Sunday 30 March 2014

Jesus as Another Mentality

This is my submission to The Inquirer, published fortnightly:

Unitarians are under a constant demand to revise and recreate their religion, presumably around something that will overlap with the worship content. I do it, and Tony McNeile does it. However, I'm going to suggest why Tony McNeile is travelling up a blind alley when to comes to creating a Jesus the revolutionary of a God of love for all (Inquirer, 29 March).

Was Jesus a revolutionary or rather unoriginal, unoriginal regarding the many supernatural end-time preachers of what we might call the inter-testaments period? Diarmaid MacCulloch ( will tell us we don't know why this messianic figure succeeded after his death beyond the other itinerants. Paul obviously made a cultural leap but there were also Jews spreading a primitive post-Easter faith. The people who spread the faith were not the poor but capable folk moving up and down the trade routes for whom Christianity was a badge of faithfulness and reliability (whatever the State's attitude to the religion).

People who try to get back to a primitive, pre-Easter, historical Jesus rarely manage it successfully. The Jesus Seminar folk arguably lose Jesus's urgency. We are stuck with the access and barrier of the Greek culture New Testament of early Christianity. If the texts were directly reliable, they would be primary documents of the early Churches (not Jesus) and they are not even that.

I'll now contradict this warning by trying to reconstruct a primitive Jesus to argue why Tony McNeile cannot have his construction except as a fiction. This extends to negating the whole 'religion of Jesus' claim of historic Unitarianism over a 'religion about Jesus' in orthodoxy.

Jesus did not preach to everyone but just to Jews. When he encounters Gentiles he has difficulty and has to learn to include them. He is not criticising the Jewish faith but is attempting to fulfil it. Paul says the Law was to hold in sin, and the messianic is the alternative, but Jesus sees the messianic as fulfilling the Law. The arguments were with and not against rabbis as to the meaning of the Law in the fullest sense, including matters to do with work and say marriage and divorce.

He was a second temple Jew and he would have attended the animal sacrifices. There is no reason to think otherwise. Jesus would have no idea that the second temple would be destroyed by the Romans (God selectively destroying to remake is different!). His view of health is all that linked to demons: in his reverse ethics he was critical of those who assumed the better off, longer living and wealthier must have had fewer demons. The unreconstructed rich were very likely to find themselves barred to the Kingdom. He was no party Jew, having come from the messianic leadership of John the Baptist, so he could mix with rabbis and zealots, but he was messianic.

To be messianic means he must gather disciples and move rapidly to Jerusalem (surely not the dozy three years hinted at in John's Gospel), and prompt God into sending down the transformed messianic figure of total change (possibly but not necessarily himself) to remove the Romans, gather the missing tribes and institute a new reality of the Kingdom of God on earth that he felt was pregnant - the heavens (literally) above breaking into the space of earth.

He didn't welcome all who knocked at the door. He said to fellow Jews sin no more and be ready. He healed to clear out demons ahead of entry into the Kingdom. This was a principle rule: there were rules. Jews were chosen and as such had responsibility. Gentile gods and false beliefs would be swept away (but he may well have taken some Buddhist views coming down the trade routes into his compassionate Judaism, just as Zoroastrianism was used in understanding resurrection and the end time).

The stance is not universal love but fellowship, fellowship around rituals and particularly eating and drinking: the small and big picnics of healing and preaching, gathering and preparing. Is this 'relationships'? I think his focus was the angelic potential of people once transformed into the Kingdom. It's entirely unrealistic (just as the ethical and constructed sermons on the plain and mount are impossibly idealistic).

How on earth do we moderns even understand the mentality of a man who believes that he and his disciples are the gatherers of the missing tribes within a coming transformation?

The whole business of how he got arrested - did he use the Hebrew Bible prediction and plan with Judas? - to bring about God's activity through his messianic service (or alternatively is Judas an invention) raises all sorts of questions about Jesus's strategy, ethics and ego. The history of this is impossible to untangle, and it has been said that just about everything in the progress of the passion story doesn't add up as credible. One likelihood is he and his gathering of supporters were a minor nuisance to the nervous authorities on the edge of empire, with a habit of killing off yet more trouble makers and making an example to the population using the supply of messianic leaders.

A possibility is definitely not that Jesus rejected sacrifice and atonement that the religion later took up, but rather that he modelled his prompting of God to act based on the suffering servant of the Hebrew model - serving others at considerable self-pain even to an extent and expectation of death (and possibly of restoration from death by God) in order to demonstrate the time for the messiah is now. He is saying to God as a servant-leader: "Do it."

