(The Gospels as Revelation)
In light of the present day preoccupation with the Image of Jesus as Savior, Redeemer, and God incarnate; what is the responsible theologian or clergyman to make of the Gospel accounts in the Bible? How should these accounts be utilized? And in what manner should they be presented to the faithful if religion is to be responsible and constructive in the reality of today's world?
Before we can answer these questions we need to point out, that many of the existing religious beliefs, and the authority by which those beliefs are presented, is achieved by what one might consider a deceit of the followers by a misrepresentation. By this we mean, the gospels are often-portrayed to the faithful by religious leaders (by omission of facts) as being written by four men who had associated with and knew Jesus on a personal level, recording this association at a time very shortly after his death. Yet, we know, and have known for some time, the gospels that we are so familiar with in the Bible were written later in Christian literature. In fact, the writings of Paul, a man who never knew Jesus on a personal level, predate the gospels we are so familiar with. We also know that the four gospels were not written by the men who are assigned authorship of those works. These implications are misleading because people believe that the gospels are in fact eye witness accounts of the life of Christ and that they are accurate histories written as witnessed by these eye witness accounts. What is implied to the faithful is an apostolic account of the life of Jesus by those who knew him at a personal level - which is simply not the truth.
Any reasonable person knows, that the accounts of a persons life are going to be significantly different when written by strangers than by people who knew them. It also makes a vast difference if the story was written within reasonable time frames, where people who knew of the person could attest or deny many of the claims. The gospels, as we know them today, were written anywhere from 40 to 70 years after Jesus' death. Yet, many Christian churches lay claim to the apostolic authority of these works, the historical accuracy, and cite the infallibility of these books in proclaiming Jesus to be God Incarnate. Such becomes a psychological deceit.
Even when religions do act somewhat responsible, teaching the truth about the origins of scripture, it is usually only at an intellectual and in depth level. But even at this level, justification of the authority of the work is proclaimed in that Divine intervention gives the gospels the same authority as if they were written by the hands of the men who have been assigned there authorship. And so from the pulpits of these churches, the clergymen read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as if they were physically written by the hands those men.
And what becomes an even more problematic psychological deception is the way these books are taught to children, so that by the time a child comes to understand any scholarly approach to these works, he or she can only become confused in the foundations of their faiths. More often than not, Christian education so conditions children to the implied concepts of this deception that they do not even think about looking at the origins of these stories. The Bible in general, and the gospels in particular, are portrayed as the infallible Word of God that is above reproach, the absolute and unquestioning truth which is completely free of any error. Religious concepts are fed to the children in Sunday School in such a manner that they fear to do any questioning for such becomes an attack upon the integrity of God and a sign of weakness of their personal faith. Religious leaders are using such tactics in the interpretation of the inspiration from these books to club the faithful into submission by asserting their own Divine authority based upon an apostolic authenticity which in reality does not exist.
In reality, because of what one could construed as an unethical religious practice of omission, masses of the faithful remain faithful because they believe that the gospels are an accurate and precise account of Jesus' life, his exact words, and that the teachings in these books are from the mouth of Jesus himself; despite the fact, that there are major discrepancies among these stories. The work of archeologists, Biblical Scholars and historians are often overlooked, or rationalized with preposterous rhetoric, so the proclamations made in the name of these books can be declared infallible and historically accurate.
Such ideals often psychologically deter questions like: How could the author of John know what was said between Pilate and Jesus when his account was written after the turn of the first century? How could any disciple know of that conversation, when the gospels themselves say they all fled the scene? How can we assert that Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies when such things could have been researched by the authors to make Jesus fit the bill? Why are there no objective accounts about the man who split time? The truth and reality is, we have no independent proof or historical independent evidence that Jesus even existed. To use the accounts of these books as eye witness testimony and concrete evidence of infallible truth is not only irresponsible of religion, it is misleading, deceitful, and completely self-serving! The psychological conditioning keeps people from asking questions that might pose a problem for those declaring the Word of God, but they offer no threat to God. In fact, to ask such questions might help us make a more productive use of these inspirations in our daily lives.
