The Post-Postmodern Historical Jesus

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Finding Jesus

Adam Gopnik writes:

As the Bacchae knew, we always tear our Gods to bits, and eat the bits we like. Still, a real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths—between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what's required for a close-knit metaphysical argument. Certain kinds of truths are convincing only in a narrative.

The idea, for instance, that the ring of power should be given to two undersized amateurs to throw into a volcano at the very center of the enemy's camp makes sound and sober sense, of a kind, in Tolkien; but you would never expect to find it as a premise at the Middle Earth Military Academy. Anyone watching Hamlet will find his behavior completely understandable—O.K., I buy it; he's toying with his uncle—though any critic thinking about it afterward will reflect that this behavior is a little nuts.


In Mark, Jesus' divinity unfolds without quite making sense intellectually, and without ever needing to. It has the hypnotic flow of dramatic movement. The story is one of self-discovery: he doesn't know who he is and then he begins to think he does and then he doubts and in pain and glory he dies and is known. The story works. But, as a proposition under scrutiny, it makes intolerable demands on logic.  If Jesus is truly one with God, in what sense could he suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, horror, and so on? So we get the Jesus rendered in the Book of John, who doesn't. But if he doesn't suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, and horror, in what sense is his death a sacrifice rather than just a theatrical enactment? A lamb whose throat is not cut and does not bleed is not really much of an offering.

None of this is very troubling if one has a pagan idea of divinity: the Son of God might then be half human and half divine, suffering and triumphing and working out his heroic destiny in the half-mortal way of Hercules, for instance. But that's ruled out by the full weight of the Jewish idea of divinity—omnipresent and omniscient, knowing all and seeing all. If God he was—not some Hindu-ish avatar or offspring of God, but actually one with God—then God once was born and had dirty diapers and took naps. The longer you think about it, the more astounding, or absurd, it becomes. To be really believed at all, it can only be told again.

This excerpt comes from Adam Gopnik's excellent essay in the New Yorker on the contemporary quest for the Historical Jesus ("What Did Jesus Do?").

I plan to write much more on this essay, but for now I want to focus in on this section which gets at some really key issues.

Still, a real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths—between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what's required for a close-knit metaphysical argument.

The arguments from metaphysics dominated the modern age, both philosophically and theologically. This mentality still heavily affects our discourse. All of the recent books on New Atheism and counter New Atheist texts are all still written with the modern frame of reference. Titles like "The Rationality of Belief of God", "Religion as Mental Illness" line the bookshelves.

If someone asks you whether or not you believe in God the question is understood to mean whether you think God exists or not. Whether (objectively) there is or isn't a God. This view depicts God as some entity, some "thing" (whether real or illusory).  But I have to tell you dear reader (as a theologian), the question of whether God exists or not is not a very important question. In fact I would go so far as to say it's almost a completely irrelevant question and near total waste of one's time.

Here's why.

First, for all the talk (and reality) of churches and synagogues losing membership, God polls the generic. That is, if people are asked whether they believe in God, major majorities say yes. But those majorities aren't practicing any organized form of devotion, service, or prayer to said God. For example, the so-called Millenial generation (born after 1980) in the supposedly very religious United States doesn't read the Bible.

In other words, the reality is whatever one's formal answer to the question God Yea or Nea?, the reality is people, by and large, are practically atheist. They live as if they are without god(s). Or at least they live as if the question of God tied to the reality of a communal expression of said belief (i.e. a religion) is irrelevant to their lives. My sense is people worship substitute or false gods (e.g. money, sex, power, social image, personal fulfillment) instead but that judgment is certainly up for debate. I don't think the notion that people are practically atheist is really all that debatable.

In short, who cares if lots of people say they "believe" in God's existence but it doesn't shape their lives in any appreciable way? I certainly don't.

The concept of belief in The Bible involves notions like trust, faith-fulness, commitment, and integrity. It is definitely not a theoretical question about whether one mentally accepts or rejects an abstract deity.  Biblical texts of course simply assume the reality of God and argue from those premises.  

