Dale Allison: The Apocalyptic Jesus

Dale Allison is arguably the foremost historical Jesus scholar representing Jesus primarily as an Apocalyptic Prophet.  In the line of Albert Schweitzer, other modern scholars who accept that Jesus expected a final judgment in the near future include John P. MeierBart Ehrman, Thom Stark, EP Sanders, and Paula Fredriksen.

To summarize Allison's reconstruction, I will be using his The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus.  I have also previously reviewed this book here.  Probably the most natural way to understand Allison is to look at his historical method, and then at how he uses this method to address the questions of Jesus' eschatology and self-conception.  


One question that is often not explicitly addressed, but which underlies historical Jesus research, is that of historical method.  That is, how do we determine what parts of the gospels go back to the historical Jesus and what parts can be assigned to the invention of the early church?  Traditionally, scholars have used four criteria for determining the authenticity of a passage – multiple attestation (if the saying appears in more than one source, it is more likely to be authentic), dissimilarity (if a saying is different from the proclamation of the early church and from 1st Century Judaism, it is likely to be authentic), embarrassment (if a saying is embarrassing to Jesus, the disciples, or the church, it is likely to be authentic), and coherence (if a saying fits with other sayings deemed "historical," it is also likely to be historical).  For Allison, the criteria just don't work:


"Scholars have, since the 1960s, often discussed the so-called criteria of authenticity, the sieves by which we supposedly enable ourselves to pan for original nuggets from Jesus. The names of the chief criteria are now well known: multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence. While they all at first glance appeal to common sense, further scrutiny reveals that they are fatally flawed. Dissimilarity, which allows us to hold as authentic items that are dissimilar to characteristic emphases of Judaism and of the church, presupposes that we know far more about the church and Judaism than we do. Multiple attestation overlooks the obvious problem that the more something is attested, the more the early church must have liked it, so the more suspicious we may well be about it. I do not, however, wish to review here the defects of the traditional criteria. Those failings have become increasingly apparent over the last two decades, and much of the discussion is becoming tedious because repetitious: we have entered an echo chamber. I also wish to say little about recent suggestions for revising our criteria – a trick I was still trying to perform ten years ago – or about replacing them with new and improved criteria. My question is not Which criteria are good and which bad? or How should we employ the good ones? but rather Should we be using criteria at all? My answer is No. In taking this position, I am setting myself against the dominant academic tradition, which has sought to find which bits of our texts represent Jesus' own views. Some may well wonder whether we are good for anything if we cannot sandblast the ecclesiastical soot from the tradition and restore the original. Others, perhaps suffering from a bit of physics envy, may insist that rigorously applying criteria is our only hope for keeping our discipline scientific and avoiding wholesale subjectivity. I am of a different mind. After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even to accurate estimates of their probability. That Jesus said something is no cause for supposing that we can demonstrate that he said it, and that Jesus did not say something is no cause for supposing that we can show that he did not say it. Similarly, if Jesus did something, that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did it, and if he did not do something, that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did not do it. There is a gaping chasm between what happened and what we can discover or deem likely to have happened. Put otherwise, the set of materials whose origin we can reasonably assign to Jesus or the church is scarcely identical with the set of materials the tradition credits to Jesus. The former is instead a subset of the latter, and a small one at that. Did Jesus utter the golden rule? I do not see how anyone will ever show that he did, nor how anyone will ever show that he did not. I certainly have never run across persuasive arguments for one conclusion or the other. Sadly, this example is for me representative."

Because Allison does not believe that almost any individual saying can be conclusively deemed "authentic" or "inauthentic," his way forward – his historical method – is to look for large patterns in the gospels.  For instance, if there are many sayings which show Jesus coming into conflict with religious authorities, we must conclude that Jesus likely came into conflict with religious authorities.  If the large patterns of the synoptic gospels are wrong about Jesus, then we ought to give up the Quest, for our sources are simply too flawed.  

Allison gives an example of his method with an uncontroversial dimension of Jesus' ministry:

"With regard to the sources for Jesus, the traditional criteria of authenticity privilege the parts over the whole. It seems more prudent to privilege generalizations drawn from the whole than to concentrate upon one individual item after another. As a demonstration of how this works in practice, consider the following traditions:

• Jesus prohibited divorce: 1 Cor. 7:10; Mark 10:2-9; Luke 16:18.

• Jesus sent forth missionaries without staff, food, or money: Matt. 10:9-10; Mark 6:8-9; Luke 10:4.

• Jesus instructed missionaries to get their living by the gospel: 1 Cor. 9:14; Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7.

• Jesus commanded loving and doing good to enemies: Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-36.

• Jesus forbade judging others: Matt. 7:1-2; Luke 6:37-38.

• Jesus asked a prospective follower not to bury his father: Matt. 8:21-22; Luke 59-60.

• Jesus spoke of hating one's father and mother: Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26; Gospel of Thomas 55, 101.

• Jesus enjoined disciples to take up a cross: Matt. 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27.

• Jesus enjoined unlimited forgiveness: Matt. 18:21-22; Luke 17:3-4.

• Jesus exhorted hearers to lose their lives in order to save them: Matt. 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 17:33.

• Jesus called people away from their livelihoods: Mark 1:16-20; 2:14.

• Jesus figuratively demanded violent removal of hand, foot, and eye: Mark 9:42-48.

• Jesus asked a wealthy man to relinquish his money: Mark 10:17-27.

• Jesus forbade taking oaths: Matt. 5:33-37.

• Jesus commanded money to be lent without interest: Matt. 5:42; Gospel of Thomas 95.

• Jesus called some to a life without marriage: Matt. 19:11-12.

• Jesus asked a prospective follower not to say farewell to his parents: Luke 9:61-62.

• Jesus asked his disciples to renounce all of their possessions: Luke 14:33.

I infer from this collection of materials that Jesus made uncommonly difficult demands on at least some people. Whatever he may have taught about compassion, and whether or not his motivation owed something to eschatological expectation, he insisted on self-sacrifice, to the point of demanding that some individuals follow him immediately and unconditionally. This historical verdict holds whatever tradition histories one draws up for the various units. What matters is not whether we can establish the authenticity of any of the relevant traditions or what the criteria of authenticity may say about them, but rather the pattern that they, in concert, create. It is like running into students who enjoy telling tales about their absent-minded professor. A number of those tales may be too tall to earn our belief; but if there are several of them, they are good evidence that the professor is indeed absent-minded."


So Allison privileges "general impressions" created by the texts instead of sifting through, trying to find a core of "authentic sayings," and then reconstructing from there.  This method leads him to his conclusions on two hot-button topics, Jesus' eschatology and self-conception.

Jesus' Eschatology

Adhering to his historical method, Allison catalogues material in the synoptics which paint a picture of Jesus expecting a final, eschatological judgment in the near future.  

"Consider the following list of observations, whose length should trouble those who wish to bid farewell to Weiss and Schweitzer:

• A few logia declare that the sands of ordinary time have almost run out: Mark 9:1; 13:30; Matt. 10:23 (cf. Luke 18:8: 'he will vindicate them speedily').

• The same temporal conviction appears in Matt. 23:34-35 = Luke 11:49-51, which declares that all blood shed from the foundation of the world will be 'required of this generation.' In order for this to make sense, 'this generation' must be the last generation.

• 'The day of judgment' and its abbreviated stand-ins 'the judgment' and 'that day' envisage the eschatological assize: Matt. 10:15 = Luke 10:12; Matt. 11:22, 24; 12:36; Luke 10:14.

• Luke 12:5 = Matt. 10:28; Mark 9:43-45 (cf. Matt. 18:8-9); and Matt. 5:22; 23:15, 33 refer specifically to Gehenna, the antithesis of heaven, the frightful place of postmortem or eschatological punishment.

• That place of punishment is depicted as a place of fire in Matt. 7:19; Mark 9:47-48; Luke 12:49; John 15:6 (and perhaps Mark 9:49), as often in Jewish apocalyptic texts.

• Matt. 18:6-7 = Luke 17:1-2 and Mark 9:42 warn that the punishment for harming others will be worse than having a millstone around the neck and being thrown into the sea. Only the eschatological judgment could impose a fate worse than that.

• Matt. 22:13 and 25:30 speak of 'the outer darkness.'

• Matt. 24:51 refers to 'the weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

• As it appears in Matt. 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-46, the parable of the unfaithful slave functions as a warning about the coming judgment.

• The enigmatic Matt. 24:40-41 = Luke 17:34-35 (cf. Gospel of Thomas 61), about one being taken and another left, means either that the wicked will be plucked from the earth (cf. Matt. 13:41) or (more likely) that the righteous will be taken to meet the Son of man in the air (cf. Mark 13:27; 1 Thess. 4:17). Whatever option is correct, the final judgment coincides with a supernatural sorting.

• Luke 17:26-30 (cf. Matt. 24:37-39) likens the coming judgment to Noah's flood and sulfur falling upon Sodom, both events being, in Jewish and Christian literature, popular prototypes of the last judgment and end of the world.

• Matt. 13:36-43 interprets Matt. 13:24-30 (= Gospel of Thomas 57) as an allegory of the division of just and unjust on the final day.

• Matt. 13:47-50, the parable of the net, depicts the same division under a different figure.

• Matt. 25:31-46 presents a memorable picture of the great judgment, introduced by the simile of a shepherd separating sheep from goats.

• The threat of eschatological judgment has its counterpart in the promise of heavenly or everlasting reward: Matt. 5:12 = Luke 6:23; Mark 10:29-30; Matt. 5:19; John 6:40; 14:2-3; Gospel of Thomas 19, 114.

• The tale of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 promotes humanitarian conduct by depicting pleasant reward in `Abraham's bosom' and miserable retribution in 'Hades.'

• The paradoxical sayings about reversal in status – the first will be last, the last first, etc. – are not naively optimistic observations about everyday human experience (Matt. 10:39 = Luke 17:33; Matt. 23:12 = Luke 14:11; Matt. 25:29 = Luke 19:26; Mark 4:25; 8:35; 10:31; Matt. 13:12; Luke 18:14; Gospel of Thomas 4). This is why they use the future tense – 'will be exalted'; 'will keep it [life]'; 'will be first.' They foresee see God turning the world upside down, which can only be the result of the coming judgment.

• In view of the parallel in the Kaddish ('May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon') and the associations that 'kingdom' often has in ancient Palestinian Jewish literature, 'your kingdom come' (Matt. 6:10 = Luke 11:2) is more likely than not a prayer for God to redeem the world once and for all.

• Mark 1:15; Matt. 12:28 = Luke 11:20; and 22:18 attach temporal verbs to 'kingdom' (e.g., Matt. 10:7 = Luke 10:9). They thereby advert not to a changeless reality but rather to the dramatic advent of an unprecedented, supernatural reality. In these sayings, 'the kingdom of God' is nearly synonymous with 'the age to come' or 'the new creation.'

• The futurity of the kingdom is also manifest in the sayings about entering it (Mark 10:15, 23-25; Matt. 5:20; 7:21; 23:13). The future tense in Mark 10:23 and Matt. 5:20, the parallelism in Mark 9:43-47 ('into life' = 'into the kingdom'), the eschatological sense of passing through the narrow door or gate in Matt. 7:13 = Luke 13:24, and the circumstance that it is not the kingdom that enters people but people who enter the kingdom all make the meaning plain enough: the saints will, at the end of days, cross the threshold into a redeemed world.

• The Jesus of Mark 10:30 invokes the distinction, known from the rabbis, between 'this age' and 'the age to come.'

• Some logia about the Son of man clearly allude to the scene of the last judgment in Daniel 7: Mark 13:26; 14:62; Matt. 10:32-33 = Luke 12:8-9; Matt. 19:28 = Luke 22:28-30; John 5:27.

