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Honest to God: Christ Past

Ian Harris —

In the workaday world “Christ” is, more often than not and deplorably, a swear-word. On the religious margins it is, more often than not, just another name for Jesus. The former usage is ignorant, the latter sells the term short. With misconceptions abounding, some sorting out seems in order.

Novelist Philip Pullman also goes awry in his fable about Jesus and the twin brother he conjures up for him in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – but let’s not go there.

“Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah”, a title meaning “anointed” (by God is understood). For the Jews a messiah was essentially a deliverer, whether from their enemies or their sins. They applied the term to several of their kings and high priests but also to the Persian King Cyrus, who conquered Babylon in 539 BC and allowed the Jews, whom the Babylonians had driven into exile there 48 years earlier, to return home.

So long before Jesus the title carried a history and a hope, both of which are reflected in the story of God-become-human that gelled around Jesus in the first century AD. The technical word for that is “myth”, which in religion is an anchoring story which people can enter imaginatively and become part of – and when they do, a new perspective on life opens up to them. All living myths have that inward and transformative effect. Myths can also wither though when the world in which they were shaped moves on.

That is what has been happening to the central Christian myth, using the word in its positive religious sense. The myth flourished during the many centuries when a real and objective, pure and righteous God was universally taken for granted, and when the big question was how a sin-prone humanity could ever be acceptable to such a Being.

In the ancient world Jews were conscious of the utter holiness of the God they worshipped and, in marked contrast, their own sinfulness. Temple ceremonies therefore focussed on animal sacrifice to make the people acceptable to God. But, they wondered, how could they be sure those offerings would suffice?

Greeks of the period were weighed down by the thought of the vast distance that separated them from God. They couldn’t imagine how that gap could ever be bridged.

Christianity’s mythic story evolved to answer those pressing questions and was embellished over centuries. Jesus the anointed one would take on himself the ultimate penalty for human sinfulness – he would become the perfect sacrifice that alone would atone for sin. His followers would be invited to identify themselves with Jesus’ sacrifice and so be delivered from the consequences of sin. Instead of death and damnation, they would enjoy life with God in heaven. The gap was bridged at last!

Those are mighty claims and mighty rewards and there was a time when they dovetailed perfectly with the notions of a theistic God, a heaven as real as earth, and a fallen humanity locked into sinfulness merely by being human. (The story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden explained how humanity had got itself into such a pickle.)

The world has changed out of sight since that understanding of the centrality of Christ became entrenched. Today six basic elements no longer apply:

· We have a vastly different understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it.

· A symbolic understanding of God – or no understanding at all – is gradually overtaking the old theistic view.

· Heaven and hell as physical destinations for the departed figure less and less in people’s thinking.

· Anthropology and biology confirm that human beings did not begin with Adam but evolved over millions of years. A dark side is acknowledged to be part of human reality but it doesn’t stem from the disobedience of a historical Adam and Eve.

· Recent scholarship has given us a more humanly grounded picture of Jesus and of the way the Christ concept developed after his death.

As a consequence, the idea of a human sacrifice to atone for sin and rectify our relationship with a Being in a heavenly realm loses its force. The traditional story no longer dovetails with the world as we know it to be. A new interpretation is necessary.

Setting the old myth aside brings one huge benefit: it shakes Christian faith free to be rethought and re-expressed for our secular world. Faith might then centre not on that story but on the mythic Christ of subjective experience. Watch this space.