Thursday, December 25, 2008

Modernizing Jesus

On Christmas Day it seemed fitting to include a reading about Jesus Christ. Although Henry J. Cadbury’s book, The Peril of Modernizing Jesus, (Macmillan, 1937); was not on the Institute for Perennial Studies reading list the analysis that appeared in this book was often discussed in one way or another.

Cadbury was a Harvard scholar on religion in the twentieth century. Prior to the Quakers being taken over by the radical Left they produced a number of quality religious thinkers; Cadbury is one of them. He may not be regarded as a perennialist but in the pages of this book he does at least sound like one at times. The book wanders around trying to make a point and at times comes to it but this selection from page 42 is illustrative of Cadbury at his best.

Looking into the dense forest of modernism now enveloping his world in New England and its Harvard fiefdom somehow Cadbury was able to see a glimpse of the truth. To me this is the remarkable nature of the perennial wisdom. Even in the gathering gloom of the twentieth century a piercing light was able to burst forward and illuminate a benighted Harvard scholar.

Chapter II

The Cause and Cure of Modernism
The tendency to modernize Jesus is not a new phenomenon in Christianity. It has always existed. The history of the study of the life of Christ, such as Schweitzer made for the last century and a half, is largely a study of this reading into Jesus the thought patterns of the age or group. In our own time different groups tend to make him in their own different images. If we were able to predict the mental atmosphere of a future generation we should be able to predict as clearly their understanding of Jesus.

The tendency is inevitable, and probably not entirely curable. To attempt to offset it is surely a reasonable ambition. The means for doing so are fairly obvious. First, the realization of our own prejudices and presuppositions. We may try to look at ourselves objectively, to realize that we, like other generations or other groups, take our own mentality for granted and quietly read it into alien figures of the past, largely because we do not make the mental exertion of trying to understand them as they were. In the case of Jesus we are anxious…to secure his authority for our own point of view.


Somehow truth seems to seep through the paralysis of propaganda no matter how densely it is slathered across our consciousness. Cadbury had doubts. Not about Jesus but about how the modernists of his day were perpetuating a pliable Jesus (including later Quakers).

Today a few more people are questioning, “our own prejudices and presuppositions” including positivism, materialism, and science. Something Cadbury could only point to as he gazed into the surrounding fog. He may not have had the courage to expose the deception but he did have the courage to take a swing at one of the biggest modernizer of the time; Albert Schweitzer.

From Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, (Knopf, 2001) is the following comment that elucidates Cadbury’s criticism of Schweitzer.

“Schweitzer believed that the historical Jesus not only could be essentially recovered, but had been recovered. When he wrote 'There is nothing more negative than the result of research into the life of Jesus,' he did not mean to express any doubt that the quest for the historical Jesus had succeeded but only unflinching realism regarding the religious relevance of its success.”

This is the process of reading ones own reality into the reality of God. It is nearly the ultimate in presentism a virulent form of modernism. So, yes, indeed Cadbury did a service, unfortunately, one that was almost entirely lost on Harvard and much of America to this date. However, on this Christmas Day we can rejoice that the truth will inevitably reveal itself as people of good will join the crusade.

No comments:

Post a Comment