Tracking Down Jesus in Santa Rosa


with Karen Armstrong, Don Cupitt, John Shelby Spong and Lloyd Geering

by Douglas Lockhart

During March of this year, around four hundred and fifty people gathered in Santa Rosa, California, for three day conference run by the Westar Institute. The Institute’s other name is ‘The Jesus Seminar’, a two-hundred strong group of New Testament scholars infamous in conservative Christian circles for their radical views on Jesus, the Church, and what the future holds for Christianity. Carrying the title ‘Once and Future Faith’, this conference introduced its audience of clergy, lay people and interested visitors like myself to some of the latest moves being made in New Testament studies.

In spite of a deep interest in Christianity as a subject, I’m not absolutely sure why I chose to travel so far to attend this conference. There were going to be lots of ‘Christians’ there, and I am not a believer in the old old story. Perhaps I sensed that many of these Christians would be of a similar mind to myself, Christians for whom there was no terror in facing up to what is going on at the cutting edge of New Testament scholarship.

So were we simply there to hear what we expected to hear from Westar’s scholars – that Christianity’s present doctrinal position was untenable – or was there a deeper reason? Did we perhaps sense that Christianity was undergoing a metamorphosis, that a process of reclaiming or rescuing of our religious heritage was underway? As I try to pin down my motives for putting up with so many hours of uncomfortable air travel, this is one explanation that occurs to me.

Anyway, the hotel chosen for this meeting of minds reflected its Santa Rosa setting – it was mildly Spanish in architecture, sprawling, and in the process of being painted rust red and cream. Lazily opulent, its entrance gave way to a foyer where a gigantic wall of neatly stacked slate pieces drew the eye. The foyer looked a bit like a church inside except that there was a bar where the altar should have been. I had arrived a couple of days early to offset jetlag, and as I looked around, I wondered who among the many people moving around were ‘Jesus Seminar’ people.

Founded in 1986 by Guggenheim Fellow and Fullbright senior scholar Rober Funk, and by Dominic Crossan, professor of biblical studies at DePaul University in Chicago, the Jesus Seminar’s desire to promote religious literacy has ruffled theological and historical feathers ever since. According to the Seminar’s scholars, scientific knowledge has inadvertently stripped Christianity of the miraculous and superstitious aspects of the Creed, and this in turn has placed the future of the faith at crisis level.

And so the Westar Institute was formed, and scholars dissatisfied with the shape and texture of Christian exegesis were invited to add their expertise to the Seminar’s growing capacity to pronounce on difficult questions. Indeed, to vote on them. For that is what the Seminar does, eventually; it debates the issue in hand and then casts a ballot of black, red, pink or grey to grade scholarly opinion. And this debating process is not for the faint-hearted; it is a full-on engagement driven by honesty and the desire to get it right. Or, as one scholar put it, “It’s like doing your Phd all over again.”

But for the moment all I had to worry about was finding my room. The state of the Australian dollar would hit later when I ordered a glass of wine at the hotel’s altar and had to fork out the equivalent of fourteen Aussie dollars!

Another attraction, I suppose, was that some of my favourite radical thinkers had been invited to speak their mind on what Christianity’s future might look like – Don Cupitt, Karen Armstrong, Bishop John Shelby Spong and Lloyd Geering. And alongside those well-known figures some twenty of the Institute’s Fellows led by the redoubtable Robert Funk.

And then, suddenly, we were underway, and I was listening to Don Cupitt, retired Dean and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, announce during the first evening lecture that the Christian churches were in terminal decline. Was a reformation and renewal of Christianity possible, he asked. He thought such a renewal was possible, but we would have to develop a modern version of Jesus’ own message to bring it about. By the end of his lecture I got the feeling that few found his mix of philosophical realism and social conscience sufficiently inspiring. But we were in awe of his dogged philosophical stance, and as he stripped away the ecclesiastical form of Christianity (its doctrines, thinking and institutions) and postulated that the Highest Good could be realised in this world, now, and that it was necessary to rebuild Christianity from the ground up, I found myself applauding his faith in human nature, but at the same time wondering where on earth we would find the energy for such a feat.

But as I later found out, Cupitt was inspirational; in fact it was as a result of a BBC television series written and presented by him in the 1980s that a network called the Sea of Faith had been born, a network of people from many faith traditions who regularly met to share ideas and discuss issues related to the making of meaning. This network affirms the continuing importance of religious thought and practice even though it believes, along with Cupitt, that religion, like art and poetry, is a purely human creation.

Late that evening over a plate of calamari and a chalice of Santa Rosa’s excellent Pinot Noir (there are sixteen vineyards in the Santa Rosa area), I found myself in discussion with a Reverend at the next table who agreed that history had to be disentangled from the stranglehold of theology. “If this were done” I said, “then theology would automatically fall into a completely different set of patterns.” “On the button,” he said back, and on the basis of this agreement we ordered another round.

The next few days were a real eye-opener – we were engaged, I realised, in serious business. Attending lectures, forum think-tanks and in-your-face scholarly debates, we were confronted with a host of historical and doctrinal problems. The historian Karen Armstrong and retired Bishop Spong earned a standing ovation for their incisive and lively approach to the problem of a Christianity which had got between the individual and his/her experience of the sacred. And Lloyd Geering, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, unabashedly offered a secular trinity composed of a self-creating universe, a self-evolving human species, and an emerging global consciousness. As I listened, I wondered what Archbishop Pell would have made of it all.

