A Christian Naturalism: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman

Excerpted from:
Peters, Karl. A Christian naturalism: developing the thinking of Gordon Kaufman. Zygon 2013. Volume 48, Issue 3, pages 678-591.

“In this context of multiple metaphors, we can ask what new symbols might portray the significance of of Jesus in a naturalist worldview, symbols that are compatible with contemporary science and, in our pluralistic world, with many other religious trajectories, some with their own significant, culturally transformative individuals. I would like to offer for our consideration a new metaphor in the spirit of constructivist theology – namely Jesus as a ‘Religious Genius.’ . . .

“To see how Jesus may be understood as a religious genius, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg’s analysis of Jesus in terms of comparative religions is helpful. After decades of work with others in the Jesus Seminar distinguishing the historical Jesus from later Christian thinking about Jesus, Borg sees three dimensions to that which he calls the “pre-Easter Jesus”: a spirit dimension, a wisdom dimension, and a political dimension. Together these lead to a vision of the Christian life with the same three dimensions.

“In the spirit dimension Borg says that Jesus was a Jewish mystic, comparable to mystics and shamans in a variety of societies around the world. He was one who was centered in God and had experiential knowledge of God, one in whom the sense of separation and distinction was replaced by a sense of union, of connection with “what is,” one for whom the boundaries of the self had grown soft and the dome of the protective ego had fallen away. We might say, in Kaufman’s terms, that Jesus lived completely in creativity. This experiential connection guided Jesus’ teachings (wisdom) and actions (politics).

“In the wisdom dimension, in contrast to knowledge about the world and ourselves (from experience and science), wisdom is about how we should live. Wisdom teachers are found in all cultures. Some teach conventional wisdom: the morality and mores in which people should be socialized that already have been created. Others, like Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, and Jesus teach an alternative wisdom that challenges existing norms, a result their being open to creative possibilities in the flow of things. Through his teachings Jesus challenged an elaborate system of rewards and punishments that marginalized some people (he declared all are children of a loving God). He challenged the purity codes of his day (he ate with sinners and tax collectors), and the egotistic striving to be first to get rewards and preserving one’s life about all else (“the first shall be last,” dying to self and being reborn leads to abundant life).

“In the political dimension, according to Borg, Jesus was a “non-violent revolutionary”, challenging the “domination system” of his day, the Roman Empire that had been accommodated by some Jewish leaders. This system exhibited its own creativity in promoting itself at the expense of others. With alternative wisdom Jesus opposed the Roman domination system by proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was occurring among the people he was with as he ate with and healed social outcasts and told stories that encouraged people to look at themselves and society in new ways. Examples are parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. He also developed for his day what New Testament scholar Walter Wink calls “Jesus’ third way” – a path between submission and engaging in a violent response against evil, which only furthers evil behavior. This is the way of nonviolent resistance in the face of unjust systems of domination. We have seen the effectiveness of this “third way” in recent history, significant changes creatively catalyzed by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. . . .

“Jesus through his teachings and actions exemplified a historically original contribution for his place and time: a new ideal of universal nondiscriminating love and justice for all people. He himself was an exemplar of that love (Borg calls it “compassion”) that led to a passion for justice.

“This ideal and inspiration took on a life of its own in the further creative interactions among his followers. Regardless of how we might view their experiences of Jesus after his death, the love of Jesus continued. One way of understanding this is in light of the thought of Wieman, for whom everything is an event-an interaction among a variety of parts in relationship. In the New Testament, the life of Jesus is told as a series of events, and his parables portray events. In such events Jesus catalyzed creative interchange with his disciples which transformed them so that they became capable of such interchange with one another. Immediately following the death of Jesus, this interchange seemed to cease, only to return in a new way. During Jesus’ life it had been limited in scope to its Jewish context. However, with his death and resurrection creative loving broke through this cultural limitation to become available to the wider world, universal in its scope.

“This kind of event continues as the unconditional, undiscriminating loving that Jesus practiced during his life. People today participate in the Christ event (which they may call by other names) whenever they expand the boundaries of their communities with acts of compassion and justice for all. In effect then, Jesus is a religious genius, an example of Big-C creativity, both in terms of originality (new variation) and usefulness (cultural selection and retention). This is the heart of Christian Naturalism.”