Friday, October 17, 2008

John Dominic Crossan: Heterodox Scholar, or Hammerer of Gnostics?

Our corporeal bodies matter. Here and now. In my opinion, Crossan is under-appreciated for his role in combating gnostic heresy.

Crossan on: The Most Pressing Issue Facing Humanity


Actually, “hammerer” is not really an apt description. Crossan is exceedingly polite and mild-mannered, at least in his public persona.

At the Synod on the Bible, Pope Benedict has been cautioning about “mainstream biblical scholarship” that in his opinion has been “reducing everything to the human and denying the divine” and he is insisting on a closer relationship between exegesis and theology. He wants historical-criticism to be informed through faith. I think he has guys like Crossan in mind with his critique.

I used to be in the camp that considered John Dominic Crossan somewhat of a joke, but it was more for what I’d heard about him, than for what I actually knew. What I’d heard was something about his speculation that the body of Jesus might have been eaten by wild dogs after the crucifixion, or something along those lines... I happened to see a few of his articles on Beliefnet, though, and heard a few interviews with him on the radio, and came to a growing appreciation for his intelligence and his serious approach to scholarship. I do think he carries certain presuppositions with him, and I don’t think his reconstruction is the best of the historical Jesus scholars, but he’s very enjoyable to read and he has some pretty cool insights. His book God & Empire was excellent. He does insist on a “bodily resurrection” and believes that Jesus was the perfect incarnation of God’s justice. For whatever else you want to say about him, one thing I really admire is his steadfast opposition to gnostic dualism.

Someone told me in a combox on Liam’s blog not long ago that people don’t have a right to food and to health care, claiming that there is no evidence of it in scripture. I think something like Psalm 82 or Luke 4: 16-21 might come to mind to contradict him on that, but I was frankly amazed by this statement, considering that it came from a prolife Christian. I suppose one can quibble about what the term “right” means. If people don’t have a right to be treated with the most basic of human dignities as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, the rest of us certainly do have obligations towards them.

This is what comes from holding to badly warped, gnostic-tinged theology. If one holds to the doctrines of Total Depravity and Limited Atonement, it is easy to see why the conclusion could be reached that such utterly corrupt and lost Hell-bound beings don’t have the right to food and health care. In fact, if those, who by definition are lost because their beliefs disagree with yours, are perceived as a potentially dangerous threat as well, it becomes much easier to justify simply eliminating them. That must be an interesting way to go through life, by the way, believing that the vast, vast majority of people whom you see and interact with on a day-to-day basis are damned, reprobate, and heading for eternal fire and torment. It must do quite a job on the psyche.

In speaking of the Kingdom of God, Jesus was speaking about a profound change to come about in the world. "The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, 'Look, here it is,' or, 'There it is.' For behold, the kingdom of God is among you." The Kingdom is “here, but not yet”. There is an eschatological aspect to it, but it is also an undercurrent that runs throughout history. Crossan may err in making the Kingdom of God too much about the here and now, but the Kingdom shouldn’t be all about pie-in-the-sky banalities either. In any case, shown below are a few references to Crossan’s problem with gnostic dualism, which leads to a denigration of the body and a lack of concern for justice being done in this world. Crossan is into a sort of a non-violent liberation theology, and the non-violence is very important to stress because liberation theology is a theology that takes sides. A theology that takes sides always runs the risk of turning towards violence when frustration mounts.

The non-violent message of Crossan is key to understanding where he is coming from. As an NCR reviewer said in summary of one of Crossan’s books:
God’s kingdom is here, among the poor, as radical resistance to the injustice and violence of Roman commercialism. Greek culture, built on a cosmic dualism between spirit and matter, is the poisonous justification for separating people’s spiritual welfare from their physical fate. An unjust world can starve the poor, keep slaves, accept inequality, by compensating victims with religion now, heaven later. Communities that resist such exploitation and reject such dualism, not with force but through their refusal to participate in it at all, threaten the system far more than open rebellion, as Gandhi would later demonstrate in India.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Crossan by Adam Miller of the Journal of Philosophy & Scripture:

JPS: In a paper that you delivered in September 1997 at Villanova University you express concern about what you call the "long slow victory of Gnostic [Christianity] over Catholic Christianity." Could you address the nature of your reservations about the contemporary dominance of "Gnostic" readings of scripture? And do these concerns connect with the reservations you just expressed about fantasy?