Second, (more philosophically) this metaphysical angle reduces God to our categories of human thought. Put rather simply, humans, via human philosophy and logic, create standards of truth concerning notions like what it means to say something exists (or not), what is truth (and falsehood), and so on. Then the question of God is plugged into that already constructed logical system based on our human modes of experience, language, and thought.

Theologically this human-referential element is problematic as the self-definition of God (according to The Biblical account) is "I am Who I am" or alternatively translated "I will be what I will be" (Exodus Ch 3, verse 14). Other religious traditions have similar constructions for the Divine (The One, The Beyond, The Unnameable, etc.).

If God's existence is predicated on our understanding of our human existence or the existence of other recognizably living beings (e.g. dolphins, dogs, plants, cells), then God becomes just another species of our understanding of Being. God becomes just another "thing" in a lineup of various thing-beings.

For those during the modern period who believed there was a God they generally reduced their philosophical God to our conception of humanity and nature. God became the guarantor of our logical, scientific worldview. Descartes saw God as necessary in order simply to keep his whole world system in order. Leibniz argued God set the pre-established harmony of beings in order and then (mostly) stayed out, at most "gently" guiding the Universe along.

Hegel famously equated God simply with the development of life on this planet. To the point where he argued that philosophy had overcome the defects of religion and that the State had become the perfect realization of God on earth (in his case the Prussian state), leading to the perfectly realized modern age of human freedom and liberal choice. God (or Geist/Spirit) for Hegel continued to legitimate and ground the rationality of our world but no longer from outside, but rather as the motive force within life itself, leading history on through it's inevitable stages of greater and greater self-transparency and enlightenment.

Modern atheist writers like David Hume or Thomas Henry Huxley made the same basic sorts of arguments but felt that the addition of God was unnecessary to sustain logic, causality, and order in the universe. Huxley in particular—and followed today by Richard Dawkins & the therefore badly named "New" Atheists—felt that natural selection/evolution could ground the orderly reasonableness of our world, the belief in progress through rational education, and so on.

The Bible, to the degree that it was read, was read against the criterion of scientific validity. Is the Bible true or not? I hear this question all the time. The Bible is either true or false people say to me. Generally my experience is the meaning of true in this statement is something like: really happened; can be experienced with our human senses or scientific instruments; can be repeated/verified. This mentality that truth is "what happened" and the real is what can be experienced with our senses is proof of the modernist reduction of God to metaphysics.

One of the key elements of post-modernism is the questioning of that ordered, rational, settled metaphysical state of affairs during the modern world—again a basic view held by modern atheist, theist, deist, and agnostic alike.

Another key element of postmodernism is a much greater appreciation of the truth(s) inherent in language. Disciplines like story and narrative take on greater meaning and weight. Martha Nussbaum has written eloquently on the way in which story can teach us ethics.

The great postmodern philosopher Paul Ricoeur argued that identity (whether of the group or individual) in the midst of a globalizing and shifting world is held in continuity through the stories we tell. Narrative, through the use of plot says Ricoeur, creates the sense of time: beginning, middle, and end. Plot creates a space for characterization, action between characters (the ethics question again), and meaning making. This type of thinking was shunned during the modern (metaphysical) era and continues to be in so much US-dominated discourse of whether or not God exists or not.

Applying these core insights about narratives, dramas, and stories to the Bible (in particular for Christians The Gospels) has "revealed" new ways of thinking, feeling, and approaching the text.  "New" ways that in fact in some manner a return to a much more ancient way of reading The Bible.  

This distinction between the metaphysical (modernist) and the linguistic (postmodernist) brings us back to my quotation from Adam Gopnik's piece.

In light of what I have written above, read this again:

Still, a real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths—between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what's required for a close-knit metaphysical argument. Certain kinds of truths are convincing only in a narrative.