• The canonical Jesus believes in the resurrection of the dead: Mark 12:18-27; Matt. 12:41-42 = Luke 11:31-32; Luke 14:12-14; John 5:28-29.

• The belief that unprecedented tribulation will herald the advent of the new age and that the kingdom of Satan will not go away without a fight, appears not only in Mark 13:3-23 but also in Matt. 11:12-13 = Luke 16:16 (the kingdom now suffers violence) and Matt. 10:34-36 = Luke 12:51-53 (cf. Gospel of Thomas 16; it is the time not of peace but of the sword).

• Several times Jesus admonishes people to be on the alert because the eschatological crisis may come at any time: Matt. 24:43-51 = Luke 12:39-46; Mark 13:33-37; Matt. 25:1-13; Luke 12:35-38; 21:34-36.

• Mark 14:25 and Luke 14:24; 22:30 look forward to the eschatological banquet.

• Jesus has twelve disciples, their number being that of the tribes of Israel. This circumstance almost certainly reflects the common expectation, with roots in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that, at the end of days, all twelve tribes would return to the land. The twelve are a symbolic representation of restored Israel. In line with this, Matt. 19:28 = Luke 22:28-30 promises some of Jesus' followers that they will 'judge' – which means either 'rule' or 'pass judgment upon' – the twelve tribes of Israel. The return of the scattered from the Diaspora is also the subject of Matt. 8:11-12 = Luke 13:28-29, for the 'many' who come 'from east and west' and are hosted by the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, must include the scattered tribes.

• Some texts depict Jesus as 'the Messiah;' an end-time deliverer: Mark 8:27-30; 11:9-10; Matt. 23:10; John 1:41; 4:25, 29; 6:14-15; 9:22; 10:24; 11:27 (cf. Mark 15:2, 9, 18, 26, 32).

• The canonical Jesus regards eschatological oracles in the Hebrew Bible as being fulfilled in his own time; see Matt. 11:10 = Luke 7:27, citing Mal. 3:1; Mark 9:13, adverting to Mal. 4:5-6; Mark 14:27, quoting Zech. 13:7; and Matt. 5:17, asserting in general that Jesus fulfills 'the law and the prophets:'

• Jesus, responding to a query from John the Baptist, implicitly equates himself with the latter's 'coming one' (Matt. 11:2-5 = Luke 7:18-23), an eschatological judge (Matt. 3:11-12 = Luke 7:16-17). He does this by taking up the language of prophetic texts in Isaiah (26:19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1), implying that he is their fulfillment. The beatitudes, where Jesus comforts those who mourn (Matt. 5:3, 4,6,11-12 = Luke 6:20-23), do something similar inasmuch as they too echo Isaiah 61; and Luke 4:16-19 has Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 and finding its prophecies fulfilled in his ministry.

• Luke 19:11 says that, when Jesus neared Jerusalem, his disciples 'supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately'; and John 21:20-23 (discussed below) reflects the belief of some Christians that Jesus promised the end during the lifetime of his disciples."

He concludes:

"I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly. Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory. To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions. They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done.

As for eschatology in particular, my contention is that either a decent number of the entries in my catalogue fairly characterize what Jesus was about, or the tradition is so full of mnemonic holes and fictional accretions that the quest is a vain aspiration and we should find some other pastime with which to amuse ourselves. Opting, as I do, for the former alternative entails that Jesus had firm eschatological expectations, to which he gave frequent expression. More precisely, he envisaged, as did many in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God. Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand.

This is not to say that Jesus had only eschatology on his mind. Although I once subscribed to and publicly defended Schweitzer's 'thorough-going eschatology,' I do so no longer. I suppose I was the victim of system-mongering, of the rationalistic impulse to make all the pieces of the tradition fit snugly together without remainder. I have come to see that too much associates itself only obliquely, if at all, with eschatology, that the puzzle will always have large lacunae, and that we will always be left with pieces that go nowhere. Nonetheless, Jesus did, when gazing about, perceive a perishing world, and in accord with then-contemporary readings of the prophetic oracles of the Hebrew Scriptures, he hoped for a re-created world, a heaven on earth, a paradise liberated from devils and illness. And this was for him no vague inkling or tangential thought but a consuming hope.

His dream, however, has remained a dream. It is not just that, as Matt. 24:36 = Mark 13:32 says, the Son had no knowledge of precisely when the end would come. It is rather that the Son expected and encouraged others to expect that all would wrap up soon, and yet run-of-the-mill history remains with us: Satan still goes to and fro upon the earth."


Jesus' Self-Conception

Tied in with eschatological expectations is the issue of Jesus' self-conception.  Allison again creates a list of material which portrays Jesus as an end-times deliverer:

"Consider these Synoptic materials:

• Jesus said that the Son of man will return on the clouds of heaven and send angels to gather the elect from throughout the world: Mark 13:26-27; cf. 14:62; Matt. 10:23 (allusions to Daniel 7's depiction of the last judgment are clear).

• The sons of Zebedee asked to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus and so presupposed his eschatological enthronement: Mark 10:35-40; cf. 14:62.

• Jesus selected a group of twelve disciples, whose number must represent the tribes of Israel (cf. Matt. 19:28); and as he was not among their number but instead their leader, his leadership of renewed Israel is implied: Mark 3:13-19.

• Peter thought that Jesus must be 'the Messiah': Mark 8:29; cf. 14:61-62.

• Jesus declared that the fate of at least some individuals at the final assize will depend on whether they have acknowledged or denied him: Mark 8:38; Matt. 10:32-33; Luke 12:8-9.

• When Jesus went up to Jerusalem, crowds hailed him with the words, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David': Mark 11:9-10.

• Jesus prophesied that he would destroy and rebuild the temple: Mark 14:58.

• When the chief priest asked Jesus whether he was 'the Messiah'; he replied by applying Dan. 7:13 and Ps. 110:1 to himself: Mark 14:61-62.

• The Roman governor Pilate asked Jesus whether he took himself to be 'the king of the Jews'; and Jesus did not say 'No': Mark 15:2.

• Jesus called himself 'Lord' and warned that not to do what he commanded will bring personal destruction: Matt. 7:21-27; Luke 6:46-49.

• Jesus, in response to a query from John the Baptist, equated himself with the latter's 'coming one': Matt. 11:2-4 = Luke 7:18-23 (the answer draws on prophetic texts in Isaiah and makes an implicit claim to fulfill them).

• Jesus warned cities rejecting him – not John the Baptist or someone else – that they will suffer for it at the eschatological judgment: Matt. 10:15; 11:21-24; Luke 10:12-15.

• Jesus avowed that people who 'receive' his disciples really 'receive' him, and that to 'receive' him is to receive the one who sent him, God: Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16.

• Jesus interpreted his success in casting out demons 'by the finger of God' – an allusion to Exod. 8:19 that makes him Mosaic – to mean that God's kingdom had arrived; he thereby made himself out to be the chief means or manifestation of its arrival: Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20.

• Jesus assured his followers that they will judge – which means either 'rule' or 'pass judgment on' - restored Israel, and he cannot have thought of his role as any less: Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30.

• Jesus read from the beginning of Isaiah 61 and proclaimed that its prophecies were fulfilled in his ministry; he thus claimed to be the anointed prophet of Isaiah's eschatological vision: Luke 4:16-19."

Again, Allison concludes:

"As with the argument about Jesus making extraordinary demands, so here too: I do not contend (or deny) that Jesus formulated any of the sayings just cited, or that any event or circumstance referred to must be deemed historical. I am rather displaying a pattern. Jesus' starring role in the eschatological drama is all over the tradition, in words attributed to him and in words assigned to others, in stories as well as in sayings. Mark firmly attests to it. So also does the material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. So too traditions unique to Matthew and Luke. And it would be easy enough to add material from Paul, Acts, John, the Gospel of Thomas, and elsewhere. So my inference is that, whatever titles he may or may not have used, Jesus probably believed himself to be not just an eschatological prophet but the personal locus of the end-time scenario, the central figure of the last judgment, someone akin to Melchizedek in 11QMelchizedek, or the Elect One in the Parables of 1 Enoch."

Thus Allison's Christology is "too high" for liberals.  Jesus did, in fact, have an exalted self-conception, that of the final prophet and eschatological judge.  It is also "too low" for conservatives, as Jesus likely did not consider himself "equal with God" – the second member of the Trinity.  His reconstruction also, of course, cuts against traditional, orthodox understandings of Jesus by claiming that he was mistaken about the final judgment and end of the world.  In short, Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet is unsettling to both progressives and conservatives.  


Allison accepts the general impressions of the synoptic gospels and concludes that Jesus' primary message was the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus believed that a final judgment, resulting in a sorting of the righteous from the unrighteous, would soon take place and that the righteous would inherit the Kingdom of God on earth.

This is not to say that this is "all Jesus was about."  For instance, Allison likely wouldn't object to many of Borg's categories for Jesus (healer, charismatic, etc.), but, for Allison, the expectation of a near end was the driving force of Jesus' proclamation: "the Kingdom of God is at hand."

The following is a lecture in which Dale Allison reads large portions of his The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. In this lecture, he leaves out portions of the book which deal with Jesus’ self-conception and eschatology.

Marcus Borg: The Wisdom Jesus

While Tom Wright is typically the historical Jesus scholar of choice for conservative Christians, I would argue that Marcus Borg is the favorite of progressives.  Borg (1942-2015) taught for most of his career at Oregon State University, lectured widely, and wrote about both the historical Jesus and how the Church could function in light of modern critical biblical scholarship.  His most popular works are Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Jesus: The Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, and The Heart of Christianity.  During his career, Borg was in dialogue with many of the scholars in this series, including N.T. Wright, Dale Allison, and John Dominic Crossan.  He was also a member of the Jesus Seminar.  To outline Borg's reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I will be using his Jesus: The Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

To open his book, Borg details what he believes to be the two dominant pictures of Jesus in modern society – what he calls the "popular image" and the "scholarly image."  Ultimately he believes that both of these pictures are mistaken, and sees his own reconstruction as a "third way."  

This is Borg's description of the "popular image" of Jesus:

"The popular image is most familiar to Christian and non-Christian alike: the image of Jesus as a divine or semidivine figure, whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and whose life and death open up the possibility of eternal life. Its answers to the three questions of identity, purpose, and message are clear. As the divinely begotten Son of God, he was sent into the world for the purpose of dying on the cross as a means of reconciliation between God and humankind, and his message consisted primarily of inviting his hearers to believe that what he said about himself and his role in salvation was true.

The image is widespread, with degrees of sophistication and elaboration. Billboards and evangelists proclaim, 'Jesus died for your sins,' suggesting that this was his purpose in a nutshell. Much of Christian preaching takes the popular image for granted. The celebration of the major Christian festivals in our culture reinforces the image. Christmas, with wise men and shepherds and angels, a manger and a star and a virgin, tells the story of his wondrous birth and thus calls attention to his divine identity; Easter focuses on his triumph over death.

The popular image has its roots deep in the past, indeed in the language of the New Testament itself. Among the gospels, its primary source is John, probably the most loved and familiar gospel. There Jesus speaks of his identity in the most exalted terms known in his culture, especially in the magnificent series of 'I am' statements: 'I am the light of the world,' 'I am the bread of life,' 'I am the resurrection and the life,' 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' 'Before Abraham was, I am.' The self-proclamation of his own identity in the 'I am' statements is buttressed by other passages in John: 'The Father is in me and I am in the Father,' 'He who has seen me has seen the Father,' 'I and the Father are one.' In a single verse, the fourth gospel sums up Jesus’ identity, purpose, message, and the proper response to him: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.'"