JDC: Yes, absolutely. Let me put it in a larger framework. One thing that I noticed in researching for this book (In Search of Paul) is that way back in the beginning of the last century, 1907, two different scholars, a British scholar named William Mitchell Ramsay and a German scholar named Gustav Adolph Deissmann, got on a train and a boat and a horse and went around the Pauline sites and saw the inscriptions that say that Caesar Augustus was divine, was the son of god, was god, was lord, was redeemer, was savior of the world. They saw all that and they said, as it were: Oh, my God! That is what it's all about! They saw that when Jesus was called by those same titles it was not simply the result of picking up the cultural debris of his contemporary world. It was saying, in effect: these are the titles of Caesar, but we refuse them to Caesar and assign them instead to Jesus. They were not simply applying to Jesus ordinary words in everyday language. So in 1907 these scholars saw the implications. But instead of the twentieth century building a theology on this realization - which of course would have been one-hundred percent political and one-hundred percent religious, something capable of pointing to that deep basis where religion and politics coincide - we went off into existential demythologization and it was the last thing the twentieth century needed. We went into a kind of personalized, existentialized individualism when what we needed was the kind of powerful political/religious understanding of Christianity authentic to the first century. I'm not even talking about an application of it. I'm just talking about seeing what was there, seeing why Jesus was crucified, seeing that the Romans got it right. That's part of what I see happening right now. On the one hand we have - though they are only straws in the wind at the moment, they are big straws in a big wind - a growing insistence on the political and religious implications of Christianity. I'm extremely excited. This is not just talking politics but talking about what Jesus called the kingdom of God, what Paul called the Lordship of Christ, which is simply a way of saying who is in charge of the world. And counterpointed with this I find a Gnosticism that coalesces magnificently with American individualism - inside not outside, religion not politics, spirituality not religion - everything that makes the whole thing Gnostic and safe.

The present enthusiasm for the Gospel of Thomas, which I also use as a historical document for early Christianity without any hesitation, is a good example of this. It's very often an enthusiastic acceptance by people who do not have the slightest interest in living its theology, an ascetic theology where the goal is to get back to the Garden of Eden - not working toward the future of eschatology, but working back to the Garden of Eden by means of a life of celibate asceticism. Quite frankly, if I preferred that theology, I would have stayed in the monastery. People get excited about the Gospel of Thomas simply because it is outside the canon. They think that because it doesn't belong to the cannon that it must be better than anything inside the canon. I find that extremely silly. If they say: here's the theology of the Gospel of Thomas, I prefer it and therefore I'm going to live it, I can respect the integrity of that. But here they are with the Gospel of Thomas and they don't genuinely endorse its theology. It would be like me being enthusiastic about Marx while rejecting his view of liberation.

JPS: I'd like, now, to explicitly turn our attention to your new book, In Search of Paul, and ask some more pointed questions about the ways in which these issues get played out in specific instances. First, the issue of resurrection. In the book you address on a number of occasions and at some length the importance to Paul of the notion of resurrection. You argue that Christianity's unique claim with respect to the nature of resurrection is that it is a process begun in this life and in this world, a process inaugurated by Jesus' own resurrection. You then describe resurrection for Paul as being "the normal human body transformed by the Spirit of God" and you refer to the necessity for him of accepting "the materiality of Christ's bodily resurrection." In your opinion, how literal is Christ's resurrection for Paul? Does Paul ultimately conceive of resurrection as a kind of transformative resuscitation of the human body or is resuscitation too strong a word?

