Interview with Ralph Wessman – Famous Reporter 24 – Dec 2001
(Journal published in Hobart, Tasmania. ISSN 0819-5978
Douglas, you’ve written a great deal about the Christian faith. Do you fall within the category of persons who call themselves Christian?
Christians are by definition followers of Christ. I am not a follower of Christ, therefore, by definition, I am not a Christian. But I am an admirer of the man known as Jesus the Nazarene. The problem that arises here is a semantic one. The New Testament is written in Greek, not Hebrew, so the Jewish understanding of Jesus as someone claiming to be the Messiah of Israel had to be translated into a parallel term, and ‘Christ’ (Christos) was the Greek term chosen. At this level the word ‘Christ’ does not refer to the Second Person of the trinity and has no connotation whatsoever with divinity – at least not in the literal sense. Having its roots in St Paul’s ever-expanding idea of Jesus, the theologically-driven notion of Jesus as in some sense divine quickly eclipsed its original Jewish meaning. Historically, the Messiah was a warrior figure, a human being adopted by God to fulfil a role. Jesus, as the Gospels plainly show, did not fulfil Jewish expectations in this regard, hence their rejection of him. Over the centuries, however, the term ‘Christ’ turned into a kind of surname for Jesus, a name so closely associated with the idea of divinity that its roots in Hebrew life and thought were eventually overshadowed.
Given that you are not a Christian, how central is Jesus to your understanding of Christianity?
Absolutely central. But we immediately hit a problem related to what I’ve just said about Jesus as the ‘Christ’. Scholars talk of ‘the Jesus of history’ and ‘the Christ of faith’, descriptions with a completely different interpretive base. The Jesus of history is a flesh and blood man born into a Jewish household in the normal manner. He has a mother and a father, he has brothers and sisters, and in spite of an outlook which differed greatly from his contemporaries, he is Jewish by religion and culture. The Christ of faith, on the other hand, is a divine being with only one parent whose origin is said to have been heaven. These figures cannot be amalgamated without theological chicanery, and that leaves me with an Ockam’s Razor approach: choose the simplest explanation. What fascinates me about Jesus is the relationship he had with his family. When the family situation is looked into, Paul’s ‘Christ of faith’ falls back into a completely different perspective. We simply can’t divorce Jesus and his family from the politics of the first century; they and the Nazarene sect with which modern scholarship has associated them were not passive on-lookers, they were an intrinsic part of Israel’s push for sovereignty.
Are you saying that Jesus was a political figure?
No. I’m saying that he was born into a culture and a time and that we have no right to disassociate him from that culture and time. He was, after all, flesh and blood. He could hunger, thirst, and cry. When he spoke to those around him, it was in terms of their immediate needs. When he walked along a road he did not float two inches off the ground, he walked on the ground, and from what I can make out from reading the New Testament had his feet firmly planted on the ground when dealing with the problems of his day. Believe if you must that his mother knew him to be a divine being even before he was born, but remember also that she considered him mad at one point. And keep in mind that it was Jesus’ brother James who led the Apostolic Church in Jerusalem, not Peter, and that it was James who forced Paul to prove his Jewishness by sacrificing in the Temple. The Apostolic Church was Jewish-sectarian, not ‘Christian’, and relatives of Jesus are on record as having been in control of it right up until the time of Hadrian. These facts speak for themselves. The Jesus family was a ‘dynasty’ or ‘Caliphate’, and that fact has now been recognised by many reputable scholars.
How relevant do you see Christianity to modern society? Does it have the ability, the concern and desire, to engage in serious dialogue with an agenda set by the contemporary world?
I see Christianity as systematically undermining its relevance to contemporary society. Back in the forties and fifties, when few scholars were confronting the Church with seriously thought-out questions, its claim to be in possession of ultimate truth rested easily with most people. Not now. The Church is now being challenged daily to explain itself, to debate its beliefs and bring its theologically-constructed vision into alignment with twenty-first century thinking. It is, I’m afraid, failing at that task. Engaging in epistemological sleight-of-hand, it shows itself to be not only unwilling, but almost incapable of self-examination. But we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Self-examination is sometimes like trying to see the back of your head without a mirror. But if the capacity to view what we are and what we believe does becomes available, then I think it is our collective responsibility to respond as best we can. In this sense it’s high time the Church established a contemporary identity for itself, and the only way that can be done is through a rejection of the idea that absolutist policies will save Christianity in the modern age. That is a myth created by insecure, autocratic minds, and it will lead to Christianity’s demise, not to its renewal.
