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Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Quest...

A day or two after my post on Albert Schweitzer, I turned my thoughts to the question of whether or not to produce a follow-up. I had already determined that if I was to write one it would be on The Quest of the Historical Jesus, the book that was probably responsible for first thrusting him fully into the public gaze - and for sure into my gaze. Then I read the comment byThe Weaver of Grass on my original post, pointing out that we (The Weaver and I) are of about the same age and that Schweitzerhad been a very real presence during our childhoods and adolescence - which said at least part of what I had been trying to get across, while putting it much more succinctly than I had managed. And then I found myself at Box-Elder reading her Books Lying About post, and the three things came together somehow in the deeper recesses of my mind to remind me of the way in which my book collection has changed since those far-off years. When - and maybe partly because - Schweitzer was such a towering presence, my bookcases were largely filled with works of theology. I was an altar boy at my local (Anglican) parish church and later would become a Methodist lay preacher (a somewhat heretical one, if the truth be told), but over the years, and I think partly through the influence of The Quest of the Historical Jesus I became less and less interested in what I came to see as the rather sterile Philosophy of God. Slowly the shelves were taken over by books on art, literature (with an emphasis on poetry), some science and a few selected novels. That is my rationale for choosing to post on The Historical Jesus: the influence it had on me. I do not say that Schweitzer was entirely responsible for the shift in my concerns and interests, that would be too simple, but he was one who happened along at that time and so became part of the process.

However, the question of synchronicity becomes more fascinating by the day. It was first raised in this connection by Art Durkee in a comment to my Reverence for Life post. He had been re-reading Frederick Franck's To Be Human Against All Odds when my post appeared. Franck was a disciple of Schweitzer and Franck's life was very much modelled on the master's. I am grateful to Art for the comment, for I have not read any of Franck's work, but intend to rectify that omission ASAP.

If Schweitzer is not as well-known as I believe he should be, The Quest of the Historical Jesus seems even more neglected. It is easy to see why this would be, and certainly I do believe that in today's world more than ever it is the philosophy of Reverence for Life that it might be redemptive for us to adopt as our default life-style, but, as I have pointed out, The Quest played a part - and a big part - in my early and development and in my early and developing interest in Schweitzer. Partly it was, I am sure, that society had different concerns in those days. Maybe it was the lead in to the age of the celebrity. Whatever it was, Schweitzer's emphasis on Christ's humanity seemed to fit the public mood exactly. One anecdote might illustrate. In my teens I was invited to paint a mural for a small, country church. It had to show something of Christ's ministry. I duly produced a painting as a cartoon for the proposed work. In fact, the project never came about, and I heard - and saw - no more of either the matter or the cartoon. The whole busines had died a natural death so far as I was concerned. Unknown to me, however, it was not quite dead: the cartoon had found its way into a local art exhibition. (Local to the church, not to me.) The local paper sent a reporter to cover the exhibition. He wrote a longish piece on my painting. It never appeared in the local paper, but still without my knowledge, it was syndicated - whatever that might mean in media terms - and appeared (apparently - for I still knew nothing of all this) in various places around the world. And I never would have known, had not some kind person collected a wadge of cuttings and sent them to me anonymously. I found the whole business to be quite amazing. I had not realized that so much material was available on the subject of Jesus the man, or that it would generate so much interest. One correspondent had referred, for example, to an official report by a Roman Centurion to his superiors describing Jesus in some detail. Most, though, drew conclusions from gospel passages. One I recall based his argument around the act of Zaccheus in climbing a sycamore tree to get a good view of Jesus as he passed by. The Gospel record says he wanted to see what Jesus was like; but he could not, on account of the crowd - for he was of small stature. That last remark - for he was of small stature - has usually been taken as referring to Zaccheus, but several correspondents pointed out that it could as easily refer to Christ. All rather dull and academic - in the present climate. I have related it, though, to show how attitudes have changed. That lengthy debate would rate perhaps a whimsical letter in The Times today, but not much more, I think. (Though the various images of Jesus are culturally important, no undisputed record of his appearance is known to exist - here - though it is interesting, perhaps, to note that there is more to go on than is the case when, for example, we discuss the appearance of Shakespeare.)

Of course, the physical appearance of Jesus is not the stuff of Schweitzer's book. He is interested in deeper matters, but my anecdote illustrates, I think, how times - and interests - have changed. For me the book was a breakthrough. I was having severe trouble with the Son of God bit. Schweitzer put it differently: that Jesus was not born the Son of God, but that during his ministry he became increasingly conscious that he was, as we all are, the Son of God, though in his case in a unique way, i.e. he was The Only Son of God. The title, the role and the implication of both were freely entered into by him as a fully conscious and accepting being.

I will not attempt a synopsis of The Quest of the Historical Jesus. There is so much on the web, that one only has to Google Schweitzer's name or anything to do with him to be almost embarrassed by a wealth of riches. I will simply give some quotes as I did for Reverence for Life, enough, I hope, to give sufficient of its flavour for you to judge whether or not it is a book for you..