Burton Mack, professor of the New Testament at the school of Theology at Claremont, and author of the book "WHO WROTE THE NEW TESTAMENT" explains nicely in his prologue the concept we are working with here:
... the New Testament is commonly viewed
and treated as a charter document that came into being much like the
Constitution of the
Yet, as is stated, this is an ideal that is simply not true, as he goes on to explain:
Unfortunately for this view, that is not the way it happened. Scholars locate the various writings of the New Testament at different times and places over a period of one hundred and fifty years, from the letters of Paul in the 50's of the first century, through the writings of the Gospel of Mark and Matthew in the 70's and 80's, the gospel of John and Luke around the turn of the second century; and on to the Acts, letters, and other writings during the first half of the second century, some as late as 140 to 150 CE. This fact alone INTRODUCES ANOTHER HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY'S BEGINNING THAT IS NOT ACKNOWLEDGED BY OR REFLECTED IN THE WRITINGS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT.
(p5, Harper San Francisco, c1995)
At this point the reader may ask what is the harm in such sins of omission?
0Well; in the first place, psychologically, a faith that is built on a false set of information, or dependent upon an inaccurately placed confidence, is a weak faith subject to fall when tested with reality - or worse yet, create delusional and ridiculous logic to promote a false rationalization of one's beliefs.
The second problem has to do with the doctrines proclaimed in the name of these gospels. If the historical events such as the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, did not actually happen; then, the redemptive interpretations of the Gospels are questionable to say the least. And by extension, if the redemptive doctrines are to be correct, the story of Adam and Eve must be factual. If doctrines are wrong and faith misplaced, these things can actually stand as an obstacle to our human potential, and even be psychologically damaging. For example, historically, religion has been responsible for holding science back for years by both persecuting and deterring the questioning minds that are so necessary for the advancement of a society. Even today, there are religions which will strive to discredit science in order to hold onto their literal interpretations of scripture. On the other side of the coin though, a faith that is lived and exercised, that is harmonious with the realities we understand, can inspire us to ask questions, which in turn, can move us as individuals to sore to new heights. Too often, our religious beliefs are more focused on supernatural implications, causing us to loose sight of the practical and beneficial messages these beliefs could have in our society.
It is clear from most independent scholars
today that the death of Jesus was not relevant to the very earliest of Jesus'
followers, at least not in any similar way to the orthodox interpretations of
today. In fact, the reconstructed Gospel of Q and its first layer of writings,
which pre-date any of the later gospels, were only the ethical teachings of
Jesus. The earliest versions of gospels did not even include the prophetic
Jesus which developed over time. (See
What stands out so clearly from so many of these observations is that the historical Jesus, as near as we could tell, was much more concerned with our ethical behavior, our treatment of one another, and our actions in life - these were his keys for our relationship with God.
If one looks to the gospels themselves, isolated in their content, whether we want to see them as literal truth or mythology, the same ethical message is demonstrated with no emphasis given to the worship of Jesus or the redemptive foundations of so many of the Christian faiths. In fact, when Jesus talked about the final judgement (Matt 25:31-46) there is no mention of faith, worship, prayer, or redemptive salvation. He clearly states God judges us on our interactions with one another, a theme that is consistently and repeatedly stated throughout the New Testament. How can theology be responsible, when in its efforts to promote salvation, they ignore the very words from the man that they proclaim is of the Son of God? It is clear that in these verses in Matthew that Jesus is summing up the whole basis of any ideal of judgement. Doesn't it seem that we have lost the priority of that particular concept in so many of our faiths today?
If Christian theology is to be responsible and truthful, it must return to the religiously humanistic teachings of the gospels that appeared to be the priority of Jesus. The complexities of our doctrines and the rhetoric of our words of faith are often burying the true message and spirit of the gospel of Jesus.
