Following the trailblazers


New Zealand Anglican priest Glynn Cardy has written another interesting, provocative post in his blog. Here is an excerpt:

Some of Jesus’ theology we might resonate with and some we might be repelled by. A personal daddy god doesn’t do much for me. A three-tier universe doesn’t literally exist. Jesus didn’t come again during his disciples’ lifetime. However the complicated formulae of the Trinity and sanctification devised in the first four centuries of the Church don’t do a lot for me either.

Can I then still call myself a Christian?

I find the description of Jesus by the writer of Hebrews [12:2] as the ‘pioneer’ of our faith helpful. The Jesus of history was a trailblazer, an exemplar, and a model for us. However as with all pioneers of radical social change and thought we need to be selective about what we wish to emulate. He wasn’t perfect. The love he preached and lived in his context might have been, but in our context revision is needed. Indeed in our context there are some things about Jesus that are best ignored.
Maybe it is inevitable that charismatic founders of new movements, as Jesus surely was, become objectified and idealized by their later followers. Jesus is an extreme case, because he was so idealized that he was actually deified by later generations of followers. But the phenomenon certainly exists in lesser forms among other movement founders, including those who initiated sub-movements within the broader stream of Christianity itself.

It is interesting to note how followers within a movement will often resort to appeals to the authority of the movement's founder when engaging in internecine struggles with co-followers over the future of their common movement. For example, adherents of various Quaker sects will argue among themselves over which brand of Quakerism is the truer expression of George Fox's ideals; Lutherans will critique other Lutherans for not following the ideals of Martin Luther or the Augsburg Confession; and Methodists will use Wesley to justify a given theological position.

Amazingly, two people with wildly divergent views can both appeal to the same authority to bolster their position that they and they alone are the true heirs of the the tradition. Isn't it funny how the same Buddha inspired both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism? Or that the same George Fox inspires both modern liberal unprogrammed Quaker meetings as well as theologically conservative Quaker churches that have paid pastors and churches? And so on.

Maybe the diversity in thinking within the Jesus movement that emerged after Jesus's death was inevitable, and maybe not such a bad thing. Once a founder of a movement has died, he or she can exert no control that direction of that movement anymore; instead, such movements tend to take on a life of their own, often in diverse ways. And followers with competing viewpoints inevitably resort to WWSASD ("what would so-and-so do?") as a appeal to authority to justify their position.

George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, once famously posed a rhetorical question that cuts to the heart of these appeals to authority, asking, "You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?"

What canst thou say indeed? I like what Glynn Cardy had to say about Jesus. It is my desire, as we ponder this season of Advent, to de-mythologize Jesus and return to him his full humanity. He was a wonderful religious pioneer with a fantastic message and life (and a tragic death) that speaks to us profoundly today. And I prefer to keep it at that. I do not choose to deify Jesus simply even though I greatly admire him or what he did.