As Borg notes, this image is highly dependent on the Gospel of John.  It is in the Gospel of John where we find the most exalted conception of Jesus.  Borg then goes on to argue that this image of Jesus has almost unanimously been rejected by modern scholarship, mostly stemming from modern scholars' preference for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) over John regarding historical information about Jesus.  In the synoptics, Jesus does not overtly and publicly proclaim his Divine Sonship (save, perhaps, a single verse to be discussed later in this series).  In fact, a strong motif in the gospel of Mark is the "messianic secret" – Jesus does not want to publicly declare his messiahship. Borg concludes:

"...once this fundamental contrast between John and Mark was seen, a great historical “either/or” presented itself to scholars. Either the historical Jesus openly proclaimed his divine identity and saving purpose (John), or he did not (Mark). To put the issue most directly, Jesus could not consistently proclaim his identity and at the same time not do so. Thus the question became, 'Which image of Jesus is more likely to be like the historical Jesus, John’s or Mark’s?' The nearly universal answer given by scholars was 'Mark.' With that answer, the popular image’s basis as a historical image disappeared. The image of Jesus as one who taught that he was the Son of God who was to die for the sins of the world is not historically true."

Borg thus dismisses the popular image of Jesus as historically untrue.  He then goes on to discuss the dominant scholarly image of Jesus for the past century – that of an "Apocalyptic Prophet."

"According to the consensus (of 'scholarship'), from such an examination of Jesus’ message and mission we may surmise that he was an 'eschatological prophet' or perhaps even 'the eschatological prophet.' The phrase needs some unpacking. Eschatology is that branch of theology which concerns the 'end time'—the end of the world, last judgment, and the dawning of the everlasting kingdom. An eschatological prophet is one who announces the end. There is some evidence that some in the Jewish tradition near the time of Jesus anticipated such a prophet, 'one like unto Moses' or perhaps even greater than Moses, who would appear immediately before the end of time. To say that Jesus was the eschatological prophet is to say that he saw himself as the prophet of the end who proclaimed the end of the world in his own time and the urgency of repentance before it was too late. That was the core of his message and mission.

The consensus image of Jesus as eschatological prophet was grounded in the claim that the 'Kingdom of God' was at the center of Jesus’ own message. So Mark describes Jesus’ mission in his advance summary at the beginning of his gospel: 'The Kingdom of God is at hand, therefore repent!' However, the consensus image also depends upon a particular interpretation of the phrase 'Kingdom of God,' namely that 'Kingdom of God' is to be understood eschatologically as referring to the 'final' Kingdom which would bring an end to earthly history as we know it, the 'end of the world.'

This eschatological understanding of Jesus and of the Kingdom of God had its origin primarily in the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) at the beginning of this century. He is most familiar to us as a world-famed medical missionary, Nobel prize recipient, and a modern 'saint.' But as a young man Schweitzer, prior to going to Africa, wrote two brilliant books that decisively shaped Jesus studies for the rest of the century. Calling attention to the element of crisis running throughout the gospels and the statements about the coming of the 'Kingdom of God' and 'the Son of man' who would bring all earthly history to a close, Schweitzer argued that Jesus expected these events in the immediate future and saw his death as playing a decisive role in bringing about the end. Jesus was mistaken; the end did not come, and he died perhaps realizing his mistake.

Though Schweitzer’s work initially created a sensation and still strikes many as outlandish when they first hear of it, his basic image of Jesus as eschatological prophet gradually became the consensus understanding among scholars. Stripped of some of its details, it became the dominant image in German New Testament scholarship and, through the influential role played by German scholarship, in much of North American scholarship. To be sure, scholars also recognized that Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as present and not only future, but the future imminent Kingdom continued to be emphasized. The image of Jesus as one who proclaimed the end of the world and the urgency of repentance remained."

Like the popular image of Jesus, Borg believes that this scholarly image – that of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet – is outdated.  In Borg's view, the texts implying that Jesus believed "the end was near" should be assigned to the early church, not the historical Jesus himself.  Excising these texts, and polling the Jesus Seminar allow Borg to conclude that:

"The majority of scholars no longer think that Jesus expected the end of the world in his generation."

That is, the scholarly consensus regarding Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet is over.  Borg then goes on to detail a "third way" of seeing the historical Jesus.  

Borg's Jesus

After outlining two images of Jesus which he finds unsatisfactory, Borg spends the rest of his book painting his own picture of the historical Jesus.  Borg uses five categories through which to understand the historical Jesus: charismatic (or "mystic"), healer, sage, prophet, and movement-founder.

Charismatic or "Mystic"

Borg's first category for Jesus is that of a "charismatic," "Spirit-filled person," or "mystic."  Drawing from texts in the synoptics which imply that Jesus saw visions, spent long periods in prayer, and declared himself to have a prophetic authority ("the spirit of the Lord is upon me," etc.), Borg believes that Jesus saw himself standing in the line of Jewish prophets (and similar to "holy men" or "spirit-people" from other traditions):

"The cumulative impression created by the synoptic gospels is very strong: Jesus stood in the charismatic tradition of Judaism which reached back to the beginnings of Israel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all portray him as a Spirit-filled person through whom the power of Spirit flowed. His relationship to Spirit was both the source and energy of the mission which he undertook. According to these earliest portraits, Jesus was one who knew the other world, who stood in a long line of mediators stretching back to Elijah and Moses. Indeed, according to them, he was the climax of that history of mediation. Moreover, as we shall see, Jesus’ relationship to the world of Spirit is also the key for understanding the central dimensions of his ministry: as healer, sage, revitalization movement founder, and prophet."


Flowing from Jesus' experience of the Spirit, Borg's second category is Healer.  The tradition is filled with stories of Jesus performing physical healing and exorcisms.  Although Borg is not certain as to the historicity of these events, he remains open to the possibility.  At a minimum, the stories are symbolic, and encourage the Christian community to view Jesus through this lens.


"Mediators between the two worlds of the primordial tradition often become 'people of power' or miracle-workers, especially healers. To be sure, not all do. In the history of Israel and other cultures, some were primarily mediators of the divine will as prophets and law-givers, or of 'supernatural' knowledge as diviners or clairvoyants. Others were charismatic military leaders, 'spirit warriors.' But some became channels through which healing power flowed from the world of Spirit into the visible world. Such figures of power ('men of deeds,' as they were called in Judaism) were known in first-century Palestine, both in her ancient tradition (notably, Elijah) and in charismatics contemporary with Jesus such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle-Drawer. Jesus was one of these 'men of deeds.'"


Borg's third category for the historical Jesus is that of a Sage.  Borg believes that Jesus, as teacher, showed his disciples a path, or a "way."  This "way of Jesus" involved an inner transformation of the heart and was marked by self-sacrifice.  It was a path that was counter-cultural, an "alternative wisdom."

"Jesus was a sage, a teacher of wisdom. Regularly addressed as 'teacher' during his lifetime by followers, opponents, and interested inquirers alike, he has been hailed by subsequent generations of Christians as more than a teacher, as indeed he was. Nevertheless, he was not less than a teacher. But what was he a teacher of? Some have thought that he was primarily a teacher of beliefs; or, more precisely, of what was to be believed in order to be saved, providing 'correct information' in the form of divine revelation about God and Jesus’ own role in salvation. Others have stressed that he was a teacher of a new moral ethic, whether understood as a new moral code consisting of highly specific commands, or as a set of more generalized ideals such as love and justice or the 'golden rule' or the 'brotherhood of man.' But Jesus was not primarily a teacher of either correct beliefs or right morals. Rather, he was a teacher of a way or path, specifically a way of transformation. His teaching involved a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom that lay at the core of the first-century Jewish social world. As teacher of a way and critic of conventional wisdom, he was similar to other great sages who proclaimed a way or path sharply in tension with the culture of their time. Their number outside of Israel included Lao Tzu in sixth-century B.C. China and the Buddha in fifth-century B.C. India. Within Israel, Moses was the great sage without equal, calling his followers out of Egypt, the culture in which they lived, to a radically different way...

Just as Jesus used a multiplicity of images in his diagnosis of the human condition, so he also used many different images to speak of the cure, that is, the path of transformation. Underlying this diversity is a common conceptual understanding which comes to expression most clearly in the first three images we shall treat: a new heart, centering in God, and the way of death. The images intertwine with each other, even as each works separately as well. Each expresses what the 'cure' involves, even as it adds nuances of meaning that may not be captured by the other images."


Borg's fourth category for Jesus is Prophet.  Standing in the line of Israel's prophets, Jesus "spoke truth to power," and radically critiqued the Judaism of his day.  This is especially seen in his critique of Jewish elites (i.e. their treatment of the "holiness code," etc.) and his actions in the Temple.  

"Of all the figures in his tradition, Jesus was most like the classical prophets of Israel. Active from about 750 B.C. to 400 B.C., they are among the most remarkable people who ever lived. Sharing the feature which defines the figure of prophet as known in many cultures, they were 'verbal mediators' or messengers between the two worlds of the primordial tradition. Indeed, the name of the last of them, Malachi, means simply 'my messenger.' Their role as messengers of God flowed out of the intensity of their experiences of the Spirit, among the most vivid in the Spirit-filled tradition of Israel. As mediators of the Spirit, they spoke 'the Word of the Lord,' and the 'I' of the prophetic speeches is most often the divine 'I.' Moreover, their language was vivid, compact, and poetic, surging with extraordinary energy. Especially characteristic of them was their passionate and critical involvement in the historical life of their people in their own day. Speaking in times of historical crisis, they radically criticized their culture in the name of God and became voices of an alternative consciousness challenging their culture’s dominant consciousness."


Finally, Borg sees Jesus as a Movement-Founder.  Although Jesus intended his movement as a revitalization of Judaism, its influence obviously ended up spreading beyond Israel.  Christianity as a separate religion only occurred because of the rejection of most of the Judaism of Jesus's day.  


"We commonly think of Jesus as the founder of Christianity. But, strictly speaking, this is not historically true. Instead, his concern was the renewal of Israel. Toward this end, he created a sectarian revitalization or renewal movement within Israel, now commonly called the 'Jesus movement,' whose purpose was the transformation of the Jewish social world. The relationship between a renewal or revitalization movement and a social world is one of both affirmation and advocacy of change. On the one hand, such movements profess a strong loyalty to an inherited social world or tradition (if they did not, we would speak of them as new movements rather than renewal or revitalization movements). On the other hand, they claim that present circumstances call for a radical response. Spawned by a perceived difference between how things are and how they ought to be, all within the framework of a tradition, they affirm a tradition, even as they seek to revitalize or transform it. The fact that Jesus did not intend to create a new religion but intended the revitalization of his own tradition does not mean that Christianity is a mistake. Rather, Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism came into existence as the result of a historical process which took several decades after his death. Two factors were most important. As a revitalization movement within Judaism after his death, the Jesus movement in an important sense failed. Though most of its early members were Palestinian Jews, it did not capture the allegiance of the majority of the Jewish people. The second factor leading to separation was the success of the Jesus movement in the Mediterranean world outside of Palestine. There it quickly became a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, and the more Gentiles it attracted, the more it seemed distinct from Judaism. Thus, before the end of the first century, Christianity had in effect become a 'new' religion. Henceforth, though Christianity continued to affirm its connection to Judaism, the connection was increasingly to the Old Testament rather than to the Jewish people themselves. In terms of its membership, it was no longer a peculiarly or predominantly Jewish movement."


Borg's historical Jesus is sometimes classified simply as the "Wisdom Jesus."  Although this is probably an oversimplification (Borg himself objected to his work being boiled down to this), it does give a pretty fair image of his reconstruction.  Borg's Jesus is primarily a Spirit-filled teacher, strongly critiquing the Judaism of his day as part of his message.

