“Who Is This God?”: The Controversial Sequel to the Jesus Seminar

Perhaps, like me, you’re the right age and religious sensibility to have worn a WWJD bracelet in the 1990s. I got mine at the United Church of Christ summer camp where I worked for two summers during college. The handful of congregations that represented the evangelical contingent of the U.C.C. in our region (yes, denominational-watchers, there was an evangelical contingent of the U.C.C.!) got together for their own week-long camp, called King’s Kids. That was the only week during the summer where you might see a kid wearing a t-shirt that said “Evolution: The Lie,” or hear language of getting saved.

One year the camp directors gave everyone, including summer staff, WWJD bracelets in a cheerful rainbow pattern. A fellow staff member, coming back from his day off and seeing everyone in their new bracelets, was puzzled. “Why are all the King’s Kids campers wearing pride armbands?” he asked.

Ah, the nineties; they were a marvel.

But back to the question that festooned our wrists and hopefully sometimes occupied our minds: What would Jesus, a first-century Jewish Palestinian peasant, do? Well… he would probably do first-century Jewish Palestinian things, wouldn’t he? But then, how do we know? Whom do we consult?

The authors of the ancient texts that comprise what we now know as the canonical New Testament, and those in the intervening years who were lucky (and male) enough to proffer authoritative church-sanctioned interpretations of same? Or ought one look more broadly?

Although these questions had been asked before the 1990s, they were fought over again during the decade’s “Jesus Wars,” rather famously sparked by the Jesus Seminar.

The Jesus Seminar was a group comprised mostly of scholars, convened by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, under the auspices of the Westar Institute. In his book American Jesus, historian Stephen Prothero characterizes the Jesus Seminar as “quintessentially American. Its method is democratic, its goal is freedom, and its obsession is Jesus.”

You may know them as the group that used beads to vote on whether various sayings attributed to Jesus were really said by Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar has had a number of critics, and neither the criticisms nor the responses were always irenic. (Those wanting a play-by-play will enjoy Walter Wink’s essay from the Bulletin for Biblical Research in which he likens the whole ordeal to a boxing match that, as of the 1997 publication date, was far from over.)

The intervening years, though, have shown that the Jesus Seminar—and by extension the Westar Institute, its institutional home—were quite correct in wagering that nonacademics would be interested in learning what New Testament scholars and historians have to say about Jesus. Westar has had other seminars in the intervening years, such as the Paul Seminar, the Acts Seminar, etc. But the Jesus Seminar remains the most controversial and attention-getting.

Well, now Westar may be upping the ante with a new “Seminar on God and the Human Future.” Or as many have been calling it: The God Seminar.

If this calls to your mind a bunch of scholars sitting in a room using beads to vote on whether God really did this or that thing, you wouldn’t be the first to draw that conclusion.  But that’s not quite the idea.

This past spring, I attended the God Seminar’s first standalone meeting in Santa Rosa, California, where I was one of two respondents to Jack Caputo, a well-known philosopher and radical theologian. I had never been to a Westar event before, and was stunned and delighted by how many non-academics had opted to spend their weekend listening to scholars converse.

Afterwards, over email, I followed up with Caputo and with David Galston, the academic director of the Westar Institute.

I asked Galston about the double-take people do when they learn that Westar is taking on theology—a far different enterprise than biblical criticism. While acknowledging that the two disciplines are very different, Galston said that he saw the work of the God Seminar as a natural outgrowth of the work of the Jesus Seminar. “The historical Jesus question was shocking for many people because it exposed to the public what biblical scholarship had largely concluded over several decades, which was that Jesus did not say most of the things the Bible attributes to him,” Galston explained.

“What the Jesus Seminar did, and I don’t think it was a conscious act, was change the way one questions who or what God is. The historical Jesus plainly does not have a ‘God’ who is a fixed and transcendental figure (an upstairs guy). Jesus communicated through parables, which is very frustrating… The parables are not about God but indirectly about the Kingdom of God or God’s Imperial Rule or God’s Empire, etc…. [W]e can see that the historical Jesus, by not talking about God, adds to the theological quest for post-theistic forms of religion and philosophy[.]”

Caputo, one of the most respected scholars in the “theological quest” to which Galston refers, likewise stressed the connection between the historical Jesus and the Kingdom of God. “The God Seminar is a sequel to the Jesus Seminar,” Caputo wrote. “If Jesus spoke about God mostly by speaking about the kingdom of God, and if he spoke about the kingdom of God by speaking about things like mustard seeds and leaven, then who is the God in the kingdom of God? If Jesus keeps deflecting our attention from God to mustard seeds, who is this God?”

Hence the question under debate at the first meeting: Does the kingdom of God need God?

And in particular, does the kingdom of God need the God of traditional theism—the all-powerful, all-knowing, changeless “upstairs guy,” as Galston put it?  To this, the God Seminar voted no. (And yes, the vote did indeed take place with beads.)

But that does not mean that the God Seminar has voted God out of reality altogether. As Caputo explained,

“At our first meeting we agreed with Paul Tillich: to the notion that subject matter of theology is taken to be the existence of a First or Supreme Being, an Almighty Agent who does or doesn’t do certain supernatural things, the proper theological response is atheism. But that atheism is entirely theological. It does not spell the end of theology, but the beginning—of a more radical theology.”

As with the Jesus Seminar, the God Seminar hopes to involve the public. But there, the situation is arguably a bit different than it was in the 1990s. The fulminations of the New Atheists notwithstanding, some trade books are blurring the line between religion and atheism in ways different from—but not altogether hostile to—that done by radical theology.  Chris Stedman’s Faitheist and Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists are two such titles. The SundayAssembly, a churchlike gathering for atheists at which God is not mentioned, started in London in 2013. Now there are more than thirty congregations across the globe.

Will this softened ground work in the God Seminar’s favor, or will it merely make the God Seminar’s work less controversial—and therefore less attention-getting?

Galston acknowledged that many people the God Seminar hopes to reach may have already decided that religion is opposed to rigorous thought. He noted a “cultural shift in that religion is not what it used to be. Statistically, the fastest growing religion category is those who claim to have no religion. That means the significance of controversies in religion are not broadly noticed anymore.”

Moreover, he added, “[r]eligion is often reduced to extremism in the public mind. So, many people turn away from religion before realizing the discussion is an academically responsible one.” Caputo agreed, stating that “our challenge, which is considerable, is to get this out to the public as effectively as did the Jesus Seminar.”

[If you are in Atlanta later this month for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, you can catch the third session of the God Seminar, titled: “The Radical Tillich: Reclaiming a Strategic Atheism.” –The Eds.]