Saturday, 5 March 2011

Lives of Jesus 6: Albert Nolan

So, this exploration of the the Lives of Jesus has finally got through the deconstructionist forests of The Jesus Seminar (via Funk and Borg) and we are ready for something closer to a traditional understanding of who Jesus was and is.  Not too close, though.  In Albert Nolan's Jesus before Christianity we have a classic work of liberation theology.  I first read this book quite a few years ago, and its a delight and an inspiration to come back to it after all this time and find its message still fresh and challenging.

Those unfamiliar with liberation theology should look elsewhere for a full explanation, but it emerged in the second half of the 20th century in Catholic communities in the poorer parts of the world - especially in South and Central America, but in Nolan's case South Africa.  Their major contribution to Christian theology was to assert the central importance of the social and political dimensions of Jesus' teaching.

Albert Nolan is a Dominican priest and theologian from Johannesburg.  He played a key role in the development of liberation theology in the South African context and in 2003 was awarded the Luthuli Award for "his life-long dedication to the struggle for democracy, human rights and justice and for challenging the religious dogma including theological justification of apartheid".  Hence this book is no detached, academic exercise.  Although at no point in the book does he refer to apartheid specifically, he does set it within the context of looming crises including the threat of nuclear war, the prevalence of poverty and hunger and the rate of environmental destruction.  Although it was written 35 years ago and we are perhaps less worried about nuclear war, both poverty and the environment still loom large as current and pending crises.

In this context, Nolan accepts Schweitzer's premise that Jesus, too, saw a looming crisis in his time and place - in his case, the coming conflict with the Romans which was to wipe out the nation of Israel as he knew it.  Nolan is no Biblical literalist, he is clear that the Gospels are not works of biography and are themselves reliant on earlier sources, and he is not afraid to use the findings of Biblical criticism to get behind the received text.  Nor is he immune from a little rationalising of the story, including dragging out our old friend, the idea that the feeding of the 5000 involved inspiring the generosity of the gathered crowd.  However, he is a long way from the deconstruction of the Jesus Seminar, and is prepared to grapple with the whole story, not simply exclude the parts he finds difficult.  I have highlighted dozens of quotes from the book and I wish I could share more of them with you.  He has a clear, unadorned style, free of jargon but weighted with thought and learning.  Writing in 1976 he was not yet attuned to gender inclusive language, so you must excuse some of his gendered quotes.

His analysis starts with Jesus' choice to align himself with John the Baptist.  This shows, he says, both that Jesus accepted John's view that a crisis was looming, and that he agreed that the proper response to this was a call to repentence and renewal.  This call was not the secular revolutionary call of the Zealots, nor was it the exclusive call to purity of the Pharisees or Essenes.  Rather, it embraced everyone in the need to repent - poor and rich, powerful and outcast, even Roman soldiers.

However, Jesus own ministry took a different course to John's and Nolan characterises this as being positive rather than negative.  John was a prophet of doom, announcing coming destruction.  Jesus brought a message of hope, announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God both in his teaching and in his practice.

To begin with his practice, as Nolan does, the striking thing is his particular focus on the poor and outcast.  Within the a highly stratified society, Jesus spent his time with poor labourers, tax collectors, prostitutes, sick and demon-possessed people - those who the religious leaders of the day saw as unclean and beneath their attention. 

The remarkable thing about Jesus was that, although he came from the middle class and had no appreciable disadvantages himself, he mixed socially with the lowest of the low and identified himself with them.  He became an outcast by choice. 

This compassion for and identification with "the lowest of the low" is shown most clearly in his healings.  Nolan explains that in the first century there was no clear distinction between illness and evil.  All sorts of mental and phyical illness were explained as the results of demonic activity and as punishments for sin - either ones own or that of a family member.  This meant that illness was equated with evil and those who were ill were also socially outcast.  Jesus' healing both acts out a deep compassion for their suffering, and draws them back into the community.  While Nolan is not immune to a bit of rationalising he is also not dismissive of the miraculous. appears as an indisputable historical fact that Jesus did perform miracles, and that he did exorcise and heal people in a quite extraordinary manner.

However, he also highlights Jesus' reluctance to perform miracles, and in particular his refusal to do spectacular acts to show off his power - he regarded the idea of such acts as a temptation.  His miracles are solely motivated by compassion, not by a desire for glory.

As in his practice, so in his teaching, the inclusion of the poor and outcast is central to Jesus' idea of the kingdom of God.

...the good news of the kingdom of God was news about a future state of affairs on earth when the poor would no longer be poor, the hungry would be satisfied and the oppressed no longer be miserable....

The fact that his way of speaking about the kingdom is based on a pictorial image of a house, a city or a community leaves no doubt about what he had in mind: a politically structured society of people here on earth....

As Jesus understood it, Satan ruled the world.  It was a perverse and sinful generation, a world in which evil reigned supreme....When God's kingdom comes, God will replace Satan.

The crucial difference between these two kingdoms is that God's kingdom is inclusive and all-encompassing, based on God's boundless compassion.  This is what set Jesus apart from the various Jewish sects of his time, which all in one way or another promoted purity and exclusivism as the path to national renewal.

...the kingdom of Satan differs from the kingdom of God not because they are two different forms of group solidarity but because Satan's kingdom is based on upon the exclusive and selfish solidarity of groups whereas God's kingdom is based upon the all-inclusive solidarity of the human race.

Furthermore, God's kingdom would be qualitatively different to any kingdom which had come before. 

The power of this new society is not a power which has to be served, a power before which a man must bow down and cringe....It is the power which is so unselfish that it will serve men even by dying for them.

