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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus is Good for Mainline Protestant Christian Ethics (The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part I)

A few years ago my daughter was listening to one of our pastors give the children's sermon. About half way through she raised her hand and asked, "Does this have something to do with Jesus?" This came to mind as I was reading The Christian Century's editorial in support of the proposed mosque/community center near Ground Zero in New York. It wasn't clear that it had anything to do with Jesus (as an aside, our pastor's children's sermon did). While I agreed with the editorial's conclusion, I was disappointed with the reasons it marshaled on its behalf. I would have hoped since the Century is a Christian publication that Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God might have informed its argument instead.  The editorial did make a passing reference to the freedom that God grants to all human beings, but to me that sounds more like something John Locke would say than Jesus Christ.

I think that the Century's editorial illustrates what is wrong with much of what has passed for mainline Protestant Christian ethics in recent years:  Many Christian ethicists seem more concerned to make Christian ethics acceptable (and relevant) to a secular audience rather than explicating (and debating) how Jesus' life, death, teachings and resurrection inform what it means to live as a Christian in today's world.  The irony is that in their attempt to make Christian ethics relevant, they have made them irrelevant.  That is not to say that what they write is wrong or not insightful, but rather that because they have detached their ethics from a distinctly Christian perspective, they sound just like any other secular ethicist. Moreover, by doing so they have effectively ceded the Christian perspective to more theologically conservative scholars who aren't afraid to talk about Jesus.

Perhaps, the following story will help illustrate what I am attempting to say. When we lived in Bend, Oregon, a conservative Christian group attempted to pass a series of state propositions that sought to limit the rights of gays and lesbians.  The mainline ecumenical council of the time decided to craft a pamphlet that could be handed out in our churches that would offer a Christian perspective as to why Christians should vote against the propositions.  One of the local pastors took up the task of writing the first draft.  I remember looking at it when it was done and thinking that it was fine.  I then showed it to the assistant pastor as the local Methodist church, and he remarked that there wasn't anything distinctively Christian about it.  Looking at it again, I could see he was right.  It was essentially a poor-man's version of a pamphlet that the ACLU might turn out.  But if that was the best we could do, why even bother?  It would be easier to simply hand out ACLU pamphlets in our churches than to take the time to produce one on our own.

Perhaps it is the lack of relevance among among many (most?) mainline Christian ethicists that explains the popularity of the most recent quest for the historical Jesus. While questers such as John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Fredrikson, John Meier and James Robinson don't agree on the details of Jesus life (e.g., whether he was apocalyptic or non-apocalyptic), they do seem to share some common vision of what Jesus preached and how he perceived what God's Kingdom should look like. As a consequence, mainline Christians finally have a nail on which they can hang their ethical hat. Because the questers have provided them with a sense into how Jesus envisioned God's Kingdom, mainline Christians now have a moral vision from which they can derive an ethic that is distinctly Christian.  And that's why I think that the most recent quest for the historical Jesus, in spite of all its methodological problems (a topic for a later post), is good for Christian ethics.

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