The Jesus of History and the Stages of Faith

It has been estimated that in recent decades more books have been written and published about Jesus Christ than in the entire past history of Christianity.  Despite the warning of modern scholars about those who peer narcissistically into their own prejudices to produce a Jesus to their own liking, it seems that many, including some of the scholars themselves, have been engaged in writing his or her own version of the gospel story, each one blending the facts, to the extent that we know them, to come up with an interpretation to suit personal purposes and insights.  This book is probably no different.  It is, very simply, my own attempt at a life of Christ.

      The main purpose of this book can be deduced from the Foreword: it is to make the figure of Jesus more credible as a real historical human being who was, at the same time, preeminently, a person of faith.

The Historical Question

Leaving aside the bizarre opinion of those who deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived, no one who sets his or her mind to the task of writing anything on this subject can afford paying some attention to the work of all those scholars, who beginning early in the last century or even a little before, have struggled, in the so‑called Quest for the Historical Jesus as distinguished from the Christ of Faith.  Despite the impression that this quest has been motivated by an attempt to tear down belief in Jesus Christ—as may have been the case in a few instances—most of these scholars have been moved by a desire to make the figure of Christ more believable and less remote to human experience.  Their efforts, of course, launched that whole movement of modern biblical criticism or scholarship, a quest that is far from over even today.  Nor will this book ignore this important quest.  It will, for example, make liberal use of the almost universally accepted (even by the Vatican’s official Biblical Commission) distinction between the three layers or levels of tradition as found in the sources, that is, in the gospels themselves.

    The first layer is the actual record of the sayings and at least some of the deeds of Jesus.  That there happens to be a wide range of opinions as to what actually belongs to this memory of the historical Jesus does not change the fact that there was such a person and that he made a profound impression on those whom heard and witnessed him.  Nor can there be little doubt that this impression also set the stage for his execution.

     The second layer of this tradition, however, has a scope that goes beyond what Jesus may have actually said and done.  This layer represents the development of the kerygma or gospel (good news) message that proclaims the meaning of the life and death of Jesus for those who choose to follow him—the most outstanding claim of which is that the ignominious death of Jesus as a supposed criminal was but the prelude to his resurrection from the dead, a saving event that will forever change the course of history and the fate of the human race.

    Finally, beyond the fundamental message or meaning attached to his life by those who believed in him, there was created a third, or primarily theological layer of exposition.  It is this third level that gives each of the four traditionally accepted gospels its own distinctive outlook, each of which seems to have been addressed to meet a particular need—for example, Luke’s particular attempt to present a Jesus who is more comprehensible to the non‑Jewish world.

     Although ample use will be made of these distinctions, some problems will be introduced by them as well.

     The first problem is the most potentially damaging to any project like this.  It is simply that, in the opinion of many of the foremost scholars today, any attempt to construct a life of Jesus, in the manner of a biography, including a more or less agreed upon calendar or chronology of events making up his public life, is doomed from the start.  It has been long recognized that the order of particular events as presented in the Gospel according to John does not adhere closely to that presented by the other three gospels (the synoptics) and that those of Matthew and Luke borrowed more or less loosely from the story line found in Mark.  In other words, the more or less detailed sequence of events presented by the gospels is, for the most part, a third level tradition.  The most primitive or primary level of tradition, the only part that is undoubtedly historical in the modern sense (excluding his execution and probably his baptism) consists in the scattered recollections of his sayings and the reports of some of the astounding deeds that were said to have often accompanied them.  So, obviously, there is a problem!

    Nevertheless, we will foolishly forge forward on what may seem to at first be merely a hunch.  However, it is a lot more than merely that.  It is based on the most obviously historical fact of all—that Jesus of Nazareth was a living person who, no matter how famous or controversial he may have been, was nevertheless a human being much as the rest of us.  Although the fundamental conditions of human living may have changed greatly since that time, human nature itself has not changed all that much.  Humans are still conceived, born, and, to a large extent, develop physically and psychologically, much as they always have and probably always will.  Add to this the fact that even the story, in its basic outlines, (whether it be a creation of Mark or anyone else, or actually a remembrance of the sequence of events as they really happened) logically fits, almost “to a T” as they say, what was to prove to be its recorded outcome—not just by the gospel writers but even by a few non‑Christian historians of that era.  In fact, some scholars believe that even the story of the end of John the Baptist was retold to resemble that of Jesus. 

     All this is of great significance.  Ask any playwright, for example, to tell a story of a would‑be religious reformer who attracts a large following and ends up being executed by the authorities who want things to remain as they are, and you are bound to get a plot not unlike that presented by the gospels.  Such an outcome is almost, as they used to say, “written in the stars”.  So there should be no problem in following the story line presented by the synoptic gospels, and even using a bit of John’s own story line, as representing what in all probability actually took place.