Tony McNeile wonders how the disciples would have worshipped when Jesus was dead and gone. A suggestion is around the meal, with a place left for Elijah and/ or left for Jesus to return. Once Jesus is dead he can only be the messiah or nothing; it is now him to be transformed. Modern scholarship (as with Larry Hurtado - suggests that Jesus's titles escalated rapidly in that even Jews were straining their faith giving binitarian status to Jesus. The old view of doctrinal development is far too slow in terms of years and decades. The messiah was being worshipped very soon making this Judaism change. Paul picked this up, and, translating his own messianic rabbinical outlook to Greek culture, made a salvation faith of expectation through his never-met God's sole agent of change. Paul is far more the universalist and equalitarian than Jesus was (excluding pastoral epistles and the writing in the name of Paul). Remember that Paul will have been in Jerusalem when Jesus was killed and it never dawned on him to pay any attention: he only did so when some Jews were acting in synagogues as if a messiah was about to return.

We cannot strip away the supernatural Jesus to produce some sort of liberal humanistic leftover individual. Such is as "about Jesus" as any faith in the Trinity. Jesus's ethics stripped away are subject to ethical debate. Compare Jesus and the far more relevant Gandhi, for example, whose ethics were tested in the politics of empire unlike Jesus's (and Gandhi was killed by one of his own). Jesus does not head an ethical league table: we do not have the historical information about him or others known or unknown to make such a claim.

What then of being a Christian? Being a Christian means - I would suggest - belief in the resurrection and Pentecost and identifying with the continuation of the early Christian community as it developed its beliefs (Jewish - but lost; Gnostic, but suppressed and returns; Eastern and monastic, but died out; and Pauline Western, that developed with Rome breaking from the Orthodox and the Protestants from Rome). It begins with a roll-call of leaders and a 'congregation' (the 500, or the 120) claiming to have been met by Jesus after his death as first of the resurrection to thus derive their authority and setting, but that after the Ascension (a Christian innovation) no one else could claim to meet Jesus in the same way. But Pentecost begins the Church. To be a Christian is not to follow some primitive unreachable Jewish Jesus, but to believe in the Church that carries forward the authority of the economic Trinity - the Father, the Salvation figure of Jesus Christ and the one sent to guide after him (that was also before/ during him).

We could only know a Jewish Jesus by sending back in time a social anthropologist, who would have to learn Greek and Aramaic in situ, and follow the builder as he turned from Sephorris (the Roman city never mentioned in the Gospels) to become a charismatic healer and preacher believing some incredible things on his way to Jerusalem. The anthropologist would have to try and inhabit the mentality of a lost time and culture, and all he or she could do is come back and write a long essay for we Westerners - and we still couldn't absorb Jesus's worldview.

So, I'm suggesting, with much frustration, that there is and never was a Unitarian 'religion of Jesus' but only yet another 'religion about Jesus' and that Tony McNeile's project is a non-starter in terms of historical content. As for joining this with some form of Paganism, well one may as well join it with astrology! Perhaps that is being done as well! The result is never satisfactory.

Adrian Worsfold

Monday 24 March 2014

The Revisionist Struggle with Christianity

My reply is (also) below to Colin Coward's struggle with ordinary Christianity...

I agree with: “For example, ideas about the perfection of Jesus and the idealized lives of the saints can produce feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and guilt in some people.” and also “Based on Scripture the Church of England is imposing very unhealthy teaching and practice in relation to sexuality and gender. True of false?” [less so your more interpretive view]. But there is the problem. Presumably the Platonist Trinity involves the perfection of God and Jesus Christ, and that it is revisionist to the religion to argue against the perfection of Jesus as I certainly do. Francis William Newman (brother of JH) stuck his neck out against even Unitarians at the time to argue against the perfection of Jesus, and he was seen as a pure theist. Secondly, many Christians argue that the Bible contains all that is required for salvation. There are many doctrines in it, but also many prejudices and inequalities – like slavery. But whilst many dump the biblical approval of slavery, as if it is not there, or other views of marriage, they continue to point to the biblical distaste for homosexual sex. This can only be rejected, and you do so by saying science trumps biblical revelation. So it does. But the difference is in agreeing with you I don’t claim to be Christian and you do. On the other hand, you seem to think that the universe is God driven and wonderful, something based on the love of Jesus (perfection?) and I think it is quite cruel and religion is to stand against the universe and to organise where we can. Perhaps that is the difference between you as Christian and me as not, but yours is still a highly revisionist version.

For me evolution is always local and specific, a chaotic system that only becomes systemic at higher interactive levels. So there is no God element in what happens, what causes the change from below. And there is plenty of evidence for how one part eats another than it is not the product of some loving deity. And elsewhere Colin argues for this loving universe produced by the benign deity, an alternative positive Christianity. But my argument is that all forms of perfectionism are wrong and misleading. We don't have enough information on Jesus, but we can assume he made many mistakes and indeed there are clues to his mistakes, and nor is he as universally concerned as is the Paul who spread the post-death religion to more than the Jews. Jesus the messianic builder is not a source of perfectionism but Platonist Greek philosophy established long before is a source of perfectionism. That's where Christianity became muddled and it is what it is.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Why I'm Not Blogging so Much...

Here's a comment I've just added to Fulcrum and is (as I write) awaiting its place in the debate around the article 'Where Are We and Where Are We Going' by George Day.

