Thomas Sheehan has always had a penchant for carrying things to their logical conclusions–and maybe a step or two beyond. In 1965, when he was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, he was entitled to a draft deferment. But his antiwar feelings were so strong that he insisted on registering as a conscientious objector–the first in the San Francisco area during the Vietnam era–and doing alternative service in place of military service. Later, at Fordham University in New York, Sheehan and a group of friends formed a committee that in three months secured the signatures of 2,000 prominent Catholics, including the presidents of six universities, who opposed U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. During the 1968 student occupation of Columbia University buildings, Sheehan, a self-appointed passive resister, was inside when the police arrived. The lawmen treated active and passive resisters equally with their billy clubs and blackjacks, and Sheehan was picked up by the back of his pants and the scruff of his neck and hurled out the front door. “Those were great days,” Sheehan says. “We were such outrageous people.”
Now Dr. Thomas Sheehan, professor of philosophy at Loyola University, occupies a small office on the third floor of the Crown Center at the university’s Rogers Park campus. Many of the books on his shelf concern esoteric subjects like phenomenology and hermeneutics. There is a huge map of the city of Rome on one wall with pictures of the ancient monuments and buildings superimposed on the present structures. The courses he teaches include the history of metaphysics and the writings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. But Sheehan has not abandoned a life of passionate conviction for the bland, tweedy securities of academia. If anything, he is far more outrageous than he was in his student days.
Thomas Sheehan the philosopher has created a storm of controversy and offended both the orthodox and unorthodox with his writings and lectures on Catholic theology. Indeed, his very presence at Loyola, a Catholic institution, might be likened to having Salman Rushdie teach religious literature at an Islamic university. In his interpretation of the role of Jesus Sheehan goes far beyond even the most radical modern theologians. In the last five years he has learned that many people care a great deal about who Jesus was–and is–a fact that was underscored last summer by the furor over Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ.
Sheehan sees Jesus not as an eternal, divine person or the founder of a new religion, but as the one who called for the end of all religion. He faults the Christian church for having always missed who Jesus was and what he was talking about, and he criticizes modern liberal theologians for failing to describe what they know to people. All of which might be easily dismissed if Sheehan were some half-cocked village atheist with a grudge against organized religion. But he isn’t. He is an articulate, informed, seemingly well balanced man whose scholarship is prodigious and who is able to present his ideas in an intelligible, popular style that is often in marked contrast to the dense prose of his critics.
Sheehan begins with the critical analysis of New Testament writings, an analysis that was launched in the 19th century by European scholars such as Hermann Reimarus and Ernest Renan and continues today. Many of these scholars’ findings are now accepted even by conservative, born-again theologians. But Sheehan has gone on boring through the findings and has come out the other side–with his own troubling conclusions.
Sheehan has been called a breaker of new ground and a provocative interpreter of religion. He has also been labeled a heretic, a troublemaker, and a master of slippery rhetoric. During a debate at Loyola in 1987 Father Franz Joseph Van Beeck, a Jesuit theologian, compared him to an enfant terrible who interrupts a Mozart concert by insisting on accompanying the orchestra with his tin drum. “Eventually,” predicted Van Beeck, “the drummer will find something else to do and the drumbeat will be forgotten. Mozart will not.”
Yet more than five years since his writings started a storm, Sheehan is still making a considerable amount of noise. Having thoroughly offended liberal Christians, he is currently planning an assault on fundamentalists of the Pat Robertson stripe with his new book that challenges their colorful end-of-the-world scenarios.
Sheehan dropped the first shoe in 1984 in an essay that appeared in the New York Review of Books. He asserted that, based on what is now known about Jesus’ life, “one would be hard pressed to find a Catholic Biblical scholar who maintains that Jesus thought he was the divine Son of God who preexisted from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he became a human being. Strictly speaking, the Catholic exegetes say, Jesus knew nothing about the Trinity and never mentioned it in his preaching. . . . Moreover, according to the consensus [of Catholic scholars], although Jesus had a reputation as a faith healer during his life, it is likely that he performed very few such miracles, perhaps only two. . . . And it seems he ordained no priests and consecrated no bishops, indeed that he did not know he was supposed to establish the Holy Roman Catholic Church with St. Peter as the first in a long line of infallible popes.” In addition, Sheehan wrote, no reputable experts take the resurrection stories literally; they were fashioned by the church some 50 years or more after Jesus’ death.
Sheehan then went a step further, arguing that the liberal consensus has pushed “Catholic theology to the limits of its own language,” that is, the old words simply no longer mean what they used to mean; resurrection, for example, does not have to mean a bodily resuscitation. He also posed that most threatening question, “What does Catholicism claim that makes it unique, essentially different from non-Catholic religions and non-religious humanism?”
Responses came quickly in letters to the New York Review of Books and in fevered commentaries in other publications. Commonweal, a liberal Catholic biweekly, devoted large parts of three issues to the discussion. Father David Tracy, a highly respected theologian at the University of Chicago, acknowledged that Sheehan’s presentation of the scholarly consensus was, with several exceptions, accurate. But he declined to follow Sheehan any farther. Sheehan, he said, sensationalized. and oversimplified biblical scholarship, and, more important, failed to recognize “the tradition of the church which mediates faith to us in word, sacrament and action. . . . For Catholics (and indeed most mainline Christians),” he argued, “that tradition is . . . fundamentally trusted . . . as the principal mediator of . . . faith in Jesus Christ.” Father Andrew Greeley, also writing in Commonweal, accused Sheehan of refusing to see a middle ground between fundamentalism and secular humanism, then launched into a bewildering explanation of cognitive theory. Some respondents railed at Sheehan, assuring the public that his liberal consensus was not theirs. A surprisingly large number of others admitted that he had touched nerves that need touching.
