creating beloved communities
  •  Joining the unending conversation that IS the church through its history

Justice and love are also important marks of such historical Jesus communities.   Just one concrete example is the Moral Mondays movement for social justice. It started in 2013 where I live in North Carolina and is now spreading to other states throughout the country. The Moral Mondays movement stages protests in response to repressive actions by an extremist, right-wing state government which are characterized by engaging in civil disobedience by peacefully entering the state legislature and then being arrested.   The protests include a coalition of many religious, secular, civic and social organizations organized by William Barber, a Christian minister and head of the state NAACP. Emerging historical Jesus communities are expected to be part of these kinds of activities.

As actors in this “cosmic theatre” of the world, we should play our part as best we can. The essential element is solidarity on the path of wisdom.

                                        =======================

20140424_172519_resizedBio: During the past 52 years, Mark Rutledge has been a United Church of Christ campus minister on five different university campuses in California, Iowa, Illinois, New Mexico and now in North Carolina at Duke University. He attended Oberlin College and the University of California at Berkeley and received an M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion and a doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Northern Illinois University. He is an Associate Member of the Jesus Seminar and was “Rick” in the Dennett-LaScola study of non-believing clergy.

 

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  • John Lombard

    This is an area in which I think Mark and I are doomed to disagree. It’s not that I think his ideas are BAD…they are better than belief in a supernatural, divine Jesus. But the moment we start talking about “the historical, human Jesus”, a whole heap of problems come in.

    1) There are doubts even over the question of whether the historical Jesus actually existed, or is an amalgamation of different people, or even entirely a fictitious figure. The historical ‘evidence’ for his actual existence is extremely sparse. I’m not prepared to say he never existed…but nor am I confident enough of his actual existence to be able to say that I was following a ‘historical, human Jesus’

    2) Even if we assume his actual existence, the teachings we have in the Bible were NOT written by him. They were written by diverse other people, DECADES after his death, each person having their own personal agenda in writing their descriptions of Jesus, and many of those descriptions contradicting each other. There is ZERO verifiable evidence that anything the Bible ascribed to Jesus was actually taught by him, nor is it possible to determine which portions (if any) were created posthumously, or changed in order to fit a particular author’s agenda.

    3) Even if we assume that Jesus actually existed, and that what the Bible says about his teachings is at least moderately true, there remains the fact that many of his teachings are deplorable. I’ve discussed this in previous posts, so won’t go into great detail, but as just one example, the is Jesus’ Biblical teaching about “love”…which, among other things, teaches that if you don’t love him, he’ll cast you into hell.

    In short, we have a figure whose actual historical existence cannot be proven, whose teachings were written by others long after his death, and which are impossible to confirm whether that is what he actually taught at all (if he even existed), and who even if he DID exist, and DID say those things, we must still cherry-pick and ignore much of what he said and change it to fit our own modern sensibilities.

    Given all this, I just find it impossible to justify using THAT as the foundation for moral teachings. He MIGHT have existed, and this MIGHT be what he said, and if we change a bunch of it around, we MIGHT be able to make it fit what we today think is moral.

    I’m sorry, but I can think of dozens of platforms on which to base moral teachings that are far, far superior to that. To paraphrase Jesus (if he existed, and if he really said it), it is foolish to build a house on sinking sand. One should seek to build on solid ground. And to me, morality based on the “historical, human Jesus” is just building on sinking sand.

    • Kent Truesdale

      John, are you aware that when you constantly bludgeon us here with your lengthy posts (often beating the same dead horses), the reaction of many will be — a) we don’t have the time or energy (or vanity?) to respond in kind; b) your ‘Teflon’ reasoning suggests you’ve got it all figured out so why debate you; or c) does this guy really think he’s going to change any minds here with impeccably reasoned arguments? LOL 😉

      • Linda_LaScola

        Keep it up, John — you too, Kent!

      • John Lombard

        Kent — at present, my comment has 8 up-votes…by far more than any other post in this thread. Multiple other people have also chimed in to say that they agree with me. So the claim that “the reaction of many” will be as you claimed not only has little evidence to support it, but would actually seem to be contradicted by the evidence at hand. As to the rest:

        A) As noted, quite a few people have read, appreciated, and responded to my posts — either to agree, or to disagree. Your PERSONAL reaction to my posts should not be taken as indicative of how other people feel. Also, please note that Linda, who runs this blog, has stated her appreciation of an encouragement of my posts. So regarding the question of “vanity”…is it not “vain” to think that your personal reaction should be taken as indicative of how OTHERS feel?

        B) I haven’t anywhere claimed that my reasoning is ‘teflon’, that’s your claim, and is an intellectually dishonest tactic to ascribe motivations to me that are not at all my motivations. I fully acknowledge that my arguments may at time have flaws, which is one of the reasons WHY I post them. If YOU find yourself unable to refute my responses, then I’d suggest that it is YOU who needs to further examine your arguments, not me. On the other hand, if you DO find flaws in my arguments, I encourage you to point them out, and engage in intelligent discussion.

        C) Actually, yes, I DO think that I’m going to change minds. In fact, I have PROOF that I’ve done just that. In these threads, and in personal messages that have been sent to me, quite a few people have commented that what I wrote changed their minds, opened up new perspectives, etc. Several of my posts have been linked to and copied on other sites also (Facebook, personal blogs, etc.), where they’ve further engendered conversation and discussion. Which is EXACTLY the reason why I write this stuff… BECAUSE I want to make people think.

        You, personally, may find my “constant bludgeoning” to be burdensome and pointless. That’s fine…if “impeccably reasoned arguments” are anathema to you, that’s your problem, not mine. But the responses of many others here MORE than adequately demonstrate that there are quite a few people who DO find value in what I write. In the end, I’m writing for people who actually WANT to discuss, listen, and learn.

