Robert Wright makes some interesting points in an article in The Atlantic, 'One World, Under God', which is based on a forthcoming book (2009) The Evolution of God, Little Brown and Company.
I'm interested in a few of the points he makes. The first is that the historical Jesus is a far more ethnic and tribal character than many of us perceive. The more universalist, and loving, Jesus seems to come later - to later Gospels than to Mark, which is the narrower, focused, ethnic one.
I started to think this more a while back, though for me the Pauline influence is into all the (later) Gospels. It may be that the focus of Mark is more historical, or perhaps under suffering it is more inward and less disposed to outward statements. It is the more pessimistic Gospel, and its Jesus is tougher.
Neverthless, Paul is the outward universalist in terms of making the break out of the ethnic tribe. I see Jesus as being inside the ethnic tribe, and thus the Jewish Church that vanished the closest to him. The other is clearly a development away from that historic figure.
The problem is that we also get different Pauls. There is the revolutionary, equalitarian Paul, and this seems to be the Paul who is facing a near end time. Everything is in the spin at this point, as he develops his salvation religion based on Jesus but not having actually known Jesus. Then there is a later Paul, much not actually having been written by Paul, that is Churchy and authoritarian, as in women keep quiet and keep your hat on.
I like the point made by Robert Wright that the Pauline process connected with travellers and households of business, and indeed Christian communities were like households. Christianity connected with people on the move (compare that with most communities at this time: people fixed in location for generations). The acquisition of this faith through household conversions was a way of demonstrating trust, which was important to these travellers doing their business. There were standards to maintain.
His general point here is that a religion has to get going and develop a short while in an ethnic setting before it universalises, which it does for its own spreading benefit.
I suppose all this is why someone like Rudolf Bultmann focused on the texts themselves, texts of the Early Churches, rather than a narrower historical Jesus, and why, in the end, his demythologising of the dying and rising myth, the primal man myth and the Jewish apocalyptic was so limited, that is part of Paul's thought world at least. These myths retain their features in liturgy to this day. Somewhere in there is the kerygma, the whole Jesus Christ which is more than a historical Jesus and more than in the mind of Jesus himself. It is a creation, a mythical figure via cultural insertions, Jesus himself having perhaps the apocalyptic.
But I don't think like any of this. For me, death is a process of instant rotting down, and if there is anything 'else' spiritually it doesn't feature in ordinary discourse and makes little difference beyond speculation. There is no primal man, but rather just evolution - mutations that succeed or fail in any setting, and in environmental stress matter all the more. This business of the fall of humankind/ the world is nonsensical. Technologically wrapped and (hopefully) ethical humans tend to run against the grain of evolution, but mutations do happen to human beings. The apocalyptic is just any sort of threat of end, be it nuclear or environmental. We have a lot of these, but they tend to change.
So for me its back to open history, sociology and an unprivileged theology, and I think this is what Robert Wright is doing. His approach is quite refreshing. There is no attempt to restore Christ: personally I cannot see the point of restoring a man to worship or worship through.
It does not leave a lot: I'd describe myself as a religious humanist who practises Christianity. At the same time Buddhist perspectives are still important and need no such special treatment: you just do it and see, and there seems to be a straightforward logic in the problem of craving permanence, whether it is your own life, your relationships, other people or objects. It is just a case of getting a right attitude to what these offer when around - thanks for the pleasure and the memory - and about letting go. An uncluttered mind connects with not craving (because craving enters all sorts of wants and desires) and allows for clarity which is less self-centred, plus clarity means more awareness. These just seem to me to make sense.
At present I mix these insights with what is left of Christianity: basically extracting reverse ethics and equalitarian views, and not just abstract ethics but the importance of a life lived in service and sacrifice. Not that I'm any good at it (or even uncluttering the head) but there is a model and a purpose there as a sort of reminder. That's all.