From History To Faithagain

So the question arises: has the advent of historical criticism then been all loss from a religious point of view, and has Jesus disappeared behind a screen of obscurity or positive distortion? And has belief about him become disjointed from history, incapable of being connected plausibly to things that once happened in Palestine? The questions are inescapable, for it would be a strange (if not wholly impossible) sort of Christianity which was indifferent to the career of Jesus and its historical veracity and was content to be a free-floating piety going its meandering way through a welter of different cultural settings. That is indeed too close to much of the truth, too near the bone, to be lightly dismissed. But is it the case that the tradition, whose course is to be described in the following chapters, is now something belonging effectively only to the past, having reached a terminus? Have its roots in Jesus been so rotted that, while the tree may seem to survive, for a time, in reality it is doomed? And does the sheer awareness of other world faiths not tend to a further marginalizing of Jesus (as well as his being a bone of contention)?

An alternative view is that the jolt administered at this fundamental level by modern study of Jesus and Christian origins is on a par with other jolts which the Christian tradition has undergone down the centuries, just one more among the many intellectual and cultural changes to which it has been subject. If this less alarming line commends itself, then the question is whether there is anything more 'authentic' or 'healthy' about this change than those of the past. After all, those of the past have taken place without the self-consciousness, the historical reflectivity about the whole sweep of Christian history, which now imposes itself. Those who were part of them had a naive belief (as it may now seem) that they were simply telling it and seeing it 'as it is'. In that case, there is a certain purity and rigour about modernity which is difficult to live with but is bracing and gratifying to the survivors.

But perhaps we can be less ascetic than that. After all, though there is an element of delusion in our imaginative reconstruction of the past and what we see is always from our point of view, at the same time a self-effacing (so far as may be) effort to 'get inside' the thoughts of past writers and the circumstances in which they lived and wrote has its rewards. At the very least, we have learnt to refrain from compelling writers of the past to sing our tunes and to be content to listen to theirs.

Above all, we are made to attend to the inescapable realities of being in a tradition, whether that be a religious faith, with its relatively strong cohesiveness and claims to identity through time, or a nation or a culture, with perhaps looser demands for loyalty and more hazy means of identifying itself. Always there is a combination of recognition of the familiar combined with uncertainty about what will come next. And in periods of rapid change— and strong awareness of it—the sense of uncertainty will be prominent, whether it is felt in an adventurous or a timid spirit. Except by the brute fiat of authority (but it had better have adequate sanctions if it is to be effective!), there is no way of being certain what will pass as legitimate development and what as travesty, nor any way of securing unanimity (Chadwick 1957).

The historical roots of a tradition, excavated with as much rigour and honesty as possible, may at least have the purpose of warning against travesty. Christian perception of Jesus will take new forms as quite new human standpoints are adopted: but it should be possible to rebut false claims to be faithful to Jesus—if that is what people reckon to be doing—and point them in more authentic directions. Not that they will necessarily be able to follow them; but they may think and act more knowingly. Perhaps that is as much as historical enquiry can hope to achieve when applied to a religious tradition that reckons to be involved with a living God not limited by those origins that are now found so interesting and that we now have the means to investigate with unprecedented and demanding efficiency.

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