Making of a (Christian) Mythicist, Act 5, Scene 2 (Staying Christian With a Symbolic Jesus)

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by Neil Godfrey

The times, they are changing
The times, they are changing (Photo credit: riacale)

Come writers and critics
who cauterize with your pen . . .
You’ve spoken too soon,
the wheel’s still in spin . . .

. . . Mythicism is compatible with Christian faith.

That is certainly the argument of Fr Thomas L. Brodie in chapter 20 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.

As Brodie was becoming increasingly aware of the extent of the debt the Gospels owed to the Old Testament narratives, his faith did not waver:

In September 1972, when I was first struck by the deep similarities between the Gospels and the Old Testament, I immediately had two responses: ‘This is strange stuff that may have radical implications’; and, ‘It’s OK’. Rightly or wrongly, my sense of God’s presence at the time reassured me that whatever was happening would be alright (sic). (p. 197)

It was within two years that Brodie finally saw the way 1 Corinthians had synthesized various sources in order to “[compose] the very figure of Christ and [lay] that figure down as a foundation for others” and it was only then that the foundations of his belief-system were fully impacted.

Still it seemed that, in some way I did not understand, things would be OK. God was still God, and eventually things would work out, they would become clear. However, while I kept trying, as usual, to be faithful to the practices of the Catholic faith, I often wondered what that faith really meant. (p. 198)

Coincidentally, a Westar Fellow of the Jesus Seminar I met a few years ago acknowledged the theoretical possibility of Brodie’s conclusion here when I asked him what it might mean for Christianity if it were learned that there had been no historical Jesus. His reply as I recall it, “Well I suppose if Judaism can get by without a literal Abraham . . .”

Some time in the 1980s as Brodie was continuing to ponder what he truly believed he concluded that he “was really sure of the Abraham story, not of its history, but of its meaning.” It turned out that this belief in the meaning (as opposed to the literal history) of a biblical narrative would point the way forward to a Christian faith without a literal, historical Jesus.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of...
Bishop John Shelby Spong, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brodie calls upon imagination and mysticism. I am reminded of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels. By the time I finish reading the main text I am wondering why Spong believes in Jesus at all. Then I read the epilogue only to find he speaks of being “overwhelmed” by his “God consciousness” and the “mystical presence” of God. He calls for a new way of looking at Christianity, a non-literal way of reading the Gospels. (Spong emphatically does believe there was a historical Jesus who was crucified, however.)

Albert Schweitzer, 1952
Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am also reminded of Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my bolding):

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

Schweitzer, of course, did believe there was such a historical figure and he argued against Christ-myth theorists of his day. That’s what makes the above passage all the more significant. He seems to be approving of a view of Christianity that transcends faith in literal interpretations and historical events. (Please Stephanie F., do not come back here with your undergrad essays on some tangential argument about another and quite unrelated aspect of Schweitzer’s faith.)

By “imagination and mysticism” Brodie means

the role of imaginative literature in communicating truth, and the role of spiritual experience, including mysticism, in understanding the Gospels and Christ” (p. 199)

If the the first fundamental revolution in orthodox Christianity’s thinking was ushered in by the heliocentric view of the solar system of Copernicus and Galileo — that is, with the Biblical understanding of Creation itself — Brodie raises the question of whether a corollary of that revolution in understanding might be a revaluation of the place of Jesus Christ in God’s relationship with humanity. In one sense it took over 450 years before a Pope admitted some measure of failure on the Church’s part in its dealings with Galileo. We can expect nothing easier when it comes to Jesus.

Thomas Brodie was pained for some decades over his inability to come out and make plain the conclusion that his studies were pointing towards. The reasons, he makes clear, were two-fold:

  1. the very idea that Jesus had not historically existed, and anyone seriously arguing it, would be rejected, outcast, condemned without a hearing;
  2. the idea that Jesus had not historically existed would simply not be believed or even entertained: doctrinal historicity was too deeply entrenched.

And there was a third factor that Brodie was at pains to convey:

3. The crude statement of non-existence seemed grossly inadequate. It may be true, but it is so far from the whole truth that it is a radical distortion. (p. 198)

“A radical distortion” in the eyes of a man of steadfast faith, indeed.

Intellectual honesty comes with a price — an aphorism I also learned painfully not long enough ago. (But had it come much later I may not have been writing this blog.) Brodie

Karl Rahner
Karl Rahner

To gather some hint of the direction of Brodie’s argument, think of the biblical image of Christ being the author of a “New Creation”. If it took 450 years for the Church to come to terms with the exploding of its doctrinal understanding of Creation, what can we expect to be the response to our discovery of the nature of the author of its New Creation?

Brodie sees further revolutions on the horizon. Just as the Church stepped out from Judaism into an embrace with Gentiles as understood by the world of the first century CE, so the next step is for the Church to extend itself to become a “world Church” as understood by the modern age. (Brodie addresses a 1979 speech by Karl Rahner.)

Timothy Radcliffe

The past is the signpost to the present. So Brodie points readers to Timothy Radcliffe and his grasp of the meaning of the nature of Jesus Christ according to the Council of Chalcedon:

[T]he Council of Chalcedon was not the end of our search to understand the mystery of Christ but another beginning, exploding all the tiny coherent little solutions in which we had tried to box him. (p. 201)

Brodie’s next words are:

No question, then — our understanding of Christ can indeed change. The only issue is how far?