To grasp the ways in which in which truth is a story told is to enter a post-metaphysical (i.e. post-modern) way of thinking and being. This way of approaching the subject does not neatly fit with what are typically thought of as theistic or atheistic positions, since both positions normally assume a metaphysical account of life. By metaphysics I mean the idea that we humans through reason can objectively describe the world "out there" separate from us as human creatures—including but not limited to the question of God's existence.

As Martin Heidegger brilliantly showed (following Nietzsche), once one enters a metaphysical frame than the question of God is reduced to a sub-set of the questions of metaphysics. He called this onto-theology (onto from ontology, i.e. the study of being). Heidegger showed the ways in which modern philosophers used the question of God (theology) to help shore up their view of Being (ontology), but in the process had to use the results of their investigations into Being to explain theology. Hence onto-theology. The problem for Heidegger was that Western philosophy never sufficiently addressed either ontology or theology. It was like a philosopher (Descartes is a classic example of this trend) took out a "loan" from theology to "pay off" his definitions of ontology (i.e. define Being), but then in order to pay back the loan to theology (i.e. define God), the philosopher had to take another loan out from ontology, forever in cycles of debt. The loans in this analogy represent the need to use ontology to establish the base meaning of theology and theology to establish the base meaning of ontology. The "account statement" philosophically speaking put the modern world in the red.

Heidegger went about destructing this onto-theological foundation—or rather simply pointed out its shoddy, unsustainable construction. One of the key reasons for this failed philosophical construction was (according to Heidegger) that the Western philosophy had never sufficiently took into account the reality of language. Language was thought to be (for the modern philosophers) a kind of neutral backdrop, simply a clear transparent means for them to achieve their mental ends. Heidegger exposed (brilliantly) the ways in which language is not neutral and constructs its own worlds.  For Heidegger language was the abode of Being not its neutral background (or a generic condo rental unit I suppose).  

A point often missed however in much discussion of postmodernism is that deconstructing onto-theology is not the same thing as deconstructing all belief in or experience of the Divine. It is simply that so much theology (and anti-theology) is written in the metaphysical framework. Choosing between whether one believes in God or not from within a metaphysical framework, is as I argued before, a waste of time. For even if God were to exist, within such a metaphysical framework, that God is powerless to do anything creative or truly new. Compare the metaphysical God of Being to The Biblical notion of God as, "I will be what I will be" indicating the ways in which God cannot be controlled or set within our human modes of thought. In a metaphysical framework, the script is already written in its entirety. Only a post-metaphysical system allows for true creativity to emerge.

A post-metaphysical or post-modern position allows for the idea that the story is not yet completely written and therefore can be adapted, played with, or even re-invented in various forms.

As a writer on a site dedicated to post-postmodernism, I think the postmodern ability to imagine and create newness is a good thing. The linguistic turn in Western philosophy during the 20th century has been a major lasting achievement of human thought. Postmodernism is certainly better in my view than the closed metaphysical systems of modernism or the impenetrable dogmatic walls of premodernism. Generally speaking, however, I find postmodernism did not (and does not still) have a way to ground what are better and worse ways of writing and enacting the stories of existence going forward. That is not to say postmodern thinkers do not take stands (they do, often very good ones), I'm just not sure said stands are justifiable via their own philosophical positions. Unable to ground their own stances in depth, genuine deep postmodern philosophy/theology often ends up (in my view) unable to respond to the charge of personal preference: "that's just your thing, I've got my thing." At which point postmodernism either becomes indistinguishable from the general modern doctrine of tolerance and/or ends up in never realized utopian visions of a justice to come.

The post-postmodernist must therefore ask: Now that we can narratively and culturally construct a world, how shall we do so? What is the best way to do so? How shall we do this together? How will we hold each other accountable for our creations?

As this thinking applies to religion, theologies going forward need to be based less in metaphysics and more in the sense of life as dramatically undertaken and this brings us back again to Adam Gopnik's essay on the Historical Jesus.

