Friday, October 18, 2013
The tradition of Jesus versus the Christian religion
October 18, 2013
To adequately understand Christianity, it is necessary to make distinctions that have been accepted by most scholars. Thus, it's important to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Christ of the faith. By the historical Jesus, we mean the preacher and prophet from Nazareth such as he existed in reality under Caesar Augustus and Herod. The Christ of the faith is the content of the preaching of his disciples who saw him as the Son of God and the Savior.
Another important distinction that must be made is between the Kingdom of God and the Church. The Kingdom of God is the universal message of Jesus. It means an absolute revolution, redefining the relationships of human beings with God (sons and daughters), with others (brothers and sisters all), with society (the central place of the poor), and the universe (the gestation of a new heaven and a new earth). The Church was possible because Jesus was rejected and, therefore, the Kingdom did not come about. It's a historical construct that is trying to carry out Jesus' cause in the different cultures and eras. Its dominant incarnation is in Western culture but it has also become incarnate in Oriental culture, in the Coptic one, and in others.
It's also important to distinguish between the tradition of Jesus and the Christian religion. The tradition of Jesus takes place before the writing of the Gospels, although it is contained in them. The Gospels were written 30 to 60 years after Jesus' execution. In the intervening time, communities and churches had already been organized with their tensions, internal conflicts, and forms of organization. The Gospels reflect and take sides within this situation. They don't claim to be historical books but books for edification and for the dissemination of the life and message of Jesus as Savior of the world.
Within this jumble, what does the tradition of Jesus mean? It's the hard core, the content that fits in a nutshell and represents Jesus' orginal intention and practice (ipsissima intentio et acta Jesu) before the interpretations that were made of it. It can be summed up in the following points: First comes Jesus' dream, the Kingdom of God, as an absolute revolution in history and the universe, a conflictive proposal since it was opposed to the reign of Caesar. Then his personal experience of God taht he transmitted to his disciples: God is Father (Abba), full of love and tenderness. His special trait is being merciful; He loves the ungrateful and the wicked. (Luke 6:35) Another important point is community. He chose twelve to live with him. That number twelve is symbolic. It represents the reunion of the 12 tribes of Isreael and the reconciliation of all peoples, made into the People of God. Last, the use of power. Its only legitimate use is for service to the community and power holders should always seek the last place.
This set of values and visions is the tradition of Jesus. As can be deduced, it's not an institution, a doctrine or a discipline. What Jesus wanted was to teach how to live, not create a new religion with pious institutional churchgoers. The tradition of Jesus is a good dream, a spiritual path that can take many forms, and that can also have followers outside of religion and the Church. The tradition of Jesus changed over history into a religion, the Christian religion -- a religious organization in the form of distinct denominations, the Roman Catholic Church in particular. The latter are characterized by being institutions with doctrines, disciplines, ethical determinations, ritual forms of worship, and legal canons. The Roman Catholic Church specifically was organized around sacred power (sacra potestas), concentrating it in the hands of a small elite, which is the hierarchy with the Pope at its head, excluding lay people and women. It holds the decision-making and monopoly on speech. It's hierarchical and creates great inequalities. It has been identified illegitimately with the tradition of Jesus.
This type of historical translation covered in ashes a large part of the originality and enchantment of the tradition of Jesus. That's why all the denominations are in crisis, since they are not "joy for all the people" (Luke 2:10) as they were at their beginning.
Jesus himself, perceiving this development, warned that it was of little use to observe the laws "and not worry about what is most important which is justice, mercy and faith; that is what's important, without neglecting the other." (Mt 23:23)
Bringing it up-to-date: Where does the fascination with the figure and speeches of Pope Francis lie? In that he links himself directly to the tradition of Jesus. He states that "love comes before dogma and service to the poor before doctrine" (Civiltà Cattolica). Without that inversion, Christianity loses "the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel," it is transformed into a religious ideology, and becomes a doctrinarian obsession.
There's no other way to regain the credibility the Church has lost except going back to the tradition of Jesus, as Pope Francis is wisely doing.