In replying to his critics, Sheehan did nothing to soothe those nerves. in the early days of the church, he wrote in Commonweal, “Simon Peter missed the boat he should have taken and instead signed on as captain of the Titanic. That is, rather than leaving Jesus dead and then going on to live the Kingdom that Jesus had proclaimed, Simon hoped him out of the tomb and identified the Kingdom of God with the prophet who preached it.” That overemphasis on the person of Jesus, he argued, colored everything that came after.
Sheehan dropped the other shoe in 1986, with the publication of his book The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity. In it he elaborated on what he had sketched out in the New York Review of Books and made explicit his call for a radical shift from believing the right things about Jesus (orthodoxy) to doing the just and merciful things Jesus commanded (orthopraxis). At the same time he revealed he was no God-is-dead theologian.
His argument was full of interesting twists and nuances. “Jesus proclaimed a loving Father who was already arriving among his people,” he wrote, “a Father becoming immediately present to them. God, while remaining God, was reigning not from on high but in their justice, mercy and love for one another. What this means is that God becomes incarnate because of men and women, pours himself out and disappears into his people, and can be found nowhere else. With the incarnation, the separation of God and human persons disappears.”
He even had some kind things to say about Christian churches: “To say that Christianity distorts the message of Jesus is not to say that it is wrong. Christianity is not a false interpretation but one possible interpretation of the meaning of the Kingdom of God. And insofar as the Christian interpretation enables some people to live loving and meaningful lives, it is even ‘true,’ at least in the sense of making possible what the Greeks called ‘living well.'”
The book proved so stimulating (it is now in its third printing) that Sheehan has become something of a permanent cause celebre, with frequent requests to give lectures or appear on talk shows. Always affable, he appears to enjoy his role as a maverick, and it was evident in the conversations I had with him that he is still working through dozens of ideas. He views his incursions into theology as fully compatible with his dedication to philosophy.
The son of an Irish hod carrier and an Italian seamstress, Tom Sheehan, now 47, has a long Roman face and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. As a teenager he entered a seminary in his native San Francisco and spent ten years studying for the priesthood. Those were years when the Catholic church was coming alive with new ideas generated by the Second Vatican Council and the country was caught up in the civil rights movement. Sheehan devoted himself to intellectual and activist causes with abandon. He was greatly impressed with the eminent Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and with non-Catholic scholars Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. On the side, he absorbed the ideas of Karl Marx and the Jesuit visionary Teilhard de Chardin. He spent time in the summers in southern California and Mexico, helping organize farm workers into unions. “It was like The Grapes of Wrath all over again,” he says. “Tremendous exploitation and terrible living conditions.”
Concerned about Sheehan’s intense activism, San Francisco seminary authorities asked him to leave two years before ordination. “The official seminary theology was very conservative,” he says. “I’m sure I would have eventually left on my own. They raided my room one time and found books about the radical French worker priests. I think they would have felt better if they had found pornography.” From the seminary he went to Berkeley, then to Fordham, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1971.
Sheehan says his father did not appreciate much of his restless activism during his student days. But whatever gulf had come between them was bridged in 1969 when his father was ill for the last time. “I stayed with him at night,” says Sheehan. “He was on morphine, but he couldn’t sleep. We talked about everything–a wonderful time. He even planned his funeral, told me how to arrange the dinner after–and be sure to get decent booze.” As an unspoken sign of their bond, Sheehan’s father asked him to put the peace symbol on his bedroom door.
In 1970 Sheehan was hired by Loyola University to teach a philosophy course at its Rome campus, and in 1972 he became a full-time faculty member. Since then he has divided his time between Loyola’s Chicago and Rome sites.
His continuing intellectual journey has been shaped by his studies of Heidegger and other modern philosophers, but especially by Rahner, whose views he has explored in many articles and one book. Sheehan’s face lights up at the mention of Rahner. He opens a volume of the theologian’s writings, and points out a passage that he says has affected him profoundly. “When we say that one should learn from the experience of one’s life whether Christianity is the truth of life, this does not demand anything which is beyond us. It simply tells us: ally yourself with what is genuine, with the challenging, with what demands everything, with the courage to accept the mystery within you. It simply tells us: go on, wherever you may find yourself at this particular moment, follow the light even though it is as yet dim; guard the fire even though it burns low as yet; call out to the mystery precisely because it is incomprehensible. Go, and you will find–hope and your hope is already blessed interiorly with the grace of fulfillment. Anyone who sets out in this manner may be far from the officially constituted Christianity; he may feel like an atheist, he may think fearfully that he does not believe in God–Christian teaching and conduct of life may appear strange and almost oppressive to him. But he should go on and follow the light shining in the innermost depth of his heart.”
For years, Sheehan has traveled regularly to El Salvador as a free-lance journalist, penning articles that have appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. What fascinates him, he says, is the new political reality emerging in that country from the mix of Roman Catholicism and Marxist revolution. “Both sides have changed,” he says. “Marxism isn’t Marxism anymore, Catholicism isn’t Catholicism anymore. There’s something absolutely new.”
Impressed by his writings, an editor at Random House asked Sheehan in 1984 to write a book on the Catholic church. He plunged into the project, reading voraciously and eventually producing The First Coming, a book that contains 54 pages of footnotes and bibliography in tiny print.
Sheehan lives in a modest Rogers Park apartment with his wife, Diana, and his sons, Daniel Ortega, two and a half, and Matthew, almost one. He has nothing but praise for his acceptance at Loyola despite his controversial views. “I suspect that among members of the board of trustees and perhaps some members of the administration, my book has not been their favorite,” he says. “But because Loyola is an institution committed to academic freedom, I’m sure they would never make a gesture toward censuring me in any way.”
Dr. Jon Nilson, a Loyola professor who was chairman of the theology department when Sheehan’s book came out, confirms that there was never a move to squelch or silence the author. On the contrary, he notes, the university’s philosophy and theology departments jointly sponsored a public debate in which Sheehan faced three highly critical colleagues. A standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000 attended the event. Still, Nilson, like the bulk of the university’s faculty, finds Sheehan’s views extreme and in need of refinement. “If he were a professor in the theology department,” says Nilson tactfully, “I think what he says would be moderated through informal dialogue with his colleagues. I think some of his positions would change.”
