Reza Aslan has written “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”. I’ve read much of it and will have finished it by Monday night so that I can chat intelligently about it at The Kindlings Muse (Seattle folk: Hale’s Brewery, 7-8:30, register here). I don’t want to spoil the upcoming event, so the focus of this post isn’t the book. Instead, the author’s foundational statements are a launching pad for a single consideration: what if there’s a gap between the Jesus we think we know, and the actual historical Jesus.
At the outset, Aslan shares his testimony of becoming a Christian, and then his predictable college deconstruction of his faith, as he writes, “the more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unblievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.” He goes on to write, “No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.”
Aslan’s attempt to unearth the real Jesus and deconstruct the evangelical Jesus is fraught with huge faith leaps, contradictions, and assumptions in my opinion – but I’ll save that critique for Monday night. In spite of my disagreements with him though, the author has provoked a valuable conversation about the limits of knowing, the role of faith, and way we choose how to live.
The Limits of Knowing –
Aslan makes the claim that we can’t know history accurately, but that it doesn’t matter, because “The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age” It’s not rocket science to counter with the observation that history is, by nature, not observable. Nobody alive today observed Lincoln’s assassination. History is the testimony of eyewitnesses and, like criminal cases today, its ours to consider the weight of evidence, the credibility of the authors, and decide whether to believe or not.
The certainty of our conclusions, though, gets thinner as history gets older. It’s become trendy to get all postmodern with respect to ancient history and say, “we simply don’t know”, to which I would reply, no, you don’t KNOW, with all caps and a big bold font. But you can still know enough to take a step. In fact, you must take step, because even your failure to take a step is, itself, a step, a declaration that you know enough to know that you can’t know enough to take a step.
We are hemmed in, all of us, to the necessity of taking steps, even when we don’t know with certainty, and that’s OK. “We walk by faith, not by sight”
The Role of Faith
The strength of post-modernity, though, is the acknowledgement that everyone walks by faith – believer, agnostic, atheist alike. We walk by faith, because we’re making choices about things that are eternal and invisible. These things require a different means of choosing than the choice we make when we drive from Seattle to Portland. The map tells us that we head south on I-5. We do it. We get there. It’s verifiable immediately. History isn’t. Neither is the afterlife.
So, we need more faith when deciding what we’ll believe about Christ, than we do when considering whether i-5 south will get a person from Seattle to Portland.
It’s ironic to me, then, that at a time when the world is finally beginning to acknowledge that there are limits to knowing, and that much in our lives requires faith, there are Christians declaring that they can “prove” the resurrection, or the worldwide flood. They come out with mounds of evidence, all but saying that believing in the historicity of the whole bible doesn’t require any faith at all. This is rubbish. We’re better off acknowledging that faith leaps aren’t blind, but are based on some evidence. We take into account the trustworthiness of the testimony, the strength of the evidence and then, KNOWING WE DON’T KNOW, take a step. That step is called faith. To imply that such a step isn’t needed because we can “prove” history is not only foolish, its unbiblical.
How we choose to live.
It’s one thing to hop on the interstate, map in hand, and head to some city. It’s another thing entirely to hike, leave the trail, and negotiate the backcountry with nothing more than the narrative from a book of Cascade Scrambles, and a sketchy map copied from the same. In such a setting, especially when negotiating scree fields that have no hint of a trail or boot path, you’ll tune your senses to look for signs. On scree fields, those signs will be cairns, little stacks of rocks that are intended to point the way. They’re placed by others who’ve gone before you and are trying to help by pointing the way. You pass a cairn and then you stop and look carefully for the next one. Each movement towards a cairn is an act of faith, a belief that there weren’t hikers there before you who had something to gain by misleading you. Could there be such hikers, with misleading cairns? Of course. That’s why its called faith. But you trust, you go, you continue one, looking carefully, walking carefully, and over time you become more and more certain, because of your sense of direction, that the placers of the cairns were telling the truth.
The gospels and early church history are cairns for me. Do I know that Jesus rose from the dead in the same way I know that I’m typing this on a mac computer? Nope. But I believer, and my belief isn’t a shot in the dark. I’m following the cairns, markers placed on the trail of history by those who clearly had nothing to gain, humanly speaking, by their testimony. Peter? Crucified upside down. James? Beheaded. Thomas? Possibly boiled in hot oil. The martyrdom of the disciples and the early church is well attested history by credible sources, and they died believing Jesus to be who he said he was – Messiah, Savior, King. I’ll put my faith dollar there, gladly.
Another set of cairns for me happen to be the saints of history. Even if none of its true, I’d rather live like Bonhoeffer, or Sophie Scholl, or Dorothy Day, or MLK, or Paul Brand, then settle into a smaller story of either fearfully ‘safe’ living, or a Hemingway like pursuit of ‘adventure for adventure’s sake’. The narcissism of adventurers and suburbanite conformists are, in the end, still narcissists. I’d rather live for something larger than myself, so that when Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life – lived to the full – to point of overflowing” I say, by faith in the thousands of cairns dotting the historical landscape, “I’m in! Sign me up” –