But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Not Thinking Differently about Jesus

In one of the stories I cherish, Bertrand Russell recounts how, upon learning that J.S. Mill’s dictum Think differently ! had come to him in a dream, he realized that he too had a profound, recurring thought obtruding on him during his sleep. Except, when he woke up in the morning, he could not remember what it was. He resolved then to wake up the moment the idea struck again, and to that end he placed a notepad with a pencil on his night table. A few days later, he indeed found a scribbled note on the top sheet of paper when he woke up. It said: Petroleum pervades throughout.

The humorous anecdote illustrates a number of important points. First, it shows the difficulty with wanting something that cannot be had by just wanting it. Second, it tells us that we just don’t know what else lurks inside our skulls beyond the entity which we are asked refer to in the first person singular past the age of three, and vouch for legally after puberty. Third, and this is my own reading of the tricky Russell’s brainwave that spawned the anecdote, is that it hints at the impossibility of thinking differently. Maybe my wont here has to do with my high school teacher who had a way to make any punk in his charge look instantly stupid. Whenever we prefaced some idea by “I think” and he did not like what he heard, he retorted you think you think but in fact you do neither. He repeated this spiel often enough for us to get his point that there is difference between thinking and posturing.

So, to make my own point here, people often do not think when they want to seem like they do, and if someone claims the ability to think differently, the results will be likely disappointing. I will forego therefore the customary assurances that my Jesus inquiry is from an angle that has not been offered before. It would be silly, even if it were true.

Evidently, the idea that there is a mental health side to the New Testament creativity is not only not new at all but has been acknowledged by the gospels and epistles themselves, directly and indirectly. In the gospel of Mark, it is not just hostile opponents and a bemused Roman governor, but those closest to Jesus who see his new mantle of a prophet a sign of his being out of his mind. The view that Jesus was possessed by a destructive demon is acknowledged by all gospels, and Matthew (10:25) makes explicit the charge that those who follow Jesus are as much devil-possessed as their master. Only a handful of the epistles are credited by modern scholars to those in whose name they are written, and as these forgeries do not appear motivated by simple gain but extra large would-be moral concerns for humanity in the name of a loving deity, they do give rise to questions about the head space of their authors. And these are not trivial concerns. The pseudo-Pauline writer of 2 Thessalonians, goes as far as warning the recipients of his dispatch (2:2) against false writing purporting to be from us. This sort of “deep impersonation” with its implied knowledge of fraud is troubling. In 2 Peter, an epistle usually placed several generations after the gospel events, the author, who most assuredly is not Peter, forswears (1:16) he is not presenting the readers with cleverly devised fables when he gives his testimony of the majesty of the Lord’s transfiguration he personally witnessed on the mountain. The same problem of “knowing one’s lie” lurks here, and with yet another added twist. This pseudo-Peter goes as far as claiming that no prophecy of Scripture (of which he considers his testimony to be an example !) is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (1:20-21).

The difficulty with the religious or ideological mindset (as this of course is not a problem unique to the Christian objects of faith) is compounded by the conviction of the believers that no valid external view of it (them) exists, or even, can exist. Paul tells his followers that the spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no-one (1 Cr 2:15). This peculiar view had a way of propagating itself in later gospel writing. Mark’s Jesus while acknowledging that he (or the community he stands for - note that it is the followers of Jesus - not him - who get so worked up by Jesus they can’t eat, in 3:20) is looked upon as (an) ecstatic lunatic(s), and the Holy Spirit, but effects of frank mania, immediately proscribes such a view as absolutely unforgivable taboo worse than blaspheming God himself and one that requires eternal damnation ! (Mk 3:28-31) Mark’s Petrine editor and censor, we know as Matthew, considered it prudent to excise the concerns of Jesus’ family, while of course keeping the eschatological fatwa against badmouthing the spirit. Evidently, Matthew did not think the reader of his corrected gospel had the intellectual need to understand the origins of that particular idea.

It should come as no surprise then that if faith depends on the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, that even modern theology will find a way to deny that the NT texts can be penetrated and understood by independent, disinterested analysis. Here is a sample of a view that I have encountered personally in a number of forms and shapes. It comes from Hans Conzelmann who lamented in his Outline of the Theology of the NT back in 1968:

Attempts have been continually made to derive Paul’s theology from his experience. He himself declares that his gospel has been revealed to him. But in what sense is that to be understood ? We can get an answer only when we put the question in terms of the history of religions, not in psychological terms. For ‘inner experience’ explains nothing, it is an ‘x’ which itself needs to be explained. Attempted reconstructions of the experience are useless, as the sources are simply not there. Just as Paul has visions without making personal use of them (2 Cor 12), so he never speaks of the inner event of his conversion, but only of its theological content: his commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.

On one level I can of course sympathize with the objection of the theologian . Theology and psychology are rivals. The theologian instinctively disdains attempts to explain away the mystery that is life and its purposes, the ambition of some grand theorists of human psyche. He or she senses that people who think (they think when they write) that way, either do not think very deeply about what they say or do not really know how to align feelings to ideas. Further, and therein I believe lies the crux of the matter, whatever one can say about the creativity and activism of Paul, Mark, the people around them, and the copycats they inspired later: they were challenged and responded with what they had, and whatever one’s opinion of the cultural selectors that favoured their cosmology, and social psychology over their competitors, here we are with them in our cultural baggage. One wise pastor said to me when we discussed my project, in the early days : I trust that you mean well. The thing that worries me is not much a world without God, but a world with an ersatz God. I told him that I was a theist at least in one respect: I take God as a warrant against knowing too much.

On the other hand, I hope the problems with a theological attitude that Conzelmann’s view illustrates, are immediately visible, and hopefully not only to non-faith. Does Paul’s experience really explain nothing ? Are the reconstructions of it really useless ? Do the secular (,or religiously not-committed,) view of Paul, or classing Paul’s visitations with known mental phenomena observed medically and psychologically, automatically derogate to Christianity ? I don’t think so. For one, I know that Conzelmann’s theological mentor, Rudolph Bultmann, openly discussed the delusional nature of some of the beliefs of Jesus if there were held by a real human. So, it would appear Conzelmann knew there are issues with the historical identity of Jesus, and to push theology out of harm’s way, he declared himself for the view that we can know nothing about Jesus, historically speaking. He could not say the same with Paul, since he had Paul in his face, historically speaking, so he declared himself for the view that we cannot know anything about Paul, psychologically speaking. The sources are simply not there. This sort of approach greatly distressed Paul Tillich who warned its cumulative effect would be empty theism. As theology locks itself inside its own hermetically sealed little world, it loses touch and relevance. The attitude reminds one so much of the wife of the bishop of Oxford, who on learning of the Darwin’s theory of our biological descent exclaimed: Let us pray it is not true, or if it is, that it does not become generally known.

But the reality is that we have Paul’s letters and they reveal quite a bit about Paul, not the theologian, not the saint, but the courageous human suffering periodically from a debilitating disorder who through creative genius that dissociated a part of his person into a mythical personna, laid the groundwork for the world’s most successful religion. There are direct and oblique references in Paul’s letters to his health and with the cognitive patterns in his theology which – read together – may create a psychological profile which is reasonably close to what we may know of him, a profile which optimally would be candid but respectful and compassionate, and therefore perhaps theologically useful, to some. As for the rest of the New Testament, the texts, contrary to conservative belief, present an interesting window on the social psychological makeup of the early Christians and may yet shed unexpected insights on the first communities and the development of their beliefs.

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