     Yet there is a further problem.  For even as I have tried to utilize the results of this historical quest, I have found myself forced, by  the logic of the insights that I wish to bring to this study, to emphasize some aspects of the gospel story that modern biblical scholarship tends to discount as especially questionable.  Among these are the stories of the finding of the child Jesus in the temple, the temptations in the desert, his Transfiguration and even (in the treatment of the Resurrection faith) his so‑called “Descent into Hell”, which although this latter is not mentioned in the gospels, is an old scripture‑based theme.  Any mention of these, particularly of the latter, is bound to conjure up theories of religious myth designed to assure the reader that these events are not to be taken literally.  Still, as Joseph Campbell has taught us, are they not to be taken seriously nonetheless?  If myth is not to be understood as a vehicle of existential truth (as kind of truth that as one author put it, never “happened” but nevertheless “is”) then religious belief is indeed in a bad way.

    However, the reason that these stories have been singled out is not primarily based on any enlightened view of the meaning of myth or on the rejection of historical criticism.  Instead, most of all, it has to do with the realm of psychology in general, and more specifically developmental psychology and with what has become recently recognized and closely studied in terms of the phenomenon known as the “stages of faith”.

Faith Stages

No doubt that any mention of the word psychology in this context will cause all the warning flags to go up.  If there is any kind of speculation that upsets the typical academic biblical scholar more than conjectures of what may or may have not been the psychological state of Jesus at any given time, it is hard to say what else it might be.  Descriptions of Jesus as having rejoiced, been saddened, to have wept, or that he groaned, or that he sometimes got outright angry, seem to bother no one just as long no one suggests what the reasons might conceivably have been for these expressions of emotion.  No doubt, most of these depictions belong to the third level or story line of the tradition, but a logical basis for such expressions (whether they took place at the occasions as described in the gospels or not) would be in the structure of the human psyche itself—something that we might presume that Jesus shared with the rest of us.  In fact, the only logical reason for denying ourselves some plausibly valid insights into the mental and psychological processes that probably did in fact take place in Jesus’ mind would be the denial that he had a mind that worked in ways similar to ours.  Yet such an opinion, despite its repeated occurrence down through history (similar to the incident described in the Foreword), was long ago condemned as being heretical.

     It is for this reason that no further apologies will be made for treating the possibility of something like Luke’s story of the finding of the child Jesus in the temple as being highly plausible, even if not historically verifiable, or the visionary experience on Mt. Tabor—no matter how confounding to modern prejudices—as being, very possibly, the historical turning point of Jesus’ own decision to carry out what he understood to be his mission, cost what it might.  The fact that such incidents may have been added to the story by the evangelists as so‑called theologumena or “God‑talk” should not bother us all that much.  If anyone knows anything about the lives of mystics, prophets, and even some philosophers, such psychic events are all more real, at least in terms of what motivated their outlook and behavior, than most other things in the story of their lives.

     Thus, unlike most of the scholarly “questers” after the historical Jesus, this book will not attempt to set aside these later levels of tradition to concentrate on the actual words and deeds of Jesus alone.  Instead, it will try to use the results of the historical quest to clear the deck, as it were, to make room for a new approach, a new theological slant—even a new third level interpretation if you will—where the second level message or kerygma supplies the guidelines as to where this quest is leading.

     Just what is this insight or approach?  Again, as the title of this book, as well as the personal story recounted in the Foreword, tried to make clear, it is an attempt to apply faith stage analysis to the story of Jesus in hopes that his life can be more effectively a model for ours.

     The research that led to such a concept as faith stages originally had nothing to do with religion or belief.  It has its roots in the developmental theories of psychiatrist Erik Erikson and especially in the pioneering work of the Swiss educational psychologist Jean Piaget, who years back did extensive studies on the cognitive stages of growth in the reasoning processes of young boys.  There were no big surprises, except the suspicion that many adults continue to reason in similar ways, confirming what later feminist critics are right to point out, even if in a different context, that boys will be boys.

     Piaget’s findings were then used for a similar series of studies, but this time focused particularly on moral reasoning, by the American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.  In this case, the results were rather upsetting, especially when compared to more mature levels of moral reasoning.  It seems that few of the subjects progressed much farther than the kind of immediate group and peer loyalty, with its notion of fairness as the norm of justice which is usually reached in the latter stages of childhood or early adolescence.  Further studies have shown that most adults, unless effectively challenged to go beyond that stage, rarely do so.

