The Existential Jesus

For several years now I've been following a reading trail. The trail has evolved thanks to the book a friend is reading, or has read, or intends to read. More frequently the books have been listed in bibliographies and notes, books reviewed in the Church Times or the Guardian, and occasionally books found on the shelves and display tables of a book shop. I've pursued the trail in various directions as the months and years have passed. A very few have proved to be cul de sacs. The majority have enriched my understanding. Occasionally I come across a show stopper, a book that unfolds so much and opens my vision dramatically.

Such a book is The Existential Jesus by John Carrol. John is professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne. For a decade he has convened a university reading group, a diverse group of seven, meeting for an hour once a week to discuss, one chapter at a time, books from the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. The group is mainly interested in the text in itself – what it has to say, and how it says it.

John says he has never been a practising Christian but has a deep intuition of the sacred order governing the human condition; and someone for whom Jesus is a central but obscure presence. I am drawn to such people!

The group’s reading sessions regularly ended in perplexed euphoria. The group gelled into a kind of informal sect, without doctrine, simply bound by a shared sense of awe. The journey they took together has, in some elusive manner, changed lives. That’s the kind of group or church I dream of being a member of. I wonder how many readers of this blog already belong to such a group – or wish they did.

The prologue to John’s book begins: “The enigma of being confronts all humans. It does so whenever another walks through the door. We take in a presence: the person opposite is more than his or her attributes. In the place of empty space, a charged field of some kind of force manifests itself.”

John may be alluding to ‘The Empty Space’ by Peter Brook, recommended by John Armson as a key text for the liturgy course at Westcott House in the 1970s. Liturgy can be good drama and good drama can be deeply spiritual. As I habitually tell friends, I experience more profound spiritual moments in theatre than I do in church attending services.

The charged field in the empty space identified by John lives more as a distillation or essence than as a character or personality. Behind each of these existential forms, he says, lies the big presence in the culture of the West – that of Jesus.

Jesus is the archetypal stranger. From his reading with the group of the Gospels of Mark and John, Carrol says Jesus appears from nowhere, shrouded in mystery, but soon is gone. While others. see him charged with brilliant and terrifying charisma, Jesus himself struggles along his life path. He is the existential hero – solitary, uprooted from family and home, restless, always on the move and, until the mid-point in his mission, blind to where he is going.

I long to meet and pray and talk and engage with people for whom such an idea of Jesus and the Gospels makes deep and truthful sense. The sermons I hear, the hymns I sing, the intercessions offered, the liturgical arrangements and the liturgy itself all tend to frustrate, sometimes with devastating effect, my heart and soul desire to follow the existential hero and be inspired and enriched and illuminated on my journey towards love and truth. Occasionally, I find myself in the presence of a group of people who come as they are and worship without pretence. Happy are they who have such a church or group within reach.

John Carrol engages with art and literature in the course of the book, and begins with what he describes as the modern West’s most influential literary work, Hamlet, which orbits around the question, ‘To be or not to be?’ Hamlet’s question implies that truth is to do with the nature of ‘being’. Many people seek a richer conception of the self today, imagining that this is where important truth dwells. The seek mostly outside the confines of the church because the church shows little interest in our inner worlds of experience and truth. Eastern philosophy is more attractive to people with its greater emphasis on inner consciousness.

In classical Greece the inscription carved in stone over the entrance to the sacred oracle in Delphi commanded: Know thyself! The essence of each individual living human – the I – holds the secret. What each person really wants to know dwells here: ‘Who am I?’ This is in direct opposition to that banal snippet of supposedly Christian wisdom, that the horizontal bar of the cross crosses out the vertical of the individual, a deeply damaging, false teaching based on scripture.

Jesus, says Carrol, is the one supreme teacher on being the West has. Only Jesus has fathomed the depths of being. Jesus’ way of putting it – I am – engages viscerally with the fundamental of the self. The Jesus teaching comes in the form of a story and compels us to engage with his experience and what he learns on the way – and to walk in his shoes. It is within the mystery of the narrative that Truth resides.

Carrol claims that the waning of Christianity as practised in the West is the result of the comprehensive failure of the Christian churches in their one central task – to retell their foundation story in a way that might speak to the times. “The church Jesus is a wooden residue of tired doctrine about a benevolent and omnipotent Lord God up above, the Trinity, the forgiveness of sins, Holy Communion, resurrection from the dead, and so forth – little of which has cogent mainstream resonance today.” You might disagree with Carrol’s assertion – many are the reasons advanced for the decline of the church and Justin Welby is trying to implement a particular strategic response. I suspect it will fail to revive church attendance because the church he leads lacks understanding of the foundation story appropriate to our times.

Churches have not wanted anything much to do with Jesus the teacher of the deep truths about human identity. They have made him superficial and boring, a background prop for their own creeds, rituals, and power. It is a mark of the cultural and psychological maturity of the modern West, says Carrol, that individuals have come to make their own judgements about the big questions of life’s ultimate meaning. The vast majority have turned their back on the churches, and roll their eyes dismissively at Christian doctrine. Mark’s existential Jesus would approve, says Carrol. Mark’s Jesus is concerned with the righting of being, or the restoring of a character that is out of balance. This is an issue of being, not of morals.

Part One of The Enigma of Being retells Mark’s story of Jesus. Everyone who becomes absorbed in the story is going to try to make their own sense of it – and that is how this extraordinary work functions, says Carrol. Immersion in the story forces you again and again into the position of asking Who am I? in the narrative.

Part two of the book looks at the five characters who represent the different reactions to Jesus and draws heavily on John’s Gospel. They are Peter, the Outsider, who lives in the denial of I do not know, addicted to building temples and churches; Magdalene, the Insider, who loves much and whose medium is touch; Judas, whose identity resides in the negative archetype- I am not; Pilate, who learns as he questions Jesus and is borderline I am; and the Beloved disciple, the storyteller, whose lesson seems to hinge on learning to know being, so as to tell its story. There is only one existential testimony that matters: know that I am!

“Anyone who can truthfully speak their own ease of being, with surety, as the single and essential knowing, says enough. They verify an island of calm within the ocean of eternity.”

John is the insider, the prototypical human – as truth-light being. “His story is of one emerging slowly as he learns. There is an ease to his being in the world, although he looks on, from intimate proximity, at the events that determine his life with a mixture of searching and dread. What he sees drives him to retell the story.”

I’m not sure where my reading trail leads next. Rearranging my bookshelves last week, I came across The Bible in Human Transformation by Walter Wink which I’d started but never finished. It was first published in 1973 but is still prophetically relevant and perhaps even more relevant to the way the bible is interpreted today. I also found Alan Bartlett’s Humane Christianity which may be worth a re-read. Marcus Borg’s outworking of Christianity is close to John Carrol’s but he isn’t included in the Bibliography.

As John Carrol says of himself, he has never been a practising Christian but has a deep intuition of the sacred order governing the human condition. I find that such people, outside the institutional, approved networks of the church, shed wisdom, truth, light, and inspiring vision and energy on my faith, and open windows of awareness and affirmation. The vocation that some of us are called to is to speak and teach about deep truths that the church is at present deaf to hear and blind to see. The Petrine church has always been more interested in dogma and doctrine and orthodoxy than in mysticism, parables, and the deep truth found in myth, story and touch.

“Humans lead two parallel lives: one tragic, one eternal. Balance is everything. Here is the deepest of metaphysical truths.”

John Carrol. The Existential Jesus. 2007. Scribe Publications, Australia