A few hot button issues.  In regards to Jesus' self-conception, Borg does not believe that Jesus thought himself to be Divine, or a kind of "final prophet" or Messiah.  Borg's Jesus believes that he is called by the Spirit to renew the Judaism of his day and that he has authority to do so because of his experience of the Spirit.  Anything beyond this is a product of the early church. 

In regards to eschatology, Borg's Jesus has nothing (that I can see) to say about a final judgment, or the coming eschatological kingdom of God.  Texts in the synoptics which imply that Jesus does expect this, Borg again treats as products of the early church.  For instance, he doesn't believe that the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13 and parallels) stems from the historical Jesus. 

Finally, in regards to the use of texts, Borg, like virtually all historical Jesus scholars, works only from the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Within the synoptics, Borg seemingly finds a core group of authentic sayings/narratives and forms his picture of Jesus from this selection of texts.  He does not touch on historical method in this book, but I would assume he uses the traditional "criteria of authenticity" (multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence).  As far as I can tell he uses the general impression of the synoptic gospels except where Jesus has an exalted self-conception or speaks of a final judgment.  In some cases he lets history slide into the background and is just fine if stories become symbolic or metaphors, for instance with miracle stories and the resurrection narratives.  When Borg does talk about the theme of "the kingdom of God" (which is rare), he emphasizes its present reality over an expected future inbreaking.  

Borg's picture of Jesus – a Spirit-filled man who taught an "alternative path" – is often used in the liberal Church.  I wouldn't hesitate to call Borg's reconstruction "the liberal Jesus."

The following is a lecture from Marcus Borg given at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  In it, Borg discusses the impact of Albert Schweitzer on the discipline, and reasons why his paradigm differs from that of Schweitzer (i.e. why he rejects the "Apocalytpic Jesus").  

N.T. Wright: The Orthodox Jesus

It is uncontroversial to say that Tom (N.T.) Wright is the favorite modern historical Jesus scholar of most conservative Christians.  This is because Wright's historical reconstruction of Jesus of Nazareth is roughly that of the Council of Nicea.  Although he doesn't like to pigeonhole himself in some of categories of Evangelicalism, Wright's Jesus is, in the end, God's chosen servant, King, Messiah, the Second Member of the Trinity.  He will come again in glory.  Wright's Jesus is an orthodox Jesus who fits into conservative Christianity pretty much perfectly.  

Wright is a theologian, historical scholar, and retired Anglican Bishop.  He writes both scholarly and popular level books, and has commentaries on each book of the New Testament.  He is a prolific author and speaker.  

For this post I will look at his Simply Jesus, a popular level book in which he essentially lays out his view of who Jesus was as a historical figure.  For a very deep dive, check out his The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God.  

In his Introduction, Wright lays his theological cards on the table:

"...writing about Jesus has never been, for me, a matter simply of 'neutral' historical study (actually, there is no such thing, whatever the topic, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment); the Jesus whom I study historically is the Jesus I worship as part of the threefold unity of the one God. But, likewise, writing about Jesus has never been a matter simply of pastoral and homiletic intent; the Jesus whom I preach is the Jesus who lived and died as a real human being in first-century Palestine. Modern western culture, especially in America, has done its best to keep these two figures, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith, from ever meeting. I have done my best to resist this trend, despite the howls of protest from both sides."

Again, Wright isn't a pure historian.  He writes self-consciously for the confessing Church.  As he says, there is no such thing as neutral historical study, but knowing that he is first and foremost a churchman at least gives a hint at the flavor of his work.  This doesn't mean he can't be right, but it let's you know where he's coming from.  

Outlining Wright's Jesus isn't overtly straightforward as he often avoids simplified labels and tends toward highly nuanced and poetic descriptions.  In Simply Jesus, Wright begins by overviewing three historical realities and then showing how Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God fits into and addresses those realities.  He ends by discussing Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension as well as addressing how the church ought to live out its call to help "bring the Kingdom" today.  To get a feel for his reconstruction, it is probably best to overview the three major sections of this book.

Part 1: Rome, Judaism, and God

The most obvious political reality of Jesus' time and place was the Roman Empire.  Before Jesus' birth, Rome transformed from a loose republic into a unified state with an emperor.  Julius Caesar led to Augustus Caesar who led to Tiberius Caesar.  Each emperor was considered "divine" and was seen as the bringer of a new age of prosperity to the world.  

"…the new age, for which we have waited for a millennium, is now here at last through the peaceful and joyful rule of Augustus Caesar. The message was carved in stone, on monuments and in inscriptions, around the known world: 'Good news! We have an Emperor! Justice, Peace, Security, and Prosperity are ours forever! The Son of God has become King of the World!'"

The title "Son of God" would have been immediately recognizable to Romans.  Who was the son of God?  The "son" of Julius – whoever was on the throne.  

The second historical reality that Jesus stepped into was that of the Jewish people.  The Jewish people lived in the story of their Scriptures.  They were the people of God – descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  After having their own "golden age" during the time of the Davidic monarchy, Israel had sinned against their God and been led into exile in Babylon as punishment.  Although they had "returned from exile" (as Babylon was conquered by Persia and the Jews were allowed return to their land) and rebuilt their Temple, the Jewish people were still oppressed.  They still lived under foreign, pagan rule, and looked forward to the culmination of their story, when they would once again enter a golden age of independence through the power of their God.  This hope was very alive in the world which Jesus was born into, and sometimes expressed itself as a "messianic hope" – the search for a messiah who would usher in the "rule of God."

Finally, Wright cites the reality and unpredictability of God as the final circumstance of the times.  Although the Jewish people had their own hopes and dreams for the nation, God was not bound to fulfill their expectations, but represented an unexpected Force, a free agent who could surprise.  

"To understand this great cyclone, this tropical hurricane, you have to understand, as I said before, something about the ancient Jewish vision of God. This always was the highly unpredictable element within the Jewish story itself. God remained free and sovereign. Again and again in the past, the way Israel had told its own story was different from the way God was planning things. The people, no doubt, hoped that the way they were telling their own story would fit in comfortably enough with the way God was seeing things, but again and again the prophets had to say that this was not so. Often God’s way of telling the story cut clean against the national narrative. And Jesus believed that this was happening again in his own time. God had promised to come back, to return to his people in power and glory, to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven. The Jewish people always hoped that this would simply underwrite their national aspirations; he was, after all, their God. They wanted a divine hurricane simply to reinforce their already overheated high-pressure system. But the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist, had always warned that God’s coming in power and in person would be entirely on his own terms, with his own purpose—and that his own people would be as much under judgment as anyone, if their aspirations didn’t coincide with God’s."

Thus, according to Wright, Rome, the hopes of the Jewish people, and the reality of God form the major historical backdrop which Jesus walked into in 1st Century Palestine.  

Part 2: The Kingdom Come

In Part 2, Wright shows how Jesus' message of the Kingdom of God addresses his historical circumstances.  

First, Wright is clear, Jesus' message was summed up in his announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  "The kingdom of God is at hand," Jesus says.  "Repent and believe the good news!"  Wright, paraphrasing Jesus’ message, says:

"So where does the story lead? It leads straight to the announcement that Jesus was making: 'God’s in charge now—and this is what it looks like!'"

Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is here, and God is now in charge.  Wright then spends much of this section of the book detailing characteristics of the Kingdom, drawing from the synoptic gospels.  

According to Wright, the Kingdom of God includes:

A New Exodus

"But this was the story that sustained the Israelites for the next thousand years and more, up to the time of Jesus—and, of course, sustains the Jewish people to this day. This was the story Jesus knew from boyhood. This was the story—the tyrant, the leader, the victory, the sacrifice, the vocation, the presence of God, the promised inheritance—within which it made sense to talk about God taking charge. This was the story about God becoming king. This was the story Jesus’s hearers would have remembered when they heard him talking about God taking charge at last. Since we have reason to believe that Jesus was one of the greatest communicators of all time, we must assume that this was the story he wanted them to think of. He must have known what he was doing, what pictures he was awakening in people’s minds. When he was talking about God taking charge, he was talking about a new Exodus."



"No point putting the world right if the people are still broken. So broken people will be healed: paralytics, epileptics, demoniacs, people with horrible skin diseases, a servant on the point of death, an old woman with a high fever, blind men, deaf and mute men, a little girl who’s technically already dead, an old woman with a persistent hemorrhage. And so on, and so on. Matthew lets the list build up until we almost take it for granted: yes, here’s a person who’s sick; Jesus will cure her."



"But it wasn’t just healings. It was also parties—celebrations. Jesus, to be sure, often spent long times alone in prayer. But he was also deeply at home where there was a party, a kingdom party, a celebration of the fact that God was at last taking charge. And, as is well enough known but not always fully understood, he seems to have specialized in celebrating God’s kingdom with all the wrong people. Tax-collectors (always disliked; doubly so when they were working for Herod or the Romans or both) were a breed apart, and Jesus went out of his way to meet them, to eat and party with them, to call one of them to be part of his inner team."



"There are many interesting features to the passage—notice, for instance, the way in which Simon, the Pharisee, is mentally criticizing Jesus for not knowing what sort of a woman this is, whereupon Jesus shows that he knows what’s going on, not only in the woman’s heart, but in Simon’s too. But we focus here on forgiveness itself. Jesus, as usual, tells a story to explain what he is doing. This time it’s about a man who had two debtors, one owing him a huge sum and the other a small sum. Neither could pay, so he forgave them both. So, he asks his host, which of the two will love him the more? Clearly, comes the answer, the one for whom he forgave the greater debt. Precisely so, says Jesus, explaining that this is why this woman had poured out love so richly upon him—unlike the host, who hadn’t even begun to show Jesus any love at all. In other words, Jesus is saying, you can tell that this woman has been forgiven, has indeed been forgiven a great deal. She knows, deep inside herself, that she’s been forgiven. That’s why there’s so much love coming out of her. And if she’s a forgiveness person, perhaps that shows that she is already enjoying the fact that God is becoming king, whereas people who aren’t forgiveness people don’t believe it."


Transformed Hearts

"So what is Jesus saying? That some people are simply permanently unclean—namely, all those who find these things bubbling up in their hearts? Hardly. There wouldn’t be too many 'clean' people around if that were his point. No, his point is that when God becomes king, he provides a cure for uncleanness of heart. Again and again it comes, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), on the edge of one remark after another. When God becomes king, he will come with a message of forgiveness and healing, and this is designed not just to remove old guilt or to cure old disease, but to renew the whole person from the inside out."


A Battle Against Satan

"The battle Jesus was fighting was against the satan. Whatever we think of this theme, it was clearly centrally important for all the gospel writers, and we have every reason to suppose it was central for Jesus as well..."


A Redefinition of Temple

"And Jesus, as we have already seen, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up—but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember the angels celebrating in heaven and people joining in on earth?), where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living."


A New Creation, On Earth

" will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people 'how to get to heaven.' That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’s public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave 'earth’ behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on 'earth'; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality."


Thus Jesus is the King who brings the Kingdom in which God reigns.  For Wright, Jesus embodies what God is supposed to do – set the world right.  

"Jesus not only believed that this was another of those moments where the true, prophetic vision of the divine hurricane would clash with the current national mood. He believed, it seems—the stories he told at the time bear this out quite strikingly—that as he came to Jerusalem he was embodying, incarnating, the return of Israel’s God to his people in power and glory."


In regards to the Roman background, Jesus is King which means Caesar is not.  In regards to the Jewish hope, Jesus is indeed restoring Israel, but in an unexpected way.  Not by defeating the pagans militarily, but by establishing "a spiritual kingdom" around himself.  For those with eyes to see, God is indeed becoming King through the ministry of Jesus.