I am an atheist and a strict naturalist and rationalist. Brodie would not at all like my pro-Dawkins view of the world, as I will explain in future posts. So it is only fair that I leave the last words of chapter 20 with Brodie himself:

Far enough to see Christ not as an individual human, but as a symbol of God among us, God within us? It is a challenging change. It is disturbing. But perhaps it is not greater or more disturbing than the re-imagining of Creation and the Church? And it calls once again for ‘a conversion of the imagination’ (see Hays 2005). It would seem that it is time — adapting Radcliffe’s image — it is time that Jesus Christ emerge from our tiny boxes. (p. 201)

I had expected my coverage of the last section of Brodie’s book would be limited to a single post. I have since decided to break it down by chapters in order to be fair to Brodie and try to let his views shine through and invite blog-readers to become his book-readers and so be in a better position to evaluate his views for themselves.



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17 thoughts on “Making of a (Christian) Mythicist, Act 5, Scene 2 (Staying Christian With a Symbolic Jesus)”

  1. Yeah, I don’t think James has any problem with any of these quotes below:

    he concluded that he “was really sure of the Abraham story, not of its history, but of its meaning.”

    He calls for a new way of looking at Christianity, a non-literal way of reading the Gospels.

    He seems to be approving of a view of Christianity that transcends faith in literal interpretations and historical events.

    It would seem that it is time — adapting Radcliffe’s image — it is time that Jesus Christ emerge from our tiny boxes.

    At the end of your article you said: “But Brodie also said, “No question, then — our understanding of Christ can indeed change. The only issue is how far?”

    And I think James would say not as far as Neil Godfrey.
    To James, I think there is still a mystical presence he does not know how to account for. If I remember reading him right at one time. Would you say that is fairly accurate?

  2. Unless McGrath has changed his views substantially in the past few years, he at least used to emphatically believe that there was a man named Jesus who founded the religion of Christianity by gathering disciples around him and sending them out to preach the Gospel. He believes that this man Jesus was crucified. To the point where he would slur anyone who objected that there wasn’t enough evidence to say any of that with certainty with the same brush he uses for creationists.

    That does not sound at all like what Neil has posted above about Brodie.

  3. I think the quotes I gave above still match McGrath. I get that there is animosity festering in all this, but still, I think the willingness to doubt much of the historicity and instead running to symbolic meaning is a large shared quality. Jumping all the way into mythicism just isn’t part of that shared tendency.

  4. Crossan, Borg, Spong, (presumably McGrath, too), many Christians, embrace a “sophisticated” spirituality as the central pillar of their faith: they appear to be embarrassed by literal interpretations of the scriptures. Nonetheless they all insist that that central pillar is grounded in the literal, historical death and “resurrection” (whatever that means) of Jesus. For all their emphasis on living the moment in the spirit of the heavenly Christ their faith is grounded in the belief in an historical event, in the theological-historical event of God acting in history through Jesus on the cross. They have not taken up the advice of Schweitzer to move beyond faith in an historical event. All their sublime spirituality crumbles into snarling disdain for anyone who seriously questions that historical event.

    1. It’s almost as if there is something theological holding them back. It seems to me to be a frequently-overlooked fact in these discussions–when discussing whether it matters whether a human Jesus existed, when discussing whether proponents of a human Jesus are or are not ideologically motivated (as mythicists and more conservative proponents are often described), and when discussing here whether Christian theology needs a human Jesus–that there is something theologically significant about the historical existence of the human Jesus. Once this is recognized, the answers swiftly come: yes, if you think Christian theology in its common varieties and whether it is true matters at all today; yes, of course there is an ideological motive that can be identified for espousing the historicity of Jesus; and, yes, resistance to abandoning the historical existence of a human Jesus is partly just inertia but partly also that certain theology would have to be reconsidered. I hope, soon, to write about this further.

      1. An unfinished series of mine was addressing aspects of a series of lectures by Nineham, collated in Use and Abuse of the Bible. What stood out for me in his reflections was the very nature of Christianity as a religion grounded in an historical event. It really is a religion “of/from this world” — as are Judaism and Islam. Without a certain historical event the faith is inconceivable for most practitioners.

        Let us know when you complete your writing on this.

  5. Not to be too nitpicky but though I largely agree with your analysis,
    I don’t think the “central pillar” of their faith is anything historical but an inner experience couch in the religion of their birth and environment — even if they say otherwise. Their faith is not doctrinal, not an empirical claim, it is an inner experience using all the theology as dressing to keep it warm and comfortable while offering a belonging to a community.

  6. All their sublime spirituality crumbles into snarling disdain for anyone who seriously questions that historical event.

    And as long as liberal / moderate Christianity holds on to the “historical Jesus”, it will continue to become increasingly brittle and eventually will collapse into a trillion pieces. conservative Christianity, too, for that matter… just not as soon. This religion in my opinion has a better chance of surviving if it confronts the fact that, according to the most rigorous analysis of the historical records, Jesus never existed.

    1. As much as I like to imagine a world where there is “no religion too”, the more I read in the sciences (including anthropology) the more I am convinced that some form of religion is always going to be part of the general human condition.

      Given that, I suppose I do quite fancy the idea of Christianity, Judaism and Islam eventually becoming as peaceful and tolerant and benign as, say, Buddhism in general appears to be. There are now scholarly grounds for disputing the historicity of the founders of all three of these. (As some Buddhists have said — we saw recently in other comments — who cares if Gautama existed or not?) I like to imagine that a less “earthly” religion is associated with less dogmatism all round.

      1. As I understand it, the central teaching of Christianity is that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, made it possible for humans to form a new relationship with God.
        If Jesus did not exist, then the death and resurrection did not happen, and so that possibility for a new relationship does not exist.

        What, then, is to be the teaching of “no historical Jesus” Christianity?

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