by Pastor Doug Kings
This is the last of my Reflections series on the difficulties we have as modern people reading the ancient stories of Holy Week and Easter. To wrap up, I look at a more general issue, and that is the relationship between belief and faith.
Why do we believe what we believe? One problem with answering that question is that we stretch the word “believe” to mean different things. Here are a few examples, all dealing with President John F. Kennedy.
- Do you believe JFK existed? Easy—of course he did. It’s undisputed.
- Do you believe JFK was a practicing Catholic? A little hesitation—we know he was Catholic. But there’s that word “practicing.” Well, yes, he must have been. There are pictures of him at church.
- Do you believe JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone? Okay, this is tougher. There are differing viewpoints on this. He either did or didn’t but which is the case is in dispute. Take your pick.
- Finally, do you believe JFK was a great president? This is obviously a matter of opinion which could be argued endlessly. Again, take your pick.
Notice that in each of these questions, ranging from indisputable fact to debatable opinion, we can use the word “believe.” Could each of these questions be resolved by factual evidence? In the first and third, it would seem so, though getting that evidence is much easier for the first than for the third. The fourth question we would probably say “No” because people have different understandings of what it means to be a great president. The second question could also be problematic since there might be some disagreement over what constitutes a “practicing” Catholic.
Questions of fact and opinion often seem to be clearly different at first glance but then get less clear as we look at them longer. You may be aware, for example, that some contend that Shakespeare’s plays were not, in fact, written by William Shakespeare. In their view, the man from Stratford-on-Avon did not have either the talent or the worldly experience to produce works as profound as these.
Instead, they believe “Shakespeare” was a front or pseudonym for someone wishing to be anonymous, possibly in Elizabeth I’s court. (“Anonymous” is the name of a movie based on this possibility.) Most Shakespeare scholars—but not all—dismiss such a notion as nonsense. The problem is that after four hundred years so much tangible evidence has disappeared. Who is right? Can we ever know? Does it matter?
You probably are not aware that there is a similar dispute about Jesus. The question at issue is even more fundamental: Did Jesus exist? Our inclination is to say that, of course, he did. This is like the first JFK question. Yet when we begin to examine it more closely, the question starts to look like one of the more disputable ones.
Again, the problem is lack of evidence. There are no birth records or any documentation of anything that happened to Jesus. We have nothing written by Jesus himself. Scholars today doubt we have eye-witness accounts of anything Jesus said or did, including from any of his disciples. The earliest biblical writings are by Paul, probably twenty years or so after Jesus died, and he makes it clear he did not know Jesus. The gospels are written at least 40-70 years after Jesus and even their occasional claims to have second-hand information are now widely doubted.
Yet, of course, the New Testament was written, and Christianity did happen. Something must have caused them and the most obvious something is “Jesus.” The “Jesus Myth” advocates (as they’re called) contend that his story and personality were basically cobbled together from a variety of ancient characters and stories, historical and fictional, Jewish and pagan. Most scholars, however, even very critical ones, say there is no reason not to accept the obvious explanation, which is that someone named Jesus was the origin of the Christian movement.
One mythic Jesus scholar has put his finger on what may be the real problem. Dr. Robert Price writes,
“There may once have been an historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained-glass curtain of holy myth.”
In other words, with nearly 2000 years of theology and religious story telling between us and Jesus of Nazareth, as a historical person he has become nearly invisible. And religious scholars say much the same about Abraham and Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, and all the great religious figures of the ancient past.
What is important to realize, however, is that these are all questions about beliefs, not of faith. We can believe what we want about people or events of history, but those things are all gone. All we have are the stories and words of the Bible. These words create a “faith reaction”, as they interact with our own experiences and God’s Spirit within us. We hear “good news” and then respond by living our lives in a way that is shaped by that gospel. We live with love, compassion, and hope rather than fear, hatred, and selfishness.
New evidence and discoveries may change our beliefs. Faith, however, as Paul says, comes by hearing the stories and the Word within those stories. We can never genuinely recover the past. Yet stories from and about the past, whether historically true or not, have the power to move us and change us. They are the Spirit’s tools for our awakening and transformation.
Blessings in your life and ministry.