Naturally Boring Religon

Gerald O’Collins S.J. surprises me with his contribution (warning:PDF) to the latest American Theological Inquiry. The author of Chistology has set out to respond to British children’s author Philip Pullman, who decided to make his stance against traditional Christian religion even more explicit with his book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Like Thomas Jefferson and other 19th century rationalists, Pullman has removed the miraculous events out of the Gospels altogether. But Pullman goes further than Jefferson by inventing a twin brother. In this retelling, Mary conceives a charismatic Jesus and a sickly Christ. Basically Jesus says everything that Pullman finds salutary, and Christ becomes the inventor and spokesman for those things Pullman doesn’t like: Scripture, authority, the supernatural. Here is an excerpt.

The Jesuit, O’Collins, takes on the problem of the miraculous in his article. The attempt to find a naturalistic explanation for miraclulous events ends up creating a laughable character, hardly worth the laconic tragedy Pullman attempts here. His Jesus is a master of autosuggestion (making lepers ‘feel’ better), magic (fooling people into thinking water was wine), and transforming sympathy, (“some people who were sick felt themselves uplifted by his [Jesus’] presence and declared themselves cured.”) In other words, Pullman’s good Jesus becomes a televangelist mixed with David Blaine. Not exactly the type who could convinclingly deliver a portentous moral parable or the Beatitudes. O’Collins writes:

Pullman cannot entertain the idea of Jesus being more than merely human. That failure robs his Jesus not only of his genuinely miraculous activity but also of his unconditional authority and reduces him to being a tragic example of a noble and passionate preacher finally crushed by the powers of this world.

The miracle stories of the New Testament are written to confirm Christ’s divine authority. The stories of healing would remind Jewish readers of the brazen snake. Gentile readers would confront a true God of wine, at the wedding of Cana. (I say readers, but we should say “hearers” since these texts were written for use within worship) Pullman rejects the divine authority altogether, and it seems his dismissal of miracles is just a necessary consequence. O’Collins takes another view, expressed in this interview that a God without miracles is “rigid” , and not really omnipotent.

Pullman’s book, as O’Collins points out, is about as solid proof as any that a a noble Jesus Christ cannot be rescued from the Gospels. Not only do we have the “Lord, liar, lunatic” problem, that atheist Christopher Hitchens accepts here, we also have the problem that all of Jesus’ sayings and deeds are presented in a highly-theological context.

The ‘information’ about the life of Jesus contained in the Gospels is important but almost incidental to the narrative itself. The Gospels seem random and oddly disordered to most people because we read them as histories or as journalism. By the standards of those genres, the Gospels fail. Though they present as true accounts of events in the life of Jesus, they are theological treatises. Why does the Gospel author take time to say that the woman outside of the tomb confused the ressurected Christ for a gardener? Why this particular prayer of Jesus in John 17? Is the act of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet just a demonstration of humility, or does it have a larger meaning because it echoes the rituals through which the Jewish priesthood cleansed themselves before performing sacrifice in the Temple?

The moral and the miraculous threads in the Gospels cannot be unwound, just as the noble Jesus cannot be separated from Christ. Chrristian morals may outlive conviction in Christian metaphysics for a time, but morals without warrant become mere sentiment and eventually dismissed as such. (See the decline of German Protestantism)

Pullman’s book leaves me marvelling at a strange mystery cult, now entering its third century. Why do intelligent men become so desparate to save a noble, non-divine Palestinian from the faith that bears his name? Trying to make sense of Christ apart from the stories of the Garden of Eden, the Jewish exile, the cycle of feasts, and the heart-stopping flow of blood on the Temple altar, leaves us with a story of an inscrutable moralizer. And a boring one. Odd for someone of Pullman’s literary strength to take out all the good bits.

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