These four gospels have been preached to the four corners of the world. Jesus is declared Divine, but the present state of affairs in so many of our religious structures should have any serious believer asking questions about the direction and priorities of their faiths. It seems that so often the messages interpreted by so many claimed representatives of the gospels are in direct opposition to Jesus' actual gospel messages. Many churches, for example, pronounce God's judgement and wrath; Jesus proclaimed we should not pronounce judgement (Matt 7:1-5 \ Luke 6:37-38 \ John 8:15). Some churches say our salvation rests in the redemption and our faith in it; but the gospels tell us it rests in our treatment of one another (Matt 25:31-46 \ Matt 22: 34-40 \ Mark 12:28-34 \ Luke 10:25-37 \ John 13:35). Too many Christian religions have us praying in elaborate churches and worshipping in public testimony in those churches, when the gospels encourage us to pray in a secret place and not to make a show of our faith (Matt 6:1-18). Many theologies instruct us to worship and adore Jesus, but the Jesus of the gospels proclaimed: "I do not look to men for honor" (John ). So many faiths proclaim Jesus the messiah, but the gospels tell us to "pick up our cross" (Matt and \ Mark \ Luke ).
Such a list and such reasoning could go on for pages here. We listen to so many instructors of our faiths who often teach us that unbelievers, prostitutes, homosexuals, and even humanist are going to be denied entry into God's kingdom. But the Gospels single out the rich (Matt -24 \ Mark -25 \ Luke ) - the hypocritical priest (Matt -15), and those without compassion (Matt 25:42-46): as the one's who are in the greatest danger of losing their soul. The gospels never mention many of the things that the churches so often proclaim from their pulpits. In fact, if we read the gospels of, and by, themselves; we could do nothing else but conclude that many of the Christian teachings, dogmas, and priorities are actually in opposition to the very teachings of Jesus! The same injunctions that Jesus makes against the high priest in Matthew 23:1-36, could be made against much of the religious community of today. Theology is lacking in its responsibility when it cannot acknowledge this.
These kinds of theological contradictions are clear. Christian theologies, which claim to be based upon, Jesus, the God who became incarnate, are forced to use Paul, or Augustine, or apostolic interpretations more often than Jesus to support their conclusions. The fact is, the gospels cannot clearly be cited to conclude: that Jesus is a Divine Incarnation, that Jesus' death atoned for our sins, that faith is more important than action, or many of our moral conclusions, and a whole hosts of supernatural declarations and ritualistic rites which are proclaimed to be of Divine origin.
If the inspiration of God is to serve God and truly better society, it cannot ignore or mislead the faithful by giving false impressions. Inspiration must be able to align itself with truth and reality. If we see Jesus as special (as we can), or as the Christ (which also can be applied, albeit in a different way than now accepted) we cannot brush off the importance of his message. We cannot make the message secondary to our interpretations, or glorify his death while ignoring the example of his life! It is a lie to cite the gospel as a basis for our faith, and then ignore the principles of love, compassion, and tolerance which its message so clearly reveals.
This road we walk here does not mean that the gospels cannot be seen as inspiration by the responsible theologian or clergyman. But it does force us to take a look at the way we interpret those inspirations. It also requires approaching these sacred books in light of the knowledge of how God chose to bring these inspirations to life. And, it forces us to examine the consequences of our teachings in terms of the psychological impact they have on individuals - and the effect of those same individuals in the community as a whole. Any reading of the gospels will clearly demonstrate that we cannot address the needs of our brothers' soul while neglecting the physical and psychological necessities of that individual.
In earlier sections about revelation we stated that revelation needs to give meaning to the reality of our everyday lives. Rising God's, redemption theologies, and second comings that are literal rather than symbolic, do not give substantial meaning to the reality we experience every day. We can't apply them to the workplace, nor do they do much in our world of business. They are fine to comfort the grieving and ward off our fear of the unknown, but they offer us fairy tale solutions to the awful problems that are ever present in the reality of this world. A magical approach to these things allows us to project our failures and short-comings into the hands of Jesus. They feed our indifference by making our efforts less important than our words. And by implication, they place the onus of changing the human heart in the hands of God; rather than, encouraging us to be responsible before Her. When the message is lost to the word, the inspiration becomes dead!
