Monday, March 08, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century

[This article was first published in the Spring 2009 issue of Word and World.]

Luther's real location is among the literate 'primitivist' Catholic reformers of the day, those who wished to see a wholesale cleansing of the Church and its schools which would restore to theology its proper character as a discipline of interpretation, engaging with Scripture and the early Fathers, not simply of analysis, the organization of conceptual structures of late scholastic speculation.[1]

Cognitively, religions have always offered a comprehensive interpretation of the world: they assign human beings their place in the universe of things. Only with the loss of their competence to provide a world view in modern times did a tendency develop to understand religion as 'feeling' or as a call for 'decision'. . . .[2]

While failure of a religious world view is certainly a major turning point in the history of Christianity, there is arguably a more fundamental paradigm shift that takes place a century and a half earlier: the loss of an interpretive tool that I shall call the work of silence. Two of the most important consequences of this shift are loss of the discerning balance between silence and speech—one way of reading the kenotic hymn (Philippians 2:5-11); and a concomitant and perhaps fatal turning from "putting on the mind of Christ" to imitation. Words without silence lead to distortion and irrelevance within institutions, while spirituality that does not pass through the refiner's fire of word and liturgy can result in the often absurd sentimental pursuits of today's spiritual marketplace.

Crises in religion, however else they are viewed, ultimately seem to manifest the age-old conflict between silence and speech, between receptivity and tyranny, between kenosis and self-aggrandizement. This tension is not confined to Judaism or Christianity; it seems endemic to the way humans function. But it erupts with particular force in Jesus' ministry and escalates in the early days of the communities gathered in his name.


In Jesus the Jew, Geza Vermes has shown how deeply Jesus was rooted in the Jewish tradition of prophet and holy man.[3] Although silence is not a featured topic in Vermes' discussion, he repeatedly notes its importance in their lives, signaled especially by the Abba sayings, which were not exclusive to Jesus. Contemporary with Jesus is Philo, who explores the work of silence blending a Hellenistic perspective with his Semitic inheritance. But the mingling of Semitic and Hellenistic thought is not always so smooth. In the wake of Jesus, Semitic attitudes merge also with Persian, pagan, and other mythologies to produce sometimes bizarre cosmologies and world views.

As patrologists keep reminding us, there has never been any agreement about what Christianity is, what the death of Jesus means, or resurrection. From the beginning there is conflict between those wishing to accrue institutional power to themselves, and those gathering for mutual support and thanksgiving for the transfiguration that occurs in the kenotic process of silence through meeting the Word who is silence. In the second century, those advocating more interior interpretations of the Gospel were anathematized as heretics by institutionally minded bishops, who urged their followers instead toward imitation and martyrdom.[4]


[1] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, London: Darton, Longman and Todd) 145.
[2] Gerd Theissen, A Theory of Primitive Christian Religion, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1999) 7.
[3] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973).
[4] See, for example, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Viking, 2007). For a similar point of view coming from a completely different starting point, see See also Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise (Boston: Beacon, 2008).


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