In my last blog I argued that chapter 1 of any theology book should begin with the sentence, “All gods and goddesses are invented by human beings.” This is not an atheist principle but an insistence on the irreducible contribution of the human imagination to all faith in god.
One or two readers have kindly questioned how on earth a Christian believer ( as I am) can agree with this principle, as the heart of Christian faith is Jesus of Nazareth, a historical person. Surely if one of the divine persons was also a flesh and blood human being, he, at least, cannot be imaginary. My immediate answer is that I have never said that God is imaginary, that is, wholly a creation of the imagination, but rather that his/her reality cannot be thought without the exercise of the imagination. Opponents of my argument may then want to ask whether we need much imagination when dealing with a historical figure. Do we imagine Julius Caesar or Napoleon? And if we do doesn’t that invalidate our image of them? Alexander the Great is one thing, and Mary Renault’s story of him another, no? I could spend some time arguing that there is no Alexander outside of someone’s imagination, but I will rather take up the question about Jesus.
1. We only have access to Jesus of Nazareth through the imaginative narratives of the gospels, and references to him in other New Testament writings. Well, there are some in Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus, but they are little more than confirmation that Jesus lived and was crucified. The conventional English titles of the gospels in English, “according to Matthew, Mark, Like and John” should alert us to the nature of these writings: they are versions of Jesus as the bearer and exemplar of a joyful message for human beings, as recreated in the imaginative writing of an author. For example the Markan Jesus does everything “immediately” because Mark imagines his ministry as very urgent. Matthew sets Jesus’ sermon on a mountain because he imagines Jesus as Moses, Luke sets it on a plain because imagines Jesus as a prophet on a level with people. Although, on the whole, the timeline of Jesus’ story is similar in these writings, incidents and the specifics of incidents vary considerably, even in respect of key incidents such as the birth, deaths and resurrection of Jesus. When these narratives are tested for facticity by strict historical criteria, only a minority pass.
Some of these contradictions may be attributed to the distance of the authors in space and time from the original events, but many are more likely the result of the re- imagining of Jesus by different believing communities with different priorities of faith and practice, together with the very different narrative methods of the gospel authors. The story of Jesus is essentially an imaginative construct based on the communal memory of a person. Above all, it is witness to an act of God. This squares with what we can see in the genuine letters of Paul, which are much earlier than the gospels: Jesus Messiah is presented almost exclusively in his death and resurrection as evidence of God’s favour to Jewish and non-Jewish peoples. It would be an exaggeration to say that Paul was not interested in the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, but not much of an exaggeration. It may be that the later writing of gospels was promoted by elements of the Christian assemblies who saw the danger of a gospel unanchored in the original humanity of Jesus.
Are the stories imagined by the gospel authors sufficient to arouse faith? Of course they are! They are witness to an extraordinary grasp of what is important for human flourishing, of the disciplines and graces which produce human goodness. They have an earthy wisdom which nevertheless would be folly if the God of which they speak does not exist. They outstrip the complex reasonings of classic and modern philosophers. They stand in the Jewish tradition of which they provide a radical re-interpretation, inviting all readers to share Jesus’ love of God and his neighbour, and God’s love of Jesus and all creatures.
2. My decision whether or not to accept this invitation engages my imagination necessarily: I must imagine Jesus as my teacher, brother and God, otherwise I will find it impossible to follow his way. In this imagining I have the help of the Gospels and other scripture, together with 2000 years of Christian tradition, including hymns, prayers, frescoes, sculpture, paintings, music, books, along with the creeds and confessions of the churches. Sometimes I have memorised a hymn before I understood it, only to find, much later, that it fills my imagination, supporting my faith in a dark time. The best spiritual guidance has always been directed at the imagination of the believer.
3. The story of Jesus demands a comprehensive re-imagining of God. Much of the worst theology has failed to do this, simply bolting Jesus on to a simplified version of the Jewish God. The wrathful God who demands the sacrifice of his only son as the price of offering forgiveness to human beings, is an example. If God is imagined as persuasive rather than executive, as asking cooperation rather than commanding obedience, much that has been taken for granted in the character of God has to be ditched, and much that seems improbable has to be imagined. Take for example, the notion of God’s judgement. If God is not a pathological monster, loving a person one moment then burning them to a crisp for disobedience the next, then a serious attempt to contemplate a loving God has to be made, in spite of centuries of refusal by the Christian church to do so. In fact love is more terrible than wrath, as it will not compel a person to turn from evil, but will respect that person’s decision even as it results in suffering now and after death from the evil they have created. Somewhere I read the terrible sentence: “God will leave them in the darkness they have made.” Perhaps there is a stubborn evil which love cannot conquer, but we know that God will try, through his/her own persuasion in Jesus’ action and suffering. Or the notion of God’s forgiveness. Jesus requires no qualifications for the forgiveness of sin, no elaborate rituals or spiritual preparations; wanting it is enough. In fact Jesus scatters it around so promiscuously in his ministry, that some of his church’s careful prescriptions for gaining it seem to ignore the one they call saviour. Jesus was not much interested in the “weight of sin” other than in a person leaving it behind to enter into a new life. St. Paul understood this: “God was in Messiah reconciling the cosmos to himself.” It is not God who needs reconciled, but us.
4. Of course a wrong imagination of God/ Jesus, or even a truthful but one-sided imagination, can be both powerful and damaging. The imagination of a God who delighted in the death of Moslems fuelled the crusades just as that of an Allah who delighted in the death of heathens fuelled the early Moslem conquests, as well as those of “Islamic State” in our own time. There is no cure for these aberrant imaginings other than the recognition that they are imaginings, and as such subject to error and correction, rather than objective and inerrant truths of faith. The imagination of faith should be bold, but confidence in its productions should be modest. Theology is the testing of the imagination of the faithful.