Another Loyola theologian, Jesuit Father Thomas Tobin, says, “The feeling in this university is that we ought to be able to absorb different points of view. That’s what a university is all about. A monolithic view is not healthy.” Tobin, one of those who challenged Sheehan vigorously in the debate, says his personal relationship with Sheehan remains friendly, as do Sheehan’s relationships with other faculty and staff.
Currently, Catholic institutions of higher education are concerned about a growing insistence by the Vatican that only orthodox doctrine be allowed and that professors be required to take a loyalty oath. “I think the way we handle disagreement here at Loyola is the only way to go,” says Tobin, “not by imposition of penalties from an authority exterior to the university.”
Sheehan’s classes in philosophy are well attended and quite lively, according to students. They note that discussions often shift to issues raised in The First Coming. “I’m taking his course precisely because I read the book,” says Judith Reymond. “I read it after a 16-month hiatus away from religion, and I found it a brutal, horrible experience. I felt betrayed by my teachers and my God. I hated that book! Yet it raised points I couldn’t dismiss. It made me think. And I’m still reevaluating what I believe.”
Sheehan has no qualms about upsetting the faith of believing students. “I would say any student who can handle the finer points of postmodern literary criticism, molecular biology, or the philosophy of Heidegger is certainly able to handle the current debates about what happened on Easter Sunday morning and whether Mary’s virginity is an essential to the Catholic faith. These are sophisticated kids. When their teachers hedge about the crisis in theology, it’s like a father who says, ‘We can’t tell our 21-year-old son about sex–the kid has no problems.’ It’s the father who has the problems. Some professors are worried about telling the kids, but the kids already know.”
Robert McClory: What do we know for sure about Jesus?
Thomas Sheehan: Concerning his youth, we know that Jesus was born around 5 BC, probably in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem. His mother was called Miriam or Mary, and his putative father Joseph. Mark’s Gospel mentions his four brothers and alludes to his sisters, but without naming them.
Second, around 28 AD, Jesus journeyed south from Nazareth to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins from John the Baptist. In this way he indicated that he accepted John’s message that final salvation was imminent. In short, Jesus got caught up in the widespread end-of-the-world movement of his times.
Third, unlike John the Baptist, Jesus believed that the end of the world had already begun, not as some cosmic drama but in the form of a radical social and personal conversion. Jesus believed God was about to work his own revolution in which the powerful and exalted would be dispossessed and the humble exalted. Jesus taught through parables, and he probably worked some healings and exorcisms.
Fourth, Jesus’ goal was not to found a new religion called Christianity, much less the Roman Catholic church. His goal was to gather Jews–not Gentiles–into a holy community in those “last days.” Jesus had no intention of founding a new church. He found one already existing–the Jewish community.
Fifth, negatively, Jesus made no claims to be God, or God’s divine son, or even the Messiah, although some people of his time may have perceived him that way. Positively, it is safe to say that Jesus saw himself as the final prophet sent to Israel in those last days before God’s arrival. His message was that the kingdom of God is already present, on earth, in his own ministry and his own words. He emphasized that the kingdom of God was among human beings.
Sixth, Jesus did not predict his death or resurrection, but at the Last Supper he indicated that he thought his work would go on. He knew he was going to die as the price for his preaching. He was crucified on the day before Passover and was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
These are the basic historical facts about Jesus between his birth and his death, according to mainstream Christian theologians. Of course, Christians believe that something terribly important happened to Jesus after his death. The question then is whether there is a real continuity between what Jesus thought of himself when he was alive and what Saint Peter and other believers thought about him after he had died.
RM: You are telling me this is what the scholars agree on, including the most orthodox, Catholic biblical scholars?
TS: Yes, of course. You can find what I just said in an article by Father John Meier in the New York Times Book Review, January 1987. He’s the editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, a mainstream Catholic journal. I mention Meier’s article because Catholic scholars are the more conservative among today’s theologians. They carry 2,000 years of orthodoxy on their backs, with which they have to reconcile the new discoveries in theology. So they tend to be more cautious.
RM: When you explain these six things that everyone agrees on, the immediate reaction of a believing Christian is shock. You say he never claimed to be God and never claimed to have divine prerogatives. I can think of loads of instances where he says things like, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” There are dozens of these very authoritative claims in the Gospels. You say Jesus did not say these things?
TS: That’s right, you’re correct.
RM: But how do we know Jesus did not say one thing but did say another like the one you cited about the kingdom of God being among us already?
TS: It’s not what I say, but what the acknowledged authorities–including the Vatican–say about these texts. Today all mainstream scholars agree that the Gospels are not objective historical accounts. They are, in the best sense of the term, religious “propaganda.” And they are relatively late documents in the first century.
RM: How many years are we talking about?
TS: Between Jesus’ death and the writing of the first Gospel some 40 years passed. By the time of the last Gospel almost 70 years had passed. The Gospels reflect how faith in Jesus had developed over those intervening years, how Christian belief had enhanced the meaning of Jesus. You just cited some verses from the Gospel of Saint John. It was the last Gospel of the New Testament to be written, and it is the only Gospel that has Jesus claiming to be divine. That claim comes 70 years after he died–and not from Jesus’ mouth, but from the pen of a late Gospel writer. If you go back 20 or 30 years before John, to the Gospel of Mark, you find no claim that Jesus is God.
RM: What accounts for the change?
TS: By the time John’s Gospel was written, a long and bitter conflict had taken place between Christians and Jews. Christians had broken with the synagogue. They were no longer a sect within Judaism. This conflict influenced how the Gospel writers recast some of Jesus’ words, and it helped to determine what Christians thought about Jesus and about Judaism. In fact, it’s the root of much of the anti-Semitism of the so-called Christian West.