JDC: Alright, back to the first century and a pre-enlightenment world. First of all, the continuity from Jesus to Paul is that each of them, in different theological language, make their claims within the general constraints of a first century eschatological expectation of the great clean-up of the world - that's what eschatology means, it does not mean the end of the world, it means the eradication of injustice and violence and evil in this present world. It means, God's will be done on this earth. Both of them make the claim that this process has begun, not that it's merely imminent, not that it's simply coming. They claim in different theological language that it has begun and that human beings, as believers, are called to participate in it. Both of these are radically new claims. Paul does it in different language than Jesus. Jesus' language is: the kingdom of God has already begun. Paul's language is that the resurrection has already begun. In other words, Paul is thinking within Judaism where the first element in God's great clean-up, the first thing that has to be done is that those who have suffered injustice and died, especially the martyrs, must be raised in their bodies. Because they have suffered in their bodies, they must be publicly justified in their bodies before the world. That is the claim of Pharisaic resurrection and that's the background to Paul's claim that the resurrection has already begun. Now, I do not know (and neither does anyone else - and if they tell you they do, they're wrong) what percentage of people in the first century took that literally in our sense or metaphorically in our sense. But we have a pretty good idea what percentage took it programmatically. The illustration is this: if we collected all the coins in the first century that said that Caesar was the son of god, we do not have the faintest idea what percentage took it literally and what percentage took it metaphorically, but we have a pretty good idea what percentage took if programmatically - that is, Caesar is divine, get with the program, Caesar is running the world. By believing it they didn't think of it as an abstract debate over propositions, but as a program for life. So once again in our post-enlightenment world we cannot understand a pre-enlightenment world by asking whether it is literal or metaphorical. We want to know, inquiring minds want to know, but the proper answer is that there is no way of knowing in our post-enlightenment world. Even today I don't have the faintest idea when people come out of a movie like The Sixth Sense what percentage take it literally, what percentage take it metaphorically. I don't know how you know that kind of stuff, how anyone knows, and I don't trust people who ask me. I know a lot of people came out of Gibson's movie thinking that they'd seen history, a documentary.

And so my original question is, once again, in that first century world where people could come out of tombs - and of course they could - and appear to people (though it may be a little surprising to say that their bodies came out of the tombs, it's very un-Platonic, but weird stuff happens), if Paul went around the Mediterranean saying that Jesus bodily came out of the tomb, the proper first century reaction is not, if you are a polite pagan, we don't believe that stuff. Rather you say: okay, so what? I've head that type of story before. What does it matter to me? Why should I care? And that's when Paul would answer: yes, Jesus has been raised from the dead and God is concerned with bodies. God is concerned with justice. God is concerned with cleaning-up the mess of the world. Here is what we are doing, do you want to join us? That is a pre-enlightenment response. What we prefer to do in a post-enlightenment world is to spend our time arguing about the distinction between literal and metaphorical, which of course they knew in the first century as well as we do, but they were quite capable of hearing the meaning of a story without asking that question. I have no idea if anyone had gone up to Augustus at the start of the first century and said, you must understand, your imperial highness, that you are just a metaphor. All this stuff about being divine, being the son of god, the savior of the world, that's just metaphor. If he managed to say alive, Augustus would have simply said in response: but I am running the world and that's what being divine means.

JPS: Perhaps we could say then that the way to oppose Gnostic readings of scripture is not with literal readings but with programmatic readings?

JDC: I would think that if people like Jesus or Paul had lived long lives and died in their beds, then I would be very uncertain that the kingdom of God had anything to do with this world. I'd be much more inclined to say that it must be about the next life, or heaven, or spirituality. But what I'm really doing is trusting the Romans. I trust empires to know their enemies. I think that this is as true in Washington at the moment as anyplace else. So I trust that the Romans took a look at early Christianity and Jesus first of all and recognized that they were not a violent threat or they would have rounded up all the Christian followers and crucified the bunch of them all together. They recognized however that Jesus was a threat to Roman law and order, an ideological threat, not a violent threat. Instead, Jesus was crucified without his followers. That tells us that Pilate got it right. This was a nonviolent threat to the system. So I am trusting that the Romans got it right.

JPS: If we were to turn back for a moment to the kind of vocabulary that we were using earlier, would you characterize Gnosticism as a kind of false universality? False because it doesn't stick with the particular to the point where the particular becomes capable of revealing its own universality?

