Beyond religion (2) What we most need

22 Apr

This week two things have come together in my thinking: I've presented the paper posted yesterday, and amongst other things had many responses, of differing degrees of support or opposition. One disturbing response was the comment that the paper lacked a focus on, or even mention of, the Gospel. That set me thinking! Then, I have finished reading Terry Eagleton's superb and stimulating book, Reason, Faith and Revolution.(Yale University Press, 2009)  Eagleton addresses the contemporary 'attack' on religion. What is so interesting is that he begins this work with an extended presentation of the gospel of Jesus. Together these things strengthen my conviction that in the future of our church and our society, what we most need is Jesus.But that's a very disturbing thought.

Next semester I will teach a course on 'Who is Jesus?' It seems to me really important to speak in the present tense. Not only because I believe Jesus is not dead, buried and gone forever—that is, he is risen from death and alive, for us today—but also because Jesus is a person of significance for us all, even if we don't believe that. What we make of Jesus is of life-determining significance.

I want to offer, with a few long slabs from his book, something of Eagleton's confronting and wonderful presentation of Jesus. This, I hasten to add, is necessarily incomplete. It's my selection and summary of what he says, to start with. He has another book on Jesus, and in this chapter he doesn't give the whole picture even of that account.  No-one can give 'the whole picture' anyway, and I know there will be some critics who want something else mentioned or some emphasis changed. 

Eagleton is himself a fascinating character: literary scholar and teacher, a Marxist Christian, discontented both with the expressions of Marxism and the expressions of Christianity. I would describe him as an Irish Catholic who has been deeply, joyfully liberated by Jesus. He is passionate about the possibility that beyond religion what we most need is the gospel of Jesus.

His presentation is laced with challenges to Western imperialistic culture-religion and begins with a blunt statement of how the God of the Bible is different from the gods imagined by that culture.

The non-God or anti-God of Scripture, who hates burnt offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness, is enemy of idols, fetishes, and graven images of all kinds—gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes, nations, sex, success, ideologies, and the like. You shall known him for who he is when you see the hungry filled with good things and the rich being sent away. Salvation, rather bathetically, turns out not to be a matter of cult, law, and ritual, of special observances and conformity to a moral code, of slaughtering animals for sacrifice or even of being splendidly virtuous. It is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, visiting the sick, and protecting the poor, orphaned and widowed from the violence of the rich. (p.19)

Then, in what is meant to confront us all, he continues:

There is nothing heroic about the New Testament at all. Jesus is a sick joke of a savior. Messiahs are not born in stables. They are high-born, heroic warriors who will lead the nation in battle against its enemies. They do not reject weapons of destruction, enter the national capital riding on donkeys, or get themselves strung up.  

Eagleton goes on to consider the much-quoted saying of Jesus, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's'. He observes that the hearers, or  'any devout Jew', would know that 'the things that are God's include working for justice, welcoming the immigrants, and humbling the high-and-mighty.' (pp.19-20).

Later, Eagleton offers a brief and racy summary of the gospel Jesus proclaims and what it asks of us—faith. But the surprise is in what that means. On the one hand it means giving up everything, and on the other hand it requires nothing at all, simply accepting that we are loved by God. In one sense, receiving the gospel of Jesus costs nothing, but to receive it truly will cost everything.

        (In the vision Jesus offers …) The whole cumbersome paraphernalia of religion is to be replaced by another kind of temple, that of the murdered, transfigured body of Jesus. To the outrage of the Zealouts, Pharisees, and right-wing rednecks of all ages, this body is dedicated in particular to all those losers, deadbeats, riffraff, and colonial collaborators who are not righteous but flamboyantly unrighteous—who either live in chronic transgression of the Mosaic law or, like the Gentiles, fall outside its sway altogether.

These men and women are not being asked to bargain their way into God's favour by sacrificing beasts, fussing about their diet, or being impeccably well-behaved. Instead, the good news is that God loves them anyway, in all their moral squalor. Jesus' message is that God is on their side despite their viciousness—that the source of inexhaustibly self-delighting life he calls Father is neither judge, patriarch, accuser, nor superego, but lover, friend, fellow-accused, and counsel for the defense. (p.20)

But the other side of this good news is what it calls from us: faith means offering ourselves as 'living sacrifice', to use a phrase from Paul in Romans 12.

The transfigured existence that Jesus proclaims involves the passage of the reviled, polluted thing from weakness to power, death to life, agony to glory, for which the ancient name is not so much tragedy as sacrifice. In this way, the stumbling block can become the cornerstone, as new order is constructed out of scraps and leavings of the old. Only by a readiness to abandon our dished-up world can we live in the hope of a more authentic existence in the future. This doctrine is known not as pessimism but as realism. Because we cannot know for sure that such an existence is possible, in the sense that we can know the speed of light or the price of onions, this self-dispossession requires faith.   

The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don't end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do. The dark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains. (p.27)

Let me hasten to add, here, that Eagleton does not think Jesus ended up dead, end of story. He has a clear and strong assertion of Jesus' resurrection, and rejects the position of those who believe his bones lie somewhere in a mass grave in Palestine.

I can well imagine that Eagleton's presentation of Jesus will elicit a vehement reaction, as did Jesus himself. This is to be expected. What interests me is the way such reactions are often focussed upon doctrine about Jesus, usually claiming to present 'the Gospel'. Very frequently such doctrine is derived from a reading of the epistles of Paul. And of course we need in fact to be careful about our representations of Jesus, that they are indeed true to Scripture, as a whole, and not just our own favourite passages, enabling us to fabricate a Jesus of our own liking or desires.

But there is a real danger that doctrine about Jesus becomes a kind of ideology through which we accuse, oppose and condemn others. This is exactly what the religious of his time did to Jesus. There is only one way to avoid this, and that is to ensure that the person of Jesus, as opposed to our (even good biblical) doctrine about Jesus, is front and centre. We need to read Paul-about-Jesus through the person of Jesus, and not the other way round: Jesus through Paul.

Jesus and his confronting gospel to and for us today is what we need. It probably isn't what we want. We would prefer some good, sound doctrine. But it is only Jesus and his gospel who can bring us to salvation.

One thought on “Beyond religion (2) What we most need

  1. Eagleton is surely wrong in suggesting that “Salvation” is “a question of feeding the hungry”. This may be the fruit of salvation but it is not salvation.
    I do not share your concern to be “very careful” in deriving our doctrines of Jesus “from a reading of the epistles of Paul”. It would seem to me that I am less likely to come up with a Jesus of my own fabrication by consulting Paul than I am by consulting a Marxist Christian.
    Furthermore, is it surely a mistake to imply that those who “prefer some good sound doctrine” derived from Paul’s epistles are equivalent to the religious of Jesus time. The teachings of Paul’s epistles are not equivalent to the teachings of the pharisees.

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