John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This lecture and two additional ones were delivered as The Britt Lectures at the First United Methodist Church of Honolulu, on February. 16-19, 2007, under the overall title of “To Whom Can We Go?” Used by permission of the author.
Should we continue to follow Jesus today? Cobb professes to be among “progressive” Christians — liberals who have broken with the dominant strand of past liberalism but have continued to remain open to developments in the culture and presentation of reasons for the Christian faith without any appeal to supernatural authority. To follow Jesus means to hope and pray for a world structured on principles that would turn present society upside down, create countercultural communities, nonviolently, and to do this while remaining open to ideas and ways of being of quite different sorts.
First, let me express my appreciation for the invitation to give these lectures. A lecture series is an occasion to think through some question with considerably more thoroughness than a single lecture allows. One of the questions that has been on my mind for a long time, but has always been pushed to the back burner, is on the minds of a great many liberal and progressive Protestants. Should we continue to follow Jesus today?
This is a question that arises, not for all Protestants, but for liberal ones. That it arises for us is often taken as a reason for rejecting liberal theology. Indeed, the word “liberal” has been given a very negative connotation, and many of the criticisms are valid. Yet for me, no other form of Protestantism is possible. In this first lecture I will explain what I mean by liberal Protestantism as an historical phenomenon. This will show why liberal Protestants must take seriously the question about remaining followers of Jesus. I will conclude this lecture by explaining what I understand it to mean to follow Jesus. In the other lectures I will consider and criticize the alternatives that so many have chosen.
- Liberal Protestantism
In a broad sense, there have been liberal Protestants from an early point. The Reformers themselves were liberal in their emphasis on the individual believer and individual conscience. They opposed the authoritarian claims of the church of their day and especially of the pope. Their appeal to scriptural authority was liberating, especially because they claimed that each believer could have direct access to the text and to the God who is revealed there.
Some leaders of the Reformation period took another step toward individual freedom. They taught that the same God who had inspired the scriptures now directly inspired individual believers. The major Reformers were frightened by this move, and we have to sympathize with them It is too easy to confuse various impulses and ideas that arise in one’s mind with the guidance of God. The diversity of such impulses and ideas could lead to fragmentation and very questionable behavior. Hence the major Reformers emphasized sola scriptura, that is, only the Bible, against the authority both of the church and of private religious experience.
This emphasis has been prominent in Protestantism ever since, but the appeal to personal experience has also played an important role. The Quakers are heirs of the early impulse in this direction. They have found ways of checking individual idiosyncrasies and have played a truly wonderful role in Protestant history.
The emphasis on personal experience came to the fore in later contexts as well. The later contexts were supplied by the conservative development of sola scriptura. Whereas Luther and Calvin participated in the best historical scholarship of their day, some of their followers put the emphasis on doctrines of divine inspiration that turned the scriptures into supernatural writings. The roots of contemporary Fundamentalism go deep in Protestant history. The results in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was that the faith to which people were called was often more the objective belief that the scriptures were completely true than the deeply personal assurance of God’s forgiveness of their sins and the resulting freedom. This context inspired a new protest, one that we call “pietism,” which emphasized personal experience and response over against mere belief.
The early pietists did not engage in critical biblical study or directly challenge the literalism of the official teaching. But by shifting the emphasis to personal appropriation of the gospel message, they downplayed the importance of these supernatural claims about the Bible as such and reopened the issue of the value and importance of personal religious experience. They also emphasized the responsibility of believers to share the gospel message both in word and deed. Both the global missionary work of the church and its service to the poor stem largely from the Pietist revival.
The Pietist movement affected both Lutheran and Calvinist churches, but those of us who are Methodists come more directly from it. John Wesley belongs quite directly to the heart of the Pietist movement. For him, as for Pietists generally, the focus was on the personal appropriation of the good news rather than on the supernatural status of the scriptures through which we have access to it. He was an evangelist, taking the message to the poor, and he was also concerned that individual Christians act out their faith through service to the needy.
Probably you are surprised that I speak so positively of “Pietism.” By the twentieth century it had acquired a poor reputation. Those to whom the label was applied by that time were often persons who identified Christian experience narrowly and had rigid views of the behavior for which it called. In short Pietism had become a conservative tradition whose emphasis on experience was often not authentic. These characteristics should not be read back into the earlier period.
The father of liberal theology was Friedrich Schleiermacher. He came from Pietism. His was the first theology to be based systematically on religious experience, setting Christianity into the context of a broader understanding of such experience. The emphasis on experience has been a characteristic of much liberal theology to this day. However, the label “liberal” belongs to other streams as well.
Today “liberal Protestnatism” usually refers to Protestant movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that responded to the increasingly secular and atheist character of the dominant forms of European culture. Simply systematizing what one found in the Bible as read through the eyes of the sixteenth century Reformers no longer carried conviction with thoughtful people.