     This is highly significant when it comes to understanding the impact of Jesus on his own society—unless we are to suppose that in that time and place people were already generally advanced beyond what seems the norm now.  In some aspects, perhaps they were, but across‑the‑board it remains doubtful.  Clearly, Jesus was preaching on a new stage of moral development, one that while it attracted large numbers of the general population, at the same time caused the authorities to become alarmed.  Any rabble‑rouser could have of course, caused such an effect.  Still, it is clear that the effect recorded in the gospels, particularly by those passages that make up The Sermon on the Mount, was a call to a new level of religious and moral consciousness.

     This, in turn, leads us more specifically to what are called “the stages of faith”.  Following Kohlberg’s lead, theologian James W. Fowler developed a further set of tests that focused on the understandings and attitude generally associated with faith or religious beliefs, and found a much similar result.  While having moved beyond the earliest stages, the majority of adults showed signs of not having advanced in their understanding of their religious beliefs in any way that much differed from those reached in their early teens.  Thus, most adults seem to be comfortable with what can be called an entirely conventional   stage of faith, one which identifies one’s religious faith with ones family, nationality, or ethnic group.  This is not to imply that this allegiance is insincere, but it is often confused with other things that have nothing to do with religion.

    On the other hand, in Fowler’s study there was a significant minority who showed considerable personal commitment that is quite independent of the above factors, even though it may still coincide with them.  Here we have the occurrence of what I have termed (in my book on the subject of faith development) a truly personal faith, one that has to be taken seriously as a commitment made by an individual quite conscious of what is at stake.  In other words, at the heart of such personal faith is a kind of conversion experience, at least in the sense of a deliberate owning up to what has been up to that time largely taken for granted.  Some, no doubt in a more emotional sense, call this a “born‑again” experience.  Others, taking a more intellectual approach, may simply see it as taking ones own religion seriously.

    However, beyond that stage, there is one that Fowler has termed “paradoxical-consolidative” but which I have called conjunctive.  It is characterized perhaps by what might be thought of as a broader or more philosophical point of view, one in which there is a certain openness towards others’ points of view or towards persons that their own society tends to reject.  It seems to be an attitude that is more concerned about people’s well‑being than about their religious affiliation, about doing good things rather than about identity or loyalty to any particular group.  Here the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, at least as the latter are depicted in the gospels—which is to say hardly in a complimentary way—if not entirely accurate, nevertheless highlights the difference.  Both are sincerely committed to what they believe.  The charge of being a “hypocrite” may not be a very accurate translation here, as at least some of these fellows apparently really did believe you could lose your soul by failing to wash your dishes.  Jesus just believed there were much more important issues at stake and more important standards by which one would be judged than whether or not one was an observant Jew.

     Finally, Fowler’s analysis holds up a higher stage yet, one which he calls “universalizing” but which I call unitive.  Unfortunately, it is so rare we are given to calling such persons “saints”, even though a lot of the people given this title down through history had some glaring faults nonetheless.  Some were great mystics, others were martyrs, some neither, but in general, they seem to be persons who try, as much as they can, to live in constant awareness of God and in constant obedience to God’s will as they understand it.  Not all of them, by a long shot, have been Christians.  Yet how much they still remind us of Jesus!

    This brings up the final challenge that has to be considered before we examine his faith and his life.  Why is it that so few people succeed in emulating his example—or even try to?  The answer to this question forms what might be called the base note or background theme of this book.  It has to do with the very nature of faith.

The Risk of Faith

It should be understood, despite the widespread confusion between the two words, that faith is not the same as belief.  People believe all sorts of things, many of them not having the slightest thing to do with faith in any theological sense of the word.  Faith in the biblical meaning of the Hebrew word emunah, and especially in the gospel meaning of the Greek word pistis, has primarily to do with trust.  No doubt, this trust is founded on certain beliefs, but without that trust and commitment that trust demands, there can be no real faith.

    Nor does the commitment of faith mean the same as confidence despite the inclusion of the Latin word for faith (fides) in that much-desired attitude towards life.  Confidence, like security, is but a by‑product of a life of faith, and as a by‑product, much like happiness or fulfillment, can never successfully become an end or goal in itself.  (See especially the discussion of Viktor Frankl’s psycho-dynamics in chapters 1 and 2 of my earlier book.)  God will not be used as a self-enhancement program or as a security blanket.  Real faith is not refuge from life.  It involves just the opposite.  Hence it must be made clear that real faith involves risk, and that risk is really, when one comes down to it, a matter of defining the whole meaning of our lives in terms of what we believe to be our responsibility to God and to the world, and living our lives accordingly.