But it was Cupitt who set the tenor of the debate, and it was Spong who rose to the challenge.

Arguing that we must set aside the ecclesiastical form of Christianity because it’s theological interpretation of Jesus was badly mistaken, Cupitt the philosopher lumped for a secular religion with its religious goal in this life. Spong, on the other hand, argued that the experience of God is real in spite of the fact that human explanations of God are always time-warped and transitory. What was required were words that would move the church beyond explanations of theism, but not beyond the God experience, whatever that experience might be in itself. Beyond theism? As I listened, I began to understand why this man had received sixteen death threats; he was a walking theological time bomb. And not just in the sense of having ditched the contents of the Creed, but in the sense of inviting us to enter the dark space of his God and take the consequences of such an act.

Over lunch I talked with a Dutch architect disillusioned with building churches who had turned his hand to making violins instead. The churches were always too big, he confided, too many seats for too few people, but no one would listen.

During a break I read a paper by Robert Funk titled The Once & Future Faith. Funk claimed that the Jesus Seminar had succeeded, after two hundred years of critical New Testament scholarship, in separating Jesus from the mythical matrix in which he had been entombed. Details of the divorce needed constant revision, but no other group of scholars had carried out the sorting process in such detail. The problem facing the Church was that most New Testament scholars “beat a slow, reluctant retreat, giving up only such ground as they were forced to do so by each new stage in our understanding of the gospels.”

This reminded me of Karen Armstrong’s contention that all of the great world religions came into being at an axial period in history. That is, they arose at a time of major social change. Reacting to what had gone before, these ‘faiths’ insisted that people think for themselves – the truth had to be discovered by our own efforts and in our own hearts and minds. And here we were, in a new axial age facing the same problems, the same resistance, the same reluctance by scholars and ecclesiastics to examine the available evidence and draw the necessary conclusions.

For Spong, moving beyond the limited and limiting effects of theism without losing our sense of the Eternal was our next step. Jesus was about the breaking down of barriers, not the erecting of new ones. On the question of female priests, he raised a laugh by saying that all we had to do was look at a man and a women – what was so God-like about the one percent difference between them?

For Karen Armstrong, the problem was that of discovering a personal ‘transcendence’ when hemmed in by too literal a ‘faith’. For Don Cupitt it was being unable to see ourselves as “individuals journeying towards a blessed future.” In his terms we had to rethink the Kingdom of God back into the world where it belonged.

Regarded by the Church in Britain as a write-off, as a ‘fallen angel’, Don Cupitt offered his listeners ‘humanitarianism in the Void’ without apology. This, he said, was his interpretation of the ethics of Jesus, an ethical stance he described as basically affirmative and non-discriminatory. But his conclusions were not the conclusion, he admitted; we had to “give up the idea of a stable, fixed and objective truth.” Inconclusion had to be lived with. As I listened, it occurred to me that Cupitt’s ‘living with inconclusion’ was closely related to Spong’s idea of ‘moving beyond theism as an explanation’ – they were perhaps arguing for two sides of the same coin.

Having just written a best-selling book called Buddha, Karen Armstrong pushed the idea of ‘religious reappraisal’ much further; she felt that examining the roots of the Christian faith alone was not enough. Christianity could get a much needed shot in the arm if it contemplated other religious traditions. The sacred was crucial to all of these traditions, and seemed to be an essential fact of human experience. Mentioning the Buddha more often than Jesus as she sketched what she termed the present Axial Age, she directed the conference to consider the fact that all of the great Axial sages of the past had insisted that transcendence was beyond definition. This meant that transcendence was beyond the neat confines of ecclesiastical orthodoxy, and as such beyond both the supernatural and the personal.

Between lectures and think-tanks I got the chance to speak to some of the New Testament scholars as they drifted from venue to venue. They were mostly approachable, amiable, willing to engage in conversation. And just as amiable when on the platform, but with an edge; these were professionals engaged in rigorous debate, and whatever the source, they would not put up with sloppy thinking.

On the last evening, when everything that had to be said seemed to have been said, we trooped into the grand ballroom for a banquet and a summing up. Don Cupitt and Karen Armstrong were inaugurated as Fellows with much humour, and this was followed by a wittily re-written version of Alice in Wonderland made to serve Seminar purposes. I got the chance to speak with Bishop Spong and his wife for a few minutes, then, suddenly, just as suddenly as it had all started, it was all over.

As I left Santa Rosa and headed for San Francisco the following morning, the importance of what I had experienced began to dawn on me. It had not been a religious experience, but in some inexplicable manner I’d come away with a sense of something I had not possessed when I arrived – a sense of community, a sense of having been among people for whom the old old story had taken on a new meaning. Tracking down Jesus in Santa Rosa had not changed my mind with regard to the Church, or Jesus, but it had opened my eyes to what Christianity might be like in the future, and I quite liked what I saw.

Douglas Lockhart is the author of Jesus the Heretic and The Dark Side of God (Element Books 1997 & 1998). More information on the Westar Institute is available at

This article was originally published in “Forty Degrees South”, Tasmania’s leading international journal.