Institute on Religion and Democracy
February 24, 2000
A recent gathering of the Jesus Seminar featured as a speaker Gerd Ludemann, the German Lutheran theologian who has renounced the "fairy tales" of Christianity in favor of his brand of "spiritual" atheism. The scholars of the Jesus Seminar convene twice a year to debate which parts of the Gospels are "fact or fiction."
The appearance of Ludemann at the Jesus Seminar was unique. Unlike many members of the Seminar, Ludemann does not claim he is simply trying to "rescue" Christianity from "fundamentalism." Instead, he openly confesses his rejection of God and of Christian belief.
Ludemann teaches theology at the University of Gottingen in Germany. But accreditation was taken away from his course when German church leaders decided Ludemann was no longer suitable for teaching seminary students. Ludemann renounced Christianity in 1998 when he said he no longer could pray to God or Jesus. "I no longer describe myself as a Christian," he told the public, as he called traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus a "great deception."
Some of Ludemann's sharpest criticism was reserved for liberal theologians who profess to be Christian while denying Christ's deity, virgin birth and resurrection. Indeed, Ludemann calls liberal theology "contemptible" for trying re-define Christianity to make it palatable to non-believing minds.
"I do not pray to Jesus, because he's dead," Ludemann explained to the Jesus Seminar. "He rotted away. How can we pray to Him? We cannot pray to God if he's not in Heaven." He called God a "meaningless phrase," adding, "Most of us do pretty well without God."
The doctrine of God as the creator of the earth and universe struck Ludemann as especially offensive. 'What should we make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to tear one another apart with teeth and claws?" he asked. "We have been sentenced to life on this earth without previously being asked."
Despite his rejection of God, Ludemann still calls himself "religious," citing his "peak" experiences, which he was able to attain only after renouncing "dogmatic traditions." He commended dreams, visions and hallucinations as especially uplifting because they allow him to listen to himself. "My hope is that people will be able to erase their consciousness and go beyond their daily experience."
"In the complete nothing of all human categories do we find the all and only reality," Ludemann enthused. "The light of being can come to us only when the light of human thought is extinguished. The ultimate could be called darkness." He described himself as "attuned to the universe."
"We have to go deeper and search for the foundation of our life, for the ground of our being," Ludemann elaborated. "Faith becomes knowledge once the heavens are opened up again and liberated from a creator God who wants to keep humans from looking beyond Him."
Ludemann said he still enjoyed "fundamentalist" churches because of their lively worship and singing, which he admitted have a "power." He confessed he would like to be able to pray. "All of us want to believe. Let's admit it," he said.
Questioning why Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who also addressed the Jesus Seminar, wants to preserve the "traditions" of his church if its core beliefs are false, Ludemann dismissed liberal theology as "anemic to the highest degree." Noting that "fundamentalists" get their authority from Jesus and the Bible, he provocatively asked where liberal Christians get their authority, since they deny the substance of both.
Echoing many of Ludemann's themes were John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest in the Servite Order and professor emeritus at DePaul University in Chicago. He likened believing the Gospels literally to accepting the ancient Greek fables of Aesop as literal history. Crossan, who is the former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, demanded that Christians "stop pouring fantasy back into the first century that wasn't there at the beginning." The Gospel stories of Jesus' deity and miracles are "powerful metaphorical stories" that were not read literally until the Enlightenment of four centuries ago, Crossan claimed.
Crossan likened the conservative Christianity of the Southern Baptist Convention to Walt Disney Incorporated, both of which are engaged in a "worldwide missionary expansion of illusional entertainment. Both are at least in large doses equally if differently dangerous." Although Crossan singled out Southern Baptists, he actually rejects all forms of orthodox Christianity.
"With the Southern Baptist Convention it is sometimes difficult to tell religion from Prozac, Christianity from chloroform and baptism from lobotomy," Crossan opined, drawing hoots of laughter from the Jesus Seminar. "I hope Walt Disney and the Southern Baptist Convention will be able to amalgamate freely and evenly, not in a hostile takeover or a frenzied buy-out, but equal partners. Baptist-Disney Entertainments."
Crossan condemned "spiritual xenophobia" that insists that "my God is better than your gods." Converting pagans to the Christian God was a "question of violence," Crossan warned. But converting them to "justice," was a laudable goal, he claimed.
In a revealing question addressed to his fellow scholars, one Jesus Seminar participant (who did not identify himself) observed that "God is a political agenda that is driving our inquiry." Noting there were no Republicans present, the questioner said the group's academic biases in favor of "gay rights and women's rights" were driving its inquiry into religion "as we try to find parts that support our agenda. If Republicans capture the White House and Senate, then not many of us will call that an act of God." None of the Jesus Seminar participants who were present expressed any open disagreement with the questioner.
Hal Taussig, a Jesus Seminar founding member and United Methodist pastor in Philadelphia, lamented that "fundamentalism and authoritarian Catholicism will remain strong for the foreseeable future." He expects they will resist "scientific, feminist and ecological consciousness." But progressive churches will debunk the "imperialist claims" of American and European Christendom. The development of the "historical Jesus" has "deftly undercut" the claim that Jesus is the only Savior.
Taussig admitted that this "historical Jesus" will not be enough to renew struggling churches. So he called for "new creative myths" to replace the "old mythic Jesus" of the Gospels. He acclaimed the Jesus Seminar for providing its most "important service" to the church: "deconstructing" the fables of the Gospels.
The Fall 1999 meeting of the Jesus Seminar met in Santa Rosa, California. About 600 scholars and interested persons attended the gathering, about a third of whom are senior fellows of the Jesus Seminar. About half the participants were clergy, and two thirds professed to belong to a church.