Friday, May 30, 2008

Jesus and the New Story

Christians finding their way to the New Story, with its themes of evolution and emergence, face a daunting task of re-interpretation. How do they relate to the old, embedded as it is in Bible and Creed? What do they make of the stories? What do they make of Jesus?

Any number of writers are making that re-interpretation. One is Margaret Silf, whose Roots and Wings does so in a series of short, exploratory reflections. The book puts new wine in old wineskins, with all the perils attendant upon that process. Perhaps that's why she begins with the counsel, "Be not afraid."

Silf's revision opens with a walk through Eden, where she links the New Story to that ancient plot. When the serpent tempts, she is reminded of our lower "reptilian" brain. When Adam and Eve discover their nakedness, it's our hominid ancestors standing upright, exposing their tender undercarriage to possible attack. The curse of pain in childbirth? A narrow birth canal, the cost of the new bipedalism. Does Silf believe these meanings are actually in the Garden story? Sort of. To her, they are "other echoes" that the Genesis writer "had a hunch about" or perhaps articulated "unconsciously."

The major turnabout comes at the end: expulsion from Eden was not punishment but progress. Now homo sapiens had to toil and sweat to further its own evolution. Here, no case is made that "evolution" and "progress" are actually in Genesis. The wineskin is old, the wine entirely new.

Who, then, was Jesus, the "new Adam"? "This may be as far as the book goes for you," Silf warns. She reminds us that Jesus wrote nothing, left behind neither a philosophy nor a theology, established no form of government. Some would argue he established no church, founded no new religion. What he did leave behind was a spirit. "He entrusted the ongoing evolution of the human family to a few men and women who had understood who he was."

Silf's Jesus came up from the earth, not down from the heavens, and he did so just at the moment when homo sapiens was becoming spiritually aware. Jesus used the "lever" of love to shift the course of human evolution. Silf cannot accept the idea that he died to atone for sin. The God of compassion could not have demanded a blood sacrifice--the ultimate death penalty--to pay the price for some fall in the Garden 100,000 years before. Jesus was killed, rather, because he evoked the "shadow" side of a human nature incompletely evolved.

Did he rise from the dead? Silf imagines Jesus becoming a "wave of pure energy" that many call the Holy Spirit. He is the perfect model of where evolution is heading, or at least has the chance to head: a stage in which humanity fully reflects the divine life.

This is a new Christian story, and Silf is far from alone in telling it. The peril lies in the way it strains the old symbolic framework. At what point will the wineskins break? When is the story of Eden no longer the story of Eden? When does the figure of Jesus cease to be Jesus? The story cease to be Christian?

The New Story concepts of "evolution" and "emergence" are from the twentieth-century. For Christians to adopt them, they will have to take Jesus out of the categories of first century Jewish thought and bring him to the "gentiles" in a way Paul never imagined. The shifts in meaning may shock the orthodox, but they're no different from those that occurred in the first century after Jesus died. Arrange New Testament materials chronologically: the face of Jesus changes from first to last. Twenty centuries of art tell the same story. Risky business, this replacing of wine, but it's been happening from the very beginning. I think it's the only way a tradition lives.

Note: You can read the tales of science-spirit journeys by clicking here. The most recent is called "Journey Out of Religion." You're more than welcome to add to the collection.




Anonymous said...

John, As per usual you're onto something. Here's something I've been doing lately. Take the seven days of creation from Genesis, chapter one (I like the Robert Alter translation). Put one day on a card, and put 'em together. Meditate on each day--tied to the day of the week. Suspend all scientific understanding, or let it recede from attention. And all classical interpretations of the text, including all the various attempts to synthesize science and faith. Just let the word have their effect....

You notice things, after a while in the text. More subtlety than is normally noticed. Different angles on on the creative act: "And God said...and the earth yielded, and the seas swarmed....and it was so...and God saw." Information, means, after the fact reflection....a much more subtle thing going on.

Worldviews shift, and we take the old lenses off, or they are taken off for us, and we get disoriented, and then over time, re-focus....

ken wilson

Sharon Lippincott said...

Every word of your synopsis of Margaret Silf's interpretation resonates. Thanks for bringing her to our attention!

Dick Bayerl said...

As an old Catholic I find it interesting to see the simplicity of "Jesus and the New Story". It does, in a way, help me deal with how I wonder about Jesus (The Christ) and the Holy Spirit and just how it will all exist in eternity - when, after hundreds of billions of years, we who began experiencing creation on this planet, go on forever making this life seem at once so utterly small but also so real. As real as anything else in creation.

Anonymous said...

Commenting on "Anonymous" (Ken) above . . . . Here is a meditative technique for allowing new wine to soak into old symbols. Suspend judgment, abandon critical interpretation, allow the words to do their thing, let the story be a story. Something very subtle will happen, Ken says. You'll begin to notice things. You'll be able to refocus.

I would add that, while the words of the story are going IN to you, your thoughts will be going OUT. They'll be pouring into the story, even though it won't feel that way. It will feel like you're FINDING fresh meaning, but in actuality you'll be bringing it--and enriching the story, and the tradition, in the process.