RM: Still, how can the experts say definitively that Jesus didn’t say “I am the way” and other similar statements? I can see how the earlier reports do not have these strong declarations. But couldn’t Jesus have actually said these things, and then many years later somebody remembered them, somebody like Saint John, the beloved disciple?
TS: The criteria for discerning what might be the actual words of Jesus is more a process of deciding what he didn’t say than proving what he did say. The only way to get his exact words would be to have had a tape recorder.
RM: Without going into a lot of detail, could you give me a notion of the process experts use to determine what he probably did not say?
TS: Authentic sayings of Jesus must at least reflect the Aramaic language and the Palestinian culture of his time. Likewise, scholars might attribute a Gospel saying to Jesus if it is different from sayings that are typical of the early church and therefore may have been invented after Jesus’ death. For example, just before the Romans attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, Christians abandoned the Holy City and fled to Pella, across the Jordan. If a Gospel has Jesus say something that looks like a polemic statement born of that conflict, scholars would be cautious about attributing that saying to Jesus. So there is a process of whittling away.
RM: This creates a scandal for the ordinary believing Christian. You mean, they made it up? Those people put words in Jesus’ mouth? They lied to us?
TS: You see here the clash between two cultures. To impose the demands of modern historiography on ancient religious scripture is an error common to both the fundamentalist and the village atheist–who in fact deserve each other. The fundamentalist insists the Bible is written like a modern history book, and therefore believes it to be true in every detail. The village atheist discovers that the Bible doesn’t obey the rules of modern historiography and therefore rejects everything in it. But both miss the point. Did the Gospel writers make it up? Did they try to deceive us? You’re asking for a modern historical document, whereas the Gospels provide an account of Jesus from the standpoint of faith.
Look at the Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War some 400 years before the New Testament. He gives us long and marvelous speeches the Greeks are supposed to have uttered. But no reader feels cheated when she discovers that Thucydides constructed these speeches himself. The Italians have a phrase, “If it’s not exactly true, it’s well put.”
RM: So the speeches are not true?
TS: Not in the sense of being accurate historical records of the words that issued from the Athenians’ mouths. They are Thucydides’ interpretations–you are seeing from his perspective. In fact, no human being has a God’s eye view of historical events. We know things by interpreting them, and what we mean by truth is the best available interpretation of things, whether we’re talking about the structure of the universe or the nature of human relationships or the interaction between God and the world. We are dealing with probability, which is a good level of certitude in historical research. In fact we know more about what Jesus did and didn’t say, and with higher probability, than we do about Caesar Augustus.
But the real terror that lies behind the question, “You mean they lied to us?” is the terror of our historicity, the fact that since we lack a God-like point of view, we have to construct historical reality linguistically. Reality isn’t just given out there and then photographed by our minds. That is a very modern–very impoverished–notion of truth.
RM: It is with some fear and trembling that I ask what we know for sure about the resurrection of Jesus.
TS: Negatively, we know that the Gospel stories about Easter Sunday are not historical accounts of what really happened that day. Yes, there may be some historical residue in those stories, but it is extremely minimal–perhaps that Mary Magdalene discovered the tomb empty some days after Jesus had been buried in it. But that’s all. Notice some examples of what did not happen on the first Easter Sunday. An angel did not show up at the tomb on Sunday morning, roll back the stone, and announce that Jesus had been raised from the dead. That is a story the church made up some years later. Likewise, Jesus did not walk to Emmaus with two disciples on Easter afternoon and then join them for supper. Catholic and Protestant theologians whose orthodoxy is unimpeachable know that none of these things happened, even though all of them are recounted as stories in the New Testament. And they say so openly, even in conservative theology departments at local Catholic universities.
RM: You’re saying nothing happened?
TS: Not within history. Presumably, Christians believe that something happened to Jesus “in heaven” after he died–but that’s a matter of belief, not of history. The so-called resurrection of Jesus is no more a historical happening than was Lucifer’s fall from grace, or your great grandmother’s entrance into heaven, or Jesus’ taking his seat at the right hand of God.
RM: What do you mean, so-called resurrection of Jesus?
TS: The word “resurrection” is a metaphor that unfortunately has been taken literally. That’s where the confusion begins. In the New Testament the word for “resurrection” means literally “awakening,” like waking up your kids in the morning. The New Testament says not that God “resurrected” Jesus from the dead, but that he “awoke” him. Using metaphoric language, the New Testament says God awoke Jesus from the sleep of death and brought him into God’s heavenly presence. There’s nothing here about an event in space and time. Resurrection doesn’t mean coming back to life.
RM: Jesus did not come walking or floating out of the tomb?
TS: The word “resurrection” is a code word for belief in an extrahistorical rescue and validation of Jesus by God. You either share that belief or you don’t. But the “awakening” of Jesus from the dead could not have been physically observed by anyone, Christian or non-Christian. And it doesn’t require an empirical residue in the here and now. A tomb does not have to be found empty for Christians to believe that Jesus was “awakened” from death and brought into heaven.
RM: Yet there has to be something in space and time, something in this world, to trigger this belief, to provide some justification of whatever stories came later.
TS: The best current hypothesis for how Easter faith arose is that Simon Peter came to believe that God had rescued Jesus from death. Or as the church put it, “Christ appeared to Simon.” After this first official revelation to Peter–that’s how he became the head of the church, the first pope, if you will–God supposedly made the same revelation to other disciples, right up to the time of Saint Paul.
Then about 50 years after the death of Jesus, in the later Gospels, the church shifted from the simple formula “Christ appeared to so-and-so” and began inventing elaborate stories of how he appeared–not just a spiritual “revelation” to Peter, but dramatic narratives about how the risen Jesus ate with his disciples, walked with them. These are relatively late stories, and they are mythical.
RM: And all of this can be established by examining the historical record?
