Lloyd Geering, St Andrews Trust
The visit to Sydney of a grand old pioneer and brilliant scholar of progressive religion has prompted me to study this booklet which he has written as a summary of his three lectures on the subject.
In 50 pages Professor Geering presents a succinct statement of all the wisdom I need to support my decision to relinquish the antiquated Christology still being promulgated today by most institutional churches.
It has also provided me with a summary of all the material I need to reconstruct my portrait of a more credible Jesus of Nazareth.
With characteristic forthrightness, Geering has presented a Jesus we have hardly ever known; he has documented the waning of orthodox Christian belief and in its place he has described the emergence of a Christless Christianity.
Surprisingly he reveals that this apparently new approach to a Christianity without Christ finds its origins among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth — but only in the few decades immediately following his death. (This was at a time before the church had the chance to make claims about a virgin birth and a physical resurrection, or elevate him to God’s right hand, or bestow upon him divine status, or credit him with miraculous feats in defiance of natural laws, or endow him with salvific powers.)
In doing so Geering has used the latest method of searching for the most reliable evidence about the historical figure on whom Christianity was founded. Approximately 200 independent world-renowned scholars from differing disciplines, including Geering himself, came together in continuing convocation to form the Westar Institute, which adopted this research methodology.
In the Institute’s Jesus Seminar, the scholars found that the truly human Jesus had been hidden under layer after layer of Christian fictions.
The trip of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the shepherds in the fields and the three wise men were all stories that were created around the latter half of the first century in order “to satisfy growing theological interests”.
Probably only an estimated 19 per cent of sayings attributed to Jesus by the gospel writers were thought to be authentic.
The real Jesus was neither intentionally the founder of an institution nor was he divine. He was a Jewish sage whose one-liners and stories about how to live were addressed to his fellow Jews but which, once memorialised, spoke universally to the human condition.
The Church itself largely created the portrait of the divine Christ, which became frozen after the first two or three centuries of the Christian era.
Nobody has yet found how the Church began. The studies lean towards the idea that it was the work of grieving followers of “the Way”, who were endeavouring to find meaning in the tragic death of their charismatic friend by looking for predictions of his sacrificial life in their Jewish bible, the Torah.
Despite the fact that the gospel record does not provide a substantially reliable account of who Jesus was and what he said and did, it has been possible to use it in conjunction with other ancient documents like the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas to describe what Geering calls “the footprints” and “voice prints” of the historical Jesus.
And, although this has meant the discrediting of much of traditional Christian doctrine and the “decline of Christianity”, it has provided a new foundation for Christian practice.
Far from being a relentlessly deconstructionist approach to traditional religion, these studies acknowledge the fact that the passing away institutions of Christianity have shaped a whole civilisation, given the world a Divinity which was and still is “an ultimate point of reference in terms of which all else is grasped” and helped people “practise their highest values” as Jesus must have done.
Lying deeply buried in cold orthodoxy, however, the real essence of what inspired the first disciples has been sensitively unearthed.
This way of loving and being has been minimised by a misrepresentation of the life of Jesus, whose words and actions have been masked by an ecclesiastical system.
This system was in many respects inconsistent with what Jesus said. But, underneath the mythical framework, the essence has remained.
It is ready to be revived and reclaimed by those who are willing to attempt to do what Jesus taught without relying on divine help from an imaginatively created Christ figure to do it.
In conclusion, Lloyd Geering throws down the gauntlet to modern-day followers of the Way, whose task is to keep the mission of Jesus alive and to witness to unconditional love in human relationships — which is what Jesus called the reign of God.
Eric Stevenson is a retired Uniting Church minister and Coordinator, Centre for Progressive Religious Thought (Sydney), www.cprtfreedomtoexplore.org.au.