"But the others, those who tried to bring Jesus to life at the call of love, found it a cruel task to be honest. The critical study of the life of Jesus has been for theology a school of honesty. The world had never seen before, and will never see again, a struggle for truth so full of pain and renunciation as that of which the Lives of Jesus of the last hundred years contain the cryptic record."

"When we have once made up our minds that we have not the materials for a complete Life of Jesus, but only for a picture of His public ministry, it must be admitted that there are few characters of antiquity about whom we possess so much indubitably historical information, of whom we have so many authentic discourses."

"There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: 'Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.' Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign."

"For a hundred and fifty years the question has been historically discussed why Judas betrayed his Master. That the main question for history was what he betrayed was suspected by few and they touched on it only in a timid kind of way ... The traitorous act of Judas cannot of consisted in informing the Sanhedrin where Jesus was to be found at a suitable place for an arrest. ... The betrayal by which he brought his Master to death, in consequence of which the rulers decided upon the arrest, knowing that their cause was safe in any case, was the betrayal of the Messianic secret. Jesus died because two of His disciples had broken His command of silence; Peter when he made known the secret of the Messiahship to the Twelve at Caesarea Philippi; Judas Iscariot by communicating it to the High Priest. But the difficulty was that Judas was the sole witness. Therefore the betrayal was useless so far as the actual trial was concerned unless Jesus admitted the charge. So they first tried to secure His condemnation on other grounds, and only when these attempts broke down did the High Priest put, in the form of a question, the charge in support of which he could have brought no witnesses.
But Jesus immediately admitted it, and strengthened the admission by an allusion to His Parousia in the near future as the Son of Man.
The betrayal and the trial can be rightly understood when it is realized that the public knew nothing whatever of the secret of the Messiahship."

"Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity."

Finally, for good measure, some more quotes from Reverence for Life

"The plowman does not pull the plow. He does not push it. He only directs it. That is just how events move in our lives. We can do nothing but guide them straight is the direction which leads to our Lord Jesus Christ, striving toward him in all we do and experience. Strive toward him, and the furrow will plow itself."

"But the man who dares to live his life with death before his eyes, the man who receives life back bit by bit and lives as though it did not belong to him by right but has been bestowed on him as a gift, the man who has -- overcome death in his thoughts--such a man believes in eternal life because it is already his, it is a present experience, and he already benefits from its peace and joy. He cannot describe this experience in words. He may not be able to conform his view with the traditional picture of it. But one thing he knows for certain: Something within us does not pass away, something goes on living and working wherever the kingdom of the spirit is present. It is already working and living within us, because in our hearts we have been able to reach life by overcoming death."

"I do not want to frighten you by telling you about the temptations life will bring. Anyone who is healthy in spirit will overcome them. But there is something I want you to realize. It does not matter so much what you do. What matters is whether your soul is harmed by what you do. If your soul is harmed, something irreparable happens, the extent of which you won't realize until it will be too late."

"These three great temptations unobtrusively wreck the presupposition of all goodness. Guard against them. Counter the first temptation [indifference, followed by uselessness] by saying that for you to share experience and to lend a helping hand is an absolute inward necessity. Your utmost attempts will be but a drop in the ocean compared with what needs to be done, but only this attitude will give meaning and value to your life. Wherever you are, as far as you can, you should bring redemption, redemption from the misery brought into the world by self-contradictory will of life, redemption that only he who has this knowledge can bring. The small amount you are able to do is actually much is it only relieves pain, suffering, and fear from any living being, be it human or any other creature. The preservation of life is the true joy.

As for the other temptation, the fear that compassion will involve you in suffering, counter it with the realization that the sharing of sorrow expands your capacity to share joy as well. When you callously ignore the suffering of others, you lose the capacity to share their happiness, too. And however little joy we may see in this world, the sharing of it, together with the good we ourselves create, produces the only happiness which makes life tolerable. And finally, you have no right to say: I will be this, or I will be that, because I think one way will make me happier than another. No, you must be what you ought to be, a true, knowing man, a man who identifies himself with the world, a man who experiences the world within himself. Whether you are happier by the ordinary standards of happiness or not doesn't matter. The secret hour does not requires of us that we should be happy--to obey the call is the only thing that satisfies deeply.

So I tell you, don't let your hearts grow numb. Stay alert. It is your soul which matters.

A good thought on which to end, perhaps.

The first image above is of Jesus as depicted in the Ravenna Mosaics.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Enjoyed this post Dave. On the whole you express my sentiments exactly. I certainly agree that my bookcase looks nothing like it would have looked fifty years ago. I also agree that we have to be who we are - "to thine ownself be true" is how I like to see it. And another maxim I try to live by is that nothing lasts for ever, so you have to ake the absolute most of it, whatever it is, while it is there. Best wishes.

Dave King said...

