April 5, 2008

The Limits of History, I

Way back when, I wrote a couple of pieces on Albert Schweitzer, promising to write more about how his The Quest of the Historical Jesus related to early Quaker history and its relevance for today.

Like many of my promises here, I never got around to writing that. Nonetheless, it raised a set of questions that keep echoing in my head, especially as I gear up to write more about Seekers Found.

Unable to focus on just one book, though, I re-opened The Hauerwas Reader, a collection of Stanley Hauerwas' work that was so powerful that at one point I looked around, amazed that airport security had let me carry it on to a plane. And what did I find?

It is not my intention to settle to what extent we can know "the real Jesus." I am quite content to assume that the Jesus we have in Scripture is the Jesus of the early church. Even more important, I want to maintain that it cannot or should not be otherwise, since the very demands Jesus placed on his followers means he cannot be known abstracted from the disciples' response.

The historical fact that we learn who Jesus is only as he is reflected through the eyes of his followers, a fact that has driven many to despair because it seems that they cannot know the real Jesus, is in fact a theological necessity. For the "real Jesus" did not come to leave us unchanged, but rather to transform us to be worthy members of the community of the new age.

It is a startling fact, so obvious that its significance is missed time and time again, that when the early Christians first began to witness the significance of Jesus for their lives they necessarily resorted to a telling of his life.

Their "Christology" did not consist first in claims about Jesus' ontological status, though such claims were made; their Christology was not limited to assessing the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection, though certainly these were attributed great significance; rather, their "Christology," if it can be called that, showed the story of Jesus as absolutely essential for depicting the kind of kingdom that they now though possible through his life, death, and resurrection.

Therefore, though Jesus did not call attention to himself, the early Christians rightly saw that what Jesus came to proclaim, the kingdom of God as a present and future reality, could be grasped only by recognizing how Jesus exemplified in his life the standards of that kingdom.

But the situation is even more complex. The form of the Gospels as stories of a life are meant not only to display that life, but to train us to situate our lives in relation to that life. For it was assumed by the churches that gave us the Gospels that we cannot know who Jesus is and what he stands for without learning to be his followers. Hence the ironic form of Mark, which begins by announcing to the reader this is the "good news about Jesus, the annointed one, the son of God," but in depicting the disciples shows how difficult it is to understand the significance of that news.

You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life. His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of kingdom Jesus brings. In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged. Only by learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of messiah this Jesus is. (118-9, paragraph breaks added, originally from The Peaceable Kingdom.)

Theologically, this is a powerful statement, but seen from a modern historical perspective, it's earth-shattering. Historians have given up on most of their dreams of purely objective history, but this telling moves well beyond practices that acknowledge bias to what many would argue is sheer propaganda.

But can the story really be told in any other way, by people who believe it? I have to agree with Hauerwas that the authors of the Gospels weren't writing Christological treatises, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it.

I think that dynamic, on a smaller scale, may also be operating in the narratives of early Quakerism, though there is more explicit "Christology" of various kinds there. Some people find the stories life-changing, and tell them in ways meant to change the listener, while others reject that style of story-telling all together. As with Christianity broadly, they may even reject the foundations of the story itself, while enjoying the cultural and spiritual benefits they believe it helped to create.

July 31, 2006

Like a river

I mentioned earlier that I was reading Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus. I'll admit that some of the middle pages weren't quite as exciting as I'd hoped, though Schweitzer's prose is always amazing. He touches on a lot of subjects in Christianity's relationship with history that I think also apply directly to Quakerism's briefer relationship with history, often in ways that are strikingly parallel.

I'll have more to say about his central theme of the kingdom of God and how it may relate to Quakerism and Quaker history later. Right now, I'd like to share a metaphor in his conclusion. After he talking about the "moral consummation of all things" and how Christ "grasped the entire truth and immediacy of it," as well as how "our relationship to Jesus is ultimately of a mystical kind," he writes about the challenge of overcoming divides within Christianity:

Only thus does Jesus create a fellowship amongst us. He does not do so as a symbol, or anything of that sort. So long as we are of one will among ourselves and with him in putting the kingdom of God above all else, serving it with faith and hope, there is fellowship between him and us and with men of all races who have lived and still live guided by the same idea.

