For my Realistic Living Pointers this month, I am using part of the introduction to a new book that I am publishing on our Realistic Living blog site.
The Creator of Christianity
a commentary on the Gospel of Mark
by Gene W. Marshall
The entire book can be purchased for $10 on this site:
While you are there, look around. We are also publishing the 8 spirit talks that Gene gave at the June 2018 Realistic Living Summer Program, plus Study Outlines for the above book, The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is by Jon Bernie, and Dangerous Years by David W. Orr. All this is in addition to the recent Realistic Living Pointers posts.
So here is the first part of the
to the Mark Commentary.
Living in Aramaic-speaking Galilee twenty-one centuries ago, Jesus and his first companions constituted the event of revelation that birthed the Christian faith. But without Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of cross and resurrection for the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jewish culture, we might never have heard of Christian faith.
Mark, whoever he was, lived during the lifetime of Paul and was deeply influenced by Paul. In about 70 CE, Mark, like Paul, was a major turning point in the development of the Christian religion. Mark invented the literary form we know as “the Gospel.” This remarkable literary form was then copied and elaborated by the authors Matthew and Luke, and then revolutionized by John. These four writings, not Paul’s letters, are the opening books of the New Testament that Christians count as their Bible (along with the Old Testament). “Gospel” (Good News) has become a name for the whole Christian revelation.
We might say that Mark was the theologian who gave us the Christianity that has survived in history. The Markian shift in Christian imagination was important enough that we might even claim that Mark, rather than Paul or Jesus, was the founder of Christianity. However that may be, Mark’s gospel is a very important piece of writing. And this writing is more profound and wondrous than is commonly appreciated.
Of first importance for understanding my viewpoint in the following commentary is this: I see the figure of “Jesus” in Mark’s narrative as a fictitious character—based, I firmly believe, on a real historical figure. I do not want to confuse Mark’s “Jesus” with what we can know through our best recent scientific research about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. For our best understanding of Mark, we need to view Mark’s “Jesus” with the same fun and sensibility we have toward Harry Potter when we read J. K. Rowling’s novels about this unusual character.
In other words, Mark is the theologian that we are reading in the Gospel of Mark, not Jesus or Paul, and not Luke or Matthew or John. Mark is himself an unusually clever writer and a profound theologian. This truth is fundamental for understanding this commentary.
What do you think about Mark being the creator of Christianity?
How is it important to you that the historical Jesus of modern scholarship differs significantly from the Jesus of Mark’s narrative?
What is Theology?
Not all religions have a theology, but Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do. Buddhism has Dharma sutras and many Dharma talks that are still being given today. These thoughtful efforts of the Buddhist religion are something like a theology. It is fair to say that all religions have a “theoretics”—something that its members do to reflect upon the core topics that characterize that religion’s ongoing community of thoughtfulness about their life together, their message, their mission, as well as their religious practices and ethical guidelines.
Christian theology begins its thoughtfulness with reflections upon a specific event (a specific complex of happenings in history). The happenings that constitute this “event” are understood to reveal the profound essence of every event in human history. That event has been given the name “Jesus Christ.” An ordinary first century man named “Jesus,” understood to be the “Messiah,” was viewed as a revelation about living in an ultimate devotion to the Ultimate Reality that we encounter in every event of our personal lives, and in every event of our social history.
Judaism does something similar in its theologizing, but in this case the core revelatory event is “The Exodus from Egypt of a collection of slaves plus their revolution in law-writing.” Islam also treasures a revelatory event—in this case, “the Advent of Mohammad as a Messenger of the One Ultimate Creator of all things and events.” Obviously, in each of these religious groupings, there is good theology and bad theology, depending on whether those theological reflections appropriately reflect what their revelatory event revealed about the essence of living a human life. Good theology also depends upon whether a particular bit of theological thoughtfulness has resonance with living people in their contemporary settings.
This commentary on the Gospel of Mark intends to be “theology” in the sense just defined. I prefer the word “theologizing,” for I see Christian theology as an ongoing process of a community of people. My contribution to the ongoing process of Christian theologizing may be minor or large, but that is not entirely up to me. The community of those who are grounded in the Christ Jesus revelation will value or not value, preserve or not preserve, my contributions to the ongoing theologizing process of those who are captivated by the Christ Jesus revelation.