JDC: My criticism of Gnosticism would be this: one of the most fundamental decisions we have to make, going back to dear old Plato, is whether the human being is a dialectic, in the same sense as before, of body and spirit, or if somehow that spirit or soul is only temporarily, possibly even unfortunately, joined to what is either a flea bag hotel or a magnificent palace called the body. But in either case the soul is only temporarily embodied until it goes home to its true spiritual abode. I think that this is the most radical question in Western philosophy. Whichever way you come down on this question, everything else will follow. If you think that human beings are actually incarcerated, entombed spirits, that we're simply renting bodies out, then everything else will follow. But if you think along with the Bible that somehow or other the body/soul amalgam is a dialectic, that you can distinguish but not separate them, then everything else will follow differently. So Gnosticism seems to be a perfectly good, linear descendent of Platonism (I'm not certain though what Plato himself would have said), but at the heart of it is the presumption that the material world is at best irrelevant and at worst evil. Those seem to be the fundamental options. You have to pick your position from there.

JPS: A final question. If we, wherever we are at in the world, are interested in opposing empire, does that interest translate into turning our attention to whatever our own particular traditions are in order to look for their fundamental ground? Is the practical formula for challenging empire: stick with your own particularity until it reveals its radical universality?

JDC: Well, yes, basically. Although we are not just opposing, we are replacing. That is how our book understands Paul as Jesus's apostle. You have to have an alternative, otherwise local thugs just take over for imperial thugs. What you need is an absolute replacement and one thing we were trying to do in the book is to make the alternative clear: not just victory, then peace, but justice, then peace, so that people can understand. It must be an alternative program rather than simply an opposition. It's not that we don't like the Roman empire because we want a Jewish empire or an Irish empire or an American empire, or a slightly improved empire. The problem is that every kind of empire is basically violent and now after five thousand years of civilization the violence spirals. It always works for a while, but what is being offered now, as it was then, is an alternative. That is why I insist that we are not making a philosophical statement about human nature. We are not saying that human beings are inherently violent and we must get used to it. We are making historical statements about human civilization and suggesting, with Jesus and Paul, that we had better change it fundamentally if we are going to survive on this planet. The problem is that we have taken it for granted that violence is normal. The question is: where within Christianity and within every other religion and every other imagination can we find an alternative?

Crossan on: The Dangers of Fundamentalism

7 comments:

Garpu said...

still digesting this, but great post!

Marc Magisana said...

You've probably read it, but in case you haven't - "The Real Jesus" - the chapter on the Jesus Seminar and Crossan I thought helpful. A problem with him was that, at least for awhile there, his views and interviews were the primary fodder for media analysis of the Gospels. He was presented as "expert' without the qualification that his views are the minority.

I think his view is somewhat Manichaean - that the Empire is unequivocably evil -

Interesting post - Crossan is a favorite of the Pastor of my wife's church.

Jeff said...

Hi Jen!

How's the new apartment working out?

Hi Marc,

Thanks for visiting.

You know, I've read a lot more of Crossan's more recent stuff than his older work. He's been out of that Jesus Seminar gig for a while now. Yeah, I know what you mean. In a lot of those 20/20 specials they decide to do on religion every once a year or so, they pick people they figure to be deconstructionists, or at least controversial. I think Crossan has earned his chops as a scholar though, and as he often points out himself, other scholars are quick to tell him how wrong he is. He seems to take criticism well, and may have even shifted a few of his views in the back-and-forth tussles with other academics.

I think his view is somewhat Manichaean - that the Empire is unequivocably evil

Ah, so you think he's the one being gnostic. :)

I think the point he was trying to make in 'God & Empire' was that Israel was continuously subjected to conquest by larger empires, and that the Kingdom of God was in contra-distinction to that. It was to be a great clean-up of the world in which Israel would be vindicated and the world set to rights. Crossan's main point was that empires establish "peace through victory" and that all empires eventually have to resort to violence in order to sustain themselves. In contrast the Kingdom of God establishes "peace through justice." In a world ruled with swords and spears, the cycle of rising and falling empires was something we could afford to live with. In a world with nuclear weapons and other types of WMD, we don't have that option much longer if we want to survive.

crystal said...

I really like him :) Thanks for posting a link to that interview. I used to have it bookmarked but lost it when my computer died.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

I heard you got a new (used machine) from your sister. Do we need to take up a new collection? :-)

Actually, when I was researching this, I ran across a post that you had put up before that used some of this interview.

Garpu said...

Working out great! :)

crystal said...

Nope, no need for a new collection :)

Sometimes Crossan answers the questions at the On Faith site too.