TS: Notice what was going on by the end of the first century. The Romans had destroyed the temple and burned Jerusalem. Christianity had pretty much separated from Judaism. All of the first-generation believers–people who knew Jesus personally or who were converted in the first years were now dead, including Peter and Paul. And Jesus, the appointed judge at the supposedly imminent end of the world, has not returned! The Gospels are written in response to that crisis, to help overcome doubt. The more you move through the Gospels from Mark, the earliest, to John, the last, the more concrete become the details of resurrection appearances, right up to the risen Jesus preparing a morning fish fry for his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Mark, the first Gospel writer, may be the closest to the original events when he says simply that an empty tomb was found on Sunday morning. It caused consternation rather than belief.
RM: Mark’s Gospel ends with confusion and frustration?
TS: Virtually all scholars agree Mark’s Gospel ends with the women running away from the empty tomb without saying a word to anyone. Some years later a church writer tacked on verses about appearances of Jesus so as to bring it into line with the other Gospels.
RM: Why can’t I hold that these empty-tomb stories and these vision stories were actually told all over the place and written about even in the early days? It’s just unfortunate that Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is the earliest document that has survived. And Paul didn’t happen to mention the early eyewitness accounts. Perhaps these earlier writings have been lost. So aren’t you basing an entire construct about Christianity on some fragmentary pieces that have survived?
TS: Isn’t it strange that absolutely no stories about physical appearances of Jesus show up in the New Testament until over 50 years after his death? No stories about Jesus eating with his disciples after he had died, no stories about him ascending physically into heaven from a mountain–even though during those 50 years at least a half dozen Epistles and one Gospel were written to proclaim faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Why the silence?
Then all of a sudden from 85 to about 100 AD there is an explosion of stories about how Jesus appeared, eating meals, inviting people to touch him, teaching people how to baptize and even how to fish! So the burden of proof is on the fundamentalist to show that these things really happened in history rather than being religious myths.
RM: Saint Paul says Jesus appeared to 500 of the brethren at one time.
TS: What does it mean to say Jesus “appeared”? The Greek word in the Bible means simply that Jesus was “revealed” or “made manifest.” Notice that when Jesus “appears” to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul is totally blind and sees absolutely nothing. He hears only a voice. And when Abraham heard the voice of God, that too was called an “appearance.” The so-called appearances of Jesus were religious experiences–maybe during prayer or in some kind of ecstasy–that the disciples took to be revelations from God. But no visual sighting or physical touching was involved.
RM: In saying this you are not being the radical, the heretic?
TS: No, not at all. This hypothesis about the resurrection and the appearances has been advanced by Catholic and Protestant theologians for over a quarter of a century–and I mean mainstream Catholics like Raymond Brown, Rudolf Pesch, and Edward Schillebeeckx. It was even presented at a conference held at the Vatican in 1970 and published in a book for which Pope Paul VI wrote the preface. You can find it in textbooks used in Catholic colleges all over the country. This doesn’t mean it’s been proved conclusively. But it is a very strong hypothesis, entirely consistent with orthodox Christian faith. The only people it shocks are fundamentalists, be they Catholic or Protestant, and so-called scholars who’ve been living in Plato’s cave for the last 20 years.
RM: It seems like all we’re left with are probabilities.
TS: Christians are left with their faith. But when it comes to the historical events that happened after Good Friday, it’s true, we’re left with interpretations–and I think this is the best interpretation currently available. Of course, if you ask a fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell, he’ll say, “Who says this is the best interpretation?” But Falwell and Robertson and Swaggart–and their Catholic counterparts–don’t share any of the presuppositions of the mainstream consensus of Christian theologians. They’re anachronisms.
RM: What’s the common ground, then, between different Christian interpretations?
RM: The core of Christian faith common to fundamentalist and mainstream believers alike is that God appointed Jesus the savior of the world with the mandate of effecting personal and social liberation. Once you cut through the Bible’s first-century religious language and mythology, that’s the bottom line. And it’s a matter of faith. You can’t prove it. Everything after that bottom line is secondary, such as whether Jesus was divine, human, something in between, or whether he came out of a tomb or whether or not his mother was a virgin. For Christians the bottom line is that you can’t have the kingdom of God except through Jesus of Nazareth. You can’t get in the door without that.
RM: How do you explain the power of that common conviction?
TS: You’ve got to understand that the context, the matrix of early Christianity is apocalypse, the belief in the imminent end of the world and the coming of God to rule among his people. This dramatic vision took hold of Judaism between 165 BC and 135 AD: God was going to come and deliver his people. And with it came elaborate imagery: cosmic tribulation, the appearance of the Antichrist, people resurrecting from their graves, etcetera. Christianity was born hoping for the imminent end of the world, and that’s what gave it much of its power. And that’s why fundamentalists today are arguably closer to the mood of early Christianity.
RM: We have two different things there: the historical Jesus, about whom we know relatively little, and then these interpretations of what he is and means. The little guy in the pew says, “We never heard these things! We heard other things from our religion teachers. We feel betrayed!” Somehow the scholars like Father Brown know all this and yet they’re still believing Christians. How do they rescue the little guy–and themselves–from disbelief?
TS: It’s an out-and-out scandal that this information isn’t being taught in parishes and even in some seminaries and universities. It would be interesting to poll graduating seniors at local Catholic universities–kids who have taken three required courses in theology–and find out what they think resurrection means or whether Jesus thought he was God or came to found a new church.
Come to think of it, forget about polling the students. Poll their professors! And what if we could go back in time and ask Jesus himself whether he thought he was Christ or God? In any case, the liberals have a way out of that last dilemma, and it’s called “implicit Christology.” Even though Jesus probably never claimed he was God or the Messiah, the liberals shift the register to an implicit claim that they find in his words and deeds. So that even if Jesus didn’t say and do all the things the Gospels attribute to him, liberal theologians think those claims were implicit in the authority with which Jesus spoke and acted.
RM: And that is precisely what the Catholic church says: the early church gradually came to realize, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, what was implicit in Jesus’ life and deeds.