Gopnik mentions The Gospel of Mark, a perfect example in this context. The Gospel of Mark, some scholars maintain, is the world's first novel. It creates the genre of the novel. The Gospel of Mark does not delve into the inner mind of Jesus—we do not hear Jesus' inner thoughts (more a hallmark of modern Western novels)—but we do see very interestingly a narrator who narrates both the actions/words of Jesus and those of God. This narrator character begs the question of what position the narrator is in if the narrator knows and can tell us of God's actions? Is the Narrator God? Is the Narrator an observer of God (who would that be)? Is the Narrator "more" than God somehow?

That question, like so much else in The Gospel of Mark, is never answered but always probing deeper and deeper into our very being. It's not a question with an answer, but a question that sears the soul and forces transformation.

The Gospel of Mark, (written around 70 CE) the earliest and the shortest of the four gospels in the New Testament, is very dramatic. Events take place in rapid order. Jesus is rather laconic, quite mysterious, even a kind of *sshole at points. The Gospel is heavy on action, lighter (than the other gospels) on commentary or teaching by Jesus. The Gospels ends (in Chapter 16) with Jesus' disciples approaching his tomb, which they find to be empty. A young man in white tells them that Jesus has been raised and they should go to Galilee where he will meet them.

And then the final and utterly confusing, dark ending:

8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Later endings were added for the rather unsatisfactory and "unbelieving" finale above.

There is a view in Markan scholarship that the Gospel was likely read in its entirety (it takes about an hour) prior to the baptism of new believers at the Easter service (the highest liturgical point of the Christian year).

In this dramatic-play reading, the end is the beginning. The ending shows the disciples doing what not to do (i.e. fleeing in fear and not spreading the good news of the Resurrection). The ending points the new believer (like the young man in white, perhaps symbolizing a baptismal garment) back to the beginning of the text.

Ch 1, verse 1 reads:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Having experienced the paradoxical ending, the believer may return to the story from the beginning now with knowledge of the ending. In philosophy this paradox is called the hermeneutic circle: to understand the whole one must understand the parts but to understand the parts one must understand the whole and so one must continually "circle" back and forth between whole and part in deeper and deeper ways.

The first line of the Gospel of Mark references Jesus as Christ (The Messiah), and the Son of God. The only character (other than demons!!!) to confess Jesus as Son of God in Mark's Gospel is a Roman (pagan, Gentile) centurion who witnesses Jesus' crucifixion.

Chapter 15:

37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, 'Truly this man was God's Son!'

The revelation of the Son of God, announced from the beginning is not truly understood until the end, until of all places the desolate Cross where Jesus cries out in pain asking why God has abandoned him?

Jesus body, the curtain between heaven and earth is torn into two, from the moment dissolving the veil between divinity and humanity in the utter horror of murder, betrayal, and abandonment....i.e. the human condition (and perhaps also the condition of God?).

Returning (like Mark) to the beginning, here at our end to Gopnik's quotation:

If God he was then God once was born and had dirty diapers and took naps. The longer you think about it, the more astounding, or absurd, it becomes. To be really believed at all, it can only be told again.

Just like Mark's Gospel.

Ricoeur would call this kind of faith "second naivete." First naivete is fundamentalist (non-critical) belief in the metaphysical truth of revealed religion. As the bumper sticker reads, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."

Then a period of criticism or suspicion enters in to the life of one developing in faith and complexity. Moses didn't write The First Five Books of The Bible. The Gospels don't agree with each other in their description of Jesus. Paul doesn't speak much at all about the historical Jesus, didn't even know the guy. Everything that seemed so secure is now shown to be accidental, foundation-less, and arbitrary. The majority of people who enter this phase stay stuck here in either formal or de facto atheism. Generally if people remain religious in this phase they emphasize personal individual experience or tend to reduce their religious issues to social and political points of view (either liberal or conservative).