So if Jesus was talking about an earthly kingdom, one which was to come soon in order to avoid the looming destruction, does this mean that Jesus was a failure?

Jesus had not been mistaken: he had failed or rather the people had failed him.  A unique opportunity had been lost.  But it was by no means the end.  There would be another chance and still another because the kingdom of God will come in the end - God will have the last word.

So we come to Jesus' confrontation with the authorities, both Jewish and Roman.  We can see that his teaching of the kingdom threatened both, by turning Jewish religion on its head and by challenging earthly power relations. 

The Jews made no distinction at all between politics and religion.  Issues which we today would classify as political, social, economic or religious would all have been thought of in terms of God and his law.  A purely secular problem would have been inconceivable.

But what kind of revolutionary was Jesus?  Nolan's argument is that he was a more thoroughgoing one than any of the more clearly political movements of his day. 

Jesus was much more genuinely concerned about liberation than the Zealots were.  They wanted a mere change of government - from Roman to Jewish.  Jesus wanted a change that would affect every department of life and that would reach down to the most basic assumptions of Jew and Roman.  Jesus wanted a qualitatively different world - the kingdom of God.

Neither authority wanted to be reformed and so Jesus' death became inevitable.  Nolan is quite clear that he knew this and faced it willingly, without fear. 

Jesus did not die for a cause.  As he understood it, one had to be willing to give up one's life for exactly the same reason one gives up possessions, prestige, family and power, namely for others.  Compassion and love compel a man to do everything for others....It is not a willingness to die for someone or for some people; it is a willingness to die for all (people).

A key question about all this is - what has this to do with us?  If Jesus' vision was for an earthly transformation, for an inclusive kingdom in his time and place, what does this mean for people in the 20th or 21st centuries?  Nolan devotes the last chapters of his book to exploring these issues.

Jesus is a much underrated man - underrated not only by those who think of him as nothing more than a teacher of religious truth, but also by those who go to the opposite extreme of emphasising his divinity in such a way that he ceases to be fully human.  When one allows Jesus to speak for himself and when one tries to understand him without any preconceived ideas and within the context of his own times, what begins to emerge is a man of extraordinary independence, immense courage and unparalleled authenticity - a man whose insight defies explanation.  To deprive this man of his humanity is to deprive him of his greatness.

But what, then, of Jesus' divinity?  Nolan's anwer is quite complex and surprising and worth taking some time to think over.  I'm afraid I can only scratch the surface of it.  First of all, Nolan is clear that Jesus did not claim authority.  He forbade his disciples to spread the idea that he was the Messiah, and the only words he applied to himself were the words "son of man" which Nolan takes to be a term of humility and self-effacement.

Jesus was unique among the men of his time in his ability to overcome all forms of authority-thinking.  The only authority which Jesus might be said to have appealed to was the authority of truth itself.  He did not make authority his truth, he made truth his authority.  And in so far as the authority of God can be thought of as the authority of truth, then Jesus can be said to have appealed to, and to have possessed, the authority of God....

Most scholars are satisfied with the assertion that somewhere at the heart of Jesus' mysterious personality there was a unique experience of intimate closeness to God - the Abba-experience.... And we know that the Abba-experience was an experience of God as a compassionate Father.  This would mean that Jesus experienced the mysterious creative power behind all phenomena (God) as compassion or love.

So what then of the idea that Jesus is himself divine?  Nolan does not deny this idea, but is extremely careful to clarify what it means.

To believe that Jesus is divine is to make him and what he stands for your God.  To deny this is to make someone else your god or God, and to relegate Jesus and what he stands for to second place in your scale of values....

We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must now deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus....  To say now suddenly that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus, it changes our understanding of divinity.... We accept the God of the Old Testament as one who has now changed and relented of his former purposes in order to be totally compassionate towards mankind - all mankind....

We have seen what Jesus was like.  If we now wish to treat him as our God, we would have to accept that our God does not want to be served by us; he does not want to be given the highest possible rank and status in our society, we wants to take the lowest place and be without any rank and status; he does not want to be feared and obeyed, he wants to be recognised in the sufferings of the poor and the weak; he is not supremely indifferent and detached, he is irrevocably committed to the liberation of mankind, for he has chosen to identify himself with all men in a spirit of solidarity and compassion....

Jesus' divinity is not something totally different from his humanity,...Jesus' divinity is the transcendent depths of his humanity.  Jesus was immeasurably more human than other men, and that is what we value above all other things when we recognise him as divine, when we acknowledge him as our Lord and our God.

This picture of divinity offended Jew and Roman alike in Jesus' day.  It was a stumbling block for Nolan's original readers and remains so to this day.  It is at the heart of the challenge of Jesus to both our religious and our secular culture.


Cecil Cullen said...

I found your critique very good - having read the book more than once I agree with all that you have said
This does not mean that I do not challenge at least one argument put forward by Nolan: that the events surrounding the feeding of the multitude involved men only; that they were largely revolutionary; that this is supported by the biblical accounts.
I can find no confirmation of this in the following readings:John 6: 1-15; Matthew 14: 13-21, 15: 29-39; Mark 6: 30 onwards; Luke 9:10-21.
The reference to men involved the numbering of the crowd (not including women & children), and was probably a result of the gender-discrimination typical of the times.
Reference is also made to the small boy: was he the only child, not in the charge of any woman?
John says they followed him "because they saw the signs he did on those who were diseased". Reason enough!
Father Nolan's case for the existence of a revolutionay movement of men intent on making Jesus their leader to further their aims seems without substance to me. A pity, because I subscribe to this theology in most things.

Andrew said...

Jesus claimed the Divinity of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. "I AM" He was put to death because He claimed to be the Son of God which to the Jewish mind, God's equal.