TS: Implicit Christology is the liberal theologians’ last-ditch effort to keep Jesus and Christianity together. Put yourself in their shoes. Those people have come a long way from Sunday-school literalism to informed scholarship. They’ve thinned out the equation between Jesus and Christ–like stretching taffy–until the connection has become a bare thread ready to tear. But the liberal won’t dare take the next step and pull the taffy apart. A liberal is simply a conservative who stretches the taffy just a little bit further, but refuses, against all evidence, to rupture it and start over afresh.
RM: And the believing Christian would not either.
TS: That is exactly the case. But liberal theologians are in a real quandary. They go only so far in their scholarship–and when it gets risky, they put on the brakes and invoke faith. They’re like birds with clipped wings: very elegant as long as they sit on their academic perches but a bit ridiculous when they try to fly. I’d like to sit down over brandy with some of them and ask about the scholarly consensus–their own consensus–on the historical Jesus, and why it is they go only so far and no farther.
RM: Isn’t that where the leap of faith comes in? You’re at this point where the taffy is thin. You can choose to say the Holy Spirit was with that early community and did inspire the things they wrote–or you can pull the taffy until it breaks, as you do.
TS: The leap of faith can easily become wishful thinking. The eyes of faith do not see into historical data about Jesus any more deeply than do the eyes of the secular historian. Christians used to think they could build a historical bridge between Jesus and the Christ, but now they know history can take them only so far and then they have to make the leap of faith. That’s one way of handling the problem. But I’m suggesting another solution, a benignly heretical one. Why not start by taking Jesus simply as the prophet that he was before he was turned into the Christ: Jesus before Christianity.
RM: There goes the taffy! From that perspective, what do you, the heretic, see as the essential message of Jesus?
TS: Jesus proclaimed two things: a new mode of God’s presence to human beings and a new offer of salvation. Jesus thought God was manifesting himself in a new way–as a loving Father intimately present to his people and entirely committed to their liberation. The definitiveness of this offer of liberation consisted in what they called God’s dwelling with his people. He “pitches his tent” with them. He is now with them as their God. The content of Jesus’ message was not Jesus himself but this liberating presence of God among human beings and in their struggles. This meant the end of religion, because religion is a mediation between two distant parties. But with God present among his people that gap is filled. That was the passionate excitement of Jesus’ message–not that he preached a new religion or a different religion or the true and perfect religion, but the end of religion. No religion at all.
RM: No priests? No scriptures? No hierarchy? No codes of canon law?
RM: That’s a vision of the kingdom in its fullness, in heaven. It’s not supposed to happen here.
TS: It is almost as if the church fears the thing it preaches. It fears the very thing it is supposed to be giving us.
RM: Is one who chooses to break the taffy more honest than one who stays with the traditional model of Jesus as the Christ?
TS: All interpretations are expressions of interest. We get something out of them. I ask: What is the personal and social investment in the statement that Jesus is the Christ, the absolute savior? What is the payoff? Presumably no one will be saved because he got the right predicate after the name Jesus, and no one will be condemned to hell for getting the wrong predicate.
RM: The history of Christianity has seen some bloody confrontations, even wars fought over the proper understanding of who Jesus is.
TS: We’ve even waged anticommunist crusades in the name of Christianity when we were just protecting our economic interests. In any case, does it really matter whether Jesus is the Christ or not? According to Matthew’s Gospel, what matters is something quite different: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. That’s the only worthwhile interest I can see in the statement, “Jesus is the Christ.”
RM: Is that accurate? Did Jesus really say those things? Are they historically verifiable words of his?
TS: No, it’s probably a creation too. But it’s a beauty. If Jesus didn’t say it, he should have.
RM: Darn! I thought we had here a good historical foundation to base things on. So you are making a leap of faith too! You may not believe in the exalted one at the right hand of the Father–but in the message of Jesus that God has identified himself with humanity.
TS: But even that message of God identifying himself with the human struggle for full liberation is a form of myth. That doesn’t mean it’s false, but that its value lies only in practice, in action in the world. If Jesus hadn’t said it, surely we could have figured it out for ourselves. Whether you get your theory from Jesus or Marx or your own experience, the point is to change the world. Even Christians see the need to move from orthodoxy to orthopraxis, from believing the right thing to doing the right thing. That’s what Jesus is about.
RM: So what you believe about Jesus ontologically, about Jesus as he is in himself, is of no great significance?
TS: If I’m interested in Jesus at all, it is functionally, in terms of which social and personal interests are advanced or hindered by belief in him. Even conservative theologians would agree that the whole purpose of Christianity is salvation–that is, liberation. Surely, if Christians do justice and mercy in this world, God will take care of the rest.
RM: And the theologians are afraid to say that affirming the right predicate about Jesus isn’t important–even though they know that?
TS: In New Guinea they use a word mokita. It means “the truth everybody knows but nobody dares speak.” Liberal Christianity survives by way of mokita. But postliberal Christians dare to speak that truth. I’m thinking about the younger generation, which owns the future. They see Christianity as a matter of living the kingdom that Jesus preached. Whether Jesus is divine or not, the point is to work for justice and love the neighbor. Regardless of what the theologians say or are afraid to say, the younger generation knows this is what the kingdom of God is about.
RM: You want to keep pushing forward, pulling the taffy until it breaks.
TS: Theologically, yes. And when it comes to practice, the church badly needs to get its act together. Why would people want to stay connected to an institution that over the last 200 years has so often been on the wrong side of the big issues of the day: democracy, social revolution, intellectual freedom, sexuality, reproduction, women’s rights?
RM: Now, wait a minute! Granted that what we do is all-important, and granted that was Jesus’ message. But the church realized from the start that we don’t do that very well individually. To follow your scheme, it’s every man for himself in loving the neighbor. The church has always sensed that doesn’t work. We have to collaborate, we have to have community and sharing and listening together to the old stories. And with that comes organization and authority and structure and candles and holy water and a lot of other things. Do we throw it out?