Wright here also accepts the historical crucifixion, bodily resurrection, and ascension (although he sees this story as highly "metaphorical") of Jesus.  In these events, Jesus' identity is confirmed and he is now "enthroned" (through the resurrection and ascension) as King.  

Part 3: Already, but Not Yet

In Part 3, Wright essentially argues that, although Jesus is already enthroned, it is up to us, the church, to help continue to realize the Kingdom of God on Earth as we wait for his return.

"We can sum it all up like this. We live in the period of Jesus’s sovereign rule over the world—a reign that has not yet been completed, since, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, he must reign until 'he has put all his enemies under his feet,' including death itself. But Paul is clear that we do not have to wait until the second coming to say that Jesus is already reigning. In fact, Paul in that passage says something we might not otherwise have guessed: the reign of Jesus, in its present mode, is strictly temporary. God the father has installed Jesus in power, to act on his behalf; but when his task is complete, 'the son himself will be placed in proper order' under God the father, 'so that God may be all in all.' I do not think that Paul would have quarrelled with the Nicene Creed when it says, of Jesus, that his kingdom 'will have no end.' That, after all, is what the book of Revelation states on page after page. But I stress this point in 1 Corinthians because it makes it very clear that the present age is indeed the age of the reign of Jesus the Messiah. We cannot, in other words, agree with Billy that this reign is postponed to the second coming. That, on the contrary, is when it will be complete. In trying to understand that present reign of Jesus, though, we have seen two apparently quite different strands. On the one hand, we have seen that all the powers and authorities in the universe are now, in some sense or other, subject to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that they all do what he wants all the time, only that Jesus intends that there should be social and political structures of governance. Jesus himself pointed out to Pilate that the authority that the Roman governor had over him had been given to him 'from above' (John 19:11). Once that has been said, we should not be shy about recognizing—however paradoxical it seems to our black-and-white minds!—the God-givenness of structures of authority, even when they are tyrannical and violent. Part of what we say when we say that a structure is God-given is also that God will hold it to account. We have trained ourselves to think of political legitimacy simply in terms of the method or mode of appointment (e.g., if you’ve won an election). The ancient Jews and early Christians were far more interested in holding rulers to account with regard to what they were actually doing. God wants rulers, but God will call them to account. Where does Jesus come into all this? From his own perspective, he was himself both upstaging the power structures of his day and also calling them to account, then and there. That’s what his action in the Temple was all about. But his death, resurrection, and ascension were the demonstration that he was Lord and they were not. The calling to account has, in other words, already begun—and will be completed at the second coming. And the church’s work of speaking the truth to power means what it means because it is based on the first of these and anticipates the second. What the church does, in the power of the Spirit, is rooted in the achievement of Jesus and looks ahead to the final completion of his work."


Wright, treating all material in the synoptic gospels as essentially historically accurate (even if, at times, poetic), finds on their pages the orthodox Jesus.  Jesus is King, the Messiah, he "embodies God" – "doing what God is supposed to do."  He was crucified, buried, raised, and will return again in glory.  And for those who wish to join the Kingdom, he sets us to task to bring the Kingdom to earth today, as a pre-figuring of what is to come at the final consummation.  

The following audio is as good a summary of Wright’s thought as I could find.  In this lecture, you can get a good sense of what he believes about the historical Jesus, as well a taste of his poetic style.  The lecture was given at Calvin College in 2012. 

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John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Profile of a Saint

The saints play a big role in Hick’s understanding of world religion. They are “pointers” toward the Transcendent, and look remarkably similar across traditions. In the following quotation, Hick engages and expands William James’ “Profile of a Saint.”

“William James’ ‘composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions’, is excellent, except that whilst he does not exclude the political form of saintliness he does not sufficiently stress it. This is understandable, for the phenomenon of the political saint has become much more prominent since his time. James lists the four cardinal features of, first, ‘a feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power’; second, ‘a sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control’; third, ‘an immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down’; and fourth, ‘a shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections, towards “yes, yes,” and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned’.

To these we must add more explicitly, I think, the rare attribute, evident in the greatest saints, of spiritual joy. This is not to be confused with the natural temperamental gaiety and happiness with which some people have the very good fortune to be endowed. As William James said, ‘There are [people] who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champaigne inscribed to their credit.’ They are not necessarily, however, less self-centred or more Real-centred than others with a naturally dourer temperament. But Teresa of Avila is representative of the great mystics of all traditions in having experienced the overwhelming joy of release from the ego as it becomes open to the Transcendent. This, she says, ‘gave me a joy so great that it has never failed me even to this day, and God converted the aridity of my soul into the deepest tenderness. Everything connected with the religious life caused me delight; and it is a fact that sometimes, when I was spending time in sweeping floors which I had previously spent on my own indulgence and adornment, and realized that I was now free from all those things, there came to me a new joy, which amazed me, for I could not understand whence it arose.’ This experience – either a quietly glowing inner peace and serenity or an outwardly manifest radiance of joy – is characteristic of the true mahatmas and saints.

It is this that William James refers to as an ‘immense elation and freedom’. Julian of Norwich, whose awareness of the divine reality took the form of visions and auditions of Christ on the cross, tells how ‘suddenly, as I looked at the same cross he changed to an appearance of joy. The change in his appearance changed mine, and I was as glad and joyful as I could possibly be ... Our Lord showed this to me to make us glad and merry.’ Evelyn Underhill, describing Francis of Assisi, Ruusbroec, Catherine of Siena, Richard Rolle, Catherine of Genoa, and John of the Cross, speaks of the ‘inextinguishable gladness of heart’, the ‘gaiety, freedom, assurance, and joy’, that seems to be a characteristic of the ‘unitive’ state which they reached after a long, arduous, and sometimes painful pilgrimage.

When we turn to the Hindu world we find that the ultimate, Brahman, is spoken of as sat–chit–ananda, being–consciousness–bliss, and that the experience of union with Brahman is an experience of this bliss. ‘I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded. The ocean of Brahman is full of nectar – the joy of the Atman.’ Again Shankara speaks of the goal of mystical practice as ‘the highest bliss’ and declares that in our deepest nature one ‘never ceases to experience infinite joy’. Again, the Buddha taught: ‘He that crushes the great “I am” conceit – this, even this, is happiness supreme.’ One of the perfections of the bodhisattva is joy (mudita). And so the contemporary Buddhist monk Nyanaponika says, ‘Let us teach real joy (mudita) to others. Many have unlearned it. Life, though full of woe, holds also sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let us teach people to seek and to find real joy within themselves and to rejoice with the joy of others! Let us teach them to unfold their joy to ever sublimer heights.’ The Sufis of Islam are full of the joy of living in the divine love, which they describe poetically in ‘a great variety of images, most of them connected with love and wine’. ‘Oh, my spirit is joyful over Thee – may my spirit never be without Thee!’, sings Rumi. 

At the same time, we must not imagine that the mahatmas/saints are perpetually cheerful, never weighed down by the pain and injustice around them. On the contrary, the more involved they are in the life and suffering of the world, the more they share its sorrows. For instance Gandhi, whilst he bubbled over with fun and delight much of the time, was emotionally devastated by the slaughter in the Punjab in the wake of the partition of India. And the more introverted mystics have generally been through their dark night of the soul, enduring a period of mental suffering and doubt from which they only emerged after a long ordeal. Nevertheless, despite its ‘dark nights’, and its agonies of suffering with those who suffer, the saintly or enlightened or awakened life is one that we can see to be intrinsically good and desirable, a state in which we would dearly love to be.

We spontaneously feel that such individuals are incarnating some of the higher possibilities of our common human nature. We sense that they are not only more unselfcentred but also, paradoxically, more truly fulfilled than ourselves. But in order to empathize with them we need to have participated, at least to some small degree, in their experience of the Transcendent, and to have experienced, again in however slight a degree, something like their inner illumination and joy. It is when we have known in some tiny momentary way that of which they speak, that we are entitled to trust their much greater and stronger and more continuous experience of the Divine, the Holy, the Real.”

One figure I think of when I picture the ideal “contemplative,” or saint, is Thomas Keating – largely because of the spiritual joy he seemed to radiate.  Keating was a Trappist monk and was extremely influential in the development of the Centering Prayer movement in America.  He passed away this week.  Carl McColman wrote a nice piece honoring Keating here, and much of Keating’s teaching can be found on the Contemplative Outreach Youtube Channel

Shinzen Young once remarked about contemplatives from various traditions that “they give off the same vibe.”  Perhaps Keating, and others of his ilk, truly do experience the same transforming Reality which is open to us all. 

Here is some brief audio from Keating entitled “What’s Next in Religion”:


Aldous Huxley: Who Are We?

This is a somewhat meandering lecture by Aldous Huxley entitled "Who Are We?".  

A few pieces I find interesting:

  • What we think of as "I" is really a small part of what is going on in our "mind-body." Our conscious self is not our total self. Huxley uses the example of raising our hand. We aren't consciously flexing the necessary muscles; we will it, and it just happens. Likewise there are a host of processes our body completes without our explicit effort (digestion, circulation, etc.). He also uses the example of a parrot (5:10), which somehow has the ability to mimic sounds. Huxley refers to these unconscious processes as a "type of intelligence" that we experience, but are not consciously producing. The identity and nature of "the self" is a massive ongoing debate within religion and especially in contemplative forms of religion. A takeaway for me is simply that, when thinking about "who we are," things are not as straightforward as they first seem.

  • (11:20) Huxley here speaks about his famous image of the "brain as a reducing valve," in the sense that its primary function might be to limit the amount of reality we consciously experience, selected for survival value. We simply can't be aware and conscious of all that is going on around us as we would be too overwhelmed. Huxley believes that this reducing valve can be opened, and has been opened, by the great mystics and that similar experiences can be induced by various substances.

  • (21:00) We experience the world in terms of concepts, not direct immediate experience. Right now I think of myself as sitting on my couch and typing on my computer. In fact, I am experiencing a huge variety of sensations including various color impressions, a variety of sounds in my basement and from outside, many touch sensations coming from virtually all parts of my body, etc. When we experience life conceptually, we are actually one step removed from out immediate experience. This is one aspect of reality that vipassana meditation (as well as other forms of meditation) helps us to realize. Language and concepts are always "fingers pointing at the moon" of actual experience.

  • (36:50) "We have to combine relaxation with activity." In art, sport, the intellectual life, the spiritual life, etc. we are at our best when we get out of the way of inspiration. The painting paints itself, the song writes itself, the dance dances itself, the life lives itself. We are at our best when we are passive channels of what might be called "inspiration." In the contemplative/spiritual life, this might be spoken of as "letting God live through you."

  • (44:40) How do we open ourselves to God / The Ultimate? How do we get rid of the "partial, relative, ego-centered view of the world?" At 51:54, Huxley discusses various spiritual exercises including concentration practices, and eventually seems to describe vipassana at 54:00, which he sees leading to "an awareness of consciousness," or "consciousness without thought." I would also posit Centering Prayer as a method of reaching this state. In my mind the practice of Centering Prayer is actually a more natural fit for reaching the state that Huxley describes. Of course one's experience of a particular practice is a personal matter and how each practice uniquely affects the mind is up for debate.

Jhana Meditation


Right Concentration is the eighth branch of the Eightfold Noble Path and involves the practice of Jhana meditation.

I understand the concept of a concentration practice, but dang official Jhana meditation is complicated.  The basic practice itself seems to start fairly simply, with concentration on the breath (as a side note, this is essentially zazen meditation), but as it progresses you are moving through a lot of different objects of concentration and there is a high degree of systematizing of various mindstates that arise (i.e. am I in First Jhana?  Second Jhana?  etc.).