If we are to think about it, can we believe
that a God of love ordered our salvation from sin in a blood bath that involved
the crucifixion of His Son? In this ideal, what we are saying is that God
ordained that we slaughter Jesus in order to atone for a minor sin of
disobedience? What Image of God is implied here? And this logic begs the
question: how come we did not return to
Present theologies have us preaching and spreading a "Word" all over the globe, a gospel which proclaims our salvation in faith in the blood of a Savior. And, as this global scope of Christianity reaches around the world - hatred, greed, bigotry, the exploitation of third world peoples, war, crime, pollution, rape, murder, persecution, indifference, lack of compassion, and economic injustices run rampant around the globe - all while masses of people are asserting their belief and singing praises of God and salvation through redemption! People starve, while the faithful build grand houses of worship to a man that proclaimed feeding people should be our first priority. We offer fame, glory, and luxury to men who proclaim a gospel of a man who said that those who represent him should be humble, the least among men - give more than they receive - and offer love and compassion over law and judgement.
Yet these gospels, which are full of the most wonderful and profound inspiration, do not have to bring about these results. The words can be used to help us see the presence of God among us, and Her concern for humanity. The wisdom, the psychology, the advice on how we should live, and the example given by a Divine representation (actual, or not) are of the most profound of inspirations that can grace our human eyes. Even in our modern world, if the principles of Jesus were applied to the everyday realities by large segments of the population, our world would be glorious. Imagine a world, where people put other people first, where compassion was the rule rather than the exception, where trust and truth took true precedence, where love takes the priority over money, where hypocrisy and deceit are seen as true evils, where we are ever vigilant about our own actions instead of always seeing others faults!
Yes, we can assume that Christianity is
correct in its recognition that Jesus is the messiah or savior. The problem is
not really one of whether or not Jesus was a savior; but it is in the
interpretation of just how he saves us. Is that salvation in a profession of
words of faith? Is it in the crucifixion on
We have divided Christianity by arguing over the theological assumptions of these great works, and in doing so we have lost much of the greater message contained therein. God/men seated upon thrones are a product of Greek mythology and do offer inspirational concepts. But love of our neighbor is the primary message of the Gospel! Too many faiths are promoting God's wrath and judgement, while the "Word" from which they claim authority preached forgiveness and mercy even at the hands of his own executioners.
The first question a responsible theologian must ask him, or herself, is: how can the world proclaim the gospel and Jesus as the Son of the Living God and seemingly ignore so much of the message that is claimed to be of him? Jesus says it so nicely himself:
Why do you keep calling me 'Lord, Lord" , and never do what I tell you?
Religion needs to rethink many of their positions and work to present the gospels as an inspirational guide to help us in our ethical thinking so that the meaning of the "Word" becomes more important than the knowing of the words. Religion needs to emphasize the message of Jesus of the gospels more than self serving doctrinal creeds. It needs to bring the concept of Christ (as messiah) into the human heart, so that the risen Christ of the gospels can live in the reality of human actions in the everyday lives of people. Churches need to use the gospels to act as guideposts which direct their own efforts in society; as opposed to, using them to sell salvation to the faithful. THEOLOGY SHOULD BE USING THESE WORKS TO HELP PEOPLE EXPRESS THEIR LOVE OF GOD, RATHER THAN, LOOKING TO GOD FOR WHAT HE HAS TO OFFER PEOPLE. After all, God has already given us life, what right have we to expect more?
We will go into a more in depth analysis of the gospels, and more practical applications, when we deal with Jesus later in this text. For now we are going to deal with the way to approach the gospels as the key to a responsible theology.
As already stated, the gospels need to be approached with acknowledgment of their origins. In doing so, we cannot see them as accurate historical accounts, or as Divine literal events. We need to see that Jesus was of such character that God built his inspiration around the life of the individual. The historical, or literal, content of the gospels (as with any inspiration) bears little or no importance in understanding their relevance and timeless messages. When we look at the gospels as 'inspiration' rather than the literal story of God as man, they can take on a symbolic ideal; thus, the apostolic authority, historical accuracy, and profound theological arguments over the nature of Jesus cease to be a dividing factor. What then becomes the focus is what Jesus had to say, and the example he gave to live according to that advice, which is the only responsible approach to this inspiration.