TS: No. It’s not a matter of everyone for himself. Liberation means solidarity, and that both requires a community and builds one. As regards candles and holy water, Andrew Greeley, for all his superficiality, may be right in wanting to keep the feast days, devotion to the Virgin Mary, incense, and the like. Those things enrich a lot of people’s lives. Why cast off beautiful traditions? Why not continue to wear the garment–although a bit more loosely? But the password should be pluralism. What’s the matter with having some Catholic parishes where mass is said in Latin with lots of bells and smells, and other parishes where they hang banners supporting the Salvadoran FMLN and conclude by singing the “International”?
RM: And everyone saying that Jesus is the Christ?
TS: In a sense, yes, since the ultimate meaning of “Jesus is the Christ” is “feed the brethren.” That practical task should take precedence over getting your Christology straight. On the other hand, bad Christology has bad practical consequences. Rudolf Bultmann put it correctly: whereas Jesus proclaimed God with humankind, the church ended up proclaiming Jesus himself. That’s Christianity’s original sin, and it’s the root of what I call Christian tribalism–the belief that everyone has to be saved through Jesus and that Christianity is the final and only true religion.
RM: I agree that identifying with the institutional church is a real problem for many Christians today, especially Catholics. There’s a kind of crisis–
TS: The crisis today isn’t whether women can become priests or whether married couples may practice birth control. The crisis is that at last Christianity is discovering what it is all about–not God or Jesus or the resurrection, but the endless unresolvable mystery inscribed at the heart of being human. And I doubt that the American hierarchy, much less the Vatican, has any inkling of that fact. They keep calling people back home, to the past, when the point is to step over a line into the future and to let Christian be a word in quotation marks for a long time. Its meaning has to be radically reinvented.
That means a shift away from tribalism and towards real plurality. Not the liberal theologian’s condescending plurality, which looks like a wheel with a hub–the Jew, the Muslim, the Buddhist, they all seek salvation–but Christ is still at the hub, the only source of that salvation, and non-Christians are really, though unwittingly, anonymous Christians. That’s the liberal’s way of saying there still is only one savior who founded the one true church, but we just don’t burn heretics and infidels anymore. Liberals are more benign, more open. They dialogue with Hindus and Marxists, but they still believe Jesus is the only way to God.
RM: I don’t see what’s the problem with hanging onto Jesus as the definitive spokesman for a message that may also be implicit, to some extent in Buddhism or the Islamic faith.
TS: Notice the immense cultural prejudice built into saying that Jesus, this one man from that tiny corner of the world called Galilee–to whom you just happen to be culturally and spiritually connected–is God’s unique, definitive spokesman to all cultures: Cherokee, Chinese, Mayan, African. Think of what that Christian tribalism has done to those cultures in the name of Jesus as absolute savior! Why not say that in your culture Jesus is the definitive spokesman for you, whereas Judaism and Islam have their own prophets and their own texts? Why universalize your tribe’s traditions and make them normative for the rest of the galaxy? Once you apply that tiny word definitive to Jesus, you put him at the center, as the hub–and everything else is second best.
RM: That’s indifferentism–saying that it doesn’t matter what you believe.
TS: It may look like indifferentism from the viewpoint of a tradition that has been absolutist. In 1864 in the “Syllabus of Errors,” Pope Pius IX condemned to hell anyone who taught that religions other than Catholicism had an intrinsic right to exist and to have freedom of worship. Protestants weren’t allowed even to have churches in Rome until after 1870. From the perspective of such absolutism, what I’m saying may look like indifferentism. I am saying that the whole of Christianity cashes out as “work justice” and “love your neighbor.” Why is it indifferentism to say that?
RM: I still think some kind of structure and community is necessary to hand on whatever it was Jesus said and did. Isn’t it important to celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Isn’t that an important way of preserving and passing on the message?
TS: When I’m in El Salvador, I go to mass every Sunday–not because I think Jesus is the Christ, but because it’s the way the Salvadoran people anticipate and celebrate their liberation. In Honduras, in the refugee camp at Mesa Grande just across the border from El Salvador, the refugees have built a ramshackle chapel with the stations of the cross, primitive paintings depicting the agony and crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus wears peasant’s clothes, Pontius Pilate looks like an ugly Salvadoran colonel, and the Roman soldiers are dressed in army uniforms and carry M-16s. In the paintings the soldiers torture Jesus the way the army tortures peasants. There you have a community of people gathered around the memory of Jesus. And when they celebrate his death and resurrection, they are also celebrating their own struggle for freedom and justice.
RM: Isn’t this religion in the best sense?
TS: The peasants call Jesus “Papa Chus.” If you ask a peasant whether Papa Chus is God, he’ll say “Si.” Is the Virgin Mary God? “Si.” Is Saint Joseph God? “Si.” Those people don’t do very well on catechism texts, but they sure know what the kingdom of God means and what side to support in the conflict down there.
RM: Their notion of what is to be done, their ethics, are based on the New Testament sayings of Jesus.
TS: There is a new historical reality at work down there, one that poor Elliott Abrams of the State Department never could comprehend. In Latin America during the 1970s, amid great social and political oppression, priests and nuns and lay catechists began reading the Gospels with their people, but this time as texts of liberation. And the Gospels became at least as powerful, if not more powerful, than the works of Marx and Lenin. But liberation theology is not simply a regional theology–it doesn’t apply only in the third world. The whole message of Jesus is liberationist.
RM: Isn’t liberation theology interpreting the message as applying in this world rather than seeing fulfillment in the next?
TS: Liberation theologians like Gustavo Guttierrez and Leonardo Boff do believe in a life after death. But they also see that you can’t separate spiritual liberation from concrete political and social justice. I don’t claim to be a believer in their sense of holding to life after death, but in practical terms what’s the difference? First of all, for believers, life after death is a hope, not a guarantee. And secondly, it doesn’t absolve you from working for justice in the here and now. Whether or not there is life after death is out of our hands. We should be worried about whether there is life before death.