From a non-Buddhist perspective this is extremely esoteric.  I can see why mindfulness practice is extremely widespread while Jhana meditation is not.  It's just flat out complicated, and far more embedded within the Buddhist structure itself.

This is about as accessible a conversation I have heard about Jhana meditation and the book is good as well.  


Joseph Goldstein on Vipassana Meditation

This is a guided vipassana meditation and lecture from Joseph Goldstein, a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society.  The first 20 minutes is a guided meditation; the next 40 minutes is a lecture on mindfulness; and the rest is a question and answer time.  Goldstein defines mindfulness as "observing present experience, free of any filters" (41:30).  This is sometimes stated as "non-judgmentally" observing present moment experience.  Right Mindfulness is the seventh step of the Buddhist Eightfold path.  

The Four Noble Truths

I am going to begin a short series on The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Noble Path of Buddhism.  It's not uncommon to hear that "the teaching of the Buddha surrounds the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path," and Western Buddhist teaching is often introduced in this way.  

I'm not convinced that it's as straightforward as that.  In fact, browsing through the texts of the massive Pali Canon, it sometimes seems that these concepts are just a very small subset of an extremely large and diverse body of teaching.  I agree with Eknath Easwaran when he makes the following remarks about the Pali Canon and its relation to the Eightfold Path:

"...not even a fraction of this literature directly deals with the steps of the Buddha's Eightfold Path.  Instead there is much discussion of insights attained on that path, and the philosophical doctrines derived from those insights – so much, in fact, that the reader of Buddhist scriptures might tend to forget that the actual practice of the Eightfold Path was the Buddha's central teaching."

In my opinion, these comments apply to the Four Noble Truths as well.  Because "the Dhamma" (the full body of Buddhist teaching) is so large and diverse, it's hard to say what is and is not an essential piece.  Even in the Dhammapada, which, in the minds of some, boils down Buddhist teaching to the basics, the Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are only mentioned twice, and are never defined, simply alluded to.

That said, almost all Buddhist teachers do see these concepts as essential to Buddhist philosophy and practice, and there are texts which make these concepts primary.  

One such text is the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (found in the Samyutta Nikaya, a division of the Sutta Pitaka – the division of the Pali Canon which contains the Buddha's discourses), in which the Buddha is recorded as briefly introducing both the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path.

"And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata?  It is this Noble Eightfold Path; this is right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  This, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering,; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonattachment.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path..."


Thus, the Four Noble Truths, according to this text, are:

1. Suffering
2. The Origin of Suffering
3. The Cessation of Suffering
4. The Path to The Cessation of Suffering


The First Noble Truth paints a frustrating picture of life.  Although we experience periods of happiness and peace, in Buddhist thought, life is ultimately marked by suffering.  We are born into the world crying, confused, and immediately dependent on our parents to save us from starvation and death.  As we develop, we experience bodily injury as well as mental anxieties.  We find things in life that promise to please us; we strive for them, and yet often can't have them.  Even when we do attain what we desire, the enjoyment seems to only last a moment before we are attracted to something new, with its own promise.  "It never seems to be enough."  If we find something that does seem to give lasting happiness, we immediately develop anxiety around the need to keep it, lest we lose the object that completes us.  Over it all looms old age, sickness, and death.  All this is duhkha – suffering, unsatisfactoriness.  

The Origin of Suffering

The origin of suffering lies in our natural way of approaching life.  Various authors (and I believe various texts in the Pail Canon, although I am not sure on this point) present the Origin of Suffering in different ways.  I have seen the root cause of suffering referred to as craving/desire (as it is in this text), attachment, and ignorance.    

Craving/Desire and Attachment: The most common way the Origin of Suffering is presented is in terms of desire and attachment.  These seem to be two ways of saying virtually the same thing, desire referring to our inner disposition and attachment usually referring more to the actual things we desire (i.e. What are we "attached to"?).  In this particular sutta, the phrase "seeking delight here and there" stands out as an appropriate image.  We seek delight for ourselves here and there.  I want physical comfort.  I want money.  I want sex.  I want to be seen as attractive.  I want to be seen as intelligent and successful.  I want a nice house in a good part of town.  We desire many exterior things in the world and become attached to them because we believe they will bring us happiness.  Attachment can be to physical things, to people, and often to ideas about ourselves.  The attractive young woman worries about wrinkles.  The wealthy man worries about having more money or status than his neighbor.  Any threat to losing something which we are attached to brings ongoing anxiety.  Thomas Keating, speaking from a Christian contemplative perspective, refers to this state of being (a state of being we naturally inherit as human beings) as "The False Self."  Our craving is never quite satisfied and leads to ongoing unrest and suffering.

Ignorance: Some authors present the Origin of Suffering in terms of ignorance.  From this point of view, suffering arises because we do not experientially know the truth about reality (i.e. the Four Noble Truths and the entire Dhamma).  Ignorance leads to seeking happiness in places it cannot be found. 

Although these ideas are complimentary, I find it confusing that different authors present the Second Noble truth in different ways.  Correct translation of this concept seems to be an ongoing debate within Buddhism as a whole.  

The Cessation of Suffering

The Third Noble Truth essentially states that there is a way to end suffering.  To do so, personal craving needs to be extinguished and one must become "unattached" to all things.  

The Path to The Cessation of Suffering

The way to the Cessation of Suffering is to follow the Eightfold Noble Path.  

The Four Noble Truths lead directly to the Eightfold Noble Path.  The Truths are the philosophical underpinning, the Path is the concrete and pragmatic Way.  


Here is also a short take on the Four Noble Truths from Alan Watts:

David Frenette on The Path of Centering Prayer

This is David Frenette, a disciple of Thomas Keating, talking about his experience of Centering Prayer on the Buddhist Geeks podcast (sadly discontinued).

Frenette, along with Bourgeault, is what you might call a "second generation" Centering Prayer teacher as he has studied under Keating.  Frenette has also published a book on the topic, called The Path of Centering Prayer.  

As seen with Frenette, there continues to be a link between Zen Buddhist practice and Centering Prayer.  Several people I have interacted with through this site share that same link. 


Cynthia Bourgeault on The Heart of Centering Prayer

Alright, following the St. John series, I'd like to post two talks about Centering Prayer, one from Cynthia Bourgeault and one from David Frenette.  In The Dark Night, St. John talks about a stage of spiritual development in which the soul must be exclusively passive.   He calls this moving from meditation (i.e. the use of discursive excercises including images, words, and "form") to contempletion, or "infused contemplation."  Thomas Keating sometimes talks about Centering Prayer as a way to prepare oneself for the gift of contemplation.  This is one way to understand Centering Prayer, but, as seen below, different authors have different ways of understading the practice.  

This is Cynthia Bourgeault giving a series of talks about "The Heart of Centering Prayer" (the title of her latest book) at Boston College School of Theology.  In Part 1, she tells the story of the beginning of the Centering Prayer movement (0:30), talks about her own experience of the prayer (9:30), and explains her primary paradigm – what she calls "developing non-dual consciousness" – for understanding what is happening during Centering Prayer (18:00).  Bourgeault is the first author to interpret Centering Prayer through this lens.  These are new ideas, and she adds a new set of vocabulary, to the movement. 

In Part 2, Cynthia discusses The Cloud of Unknowing, and its relation to Centering Prayer, in detail. 

Part 3 consists of discussions of apophatic vs. cataphatic practice (2:30), and the active vs. contemplative life (23:00) as seen in The Cloud of Unknowing. 

In Part 4, Cynthia talks briefly about the Divine Therapy and then does a Q & A.  


When I first read Cynthia Bourgeault's new book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, I thought she was distancing herself from the Christian tradition.  The way in which she speaks of Centering Prayer as a means of forming non-dual consciousness seemed to me to relativize the role of God, however you want to describe that term.  It seemed to me that, by emphasizing simply the practice of releasing thoughts, and how this discipline can affect our "operating system," she was turning Centering Prayer into an almost secular practice.  

After watching these lectures I think otherwise.  There are still pieces of her book that give me pause.  For instance, in the following quote she talks about "God being the sideshow":

"I was several years into the practice of Centering Prayer before I came to appreciate the cumulative effect of this patterning.  Like most beginners, I thought that the aim in Centering Prayer was to let go of my thoughts so that God could 'fill' me with his presence.  One day I suddenly realized that the God story was the sideshow and the letting go was the main event.  That was when the practice flipped for me, as I recognized that thoughts were not the obstacle; they were the raw material, as every opportunity to practice releasing that focal point for attention deepened the reservoir of 'free attention' within me and strengthened the signal of the homing beacon of my heart."

– Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer

These statements seem to me to edge the practice away from being "God-centered."  And I do think that her book tends towards the esoteric.  But the way she carefully describes objectless awareness (a meditative state associated with Centering Prayer) as a place where "Divine awareness and our own awareness co-mingle as one diffuse field of inter-abiding" (Part 1 41:40) makes me think that she is still faithful to The Cloud of Unknowing and rooted in the Christian contemplative tradition.  

Overall, I think Bourgeault is brilliant, but re-framing the practice in terms of non-dual consciousness seems obscure and confusing.  Take, for instance, how she defines the term in her book:

"Imagine that there might be a different way of structuring the field of perception, an alternative way of wiring the brain that did not depend on that initial bifurcation of the perceptual field into inside and outside, subject and object.  Instead, one would grasp the entire pattern as a whole – holographically – through a perceptual modality quantitatively more immediate and sensate, working on vibrational resonance rather than mental abstraction.  Then one would indeed experience that signature sense of oneness – not, however, because one had broken into a whole new realm of spiritual experience, but because that tedious, 'translator' mechanism of the self-reflective brain has finally been superseded.  You see oneness because you see from oneness."

I feel like she is essentially describing what a Buddhist would call the experience of "no-self" which can be achieved through vipassana meditation.  On top of this, I feel like this is a slightly different state than what she elsewhere describes as "attention of the heart":

"Perhaps the subtlest fruit of the practice is a gradually deepening capacity to abide in the state of 'attention of the heart,' as it's known in the Christianity of the East.  You might describe this as a stable state of mindfulness or 'witnessing presence,' but emanating from the heart, not the head, and thus free of intrusion from that heavy-handed mental 'inner observer' who seems to separate us from the immediacy of our lives.  The essence of this kind of attentiveness is perhaps best summed up in those words from the Song of Songs: 'I sleep, but my heart is awake.'  Once you get the hang of it, attention of the heart allows you to be fully present to God, but at the same time fully present to the situation at hand, giving and taking from the spontaneity of your own authentic, surrendered presence."

This, it seems to me, is equivalent not to "no-self" but to what a Zen Buddhist would call "Neither man nor circumstances are deprived."

Oh boy, this is quite confusing. 

This is why I prefer to simply think of Centering Prayer as opening yourself completely to the presence and action of God.  Transformation will happen in that process, and the way, or categories through which, you see that transformation may change over time.

When we start talking about how consciousness is changed when off the mat, maybe we can just let what happens happen.  


The Dark Night: Book 2 The Passive Night of the Spirit


So far, in St. John's progression, the soul has actively tried to mortify its attachments to the things of the world and also the pleasures that come from various spiritual exercises.  It has also allowed itself to be passively purged of its attachments to these spiritual delights in the Passive Night of the Senses.  

Through the aridity of Passive Night of the Senses, God has led the soul away from and beyond discursive meditation (i.e. the use of words, concepts, images, or any "content" in prayer), towards what St. John will call contemplation.  