I see myself doing a radical form Christian theologizing. It is “radical” because this thoughtfulness is my attempt to return to the “roots” of the Christian revelation from the perspective of a radically contemporary understanding of the nature and role of religion in human society.
“Religion,” as I now understand that word, is not a set of stable doctrines and moralities allied with a once-and-for-all finished set of solitary and communal practices. The only stability that a religion has is its radical root. Religious doctrines and moralities, as well as religious practices are all in flux. Today, that flux is huge for every religion on Earth. The sort of Buddhism that is sweeping the North American continent is not stuck in the ruts of previous centuries. It is a fresh, creative accessing of ancient roots. In Christianity we are seeing something similar. I count this commentary part of that fresh effort to see the Christian revelation with new eyes and to hear this “good news” with new ears.
How in your life have you participated in Christian theologizing?
Whose theologizing has helped you most with your own?
The Death of a Metaphor
Some members of the Christian community speak of “the death of God” or even “the end of theology.” In this commentary (and in all my theologizing), I take the view that “the death of God” does not refer to an end of all use of the word “God,” I choose to understand “the death-of-God discussion” as pointing to the end of something temporal—namely, the obsolescence of an ancient metaphor of religious thinking held in the word “transcendence.” For 2000 years Christian theologizing has used this familiar metaphorical narrative: a vivid story-time imagination about a transcendent realm in which God, angels, devils, gods, goddesses, and other story-time characters are living in an other-than-ordinary “realm” and “coming” from that “realm” to “act” within our ordinary human space and time. That is metaphorical talk. Being metaphorical, however, is not the problem. The problem for us today is the obsolete quality of that double-deck metaphor.
I am using an alternative metaphorical system of religious reflection in my mode of Biblical interpretation. I view our ordinary lives as well as our profound lives as participants in “One” realm of being. This “One Reality” has a depth that is invisible to both human eye and mind. I am using the capitalization of “Realty” to mean something different than our mind’s sense of realty. Reality is a “Land of Mystery” that the human mind cannot fathom. This profound depth of Reality shines through the passing realities of time that are visible to eye and mind. This Invisible Eternity can be said to “shine-through” temporal events. An ordinary bush can indeed burn with Eternity. An ordinary human being can indeed glow with the Presence of Eternity. But this Eternity is a not another space that is separate from our ordinary space/time of living. Furthermore, this fresh view of Eternity does not imply a contempt for the temporal realm. Rather, it implies a fulfillment for each and every ordinary temporal event of our lives. Each temporal event has an Eternal depth or glow or burn. Eyes and ears alone cannot grasp our profound humanness and its Eternal connection. Only our enigmatic consciousness can “see” the Eternal, and this “seeing” is an internal experience that is “seen” in absolute solitude.
In this fresh context the words “ordinary” and “extraordinary” are viewed as mere categories of human perception. We live in One, and only One, realm of Reality with many temporally viewed aspects. Among these many aspects, we can speak of this basic polarity: the impermanent and the permanent—the temporal and the Eternal. This polarity is not in Reality itself, but in our human consciousness of Reality. Temporal and Eternal are both aspects of our one experience of one invisible One-ness that our minds cannot comprehend.
And this One-ness is not seen by eye or mind. We do not “see” One-ness directly. One-ness is a devotional category that means that we are devoted to serve all aspects of our Real experience, rather than viewing the Real as part friendly and part enemy. From this One-ness point of view, the only enemy is our own and other humans’ estrangement from the One Reality within which our own persons and all other persons dwell.
This One-ness viewpoint within Christian faith is not a denial of the diversity of our experiences of the Eternal or of the temporal. Differentiation and multiplicity obviously characterize our temporal lives. Multiplicity also characterizes much of our God-talk. In the God-talk of the Bible, there are many angels or servants of the One that express and carry out the actions of the One. But this One-ness is maintained in spite of the many-ness that is understood to be aspects of the Eternal, sourced from this One-ness. In the opening verses of the Bible, the One God says to some angels, “Let there be light!” and this was done by the One’s many servant forces. Such poetry was intended to preserve the One-ness of Reality, not to fragment the One-ness of Reality that is fundamentally worshiped in the life of Christian faith.
How has it been hard or liberating for you to give up the old double-deck metaphor?
What has been your struggle with devotion to One Ultimate Reality?