If we view the gospels for the messages and ethics contained therein, instead of combing them to find support for supernatural and magical doctrines, they suddenly take on a new dimension: offering us sound psychological advice for today's world, encouraging us to be more loving and compassionate, and clearly revealing our personal responsibility for the needs of others according to our means.
If we take just one story here, the first Christmas story, we can briefly illustrate our point. We can argue about the angels and their reality, the Divinity of Jesus. We can focus our attention on whether or not King Herod existed, or how the seed of God got into Mary, or how a woman could have a baby without a man - or, we can transcend all that and see the beauty of the story for what it is. We can apply its message in the world today.
We can choose to see that this tale is about love, brotherhood and the meaning of life. That from the moment we come into this world we are in danger and that God is aware of it, expressing his concern in the form of guidance (symbolized in Joseph's warning in the dream). This opening story tells us that God helps to protect us, but it also shows WE MUST LISTEN and act upon the advice. It reveals to us that the upcoming story of the gospel is about God's major concern for humanity, which is, brotherhood and peace for all mankind.
The nativity also serves to raise the dignity of womanhood, showing us there is no hope for mankind except through the love and devotion that a mother expresses for her child, accepting that child, not really knowing what it will become. Through Mary, we are reminded that the "Word" of God can very much come from the love of a woman.
Its a tale about giving and looking out for our lesser friends, even when we are well off (the three kings), for God chose to represent Herself in the poor child lying among animals in a manger. It tells us that the highest glory to God that mankind can give is peace and love in our ranks. It's about the innocence, beauty and wonders of birth and God's Image in that simplistic symbol.
These are the things that make Christmas such an appealing time of the year, reaching a point where very often, even those who do not believe can feel the true magic of what it stands for. The theologian should see, if they are to be responsible, that God's Image in the new born babe is a metaphor for how simple our relationship with God can, and should, be. Our hearts need to open to God just as they do to that child, and in that manner we can be reborn in Him, expressing such rebirth in our treatment of one another.
When the simplistic and understandable messages of the gospels are the emphasis, we remove the fuel for religious bigotry, division, and mistrust that has plagued and divided Christianity since its birth. Few loving individuals could argue about the ideals expressed in the gospels; whereas, there can be many arguments over the nature and intent of any literal interpretation.
Every story in the gospels has a moral point that could help us evaluate our own actions. Individuals need to be encouraged to look for those morals instead of being made dependent upon theological interpretations that often serve the interest of the Church over the interest of Almighty God.
When one examines the gospels for their symbolic meanings, it becomes easy to see how they can serve as a simplified manual that conveys the ideals of so many of the universal myths. Christ is truly the light of the world, but we must look at the lamp in its pure form rather than viewing it through the coverings of doctrines that have been placed over it. We can proclaim any word of faith, worship and sing our songs of praise, and it does little to make the world a better place. But if we lived our lives in emulation of the man called Jesus, according to our personal state and means to do so, we would soon see a vastly different world.
If any message stands out in the gospels, it is that any final judgement rests in our treatment of one another in the living of this life. We are told that we will be judged according to the way we judge others. We are told that what we do to each other is what we do to God. And, it is proclaimed we will reap what we sow. If we are interested in eternal life at all, the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels tell us that we need not worry so long as our human relationships are honorable, loving, and compassionate. What we do to one another is what we do to God, and what we do to each other is what God will render upon us is the essential key to the salvation Jesus came to deliver. What we believe about Jesus is only relevant in how it helps us achieve that goal.
The gospels of Jesus Christ can be summed up in his one glorious command; that is, TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS HE LOVED US. It is a simple command that the average human can understand much more than a complicated and gruesome blood sacrifice which is rooted in a complex theology that even the most brilliant of theologians cannot agree upon. The message of God as delivered in the inspiration given in the gospel of Jesus is not complicated and was never meant to be. Jesus' kingdom of God is not a complex church, it is the kingdom of responsible love which the pages of the gospels proclaim so loudly. This needs to be the central focus of a responsible religion which can enhance our world in the 21st Century. A responsible theology will keep its focus in the simplicity of the infant Jesus, for that is the true basis for a human relationship with the Divine.
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