The Weaver of Grass
Yes I go along with that, particularly with To thine own self be true. Not only does nothing last for ever, nothing succeeds for ever. Sounds like a truism if you accept the earlier maxim, I know - but they are not necessarily logically connected, I suggest.

willow said...

Interesting post, Dave. I am putting Schweitzer's The Quest on my book list. Synchronicity has been on my mind lately, too. I might have to check out the Franck book, as well.

Dave King said...

I had been wondering whether to put it on my book list, but then I discovered that Reverence for Life, which I thought I had, wseems to be missing and will have to take precedence. Not sure about the list, though; another one might be the straw that broke... something or other.

Bill Stankus said...

The Jesus factor. For myself, I break it down this way. Human thought and social growth seems to have three phases and all are premised on the notion that humans have inquisitive intelligence which demands answers to the question, “why?”.

During phase one, life was brutally primitive and the development of the god belief probably arose to explain death, misery, sudden beauty and what happens when one dies. Religion answered these questions with simplistic stories and simplistic cause and effects. Believe in a god, or else ... pillars of salt, flaming bushes, sacrificing one’s children - all in your face sort of things. And the glimmer that came with the Draconian approach was the promise of a rewarding after life. Since no one knew to the contrary, conversion was fairly straight forward.

Phase two developed a more rational set of explanations and eventually the scientific methodology came to be the measure for how to answer mysterious questions. Of, course there was war between the old beliefs and the new thing called science. I assume the reason science succeeded against old myths was because it delivered a better standard of living, better weapons and so forth. What religion and science had in common was exclusivity and a ruling class that dispensed either salvation or rational problem solving.

Phase three saw the development of intellectual abstraction. Wise people (mostly men) attempted to think through the ageless questions of Life and Death and what comes after. From this came secular and religious reasoned philosophies. The printing press was a boon for dispensing this wisdom.

Religious philosophies were satisfying to many but not to those with a grasp of science or a refusal to simply believe because someone said, “you must believe”. The science these people accepted is the sort that questions everything and is very no-nonsense concerning subjective beliefs. Objective became the principle modus operandi. Thus the development of phenomenology and existentialism.

So, here we are in 2008 with a full palette of beliefs. Many people remain firmly rooted in primitive mythologies, others are either neutral or indifferent to the old beliefs, we have scientists who either reject or accept the god belief and there are those who only accept modern intellectual abstractions.

I wonder if a Phase four will occur?

Mad Bush Farm Crew said...

What a fascinating post Dave. I'll have to go and get the book and read it. Sounds like an excellent read. Thanks for the insight.

All the best

hope said...

You always make me think. :)

It's funny, I never thought of Jesus being the "short" one instead of Zaccheus. Guess it was that song I learned as a kid, "Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see..."

S. A. Hart said...

As always, an insightful and inspiring post that makes me thirst for more!

Dave King said...

Bill Stankus

Surely phase 4 will be some sort of synthesis, the equivalent, maybe, of the search for a theory of everything?

Whatever, many thanks for your comments. Nothing there to disagree with (though I admise the courage of your (mainly men) observation!

Mad Bush Farm Crew

And thanks for the comment.

Funnily enough, I did not know the ditty, but a good friend of mine has emailed it to me. I may post it!

Much appreciate your kind comments.

Conda V. Douglas said...

As a mystery writer, I've been reading books about sociopaths/psychopaths. Such people have no empathy or compassion along with no conscience or guilt--and all the experts agree that while they don't suffer grief, neither do they experience joy.

Another thought-provoking and interesting post, Dave.

Dave King said...


Likewise your comment. I just now went from writing an outline for a new poem to reading your comment, and you exactly replicated some of my thinking. Remarkable!

Dick said...

As always, a fascinating read, Dave. I went to an unusual school in Yorkshire, Wennington School, started by a Quaker activist, Kenneth Barnes. Although it wasn't an official Quaker school, the dispensation was dominated by the Friends' open minded, challenging approach to Christian faith. Schweitzer was a key figure in Barnes' panoply of great spiritual movers and shakers and, although subsequently I lost any faith that once I might have had, he was something of an influence on me too.

Sweet Talking Guy.. said...

Thanks for the education Dave, it's good for me to get out of my own little world, sometimes.

Dave King said...

Sounds an interesting school you went to. There are so many levels to faith, I always think. There seems always to be something left - as in the case of influence of great characters.

Sweet Talking Guy
All worlds get a bit claustrophobic at times, I find.

McGuire said...

I'b be interested to know if this man had any thoughts on sexuality and sexual morality. Simply because some of the Christians I know don't take kindly to either notion.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that, but I don't know of any views held by him on either topic. I can see it could be of interest. I suppose he having become my great hero during my sexually "latent" period, such matters would not have gripped me at that stage. Worth looking into though. Thought: do you mean his sexuality and sexual morality or sexuality and sexual morality in general? I took you to mean the former.

McGuire said...

Yes, in general. It's a subject close to my soul, hence I occassionally mention it. An odd question and perhaps inappropriate but I am curious nonetheless. Will do some research.

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