History and Faith

(please write from an opinion of someone who believes in a god but still has questions regarding religions; no sources needed)  We are in a transition from research by scholars, particularly though not exclusively historians, into the question of “What WAS the real person Jesus like, and what did he preach and do?” to popular, non-scholarly images of Jesus in America (Stephen Prothero’s book).  Images of Jesus in America will once again raise the question of “history and faith,” namely, should one’s Christian faith rely in any sense on the results of historical research or is one’s Christian faith totally independent of the tendentious results of historical research? Up to this point in the course, we have studied scholars who have had to try and separate the real historical Jesus from the differing portraits and images of him in the New Testament’s Gospels in order to reconstruct a historical portrait of him.  In other words, historians have to separate Jesus from how later Christians, or the churches, portrayed him.  Now, one theme that will become very clear in Prothero’s book is that not only scholars separate Jesus from later portraits of him, because images of Jesus in America have resulted primarily from separating Jesus from the images of Jesus that institutional Christianity preaches.  As Prothero will have no trouble showing, Americans, at least after Thomas Jefferson, had (and still have) an intense interest in Jesus, but much less interest in the institutional Church, or in the Bible for that matter.  That is, many of the images of Jesus in America have little or nothing to do with either the institutional Church or with the New Testament.  (As an aside, the issue also has been raised many times about how related the preached Jesus of different churches is to the first century person named “Jesus.”)  Once again, the issue of the relation of faith to history will be poignantly raised. It might surprise you to learn that many biblical scholars are deeply committed Christians who wrestle with the same issue (of history and faith).  For example, David Gowler (Emory University), who has written an excellent summary for students and lay persons about the Quest for the Historical Jesus, opens his book with “[T]his book therefore is not just an academic exercise.  It incorporates aspects of my own academic and spiritual journey.  Over 27 years ago, I was a chemical engineering student at the University of Illinois.  During my junior year, however, I began my own quest for the historical Jesus.  After taking some philosophy and religion courses, I made two decisions: to become a religion major and to try and become a college professor.  Needless to say, I did not ‘find’ the historical Jesus during that initial semester of study; instead I discovered that I wanted to devote my life to the study of the New Testament and in doing so continue my own quest for the historical Jesus.” (p. ix)  And he ends his book this way (after summarizing most of the scholarly views about the historical Jesus): “Why should we take the effort to search for Jesus and to reconstruct his message?  This effort is fascinating on a purely historical level, but Charles Hedrick [a Christian biblical scholar at Southwest Missouri State University] suggests another very important reason for Christians to ponder: ‘The savior worshipped in song and prayer seems so easy to understand . . . [but] studying Jesus, rather than simply affirming creedal statements learned in childhood, can bring new insights, . . . and a deeper appreciation for the complementary relationship between faith and history.'”  Then Prothero continues: “Many Christians, at first, discover that academic reconstruction of the historical Jesus can be disconcerting if not troublesome for their faith.  In the long run, however, such efforts most often lead to a more authentic, robust, and mature faith. “(pp. 143-44) As you now enter the world of non-scholarly, American images of Jesus, where do you stand—whether you’re a Christian or not–on the issue of history (what Jesus was really like) and faith (having faith in “Jesus”)?  Should faith be dependent on the results of historical research or not? Or, if you’d rather go another direction, what questions do you have (and can you frame sharply and clearly) about the relation of one’s faith to history?  The importance (or not) of historical study about Jesus?  The issue of whether (or should) people be able to just make up any image of Jesus that they like to reinforce their own cause(s) or lives?  And, are there any other questions that YOU think are important but I have not listed?

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