"At the time of the aridities of this sensory night, God makes the exchange we mentioned by withdrawing the soul from the life of the senses and placing it in that of the spirit – that is, he brings it from meditation to contemplation – where the soul no longer has the power to work or meditate with its faculties on the things of God."

Now, absorbed in the work of contemplation, the soul is completely passive, and can do nothing but be acted upon by God:

"When this house of the senses was stilled (that is, mortified), its passions quenched, and its appetites calmed and put to sleep through this happy night of the purgation of the senses, the soul went out in order to begin its journey along the road of the spirit, which is that of proficients and which by another terminology is referred to as the illuminative way of infused contemplation.  On this road God himself pastures and refreshes the soul without any of its own discursive meditation or active help."

Passing through the Passive Night of the Senses and entering into the contemplative work is a great joy and the soul is again at peace in God, although this time no longer attached to specific discursive exercises.  The soul is content to rest in loving awareness of God:

"The soul readily finds in its spirit, without the work of meditation, a very serene, loving contemplation and spiritual delight."

This state, according to St. John, may last for years and this is, in fact, where the journey ends for some, maybe even most, contemplatives.  But for others there is one final purgation to undergo – the Passive Night of the Spirit.  

This is the deepest, longest, and darkest night.  Just when the soul feels that it has abandoned all that is not God for God's sake, it then, in this night, feels rejected by the very God it has given all for.  St. John describes this Night in several ways.

"Since the divine extreme strikes in order to renew the soul and divinize it, it so disentangles and dissolved the spiritual substance – absorbing it in a profound darkness – that the soul at the sight of its miseries feels that it is melting away and being undone by a cruel spiritual death.  It feels as if it were swallowed by a beast and being digested in the dark belly, and it suffers and anguish comparable to Jonah's in the belly of the whale."
"But what the sorrowing soul feels most is the conviction that God has rejected it, and with abhorrence cast it into darkness."
"The afflictions and straights of the will are also immense.  Sometimes these afflictions pierce the soul when it suddenly remembers the evils in which it sees itself immersed, and it becomes uncertain of any remedy.  To this pain is added the remembrance of past prosperity, because usually persons who enter this night have previously had many consolations in God and rendered him many services.  They are now sorrowful in knowing that they are far from such good and can no longer enjoy it."
"They resemble one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hands and feet, and able neither to move nor see nor feel any favor from heaven or earth."

Bellies of whales, dungeons, spiritual death, anguish, abhorrence, darkness.  Not a happy place.

But at the end of this long and dark night lies the unitive state, one in which the soul proclaims:

"I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies."

The blessedness of final Union allows the soul to look back on the various Nights and say, with St. John, "Ah, the sheer grace!"

The Dark Night ends abruptly and unexpectedly, as we may come to expect with St. John.

Final Thoughts on St. John of the Cross

This will end the series on St. John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night.  One major takeaway for me after reading St. John is the tentative nature of any structured, sequential spiritual path.  Not only does St. John not stick to one scheme to describe the spiritual journey, he himself believes that some experience these stages in different ways than others.  He also sometimes speaks of the stages being simultaneous or overlapping.  Everyone's experience is going to be unique.  It is insightful to read about the paths of others, for instance the one St. John presents in these works, but to make any one sequence normative is probably a mistake.  

Another, related, takeaway is the continued understanding from the Christian contemplative tradition that the path is winding.  There are times of aridity, of doubt, of pain, of the feeling of absence, and these are normal, even necessary for progression.  Meditation teachers from any tradition that don't speak about this reality set practitioners up for disappointment.  I continue to believe that this is a relative strength of the Christian tradition as compared to others which speak only of peak experiences or a road that leads straight to the top without major trials along the way.  

St. John is one of the harshest of the Catholic mystics.  He insists on nothing less than complete mortification and non-attachment.  An interesting contrast would be reading him next to The Cloud of Unknowing, whose author is gentler and, perhaps, more suited to modern, non-monastic audiences.  

As an additional resource about the life of St. John, here is a introductory lecture from the Boston College School of Theology:

James Cutsinger on The Perennial Philosophy

James Cutsinger is a professor of Theology and Religious Thought at the University of South Carolina.  This is a longer interview in which he "talks around" a lot of different topics regarding the Perennial Philosophy.  

I don't know that he ever gives a hard, propositional definition (the closest he probably gets is at 4:00 where he talks about a fundamental unanimity of thought of many philosophers throughout time about transcendent reality, something which is "transcendent and saving"), but this is a good introduction to the ideas that come out of the Perennial Tradition.   

I think the discussion at 27:25 regarding religious relativism vs. what might be called "absolutism" is helpful and the interview also turns towards how perennialism can be understood from an orthodox Christian perspective in the second half (39:50). 



Shinzen Young on World Mysticism

This is Shinzen Young giving a somewhat winding talk about world mysticism from a Buddhist perspective.  I find his contrast (at 9:00 and following) between pseudo-mysticism – the experience of "weird stuff" (gods, ghosts, ancestors, acquisition of powers, etc.)  – and Mysticism with a Capital M – which he defines as "touching the Formless Source" – to be helpful in understanding what people mean when using the term.  

Most of this talk compares Eastern systems (Buddhist, Yogic, etc.), but at 40:30 he also addresses major Western traditions.

The Liturgists on "The Voice of God"

So after writing the post on Progressive Christian authors, bloggers, and podcasters, I came across The Liturgists Podcast.  Mike McHargue is definitely another name to add to the list.  I read his Finding God in the Waves and have been bingeing this Podcast ever since.

I found this episode, which explores what it means to hear "the voice of God," particularly fascinating.  Take a listen and then check out The Liturgists website.

The whole thing is worth a listen, but I especially resonate Mike's reflections starting at 49:45, where he compares connecting with God to the phenomena of lightning.  I think it's a really interesting way to think about what is happening when we "experience God."   


The Bhagavad Gita: Two Paths

Many spiritual traditions have some picture of "Two Paths," one for the righteous, one for the wicked.  One for the pure in heart, one for the impure.  Jesus famously used the image of a separation between sheep and goats in the final judgment.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 1 captures this picture as well:

"Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked
 or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,
 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
 and who meditates on it day and night.
 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
 which yields its fruit in season
 and whose leaf does not wither.
 Whatever they do prospers.

 Not so the wicked! 
 They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
 nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
 but the way of the wicked leads to destruction."

Rarely does life break down in so simple a way.  Outside of characterizations, it is hard to put any one person purely in the category of "righteous," or "wicked."  As an old pastor of mine used to say, we are all a holy mix.   But the image of Two Paths is helpful.  The righteous path is an ideal to strive for.  The evil path is a disaster to avoid. 

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna contrasts those who have Divine qualities with those who are demonic.  In Chapter 16, He counsels Arjuna to remain on the Divine, spiritual path.  

"Be fearless and pure; never waver in your determination or your dedication to the spiritual life.  Give freely.  Be self-controlled, sincere, truthful, loving, and full of the desire to serve.  Realize the truth of the scriptures; learn to be detached and take joy in renunciation.  Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle, show good will to all.  Cultivate vigor, patience, will, purity; avoid malice and pride.  Then, Arjuna, you will achieve your divine destiny.

Other qualities, Arjuna, make a person more and more inhuman: hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, cruelty, ignorance.  The divine qualities lead to freedom; the demonic, to bondage.  But do not grieve, Arjuna; you were born with divine attributes.

Some people have divine tendencies, others demonic.  I have described the divine at length, Arjuna; now listen while I describe the demonic. 

The demonic do things they should avoid and avoid the things they should do.  They have no sense of uprightness, purity, or truth.  'There is no God,' they say, 'no truth, no spiritual law, no moral order.  The basis of life is sex; what else can it be?'  Holding such distorted views, possessing scant discrimination, they become enemies of the world, causing suffering and destruction.

Hypocritical, proud, and arrogant, living in delusion and clinging to deluded ideas, insatiable in their desires, they purse their unclean ends.  Although burdened with fears that end only with death, they still maintain with complete assurance, 'Gratification of lust is the highest that life can offer.'  Bound on all sides by scheming and anxiety, driven by anger and greed, they amass by any means they can a hoard of money for the satisfaction of their cravings. 

'I got this today,' they say; 'tomorrow I shall get that.  This wealth is mine, and that will be mine too.  I have destroyed my enemies.  I shall destroy others too!  Am I not like God?  I enjoy what I want.  I am successful.  I am powerful.  I am happy.  I am rich and well-born.  Who is equal to me?  I will perform sacrifices and give gifts, and rejoice in my own generosity.'  This is how they go on, deluded by ignorance.  Bound by their greed and entangled in a web of delusion, whirled about by a fragmented mind, they fall into a dark hell...

There are three gates to this self-destructive hell: lust, anger, and greed.  Renounce these three.  Those who escape these three gates of darkness, Arjuna, seek what is best and attain life's supreme goal.  Others disregard the teachings of the scriptures.  Driven by selfish desire, they miss the goal of life, miss even happiness and success.

Therefore let the scriptures be your guide in what to do and what not to do.  Understand their teachings; then act in accordance with them."

The Bhagavad Gita, 16:1-16, 21-24


This will end the Bhagavad Gita series.  Reading through it is probably the easiest way to understand basic Hindu thought.  Although Hinduism is wildly diverse as a religion, this text is highly revered among most Hindus.  I find the type of meditation described in Chapter 6 especially interesting and connected to my own practice of Centering Prayer.  You could practically lift Chapter 6 out and put it right into The Cloud of Unknowing.  These authors are speaking the same language.  

For more on basic Hindu thought and its relation to Buddhism from the perspective of Alan Watts, check out the following brief lecture.




The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus: Review

In The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus, Dale Allison discusses the challenges inherent in the "quest for the historical Jesus," his methodology for historical criticism of the Gospels, the paradigm of Jesus that emerges from his methodology, and personal impressions about how his historical studies have informed his own faith.  This is required reading for anyone embarking on their own quest to understand who Jesus of Nazareth was as a historical figure.  

Overview:  Allison breaks this book up into five sections: The Problem of Theological Utility, Disputed Questions, How to Proceed, Some Difficult Conclusions, and Some Personal Impressions.  I'll take a look at all five parts.

The Problem of Theological Utility and Disputed Questions:  In the first two sections of the book, Allison focuses on the question, "Of what use, if any, is the so-called historical Jesus for Christian theology?"  That is, should Christian theologians even concern themselves with uncovering a so-called historical Jesus?  And, if so, how should that historical reconstruction inform theology?  Here Allison discusses the polarization between theologians who simply use canonical descriptions of Jesus for theology and those who want to find a historical Jesus and use that construction to inform their understanding of Christian doctrine.  For those who are even interested in finding a historical Jesus, they are in for a challenge, for there is little consensus in the field:

"If contemporary theology wants to include the historical Jesus in its discourse, it is up against grave obstacles, because his identity is unclear.  More than one historical Jesus resides between today's book covers.  We indeed have a plethora of them.  There is the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian.  There is the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom.  There is the Jesus of E.P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer.  There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and nonviolent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination.  One could go on.  To the outsider, theories about Jesus must seem to crisscross each other to create a maze of contradictions.  For the portraits in the marketplace are to large degree not complementary but contradictory."

In the end, Allison believes that yes, a historical Jesus is of value to the theologian, and indeed his own historical conclusions have changed how he views the Christian faith.  Although there is no consensus about the identity of Jesus, and the biases of each historian are difficult to overcome, there is real value in the Quest.

How to Proceed:  After affirming the value of historical research into Jesus, Allison moves on to consider methodology.  How do we go about finding the historical Jesus?