        • Kent Truesdale

          John, sorry to have offended. I never said what you post here isn’t of great value — in fact, there’s just too dang much quantity of your quality! 😉

    • Mark Rutledge

      John I will reply to you but before i do so I want to ask you a question which will help me understand the context out of which you write. Have you heard of the Jesus Seminar? Over 200 scholars and historians have been working since 1985 to discover what we can and can’t know about the historical Jesus. Have you read anything by John Crossan or ANY of the Wester/Jesus Seminar scholars? If so then we’ll at least have a starting point for more discussion. If not, i’m not sure what i might say. Let me know and we’ll see where that takes us.
      See my comment to Peter above for a broader view than simply privileging Jesus as the foundation for my moral and spiritual life.

      • John Lombard

        Mark,

        I won’t claim total knowledge of the Jesus Seminar, but yes, I am familiar with it. I am aware that there is an implicit bias, that the Jesus Seminar STARTS with the premise that there is a historical Jesus, and their purpose is to PROVE that. For me, that’s a danger signal right from the beginning…it is indicative of a holdover from traditional religious thinking where one FIRST decides the ‘truth’ to be proven, THEN seek to prove that it is true. It is antithetical to the scientific method, and almost INEVITABLY leads to false or faulty conclusions, as those involved inevitably put too much emphasis on anything that supports their position, and too little on evidence that contradicts their position.

        But that’s largely irrelevant. I raised three specific points, all of which are quite plain and simple. Could you please cite for me all of the CONTEMPORARY citations of the existence of Jesus Christ (that is, accounts written AT THE TIME of Jesus life, not afterward) which clearly refer to him? I won’t claim to be an expert in this field, but what amateur examination I’ve done has revealed exactly zero such citations. ALL historical references to Jesus come AFTER the period of his life, many of them decades or even centuries later.

        In addition, that has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the question of verifying which words Jesus actually said, if any at all. EVERYTHING written about Jesus and what he taught came long after his death, and were written by different sources who often disagree with and contradict each other. Even if we assume that the “historical Jesus” is proven 100%, that doesn’t take even the FIRST step towards demonstrating that ANYTHING attributed to him was actually written by him, and was not created by other posthumously; or that what he said was changed by those authors in order to fit their own personal agendas.

        I welcome your response on these issues. If I am in error, and A) there actually ARE contemporary historical references to the historical Jesus (not things that “if we look at it in a certain way, COULD refer to Jesus”, but that undeniably refer to him), and B) you can demonstrate that we CAN reliably confirm that Jesus actually said these things, and they weren’t just created by others, or adapted/changed by others who wrote about him decades later…THEN perhaps we can have a discussion about following the teachings of the “historical Jesus”

        An additional note: We only have to look at modern religions like Scientology or Mormonism to see how claims about “what their leader said” can change and morph even over a fairly short time. Their “scriptures” and theology constantly change, with older claims just magically ‘disappearing’, to be replaced by new claims. In modern times, fortunately, it is fairly easy to track this process, and prove that what they CLAIM their leaders say was not actually what was originally proclaimed.

        Now, consider the Gospels…our most direct accounts about what Jesus said. Accounts that are inconsistent and self-contradictory. Accounts that were written with CLEAR personal agendas and goals, DECADES after the death of Jesus (and, at least in some cases, quite possibly written by people who never even actually met Jesus, but were second-hand accounts). Why on EARTH would anyone assume that these are actually what Jesus said, as opposed to what someone else CLAIMS he said, in order to bolster their own agenda? And, as opposed to the situation with Scientology or Mormonism, we have NOT WAY to confirm what was originally said, OR the intent of the original speaker.

        I would express exactly the same skepticism about ANY such claims, regardless of who they were made by, or about. Let’s say that I find some ancient Greek writings about some other figure. They are NOT written by the person being described, but rather were written by others, long after his death. The different accounts that I have of that person contradict each other. I have no way whatsoever to confirm whether or not that person ever actually said any of those things.

        Are you SERIOUSLY arguing that, given that scenario, we should take those second-hand accounts and feel that we can reliably construct what the original person REALLY said…or if he even said it at all? I’d say that the answer is, unquestionably, “no”.

        And with regards to the Jesus Seminar, and your own arguments, I personally think that there is still a subconscious belief that Christian scriptures are somehow different from all other writing, that there IS some sort of ‘divine’ guidance or content which protects it, which gives it greater authority or reliability than other texts in the same situation (ie. second and third-hand accounts, written by multiple people who all contradict each other, and which are impossible to confirm as to actual veracity).

        I grant the Bible no such status. I examine it with EXACTLY the same skepticism with which I would examine any OTHER text, with exactly the same standards. You ARE privileging the Bible…because I do not believe that you would treat non-Christian texts in the same way in which you treat Christian texts, you would not grant them the same assumed authority.

        • Mark Rutledge

          All i can say here is to refer you to John Crossan’s work. All of your questions have been addressed in lengthy detail there and in many other publications by other scholars of the Seminar.

      • John Lombard

        Mark, as I said previously, my knowledge of the Jesus Seminar is far from comprehensive, so I went ahead and did a little more research about it. I will note first that a large number of respected Biblical scholars dismiss the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, so I’m far from alone…but will cite one particular issue which is of the greatest concern to me.

        This is the self-selecting nature of the members of the Jesus seminar. It seems that in order to be a member of the Jesus seminar, your social/political views are more important than your actual academic qualifications. While quite a few of the members of the Jesus Seminar have few credentials or experience in this field, it seems that ALL of them represent a liberal, left-wing belief system.

        Again, ALL appearances are that this is a group of people who’ve already decided what they think Jesus should say, and then vote on passages based primarily on how it fits their own preferred narrative.

        Were this a project to honestly seek consensus on the “historical Jesus”, I’d expect that participants would be drawn from a variety of backgrounds — left and right wing, liberal and conservative.