     Thus the risk involved in living the life of faith, a risk multiplied by the fact that this belief cannot be certain knowledge.  As St. Paul put it, “…for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Co 5:7).  No one, when making a commitment, knows exactly what the outcome might be.  Otherwise, a commitment would not be necessary.  The security of knowing that all will turn out well is nice to have, but if we were absolutely certain, we would have no more need for faith.

     All this suggests that the failure to grow in faith, the inability to risk the consolation afforded by ones present stage of faith, is itself the greatest obstacle to any further growth.  How else explain the unspeakable crimes committed down through history in the name of religion or the religious intolerance that even today pits one “true believer” against another?  Do such attitudes manifest any real trust in God?  By any stretch of the imagination, can this be said to be what Jesus taught?  If Jesus steadfastly refused either to be intimidated by his opponents, or to strike back at them or in any way to coerce them, but instead chose to suffer persecution in resolute dedication to his mission as he saw it, it was because love, and the faith and hope that flowed from it, were the primary motive forces of his life.

     This is why I propose Jesus as a model for us.  In an age of disbelief—or, I should say rather in an age that is ready to believe anything, providing it produces a good feeling—it  is Jesus who most of all presents to us an example of genuine and radical faith.  Moreover, it was without doubt a faith that grew in intensity the more it was challenged by the risk‑taking demanded by his mission to the world.  Thus, it is that the faith of Jesus—and by this I mean the faith that Jesus himself had in the God whom he called his “Father”—must be the great exemplar for our own faith.  Otherwise, can we really claim to be his followers in the footsteps of his “race” to do the Father’s will?

    This is also why so much weight has been put, at least in this book, on the short passage, which is in fact barely one line in length (12:1b‑2a) found in the next-to-last chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This is because it is the one place in scripture that refers so directly to Jesus as our “leader in faith”, this, despite the fact that this same epistle begins with an avowal and praise of Jesus as God’s “Son” who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s being” and who “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:2-3). How can Jesus be both the “Son of God” and yet, at the same time, a model of or our leader in faith, instead of the “author 

of our faith” that so many, or even most of our translations of this passage make him out to be? (For a short but detailed look at this problem, see the Appendix on pages 125-26.)

    There are many people, not all of them Bible translators or theologians, for whom this approach raises difficulties.  After all, is not Jesus divine?  Would he have not, as the Son of God, already known all that he needed to know as a man?  How could Jesus be said to have had faith?  In this way, our belief in Christ’s divinity has all too often acted like a set of blinders that have prevented us from seeing clearly what is all too obvious to those who read the scriptures without prejudice—that Jesus had his own set of convictions, and that even some of these, at least in part, may have been incomplete or subject to revision as time went on.

    No doubt some will say that in suggesting this, I have fixed my own set of blinders to establish my own prejudice and an agenda to go with it—that of trying to humanize Christ and make him just like one of us.  If by “just” it is implied that he was simply the same as us in every way, then no, I would deny this charge.  I believe that “Never has anyone spoken like this!” (Jn 7:46), nor has any mere man lived as this one.  Nevertheless, I am trying to see Jesus in his full humanity.  The reader should not be misled about that.  In this, I believe that I stand in full solidarity with those early Church theologians who made it their maxim, in the face of those who would water down Jesus’ humanity to leave more room for his divinity, that “What wasn’t assumed wasn’t redeemed.”  Accordingly, I would argue that if Jesus truly existed as a living, breathing, human being, he had to live to some extent, as the “just man” on “faith alone” (Rm 4:3, Jm 2:23).

     However, this image of Jesus who runs the race of faith before us and leads us to its completion still has to be reconciled with that of the glorified “Son of God”.   Simply making both assertions, even if that is what the Epistle to the Hebrews does, is not enough.  Human understanding, being limited, tends to lurch from one side to the other of what seems to be a contradiction in terms. As a result, while certain ancient world-views or modes of thinking may have provided what seemed to be, in past ages, something like a solution to this problem, more often, they only simply restated the problem more precisely. In contrast, it could be that more contemporary understandings—for example of human nature understood in an evolutionary context—may provide us with a fresh start to addressing such difficulties, even though the language employed in such an effort may strike traditionalists as quite unorthodox. 

     Nevertheless, but precisely for this same reason, I have added a final chapter on “Faith in Christ”, a kind of “Christological Postscript”, in which I have attempted to sketch my approach to keeping this balance and to which readers are invited to turn at any time if they harbor suspicions that I have already lost it.  However, they must understand that this book is first of all concerned with contemplating the faith of Jesus, while the task of achieving a full understanding of our faith or belief in the Christ as both God and man is quite another thing.  It would have be the task of another book, one that would turn out to be much longer than this short attempt to address such a deep mystery—one that can only gradually reveal itself as we grow in understanding and slowly mature in faith.