Traditionally historical Jesus scholars have used what are known as "criteria of authenticity" to determine whether a particular passage about Jesus is historical or not.  The major criterion have been multiple attestation (Does the story or saying show up in multiple, independent sources?), dissimilarity (Is the story or saying significantly different from what we would expect to come out of 2nd Temple Judaism or the early Christian communities?  If so, the story or saying is unlikely to have been "made up."), embarrassment (If the story or saying is embarrassing to the Church, it is unlikely to have been "made up."), and coherence (Does the story or saying fit with other texts that we believe are historical?).  Allison himself has used these criterion in the past, but does so no longer.  The major problem he sees is that while these criteria are supposed to create a more "scientific" way to determine the historicity of a text, scholars, using the very same criteria, come to vastly different conclusions regarding both the historicity of individual texts and even major paradigms to understand Jesus with.  

For Allison, the criteria just don't work.  There are hardly any individual texts that he believes we can even reasonably assign a probability of historicity to:

"After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even accurate estimates of their probability.  That Jesus said something is no cause for supposing that we can demonstrate that he said it, and that Jesus did not say something is no cause for supposing that we can show that he did not say it.  Similarly, if Jesus did something, that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did it, and if he did not do something , that does not mean we can ascertain with any probability that he did not do it.  There is a gaping chasm between what happened and what we can discover or deem likely to have happened...Did Jesus utter the golden rule?  I do not see how anyone will ever show that he did, or how anyone will ever show that he did not.  I certainly have never run across persuasive arguments for one conclusion or the other.  Sadly, this example for me is representative."

The solution for Allison is not to sift through individual sayings and determine whether each is "historical" or "unhistorical," but to look for large patterns in the Gospels.  If there is a large body of material that, for instance, portrays Jesus as coming into conflict with religious authorities, then we should conclude that he had public conflict with religious authorities.  It does not matter if this or that story is historically accurate, and we will never know either way, but the pattern leads us to believe that he acted in this sort of way:

"The Gospels are parables.  When we read them, we should think not that Jesus said this or did that but rather: Jesus did things like this, and he said things like that."

If we can't trust major patterns in the Gospels, then we can't trust our sources at all.  When discussing Jesus' eschatology, Allison makes the following remark:

"I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly.  Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory.  To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions.  They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done.  As for eschatology in particular, my contention is that either a decent number of the entries in my catalogue fairly characterize what Jesus was about, or the tradition is so full of mnemonic holes and fictional accretions that the quest is a vain aspiration and we should find some other pastime with which to amuse ourselves."

Some Difficult Conclusions:  Using his unique methodology (although he would argue that his conclusions should hold regardless of methodology), Allison argues here that the the historical Jesus is the Apocalyptic Jesus.  That is, Jesus believed that the world would soon end, a final judgment would ensue, and a new world – the Kingdom of God – would be born.  Furthermore, Jesus believed that he himself, as the final messianic prophet, would usher in this new age.  

"...Jesus had firm eschatological expectations, to which he gave frequent expression.  More precisely, he envisaged, as many did in his time and place, the advent, after suffering and persecution, of a great judgment, and after that a supernatural utopia, the kingdom of God, inhabited by the dead come back to life, to enjoy a world forever rid of evil and wholly ruled by God.  Further, he thought that the night was far gone, the day at hand."

Allison knows that his conclusions, in the line of Albert Schweitzer, will trouble both conservative and liberal Christians.  A historical Jesus who held these beliefs is advantageous to neither. 

Some Personal Reflections:  To end the book, Allison includes a personal section in which he discusses how his conclusions about Jesus have changed his own faith.  In the end, he finds that he must adopt Jesus' dream of a future ruled by God, for it the only way to make sense of the world as it is and the hope of a Loving Creator:

"Such (eschatological) expectation implicitly concedes that life as we have known it does not make sense.  It posits reward and punishment in a life to come precisely because they are missing from the here and now.  It locates meaning in the future because there is a deficiency of sense in the present.  It hopes for better someday because today it is worse.  Eschatology does nothing, of course, to explain away evil, and it leaves us with the question, Why would God be better to all in the future than God seems to be now?  To which Jesus prudently returns no answer.  But he does share with us his audacious imagination, born of his unswerving conviction that, despite appearances, God is profoundly good.  His fundamental intuition is that the creator must be the redeemer, that the divine Father is good enough to ensure that those who mourn will be comforted, loving enough to guarantee that those who weep with someday laugh...

We do well, I suggest, to follow his lead.  For although eschatology is not the solution to the problem of evil, without eschatology there can be no solution.  If what we see on earth is all that we will ever see, if there is no further repairing of wrongs beyond what we have already witnessed, then divine love and justice do not really count for much.  This is not, for me, a theological cliche but a philosophical necessity."

Allison ends another of his works Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, in a similar vein:

"And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming.  If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.  If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing."

Reflections:  I agree with virtually everything Dale Allison says in this book.  He bears witness to just how complicated historical Jesus study can be, while also clearly laying out his tentative conclusions, which I find persuasive.  He does so with humility and from a perspective of faith, albeit a faith that many won't be comfortable with.

Regarding his methodology, I am sold.  If we can't trust major patterns in the Gospels, then trying to find the historical Jesus is a vain endeavor.  Likewise, looking at individual sayings and dubbing them historical or non-historical, or perhaps assigning probabilities of historicity, may work for a small amount of texts, but not for the vast majority.  

In my mind, Allison towers over others in this field and deserves a much wider readership than he seems to have.  

Personal Takeaways:  This book pushed me over the edge into seeing Jesus of Nazareth as primarily an Apocalyptic Prophet.  In many ways, this was the straw that spurred my break from traditional understandings of Christianity and into an interest in contemplative practice.  I had widdled my faith down to Jesus, and then I came to accept that he was wrong about the end of the world.  The way I understood my own faith was forever changed.  Although this book was initially threatening and disorienting, in the end, I found it to be freeing.  It opened me up into new ways to think about Jesus, Christianity, faith, and spirituality.  

If there is one book to read as an introduction to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, this is it.  


For more, here is a lecture by Allison in which he reads from most of the sections of this book.  The lecture leaves out the sections of the book focused on eschatology.

The Book of Privy Counseling: Thought Unified in Him Who is All

The Book of Privy Counseling is often packaged with The Cloud of Unknowing.  This short work is written by the same author as The Cloud, and represents his mature thought, after years of giving himself to the spiritual work.  

Chapter 1 of The Book of Privy Counseling could serve as a summation of the author's understanding of apophatic prayer.  

"When you go apart to be alone for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do.  Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil.  Do not pray with words unless you are really drawn to this; or if you do pray with words, pay no attention to whether they are many or few.  Do not weigh them or their meaning.  Do not be concerned about what kind of prayers you use, for it is unimportant whether or not they are official liturgical prayers, psalms hymns, or anthems; whether you formulate them interiorly by thoughts, or express them aloud, in words.  See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out toward God.  Leave it stripped of every particular idea about God (what he is like in himself or in his works) and keep only the simple awareness that he is as he is.  Let him be thus, I pray you, and force him not to be otherwise.  Search into him no further, but rest in this faith as on solid ground.  This awareness, stripped of ideas and deliberately bound and anchored in faith, shall leave your thought and affection in emptiness except for a naked thought and blind feeling of your own being.  It will feel as if your whole desire cried out to God and said:

   That which I am I offer to you, O Lord,
   without looking to any quality of your
   being but only to the fact that you
   are as you are; this, and nothing more.

Let that quiet darkness be your whole mind and like a mirror to you.  For I want your thought of self to be as naked and as simple as your thought of God, so that you may be spiritually united to him without any fragmentation and scattering of your mind.  He is your being, and in him, you are what you are, not only because he is the cause and being of all that exists, but because he is your cause and the deep center of your being.  Therefore, in this contemplative work think of your self and of him in the same way: that is, with the simple awareness that he is as he is, and that you are as you are.  In this way your thought will not be fragmented or scattered but unified in him who is all.

Yet keep in mind this distinction between yourself and him: he is your being but you are not his.  It is true that everything exists in him as in its source and ground of being, and that he exists in all things, as their cause and their being.  Yet a radical distinction remains: he alone is his own cause and his own being.  For as nothing can exist without him, so he cannot exist without himself.  He is his own being and the being of everything else.  Of him, alone may this be said; and thus he is wholly separate and distinct from every created thing.  And thus, also, he is one in all things and all things are one in him.  For I repeat: all things exist in him; he is the being of all.

And since this is so, let grace unite your thought and affection to him, while you strive to reject all minute inquiry into the particular qualities of your blind being or of his.  Leave your thought quite naked, your affection uninvolved, and your self simply as you are, so that grace may touch and nourish you with the experimental knowledge of God as he really is.  In this life, this experience will always remain dark and partial so that your longing desire for him will be ever newly enkindled."

The Book of Privy Counseling, Chapter 1

This will be the last post in The Cloud of Unknowing series.  Coming from a Christian background, this is one of the first books that led me down the contemplative path.  I personally believe that this is one of the profound works of contemplative thought in world history and highly recommend getting a copy to dig into it further.  See the Centering Prayer page for more on The Cloud of Unknowing and its relationship to the Centering Prayer movement.

To end this series, here is a lecture on The Cloud given by Father Dennis Billy from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.  

Victor Frankl on Meaning

"Thus, to all appearances, meaning is just something we are projecting into the things around ourselves, things which themselves are neutral.  And in the light of this neutrality, reality may well seem to be just a screen upon which we are projecting our own wishful thinking, a Rorschach blot, as it were.  If that were so, meaning would be no more than a mere means of self-expression, and thus something profoundly subjective.

However, the only thing which is subjective is the perspective through which we approach reality, and this subjectiveness does not in the least detract from the objectiveness of reality itself.  I improvised an explanation of this phenomenon for the students in my seminar at Harvard.  'Just look through the windows of this lecture hall at Harvard Chapel.  Each of you sees the chapel in a different way, from a different perspective, depending on the location of your seat.  If anyone claimed that he sees the chapel exactly as his neighbor does, I would have to say that one of them must be hallucinating.  But does the difference of views in the least detract from the objectivity and reality of the chapel?  Certainly it does not.'

Human cognition is not of kaleidoscopic nature.  If you look into a kaleidoscope, you see only what is inside of the kaleidoscope itself.  On the other hand, if you look through a telescope you see something which is outside of the telescope itself.  And if you look at the world, or a thing in the world, you also see more than, say, the perspective.  What is seen through the perspective, however subjective the perspective may be, is the objective world.  In fact, "seen through" is the literal translation of the Latin word, perspectum.

I have no objection to replacing the term 'objective' with the more cautious term 'trans-subjective' as it is used, for example, by Allers.  This does not make a difference.  Nor does it make a difference whether we speak of things or meanings.  Both are 'trans-subjective.'  This trans-subjectiveness has really been presupposed all along whenever we spoke of self-transcendence.  Human beings are transcending themselves toward meanings which are something other than themselves, which are more than mere expressions of their selves, more than mere projections of these selves.  Meanings are discovered but not invented...

...Thus we have arrived at a definition of what meaning is.  Meaning is what is meant, be it by a person who asks me a question, or by a situation which, too, implies a question and calls for an answer.  I cannot say. 'My answer right or wrong,' as the Americans say, 'My country right or wrong.'  I must try hard to find out the true meaning of the question which I am asked.

To be sure, man is free to answer the questions he is asked by life.  But this freedom must not be confounded with arbitrariness.  It must be interpreted in terms of responsibleness.  Man is responsible for giving the right answer to a question, for finding the true meaning of a situation.  And meaning is something to be found rather than to be given, discovered rather than invented."

– Victor Frankl, The Will to Meaning

We could say that meaning is the answer that an individual must give in light of the demands of life.  

Here's Frankl with a short interview on The Will to Meaning: