Wednesday, June 17, 2009

So "Jesus wasn't religious"?

[a spin-off from posts "On Religion", here and here]

The popular claim in some Christian circles that "Jesus wasn't religious" isn't just a throw-away line; it's a softer version of the old slur that Jesus wasn't Jewish.

I'm sure those who say he wasn't religious don't mean to be anti-semitic; they probably don't even mean what the phrase "not religious" would convey to the average person. They do know Jesus was actually Jewish, and if pressed they remember that Jesus went to the Temple, observed Passover and in various other ways lived the life of an observant Jew.

Some people are confused about Jesus observing the Jewish Law. Of course there are stories in the Gospels which depict Jesus or his followers engaged in disputes with other Jews, notably the Pharisees. While the place of the Pharisees in these stories seems to have grown with the Gospel tradition itself, reflecting the life-setting of the early Christians, there is no reason to doubt such disputes took place between Jesus and other religious teachers or authorities.

Yet these were disputes about religion, among the religious. The positions that Jesus took may have been unique in some cases, but fit well into other evidence for disputes among Jewish teachers of the first century. Jesus disagreed with some other Jews, but shared the religious matrix within which these disputes were held.

So Jesus was certainly an observant Jew, and hence certainly religious in a specific way.

Why then does this issue even arise? Partly because of misunderstandings about what "religion" is, and partly because religion itself is in such bad odour, particularly in the more secular parts of the West such as Australia and Europe. The "Jesus wasn't religious" crowd don't want to be connected with the historic Churches, which have justly had widespread bad publicity in recent years. Nor do they want to be associated with the musty mediocrity associated with benign but declining "mainstream" Christianity. Some of them don't want to be associated with newer "McChurches" either, to their credit.

This much is understandable. But it's also dangerous and self-deceiving. However much emergent or evangelical or whatever forms of Christianity flee from "religion", they find it staring back at them in the mirror. Faith doesn't exist in a vacuum; all communities produce rituals, customs and cultural accoutrements that make them "religious" as well as believing. Claiming somehow to transcend the inevitable consequences of being human and in community, and to have attained a purity of spirituality or doctrine or practice that others cannot, is an old and familiar heresy. The fact that "religion" is a marketing liability won't matter in the end - if the truth won't set us free, nothing else will.

Besides that general difficulty, denying or ignoring Jesus' particular religion is too big a price to pay for making him irreligiously cool. Christianity's incapacity to deal with the religious Jesus is related to the burden of anti-semitism which the West has not shrugged. The Church proclaims the unique and universal significance of someone who had a specific culture and history; if for Christians he transcends that culture and history too, this is not because in Christ God was choosing a "fresh expression" of truth that rejected Judaism, but by the costly and permanent engagement with history that we call the incarnation. Any Jesus we meet outside that history is possibly not Jewish, or religious - but he's not Jesus either.

[The image above of Marc Chagall's painting is from "The Arty Semite"]