RM: An easy belief in the next life can make this life relatively unimportant.
TS: Yes, that’s a real danger. Here’s how Milton did it in book three of Paradise Lost. After Adam and Eve have sinned, God calls for someone to descend to earth to die for the sins of mankind. The angels all say, “We’re busy!” Then God’s Son comes along and says, in effect, “No problem. I’m immortal anyway. Death can’t hurt me.” That’s very bad theology. Think of the real crucifixion. Put it in the context of someone who is being tortured by the National Guard in a dark cell somewhere in El Salvador. No one knows about him. He’s totally alone.
That is Jesus on the cross. We should stop pretending we know what’s on the other side.
RM: Are you a Christian?
TS: Not if that means believing that Jesus is the absolute savior.
RM: No, in the sense that you were just talking about, in the sense of one who sees the rock-bottom meaning of “Jesus is the Christ” as “feed the brethren” or as God having identified himself with the human world.
TS: But that is pre-Christian. It comes before the identification of Jesus with the Christ. Christianity takes Jesus as the subject of its sentence: he is the source of salvation. But Jesus took the kingdom of God as the subject of his sentence.
RM: So you’re not a Catholic in any sense?
TS: Intellectually I’m a small “c” catholic, trying to stand at the point before the kingdom of God became Christianity. That means when you get to the bottom of Jesus’ message, you find a bottomless abyss–the mystery of being human and the obligation to effect justice. There’s no closure and no support. But practically, can one live that demythologized insight without a community, without a tradition? I don’t think so. I was born into the culture of Irish-Italian Catholicism, and in some ways I’ll always live there. I don’t want to throw it away, and I certainly have none of the angry atheism of some Dostoyevski character. But for me Catholicism was always conjugated with another tradition; I was brought up as a labor-union socialist, and I find it hard to distinguish that from my Catholic culture. As my kids grow up, I would like us to get closer to the local Catholic Worker community. There no one worries about your theology. When you say “amen,” that means you’re willing to do your part in the soup kitchen.
RM: You’re saying you have faith in that kernel, that mystery at the heart of life, which seems so minimal but is as close as you can get–
TS: Faith is not some belief or some mental conviction. It is action in the world. I won’t know if I have faith until I go out onto the street, and a homeless person comes up to me and says, “You got a buck?” If I say I’m busy, that I have to get to the el, to me that means not having faith.
RM: In your next book, you’re going after the fundamentalists again.
TS: Well, the first book was directed at Catholic fundamentalists, and I found out to my grief there are many more of them than I’d expected, including some rather pompous people who hold chairs in theology departments. But the next book is directed at Protestant fundamentalists. As I said before, the matrix of early Christianity was apocalypse, belief in an imminent and dramatic end of the world. The Book of Apocalypse–also called the Book of Revelation–depicts wars and plagues and pestilence before the end comes. It’s a very violent piece of literature that believes God is going to destroy the sinful world and re-create it. Nowadays fundamentalist Protestants like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson use the Book of Apocalypse as if it were a literal prediction of the events leading to the end of the world.
RM: Catholics have trouble relating to all that.
TS: Catholics have traditionally believed more in saving their souls than in seeing the universe recreated. But the fundamentalist fascination with apocalypse, which goes back to England in the 1830s and America in the 1840s, is preached by all the major TV evangelists. They compare current history with the predictions supposedly found in the Bible. They believe we are at the brink of a seven-year period of tribulation. Soon the Antichrist will be revealed and a nuclear war will break out at Armageddon, in the midst of which Jesus will return to earth. There will be a resurrection followed by the millennium, 1,000 years of earthly paradise with Jesus ruling the world from Jerusalem. And just before the tribulation breaks out, there will be a “rapture”–the true believers will be snatched up to a position halfway between heaven and earth, where they will ride out the seven bad years.
RM: There are some remnants of this belief in the early history of the church.
TS: Up to about 300 AD there were strong voices in the church which predicted an earthly millennium. This was in some measure a reaction to persecution by the Roman Empire. They believed God would destroy the empire and give his people some real power on this earth. But when Christianity got into bed with the Roman Empire in the fourth century, things began to change. Saint Augustine, around 400 AD, announced that Christians should not look forward to the millennium–because they were living it now! The Catholic church was the age of the millennium! Augustine thought it had begun with the birth of Jesus, and this meant the end of the world would come in 1000 AD.
When it didn’t, Christians looked back into the Book of Apocalypse, redid their arithmetic, and decided it would come in the year 1260 AD. In the middle of the 13th century some people even thought Frederick Barbarossa was the Antichrist.
RM: So why is it popular today?
TS: Apocalyptic crazies love bad times. The worse it gets, the better the chance God will send Jesus to explode the whole mess. What we should fear in all this is the mixing of myth and history, apocalypse and politics. Fundamentalists are convinced that the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 is a sign that the end is near, because the Bible supposedly says the end will come soon after the Jews return to their homeland. In fact in the summer of 1982 Pat Robertson announced that the seven-year tribulation had begun with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon! Imagine having him as president of the United States, with one finger on the nuclear button and the other finger marking his place in the Book of Apocalypse!
RM: An awful lot of people take it literally.
TS: Even President Reagan in the early 1980s made very positive, public statements about this crazy scenario–to People magazine and to Jim Bakker on PTL television. You may recall that Mondale called him on it during the 1984 televised debates. Now I grant that for Ronald Reagan, astrology and apocalypse are all part of the same weird worldview. But he was president for eight years! And there are millions more like him out there in Congress and at the Pentagon and in the voting booths.
RM: We’d all like to know the end of the big story beforehand.
TS: It’s hard to live with ambivalence. That’s why so many people want eternal, once-and-for-all answers. You memorize your doctrines, then don’t have to learn anything anymore. But that kind of security requires checking your mind at the door of your church. That’s what fundamentalists do–retreat into a paradise of “faith,” untouched by what scientists are doing or what historians are discovering.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.