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)
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.
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.)
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:
- the very idea that Jesus had not historically existed, and anyone seriously arguing it, would be rejected, outcast, condemned without a hearing;
- 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
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.)
[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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