        To illustrate my point as plainly as possible — if there were ANOTHER similar “Jesus Seminar”, in which virtually all of the members were right-wing conservative scholars, and who chose passages that supported THEIR particular views as being “authentic”…would you consider their conclusions to be in any way authoritative or reliable?

        I sincerely doubt it.

        And the very reasons why you’d reject THEIR conclusions as unreliable and questionable are the same reasons why I’d reject the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.

        • Mark Rutledge

          I don’t think you understand the methods and process of the Jesus Seminar at all. I will abandon the discussion at this point as there is not space for me to teach my whole course here.

    • Pofarmer

      John, I’m with you.

    • Mark Rutledge

      I think we can recover some probable things that the human Jesus, who did exist by the way, said and did, but these are mostly found in his parables and aphorisms like a voiceprint; and in some actions such as overturning the tables in the temple in symbolic protest against the temple’s injustice. But about much we will probably continue to disagree. But the more we disagree the greater the chance that at least one of us may be right!

  • Why not live securely in the mystery of being with a transformative aspiration for the world, but without making all of that to flow through a particular personality (that may or may not have actually existed)? Choosing Jesus as the focal point of a humanist ethic is either arbitrary (setting aside historical traditions) or little more than cultural conservatism (keeping those historical traditions, even if only through critical dialogue). Why not choose Moses, or the Buddha, or Socrates, or Luke Skywalker, for that matter?

    Or better yet, why not be fully humanist and, in the process of living well and aspiring to transform the world, call upon the full range of human thought about our condition? I know there are people who, despite exposure to the varieties of human conception, nevertheless value the maintenance of a particular traditional situation to ground their perspective of those varieties, but I still don’t see how that is much different than a gentrified tribalism, and I worry that it will only sow the seed for more conflict in the future.

    • Mark Rutledge

      I anticipated the response of “why Jesus?” Mainly because, for me, it is one way to honor the Christian tradition that formed me. Within that tradition are many trajectories, some of which i find helpful and many not. My wider readings in literature, history, poetry, philosophy, psychology, science, world religions, etc., have also formed me. As have many workshops, classes, conversations, and personal connections with all kinds of scholars as well as many relationships with all kinds of people. I take my learnings and insights where I find them useful for my own life journey, thinking, and living.
      Another reason i spend so much time on Jesus is because so much of my religious tradition has misunderstood him, and I have worked quite hard to see the real man behind the myths so i can talk intelligently with my colleagues in ministry and people in my communities. So Jesus PLUS all the other sources and traditions that contain wisdom about the human condition and for living. I take my insights wherever I find helpful ones, and I have changed my mind so many times my head spins. It’s an evolutionary process. I choose them all. I try to take responsibility for the world view i create.

      See my next comment below for more about Jesus.

      • Pofarmer

        “Another reason i spend so much time on Jesus is because so much of my religious tradition has misunderstood him”

        How so?

        • Kent Truesdale

          My (liberal) example would be that the whole idea of substitutionary atonement was imported into the gospel message centuries after the NT was written.

          • Mark Rutledge

            So what else is new?

          • Kent Truesdale

            ?????

          • Mark Rutledge

            I agree with you about the atonement theory. So what else is new?

        • Mark Rutledge

          Much of my tradition still clings to the substitutionary theory of his blood atonement for our sins. This is a perversion of the human Jesus and I do my best to correct my co-religionists who still cling to that awful theory.

          • Pofarmer

            It just seems like you are making an awful lot of assumptions. Giving we have no original writings, no contemporary sources, no eyewitness sources. I think we need to ne careful not to “know” more than the available evidence can really suggest.

          • Mark Rutledge

            This is precisely the project that the historians in the Jesus Seminar have been doing since 1985. Maybe some self-education on your part?

      • That’s all well and good—it’s not that I don’t think it’s possible to use Jesus as a lens for an admirably humanist outlook; even I, for example, with no “supernatural” beliefs whatsoever, find the concept of “incarnation,” particularly when combined with the idea that the “kingdom of heaven” is within or among us already, and otherwise naturalized, to be a surprisingly evocative way to think about the human condition. But why should anyone else?

        Economists talk about the “sunk cost fallacy,” where an accumulation of commitment can prompt a person to be unduly motivated by a fear of loss and inoculated against the prospect of even greater benefit by abandoning a commitment. On reflection, are you motivated by the benefits of focusing the world through Jesus, or have your intellectual commitments obscured the prospect of greater benefits from proceeding otherwise?

        • Mark Rutledge

          My focus on the world is more like a kaleidescope. Jesus is simply one of those colors. Among the many commitments i have made and abandoned and re-discovered over the course of my life. Reflection sometimes results in that.

          • I don’t understand then why it is still worth calling yourself “Christian.” But best of luck to you.

  • Chikkipop

    What John Lombard said.

    We just don’t need this stuff. It sounds like nothing more than a religious person who grew out of supernatural belief but is still in need of the warm fuzzy feeling that came with it.

    What knowledge and wisdom we have accumulated came from countless sources; the need to ascribe magical importance to a single individual in history is mostly religiously inspired, and is inappropriate in the 21st Century.

    • Mark Rutledge

      See my comments to John and Peter for my reliance on and celebration of “countless sources.”

  • ZenDruid

    [Short answer] Read the Naj Hammadi material and mulch your bible.

    • mason

      I did not have a mulcher available at the time so I incinerated the two I had laying around. Didn’t want to have some credulous child or adult reading it and feeling responsible , and it’s all online.

    • Mark Rutledge

      The Nag Hammadi texts were diverse perspectives about conditions of 2nd Temple Judaism. No references to Jesus there.

      • ZenDruid

        “No references to Jesus there.”

        Seriously?

        Gospel of Thomas, gospel of Philip, Apocryphon of John, countless other texts that mention and quote Jesus.

        • Mark Rutledge

          Ooops, perhaps i better understand precisely what texts were discovered among the nag hammadi trove. I’ll do a bit of research and see if i need to revise my comment.

          • Linda_LaScola

            Are you thinking of the dead sea scrolls? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls

          • ZenDruid

            If the Gnostics had caught me at an impressionable age instead of that schizoid bible and those garden-variety brimstone blabbermouths, I might have been a lifelong Gnostic.

            Trivia: Carl Jung is a latter-day Gnostic saint.

          • Mark Rutledge

            I have a friendly relation with our local Gnostic priest who teaches at the same life long learning institute as i do. I never insulted his tradition.

  • Kent Truesdale

    Had I written Mark’s post I wouldn’t have based my personal ‘creed’ on the “historical, human Jesus” for exactly the reasons John L points out. Most liberal Christians I know could care less whether Jesus actually existed or who wrote what’s put in his mouth in the gospels. For we liberals to reject the whole of the Christian tradition just because of the ax-grinding of some of the authors of scripture (for example, the antisemitism in John’s gospel) would be like dismissing Graham Greene’s brilliant novels just because they’re filled with Catholic angst, or Wagner’s magnificent operas because the Nazis later co-opted them.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Kent, stretching your analogy a bit further — after accepting Wagner and Green as flawed, but still great in many ways, you wouldn’t restrict your listening to Wagner or your reading to Greene, would you? Wouldn’t you include them among other respected composers and writers? For instance, would you build opera houses that only performed Wagnerian operas?

      • Kent Truesdale

        Perish the thought! My reading embraces authors of all stripes, including especially atheists.

    • mason

      Kent, One thing I’ve learned, (and your post underscores) and re-learn over and over on this site is how the so called “bible” is the most sacred child to the fundamentalist and to the liberal, the bible is the insane offspring who’s kept locked up in the attic and only allowed out or mentioned in rare moments. This difference carries over even when one is no longer a believer.

    • Mark Rutledge

      I don’t have any creed based on the historical Jesus. Neither did Jesus have a creed. He had a vision and a program of justice on this earth. He was killed for it by official, legal, authorities of his day in the Roman Empire. Lots of social and political observers today agree that America is the contemporary Empire. How should followers of Jesus feel about that?

  • mason

    Mark, I certainly admire your erudite and exhaustive attempt to renovate and remodel the building under consideration, but the mansion is not a candidate for rehab to be “flipped” and re-sold in my opinion and appraisal. Christianity, like all theism, is a tear down, in fact it’s in a state of hopeless deterioration, decay, and collapse. Even as I type the crumbling, creaking, and structural failure of this ancient architecture continues.

    My recommendation is to take some photos, then level the property and remember the building for what it was, myth. Then you can invest your energy and capital in a stable new structure with pilings of reason deep in the bedrock, and the modern sciences for scaffolding. Then you can complete your architectural wonder with confidence and welcome the building inspector.

    If you prove me wrong and can pull off a successful flip, I congratulate you; at least it will be a vast improvement over the current edifice, but I think even with the finest renovation, occupants of the building will always be aware of the cracks in the foundation, black mold from water damage, and pest infestation.

    You may not be aware Mark, but I also feel ethically compelled to advise you, that the the previous owner of this building had his son killed, in the house.

    • Mark Rutledge

      Mason, a couple of quick replies–perhaps more later.
      1. It was not the owner of the building who had his son killed. It was the Roman death squads operating outside the house taking orders from the Roman leaders who executed him as a traitor.
      2. If the historical Jesus went into the old building today he might also recommend tearing it down while perhaps keeping a few of its better elements of social justice.
      3. Some post-Enlightenment societies and political orders with deep pilings of reason also participated in the killing fields of the 20th century. Be careful. Is there really such a thing as “progress” when it comes to the human condition? Look around.
      4. Perhaps the “son” did not want any buildings at all built to his honor– “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

      • mason

        Hmm Mark…that’s a real surprise… I somehow got the mistaken idea Jehovah was the bible God (Creator of Universe & the building) and he had his son killed as a human blood sacrifice… guess I must have got that spurious idea from some Hollywood movie 🙂 Even heard a rumor that the son tried to beg off of being killed, but no such deal was offered.

        • Mark Rutledge

          Well you made an honest mistake. That’s all right. Too much of the old edifice made this mistake too. That’s why historical research and knowledge is needed to correct such mis-understandings.

          • Kent Truesdale

            Indeed, even the book of Hebrews proclaims that Jesus came to put an end to blood sacrifice.

      • resipisence

        Read Steven Pinker, ‘The Better Angels Of Our Nature’, there has been absolutely breathtaking progress in modernity, thanks to Enlightenment values.

        • Mark Rutledge

          I’ve read some PInker. I am a child of the Enlightenment, and love reading about discoveries in cosmology, evolutionary biology, astronomy, physics, etc. as they are merging in the stardust revolution–and astrobiology. Neal DeGrass Tyson is one of my wise heroes. Our nature does include better angels as well as demons, but we have to own up to the darkness within us as well as the light in order to be whole persons. We have made progress in some areas, but we have devolved in others. I would have trouble drawing up a balance sheet. Have violence and bigotry in our world really decreased?

          • resipisence

            Well if you just checked out the book on Wikipedia, you would see that it’s a study of the decline in violence throughout history, marking the present as the safest time for a human, ever. The evidence he presents is simply overwhelming.

            His sister, Susan Pinker, has written a book about the importance of community, but apart from that I can’t see any area in which humans have “devolved” in.

            You need a new narrative, friend.

          • Mark Rutledge

            systemic violence is still built into our political, economic, and social institutions. Maybe some of us are safer. But a lot of us in this world are not. As a privileged white male it is easy for me to feel “safer.” Not so easy for many today.

          • resipisence

            You should probably read the book before making biased claims without evidence about the violence experienced by “most” people and the difference in the rates of violence experienced by “white” people as opposed to people of other races. At least Google the Wikipedia page, Christ’s sake. I hope you would not tell your congregation things like this.

          • Mark Rutledge

            Thanks for prodding me to know more about Pinker; I’ve read the page for Christ’s sake. (No, for Jesus’ sake). I think he is right about violence as he defines it and delimits his research, and i appreciate his scholarly work. I think when I refer to violence i mean more than killing and deaths (about which he makes a good case). I mean the systemic violence built into our institutions and experienced as oppression by many, denial of human rights, economic oppression, political oppression, social oppression, not simply killing and torture and overt violence)..

          • Mark Rutledge

            PS – i think this is partly what i’m getting at:
            Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

            “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil
            people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were
            necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
            But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every
            human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

          • Pofarmer

            What areas have humans devolved in?

          • Mark Rutledge

            Maybe “devolve” was not the best word. In spite of Pinker’s thesis, about which i don’t have an opinion, i still think that violence which we humans still commit against each other and the earth is very much alive and well in spite of all the rationalist talk of “progress.”

          • Pofarmer

            Oh, certainly theres still violence, but if you think of all the things that could have gotten you killed legally 500 years ago vs today? I want to live today.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Mason — you are a master of the metaphor — what a great liberal Christian you would have made.

      • mason

        Thanks Linda. I’ve often thought how different my life would have been if I was raised in a liberal, not fundamentalist Christian home; possibly a Mark hologram today 🙂 I always come to the conclusion that with my unceasing curiosity about science I’d still be an atheist but sans empirical insight into the darkness of fundamentalism.

  • resipisence

    Does it not seem a bit narrow-minded to focus on a single wise man to the exclusion of every other wise man or woman in history? Why not do some bits on the Buddha, who was arguably more wise than Jesus?

    I mean, it’s fine if you love Jesus and the Bible and all, but there are better stories now, better teachers. Moving outside of tradition will ensure that we do not stagnate in our moral and social outlooks.

    • Mark Rutledge

      resipisence, see my comments to Peter and Mason below for why i refuse to privilege Jesus only and above all other fine teachers of wisdom..
      Also, if Jesus and Buddha met one another today they would recognize one another as brothers, and not try to convert the other. “Better” is an unhelpful term in this kind of conversation.

      • resipisence

        Just to be clear, I’m no Buddhist, but having practised both meditation and prayer I found meditation more effective, and the discussions within the Buddhist tradition around the different types of experiences people can have simply dwarfs anything of the kind in the Christian tradition. There is simply more exploration that can be done that swimming within the same Christian circles over and over will not allow (regardless of your attitude to the supernatural).

        Why not just abandon the sectarian bits that focus exclusively on Christ, and instead promote a community that studies wisdom, rather than a single wise man? I read through your comments, none of them mentioned anyone except Christ as a teacher.

        I offer this criticism in the hope that I might sway you into expanding your field of view, because I honestly think that there is more to be found by being a pure Humanist. Wisdom traditions exist worldwide, I think they all must have borne fruits that would be of use for us to collect into one place! 🙂

        • Mark Rutledge

          Your comment does not reflect knowledge of my views, expressed in several posts, that the Jesus tradition is only one of many (both secular and spiritual) in which i have found wisdom. I honor Jesus as one of many among other wisdom teachers, and focus on him in this forum to correct widespread ignorance of what he really said and did. When i talk with other Christians i focus on this reconstruction of the human Jesus as a way of expanding our historical knowledge; when I talk with people of other (or no) spiritual traditions I try to explore commonalities, differences, and to learn and share experiences. My work for the past 10 years has been in interfaith dialogue with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and a plethora of Christians, and also with the student secular alliance following Richard Dawkins’ recent campus visit. As a Christian i can cross over boundaries and find truth wherever it exists. As a humanist i can do the same. I suppose you could call me a Christian humanist. I have a friend who has just published a book, “What would Socrates Do?” In one of my posts below I did refer to Socrates. There are many others as you wisely suggest.
          And I never use the term “Christ” which is a term that others applied to him. Christ refers to the supernatural myth that grew up following Jesus’ execution. Please do not confuse the two–this mistake is part of my educational interest in correcting this conflation through historical Jesus research. He was not Mr. and Mrs. Christ’s little boy.

          • resipisence

            So you would be more accurately described as a ‘Jesusian’ humanist, then? I mean, if you’re identifying as a Christian and then giving out to me for using the word ‘Christ’, who is to blame for the confusion?

            Why not just be a Humanist? In two years I hope to be both finished my psychology degree, and accepted as a Humanist celebrant so I can perform weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies. What benefit to me is the mythology of this particular religion? I ask that because I see myself as going into the same line of work as you, though you might disagree.

          • Kent Truesdale

            We might also ask what’s the “benefit” of literature? Why should its ‘cash value’ depend on what culture (even a religious one) a particular story came from?

          • Mark Rutledge

            Are Aesop’s fables “true?” Are the stories of Lake Wobegon “true?’ Can there be such a thing as a true fiction?

          • Mark Rutledge

            Not sure what to say. I have a wonderful colleague here on campus who is a Humanist minister who leads our Durham Humanist Fellowship. We have wonderful discussions and he has asked me to speak to his community, and i have asked his help in relating to the student secular alliance. I think so much depends on how we have been formed, who our mentors and teachers have been, what kinds of relationships we’ve had that it almost doesn’t matter. Each of us has to follow our own path and figure it out as we go. There may be no benefit to you from the Christian tradition or mythology. I think your path of seeking to be Humanist celebrant is a fine one. Each of us has to find our own way and take responsibility for the religion (or none) that we create. I with you the best.

          • resipisence

            I spend a lot of my time arguing with people, it’s one of my favourite pastimes. The reason why I argue with people is to lose.

            This seems counter-intuitive to many, and people tend to ignore this when I tell them because they most times just don’t know how to incorporate this idea into the picture they have of me in their head.

            Winning arguments is boring, because nothing new is learned.
            Losing an argument opens up a whole new world to explore where once we thought we had reached the end.

            My name here, resipisence, is a misspelling of a real old word, resipiscence. I took it (about 8 years ago) to mean “learning through hardship”, but it is very old and there are many definitions, “acknowledgment that one has been mistaken”, “: change of mind or heart : reformation; often : return to a sane, sound, or correct view or position”, ” Repentance; recognition of a past mistake, especially with a desire to improve in the future.”, “to regain consciousness, come to one’s senses”.

            It may be a lonely path to walk, but it is the only one I can, being who I am. I wish you well on your journey too.

          • If this is a viewpoint universe, then a reasonable method to understand is to take other folk’s viewpoints. Lose the argument, win understanding. Owning space is a looooooooong time occupancy but the game is also very old and gets tiresome.
            Good for you!

          • mason

            All my Jewish friends, (except one) and I have had and do have a good number, do not believe in God, an after life, or the supernatural, yet they are Jewish; they refer to themselves as secular Jews. I get the sense, maybe I’m incorrect, that this is akin to how you are a Christian; in a cultural & historic sense. Is that correct?

          • Mark Rutledge

            I referred to myself as a “secular Christian” when i asked Richard Dawkins a question at one of his public talks. He replied that he valued the “ceremonial” aspects of his Christian tradition, and went on to say, “i guess you could call me a secular Christian if you want to.”

          • mason

            That’s an interesting differentiation between the words, characters, Jesus & Christ.

      • mason

        I’m not sure how you would arrive at this conclusion if you’re basing this on the bible Jesus. Is your reference solely the Jefferson bible? I’ll spare the Jesus quotes that seem completely antithetical to the today Jesus meeting Buddha and Jesus not telling Buddha believe and worship me or perish.

        • Mark Rutledge

          A text without a context is a pretext for taking it any way you want.

          • mason

            From what I’ve observed in all quarters and manners of Christianity, from fundamentalist to even the non-supernatural believing Christian, the uniform practice is to ignore the full text and context of the Jesus character, (and his Dad) and cherry pick in the most discriminating fashion. 🙂 Hence the Jefferson Bible, the social gospel, the hell fire & brimstone gospel, the snake handling gospel, the current feel good prosperity gospel, the gospel with polygamy, the modern Mormon gospel ; 41,000 different sects of Christianity. It does look like the totality of Christianity has and always will be pretext. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations

          • Mark Rutledge

            The tradition has always included multiperspectival views. What do you expect when humans are involved? Get over it. Make up your own tradition. Do your own cherry picking.

          • mason

            Good one Mark. 🙂 Maybe call it “The Reformed Orthodox Western Post Mysticism Christian Heritage Cherry Pickers”, ROWPMCHCP for short.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Based on some comments about Jesus by fellow and sister pilgrims, here is one shortest-ever summary of one scholar’s (John Crossan) reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Other scholars paint different portraits. This is just to provide some common background when we talk about the question: Who Was Jesus?

    “The Kingdom movement was Jesus’ program of empowerment for a peasantry becoming steadily more hard-pressed, in that first-century Jewish homeland, through insistent taxation, attendant in­debtedness, and eventual land expropriation,
    all within increasing commercialization in the booming colonial economy of a
    Roman Empire under Augustan peace and a Lower Galilee under Herodian
    urbanization. Jesus lived, against the systemic injustice and structural
    evil of that situation, an alter­native open to all who would accept it: a life
    of open healing and shared eating, of radical itiner­ancy and fundamental
    egalitarianism, of human contact without discrimination and of divine contact
    without hierarchy. He also died for that alternative.”

    • Pofarmer

      Regarding J.D. Crossan. Bart Ehrman has noted that Jesus is a rohrsach test. Scholars throughout history have made him what they needed or wanted him to be, often a reflection of the times.

      • Kent Truesdale

        Indeed! As some wag put it, “By their lives of Jesus ye shall know them.”

      • Mark Rutledge

        Bart if a fine scholar. He’s 90% right about being a rorhrsach–and one can trace that with it’s combinations and permutations throughout the history of the churches. But there are also some few things we can know about the historical person which are very interesting.

        • Pofarmer

          Bonestly? all you can “know” about Jesus come from the Gospels, which are not reliable. you can “know” whatever you want to know.

          • Mark Rutledge

            All historical research can give us is more or less probable. So i go with the more probable reconstructions as in the analytical methodology of the Jesus Seminar.

          • Pofarmer

            Well, Richard Carrier thinks he’s worked the probabilities out……….

            I don’t trust the Jesus seminar because they start out with the conclusion is historical, and then see what csn fit that conclusion.

          • Mark Rutledge

            They have addressed this criticism on numerous occasions.

    • Kent Truesdale

      Wasn’t Crossan the one who also said that wild dogs ate Jesus body? (which doesn’t endear me to his scholarship!)

      • Linda_LaScola

        He, or some other scholar, said that that’s what usually happened to executed criminals — they were left to be eaten by dogs.

      • Mark Rutledge

        that’s right. sorry about that! I think he’s right about that one.

  • … once I left all supernatural beliefs behind, there was still something left worth calling, “Christian.”

    If there is such a thing, I don’t see how it could be the historical, human Jesus. What is most distinctive about Christianity (or pretty much any other religion) is it’s mythology; a set of stories potentially helpful in understanding the world and making moral judgements about it. If you strip that away, you’re left with just another illiterate ancient peasant from an unimportant backwater, about whom we really know very little.

    If religion is to be salvaged and turned into something worthwhile, my suggestion would be to follow the example of the more liberal Jews. They do not discard their myths to chase after the “historical, human Moses”; they accept their mythology for what it is, using it as an important and inspiring common cultural reference without insisting on acceptance of the historical truth of the events.

    • Kent Truesdale

      Amen, brother/sister! As Bonhoeffer said so well, the central question of faith is always, “Who is Jesus Christ for us TODAY?”

      • Mark Rutledge

        I could say amen to Bonhoeffer too! He also talked about “religionless Christianity.” We have to take responsibility for the reconstructions of the historical Jesus we create. And all the mythology along with it as long as we recognize the difference between history and mythology and story. All history is story but not all story is history.

      • Linda_LaScola

        That is, if you think it’s important to answer “the central question of faith”

      • mason

        my answer: a mythical composite created and very successfully utilized to exploit the masses by the Catholic church and the myriad of other off shoot branches of Christianity

    • Mark Rutledge

      You got it! This is precisely why i continue to honor my Christian cultural linguistic tradition along with its mythology. As I said to Justin below, let’s compare our myths and see which parts of them can continue to contribute to human flourishing. Lots of mythologies have been spun off the historical Jesus, some of which help and some of which don’t. I don’t reject the whole cultural tradition, but i critique the oppressive parts of it just as most of the commentators on this blog do. (Paul Tillich: “religion is the
      substance of culture, and culture the form of religion.”)

      • Nevertheless I think you’re putting too much emphasis on the historical Jesus. If you are a fan of the parables or of other sayings of Jesus, I don’t think it actually matters whether Jesus actually said or believed them. What matters is that they became part of the Christian tradition. The question of whether they are authentic, or later add-ons, is irrelevant to how we use them today.

        • Mark Rutledge

          it is not his words alone; not his deeds alone; but BOTH as he acted them out and lived them out in a specific program of nonviolent resistance to roman Imperial oppression that makes him a figure to be respected. For modern examples see Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Oscar Romero, and a host of others not so well known. This is perhaps the most important point about Jesus. It also got him killed.

  • St. Calembaurnus

    “I would remind the reader that I am not a critic of atheism. In fact, I think we live in an era of post-atheism. We have to accept the conclusions of atheism and move forward with new forms of human spirituality that are not inconsistent with our best knowledge about the origins of life and the nature of the universe.”

    I’m not a “critic of atheism” either. But is Galston suggesting that atheism is more consistent with our knowledge about the origin of life and the nature of the universe? I’m fine with the Big Bang and species evolution, I just don’t equate our scientific knowledge with atheism.

    • Mark Rutledge

      Neither do i. It is not the purpose of religion to explain the world although it may once have done that before the Enlightenment.

  • Justin Lawrence

    It’s an interesting proposition, but whose interpretation of an historical Jesus do you propose using? If you asked many (American at least) Christians, they would say that their view of Jesus was wholly accurate irregardless of the fact that their views likely don’t match in many ways. The only way that an historical Jesus is known is through the Gospels and can those be counted as trustworthy and credible sources of information? What can we say with certainty is mythologizing and what is accurate? Were the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount his words or the words of another? Did he speak those parables or were some of them passed down through oral tradition and simply attributed to him? The Jesus of the Gospels is in effect a literary character. If I wanted to find a literary character to model my life after, I could probably find better. Or create better for that matter.

    I don’t disagree with some of your bullet-points. Things like “Forming systemic arrangements to care for each other, our community and our world,” or “Integrating action and contemplation,” are things that any socially-minded organization should do. Even “Drawing on resources from the world’s enduring religious traditions that contribute to our journey,” can be helpful, but I question the necessity of focusing a lens on an “historical” Jesus. Why do you think it is necessary? Is it that you foresee these communities reaching out specifically to transitioning Christians in the hopes of organizing them?

    • Mark Rutledge

      There is much less historical information about Jesus than we would like to have. All we have are reconstructions. The parables and aphorisms are the closest we can get to the original voiceprint of Jesus–and these are enigmatic and we have to ponder them just as his original hearers did. I like some reconstructions are better than others. I don’t rely just on Jesus as i have written here. But his passion for love and justice are not a bad guide along with other traditions. As i said, one reason i focus on him is partly to be able to be in conversation with my colleagues in ministry and with folks in our churches–as a way to expand their world view. May be a practical issue rather than a theological or spiritual one. Today we have to create our own religious (or none) perspectives using all the resources we have. The HJ is simply one of those resources, enigmatic as that may be,

  • Maybe the following is actually happening:

    Gregory Lawrence Knittel (1993) The Euthanasia of Platonic Christianity: Thomas Jefferson, Plato, Religion and Human Freedom. San Jose State University. scholarworks.sjsu.edu/etd_theses/689/

    • mason

      Jefferson’s hope to restore Christianity to the simple ethical teaching of the Jesus character had a major snag, mainly the other not so ethical teachings of the mythical character. The thesis certainly documents Jefferson’s strong belief about the need for separation of religion and state, and the need for religion to criticize and be criticized. My favorite Jefferson quote is ” And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus,
      by the Supreme Being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

      -Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

      • Mark Rutledge

        I’m part of the network for separation of church and state sponsored by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. There was more to Jesus than ethical teachings, but he did act and speak for a movement of non-violent resistance to Roman Imperial oppression. Jesus was no moralist. Not much of a mythicist either although he had experiences of a spiritual nature whatever that might have meant in the 1st century. Let’s press behind the fables as the Jesus Seminar is doing.

        • mason

          It’s a pleasure to hear some Baptists are apparently supporting separation of church and state.I’m sure you’re familiar with the letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists about the subject.

          I just can’t heed the call to press behind the fables as I find the entire Jesus story fable and composite. I think there are so many other great vineyards from which the grapes can be pressed to produce rich wine, while the fictional Jesus saga is, for me personally, hopelessly tainted and few if any wine droplets gained would not be worth the apologist mental gymnastics effort required. I do applaud your tenacity and persistence to do so.

          His, the composite character’s, ethics were highly flawed, and he objected to being a symbol of peace, endorsing the sword and even calling for family division, even hatred. I assume the tale of him talking to demons and casting them into swine who drowned themselves in the sea would be considered a spiritual experience. What rich wine can one press out from that fable?

          • Mark Rutledge

            You misinterpret both the sword saying, and also the healing of the demoniac. Takes some digging in historical biblical scholarship for a better one. Again: see John Crossan’s little booklet “Who Is Jesus.”
            Also there is a difference between history, myth, theology, and personal “spiritual” experiences.
            Below i explained why i continue to place some value on some of the authentically verifiable historical Jesus traditions.

          • mason

            Thanks for the suggestion Mark but I’ll leave the Jesus digging to others. Life is short and I’ll pick and shovel in other areas for gold nuggets. 🙂

  • I follow you (not literally–smile) in some of this, and admire your work with college students. However, I find this rather confusing. Surely connecting to the community of your roots is important, but I don’t see how it is possible to be a “Secular Christian.” There can be no “kingdom of god” for those of us who are not supernaturals. Yes, all the social justice and good feeling of community. Sure. We need something. But that is not at all exclusive to Christians. We can continue to admire and emulate the “best” of Jesus’ teachings and model of life (with many qualifications and questions!). Yet, why not build on being Interfaith or simply Coalitions of ethical people? In my opinion (since I was one) “progressives” probably need to sever from the–rotting–roots to plant and grow something better, healthier, for our time, as simply Human beyond the labels.

    • Mark Rutledge

      I guess i thought i was doing something along the lines you suggest. Integrating the best from all traditions while still honoring my own. And if Richard Dawkins can call himself a secular Christian i guess i can too along with learning from other interfaith and humanist insights. I have been part of many such coalitions in my career. All us humans got belly buttons.

      • I hear you. Just wondering if we could move on to a post-label kind of thing. You know, do the good without the god, or with the god, with the common denominator of good as the “identity.” Ah, my idealist tendencies. . .in a world perhaps hopelessly divided by religion.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Pope Francis on how to make atheists

    At today’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square, the pontiff spoke about the church:

    “How often have we heard, in
    our neighborhoods: ‘That person there is always in Church but gossips
    about everyone, denigrates others – what a bad example! This is not
    Christian! This is a bad example.’ So people say: ‘If this is a
    Christian, I prefer to be an atheist!’ Because people go by our
    witness.”

  • I gather from your first aggregation of bullet points that faith surmounts all. I agree completely. Faith is the paradigm leading to understanding, to universal viewpoint, to God. I would say wisdom is the view from the back end, which is generally not so desirable as freedom. However each to his own.

    • Mark Rutledge

      i like your comment as long as we keep in mind the distinction between belief and faith. Say a little more about how you see wisdom from the back end.

      • Freedom is movement through time and space (and more obvious access to God). Wisdom is seeing how the system works, but using wisdom to plant oneself in belief tends to deny that freedom.
        Of course the paradox is freedom is also the freedom to plant. So we are all correct I just think freedom is more useful in a place where so much is obscured.

  • Just Sayin

    All these fake names they used…its almost like they were lying all along.

    Gawd only knows what else they lied about.

    Say, whatever happened to that book by Bod Ripley? Never did come out….was that BS too?

  • Guest

    Great piece..It is impossible to predict what the church will be in the future but

  • DC Rambler

    Great piece..It is impossible to predict what the church will be in the future ibut anyone who thinks that they can dig in their heels and stop the earth from turning is kidding themselves.
    Look how fast society’s views on gays have changed and few saw it coming. Who would have thought that big malls would close as we choose new ways to shop or that good old Best Buy is on it’s way out.
    I admire the author for mapping out a reasonable course for the future and for those that resist change, just sit back, put a video tape in your VCR and let the rest of us move on without you..

    • Jack Haggerty

      Like you, DC, I enjoy Mark Rutledge’s writing and have enormous respect for his campus ministry over a period of five decades. Where I live, the United Kingdom, we routinely speak of the ‘disconnect’ factor in politics – meaning that our politicians are not listening to the people. Mark Rutledge connects with people and with real issues. He listens. He accepts that ‘change’ is another word for ‘life’. As you say DC, who could have predicted that some of your big malls would close? They haven’t done so in Britain but it may yet happen. Perhaps your mega churches will follow suit. I do not care for the term ‘post supernaturalist’. One day Mark Rutledge may see that the term is already redundant. As an unreconstructed supernaturalist myself, I recognize that I am out of step with postmodernist thinking. This does not worry me in the slightest because postmodernism is already old hat. I believe, as did Karl Barth, that faith can and must address the faithless. What good are we if we don’t? But I would not want to follow any of you down a road called ‘post incarnationalist’ because I think it would prove just another dead end. (If Christ is not risen, our sins are not forgiven, our faith is in vain, and we are of all people the most to be pitied.) Speaking of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Church of England community worker Mark Davey has written this. ‘Incarnation places the concern of the divine in human space and place.’ Mr Davey quotes the example of Alexie Torres-Fleming who returned to her poverty-stricken community of the South Bronx. ‘God bound himself to the poorest of the poor,’ she said, ‘and in that he redeemed us. The theology of the incarnation mandates that you must place yourself in what you want to redeem. You cannot redeem what you will not assume.’ Mark Davey’s essay has an apt and haunting title — ‘Christ in the City: The Density of Presence’. You will find it in the book Crossover City – Resources for Urban Mission and Tranformation (Mobray Continuum 2009) edited by Andrew Davey. Thanks.