It is from this that we can also see how the liberal and conservative forms of religious thinking, which at the moment exist side by side, will meet and achieve unity. False compromises are useless. All concessions with which the liberal side may seek to approach the conservative view can only succeed in weakening it by producing obscurities and inconsistencies. The differences between them lie in the difference in their basic thought forms. Any attempt at reaching a superficial accomodation between them has absolutely no prospect.

It is the lack of elementary and living religious feeling which makes these differences so strongly apparent. Two thin streams wind alongside each other between the boulders and pebbles of a great river bed. Nothing is accomplished by trying to clear sections of the rock massed between them to allow them to flow together along the same course. But when the waters rise and overflow the rock, they meet of their own accord.

This is how the conservative and liberal forms of religion will meet, when desire and hope for the kingdom of God and fellowship with the spirit of Jesus again govern them as an elementary and mighty force, and bring their world-views and their religion so close that the differences in fundamental presuppositions, though still existing, sink, just as the boulders of the river bed are covered by the rising flood and at last are barely visible, gleaming through the depths of waters. (486-7)

The boulders are real, though I don't yet see the floodwaters. Perhaps they're on their way.

July 19, 2006

Spirit, truth, and history

The preface of Apocalypse of the Word reminded me of Albert Schweitzer's discussion of how the delay of Christ's return has affected the Christian church, and I went to read his classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus. I'm still enjoying the book, which manages to make discussions of theological history quite lively, but the 1950 introduction had a few things to say which I think apply to Quakerism's history, and not only to early Christianity:

The present situation compels faith to distinguish between the essence and the form of religious truth. The ideas through which it finds expression may change as time goes on, without destroying its essence. Its brightness is not dimmed by what happens to it. Changing seems to make the ideas more transparent as means whereby the truth is revealed....

It may come as a stumbling-block to our faith to find that it was not Jesus himself who gave its perfect spiritual form to the truth which he brought into the world, but that it received this in the course of time through the working of the Spirit. But this is something which we have to overcome. The old saying still holds. 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.' (Isa. 55.8-9)

Historical truth not only creates difficulties for faith; it also enriches it, by compelling it to examine the importance of the work of the Spirit of Jesus for its origin and continuance. The gospel of Jesus cannot simply be taken over; it must be appropriated in his Spirit. What the Bible really offers us is his Spirit, as we find it in him and in those who first came under its power. Every conviction of faith must be tested by him. Truth in the highest sense is what is in the Spirit of Jesus. (xliv-xlv)

I'm fascinated by early Quaker history, and think the early Quakers did amazing things while grappling with the difficulties created by their finding Spirit above Scripture or Tradition. While I find their work inspiring, I don't think Quakerism today is or should be the movement as it was in 1655 or 1685.

It seems to me that change has been more or less continuous, from the cooling down of the initial enthusiasm after the Restoration in 1660 through the 'quietist' period (more on that to come) through the splits and schisms of the 19th century and the many changes of the 20th century.

To take just one example, it's fascinating to me how both Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers seemed to firmly believe themselves to be the true heirs of George Fox and his fellow founders. The Hicksites went so far as to reissue Fox's Works (for which I'm grateful), claiming Fox's mantle in ways I'm not sure he'd support, while the Orthodox certainly made their own (also problematic) claims about that same mantle. I suspect, however, that the problem wasn't that one group or the other was no longer true to Quakerism: it was that each group was heading in a new direction. From my uncertain vantage point, Hicksites seemed to be more willing to entertain that the Light might provide diverse perspectives, while the Orthodox were shifting toward more emphasis overall on Scripture and less emphasis on the Light.

Schweitzer's emphasis on - and acceptance of - the process of change as a key aspect of religious development seems as important today as it did in 1950 when he wrote those words. However much we try to lock ourselves into a fixed perspective on the past and a fixed understanding of the world, those perspectives and understandings will shift. If we listen to the Light as we carry on, those shifts may take us to new spiritual horizons, revealing new insights in what came before.