But then on the far side of that (necessary) criticism, Ricoeur argued a second naivete can be born. Naïvete in that it takes the story in one gulp, takes it all in, not the bits and pieces that I already believe like in the critical phase. But the second naïve faith does this gulping with an "As If" quality. Second naivete deploys the imagination as supplement to, even at times in contrast with, the limited view of reason—the imagination is in many ways post-metaphysical.

Like Mark's gospel, the story is true because it has to be true not because it "is" true in the way we normally, (i.e. metaphysically) think.

For a parallel to this level of theology in Muslim circles, I recommend No god But God by Reza Aslan. Aslan retells the story of Islam's founding from a place of second naivete. A sacred text proclaimed in this manner becomes a way to form identity in a pluralistic (postmodern) globalized world without becoming an us/them fundamentalist mentality.

For a post-postmodern religious faith (in this case Christian or Muslim) the story that needs to be told, that must be true, is a drama to be enacted. Again, like Mark's Gospel. It is not just an abstract "story" or "myth" that might be temporarily soothing or inspiring. It is a drama that has a claim on one's life. As The Bible says, "God is a jealous God." In the same way, The Drama is a jealous Drama. It wants the entirety of your being, a level of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual commitment and responsibility not common in this world.

If one wants "proof" for the existence of God, then it is found in the "pudding" of enacting the religious drama: in prayer, corporate worship, reading/enacting of the sacred story, loving service, etc.

First one must believe in one's belief in the story. Then, one must let go of even believing in the belief in the story and (in the Christian telling) be left naked with the story itself without running away in fear and silence. Left naked like Christ on the Cross, left like the Centurion witnessing the nakedness of truth in this age hanging from a tree.

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  • Comment Link hmcguin Thursday, 01 July 2010 11:55 posted by hmcguin

    I greatly enjoyed this post. Please keep at it.

  • Comment Link Steve Wednesday, 07 July 2010 10:16 posted by Steve

    And I enjoyed it as well. Thanks.

  • Comment Link Nelson Costa Tuesday, 20 July 2010 18:52 posted by Nelson Costa

    Just love it !

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 21 July 2010 03:29 posted by Chris Dierkes

    thanks everyone. I'm glad that you all enjoyed it.

  • Comment Link Mark Munn Wednesday, 28 July 2010 19:42 posted by Mark Munn

    I also very much appreciate Gopnik's parsing of metaphysical vs. narrative truth-telling. I think this is what is at the heart of Jan Zwicky's work on lyric philosophy. This is fantastic work Chris. Thanks for sharing!

  • Comment Link bruce Wednesday, 04 August 2010 15:51 posted by bruce

    Great job, Chris.

    I'm thinking that faith for me is based, not in rational argument or even so much in the reenactment/retelling of the story, although I find both that reason and entering the narrative play a supporting role. Primarily, I experience a hidden order/presence beneath the apparent (and real) chaos of my life. As I entrust my life to this cohering presence, then (over the long haul) I can trace what, for me, is an ever-present and all-encompassing presence of what I call "God".

    I continue to appreciate your capacity for contextualization, Chris. Thanks,


  • Comment Link John Friday, 06 August 2010 04:37 posted by John

    Hi I am from Australia.

    As the Black Adder famously said: utter crapp!

    Please find a set of essays via this essay (by a "Philosopher" who nobody likes) which gives a unique Understanding of the origins of the Bible and the "historical" Jesus, and the power-seeking political motives of those who put it together.

    Plus on the nature of Real God, as distinct from the usual self-serving cultic and tribalistic god-ideas

    On the authors relation to both postmodernism and modernism, and indeed all limited points of view.

  • Comment Link knerd Friday, 17 September 2010 10:07 posted by knerd

    We are boiling our many narratives, stories and myths in a big pot somewhere as we speak. If the concoction ever produces a pudding, will the truth be found in the pudding itself or in the eating of it?

  • Comment Link james Tuesday, 02 November 2010 09:26 posted by james

    I remember a theologian discussing the Fables of Aesop. He said we can read the stories for their moral or we can conclude that in ancient Greece animals could talk.

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