Isn’t it true that humanitarian values – democracy, communitarianism, freedom, equality – of the past three centuries have been achieved through the efforts of secular humanism and then been read back into and appropriated by the Christian tradition? For those tempted by faith, why do you think secular humanism isn’t enough? Why this insistent urge for a faith – in this instance, the Christian faith – to fall back upon?
I like your idea of being tempted to have faith; it quite accurately captures the confusion a lot of people experience. In this sense faith is a last resort, a kind of flinging of the self into a state of belief, or near-belief, so as to escape the challenges of modernity. But I would think this is due to people not being properly informed. The remedy for confusion because of a little learning isn’t less learning, it’s more learning. It’s the Church’s job not only to keep up with what is going on in the world, but to be one step ahead. What do I mean? I mean that Christianity must be able and willing to accommodate reality, not turn its back on the expansion of knowledge and insist that we believe things that fundamentally contradict reality. An inflexible faith tradition is not a bulwark against atheism, it is a promoter of atheism. If secular humanism hadn’t got its head Western democracy with its many, many advantages would never have formed. So it isn’t that secular humanism isn’t enough for people, it’s that the questions raised by secular humanism have proved to be more than many people can bear. In this sense, Christianity has a responsibility to help people face the great questions of modernity, not shrink from them. Attempting to be ‘good’ is all very well, but goodness without honesty is like a powerful car without wheels.
Some traditions of faith appear to have a stronger commitment to social action than do others. I’m thinking of the Quakers, and the Jesuits in South America. Why is that? Is it perhaps due to a more literal interpretation of Jesus’ message?
No, I don’t think so. I think it has to do with sense of community. The Quakers separated themselves from orthodox Christianity’s absolutist doctrines, and in doing so reinvented Christianity along community lines. They learned to listen, and in listening, began to hear things the Church as an institution had become deaf to – the needs of community. The Jesuits did exactly the same thing in South America. They listened to the people, and in listening woke up to what was required. It’s interesting to note that both the Quakers and the Jesuits have a strong contemplative tradition. Inner silence is a great educator, and contemplative silence is perhaps the greatest educator of all.
Many women insist the Christian faith has little or nothing to offer them, suggesting feminist critiques of Christianity have found it wanting. To those for whom Christian sensibilities hold little attraction, I wonder whether you feel there’s some facet of the faith that hasn’t been properly appreciated.
The Apostle Paul has been given a lot of stick over the years, but it should be remembered that the churches he founded implemented new freedoms for women, freedoms which separated them from Jewish, Nazarene and Essene orthodoxies. It was not an easy thing to do. Paul bucked the system where he could and suffered at the hands of the Nazarenes because of it. In Paul’s churches women were not debarred from holding ecclesiastical posts, or from exercising spiritual gifts. Dr Barbara Thiering writes: “The gift of preaching and teaching was not denied to women….as the case of Priscilla and the existence of an order of prophetesses shows.” (Created Second 1973 p48).”So the verses suggesting that Paul was in favour of women remaining silent are likely to be textual tamperings. The freedoms initiated in the Pauline Churches must have been on everyone’s lips. Rabbinical law stated that women should sit apart from men in the synagogue to ensure that ‘uncleanness’ was not communicated. Paul drove a proverbial truck through this law by stating that such uncleanness had been ‘nailed to the cross’.
Don Cupitt’s contention in Radicals & the Future of the Church is that we create God in the same way as we create Hamlet. This challenges theism at its very heart. Do you have any sympathy with this approach?
Yes, I do. Cupitt is saying what Judaism teaches and what the ancient Temple in Jerusalem embodied as a building: God is not a ‘something’ to be circumscribed by language or image. The Jews wouldn’t even pronounce the name of God, and their Holy of Holies was an empty room. In this sense, it is not that God is created by language, but that God cannot be pinned down in language. And so, if we believe in God, and speak of our God, then what we say must necessarily be personal and subjective. In this sense the God of every human being is different because every human being is different.