I’ve no idea if this helps or not. I’m writing a story, at some 600 pages plus double spaced at present. It’s a bit Blue Velvet in the distortion of things, but otherwise recognisable. I’m changing one character and her impact, an ordained evangelical but is a member of ‘the clergy scheme’ (as in real world ‘the Clergy Project’ in part funded by Richard Dawkins charitable money) where members of the clergy continue to do their job properly – and sound as they should – but have in fact lost all belief and intent. This is different from the non-realist, who continues to think there is a cultural and postmodern way to present Christianity as a kind of religious humanism. It is different from the Radical Orthodox too, who thinks they can present a premodern Platonist pure religion inside a postmodern bubble. The person in ‘the clergy scheme’ makes no reformist gestures because it’s all over, and the issues are that of a relationship, housing, money and the best way to get out, but it may take years to go.

An evangelical one minute can become a ‘Clergy Project’ individual the next without a period of liberality.

The point is the clergy scheme person has lost none of the theological college training, none of the words, can do the job just as before, and for all intents and purposes appears to be the same. The vocation becomes doing a job for the money until something can be sorted out.

Another character is liberal and attracted to the history of theological change in Reform Judaism. In the past this would have been an old style liberal but theology today is very diverse. A diocesan bishop is somewhere between Radical Orthodoxy and non-realism in a rather dangerous place, although he thinks it is exciting, and a suffragan is, well, so far, corrupt and an organiser of his own amoral and communal world.

What I am getting at is that appearances don’t necessarily tell of where a person is. And the argument here (in this thread) seems to have an element of ‘what do we want to appear like’?

‘Appearing like’ is a kind of skill of presentation, a definition of institutional acceptability to which clever people can conform. Appearances deceive, and it takes a skilled user of these terms to detect what sort of conforming is going on.

Nobody, of course, has privileged history and so many yet to-be falsified truths do not support many of the assertions of traditional religion. All people dealing in religious assertions work against this difficulty, but some claim there is privileged and special writing, privileged reading, direct divine contact and other forms of gnosis. They are at least ‘genuine’ in their delusions (let’s say) as opposed to those who manage their delusions for positive ends or those who just appear with them and would get out.

When the question is asked ‘where are we and where are we going?’, is this a debate about appearances then and positioning? What is the point of this set against such theological and ecclesiastical diversity out there?

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

The story is set in a place roughly in the position of Mablethorpe (Serpensea) as a kind of backwater with its own sexual secrets and even sexual based economy, with references to its archaeological past as a kind of wet, marshy area for reconstructing valuable items in Roman times and today with little economic prospects at all beyond the way people 'entertain' themselves. In other words, the backdrop is gloomy and surface based. It's into this that there is the national Church with its corrupt tentacles because of the various people who occupy positions - the Diocese of Foss is regarded as dysfunctional. The first person heroine has as much dodgy about her as the suffragan that she and her friends debate about exposing to the press. It is a story so there's a plot and twists and turns, but it is also a piece of different theologies and clashes in amongst the murk and the memories that a core four people have. Involved and explored are these 'national Church' theologies, Reform Judaism (I had to add this inspired by a friend's conversion experience), Liberal Catholicism (as in the Old Catholic offshoot) and Unitarianism. The Internet is important, as is local television - of the kind that has just started where I live. But if you change a character, you have to follow through all the implications. So I have one in the 'Clergy Scheme' whose best outcome is to have a secular job and not to be reordained sub-conditione in independency. And as she thinks she is the private girlfriend of the suffragan, that evacuation of all belief has further implications on the baddy of the story.

Sunday 9 March 2014


With three weeks to go and the whole controversy of gay and lesbian Anglican clergy not marrying when they tin can is boiling five minutes over so much that there are few yellowy yolks that can be told that are at all funny. The Evangelical Group of the General Synod, EGGS, which has well poached its its rules of belonging from the Church of England Evangelical Council, wants the bishops to crack a shell down on those who would marry and extend the 'not allowed' discipline to lay cluck cluck ministers and have clear 'you are overdone' pastoral responses to lay cluck marriage partners. They obviously think many bishops could become a bit runny and yellow yolk when it comes to following their own instructions: John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, now thinks the message was somewhat scrambled with a spoon and hard overcooked (to hear this good egg pre-cook for 35 minutes). Of course there are other bishops, like EGGS' own at Winchester, who might be keen on seeing the runny whites in your eyes and might chucky their weight around. Presumably their clergy will be disciplined like toasted soldiers. Some clergy will nevertheless marry, and force the issue, while others will be chicken. The legislation has forced the Church of England to come off its perch and choose one way or the other; the question is whether the facilitated discussions have any purpose in laying cluck down a different law and dust-bath the previous regulation. Incompatible groups make up the Church and most of them are flapping their wings furiously now. The whole issue that once cooked slowly is now a bit of an egg burger for the institution.