The Limits of History, I
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.