Through the eighteenth century most thoughtful people had believed that the laws of nature and the moral laws both pointed to a creator-lawgiver. The major dispute was whether this God acted in the course of history as well as in creation. But in Great Britain, David Hume showed that knowledge arising in sense experience could give us no basis for belief in such a God. In Germany, Immanuel Kant agreed and argued that it is the activity of the human mind that presents us with an ordered world. Kant’s philosophy changed the context for intellectual work in Europe. The background assumptions that had given some plausibility to Christian affirmations about God through the eighteenth century were gone so far as the intelligentsia was concerned. Affirmations based simply on the claimed authority of scripture were nonstarters.
Kant himself, however, did not give up belief in God. Like Schleiermacher he had roots in Pietism. For him the crucial experience was moral. He sharply distinguished the moral sphere from the cosmological one and justified belief in God based on his analysis of this dimension of experience. Alongside the strand of liberal Protestant thought that based itself on religious experience there has been another, with which it has been intertwined, focused on morality.
G.W.F. Hegel provided a third strand. He accepted Kant’s view that the ordered world is created by the human mind and then pointed out that the way the mind orders the world varies from culture to culture and evolves within individual cultures. This mind or “Geist” moves toward some final and perfected state that has for Hegel the character of the divine. This introduced a tradition that thinks of God as that toward which the whole of reality, or at least of human history, moves. Thus a third form of liberal theology is radically historical and eschatological.
What these strands of liberal Protestantism have in common, then, is not a particular teaching or method but rather a fundamental commitment to participate in the best thinking of their time and to display the truth of Christianity in that context. This does not mean that liberal Protestants simply accepted whatever views were held by the intellectuals of their time. To display Christian truth in the context of the cutting-edge discussion could also be to criticize the dominant secular beliefs. The point is that these criticisms had to be of a sort that those who were engaged in the discussion could take seriously. Orthodox and conservative forms of Protestantism continued to affirm the radical authority of scripture against the new forms of thought in the culture. Those who followed them insulated themselves against the dominant intellectual changes.
To be a liberal Protestant, therefore, means that one never rejects an idea simply because it is not biblical or not compatible with the Bible. One may, however, find insights in the Bible that provide public arguments against the idea and show that thinking more continuous with Christian teaching is better. One is open to all evidence, but one may believe that dominant secular and atheistic interpretations of that evidence are inadequate.
Despite their diversity, all forms of liberal Protestantism affirm that the Bible is rightly studied with critical historical methods. There is nothing sacred about its texts. The truth about the historical Jesus can only be recovered through these methods. There is nothing sacred about Jesus. The history of the church, likewise, should be studied critically, and the negative aspects of Christian history should be fully acknowledged. Similarly, other religious traditions should be studied critically, but with no prejudice against them because of unfamiliar features of their thought or practice. If one remains a Christian, it must be because the best knowledge one can gain about all these matters provides sufficient reason for doing so.
2. Traditional Liberal Answers and the Weakness of Liberalism
I hope this is enough explanation of what it means to be a liberal Protestant. I hope what I have said also shows that for liberal Protestants there has, in principle, always been the question of whether they should continue to follow Jesus or should look elsewhere. Both Schleiermacher and Hegel responded to this question. However, at the time they wrote it did not have the same critical urgency it has today. At that time Western intellectuals had little doubt that Western culture was superior to others. This meant for them that the religious spirit that informed it was superior to the religious spirit that informed other cultures.
Schleiermacher’s primary argument was for the validity and positive contribution of religious experience over secular atheism. After establishing that, he could rather easily argue for the superiority of monotheism over polytheism and of Christianity over Judaism and Islam. Given the assumption of the superiority of Western culture, Hegel’s account of the history of Geist inevitably gave Christianity, which is hardly distinguished from Western culture, a superior role.
It was not until the twentieth century that the question of Christian superiority came to be seriously questioned. Ernst Troeltsch wrote a book defending the idea of Christian superiority, but he later decided that a more honest and accurate view would have to abandon that claim. This brought about a crisis in liberal Protestantism. Troeltsch saw Christianity as bound up with Western culture and thought it the best religious position for Westerners. But he saw that the religious traditions of India and China played a similar role for them. This did not mean, of course, that Western Christians should forsake their faith and turn to Eastern traditions. But it did, for the first time, fully relativize all their claims.
Troeltsch’s view of the close connection of Christianity and culture was all too vividly illustrated in German history. Protestantism in Germany was bound up with German culture. As Germany became Nazi, German Christianity also became Nazi. By undermining the claim that Jesus radically transcends culture, the reasons for Christians to challenge culture were seriously weakened. Thus liberal theology in Germany played a role in opening the door of the church to Nazi ideology.
Obviously, many of the members of the churches were conservative or orthodox rather that liberal, so that blaming liberalism alone is an exaggeration. But many of the liberal intellectual leaders, from whom resistance might have been expected, failed to provide it. The few who did resist turned away from liberalism. Karl Barth was their leader, and his message was that Jesus Christ and the Christian faith radically transcend culture and its intellectual content. They are God’s address to the world, not the world’s effort to understand and approach God.
This neo-orthodox message had obvious importance and won its way. It did not try to eradicate all that had been learned during the liberal epoch. It did not dispute scientific or philosophical findings or historical criticism of the Bible. Nor did it renew any claim to Christian superiority as a religion in relation to other religions. But it relativized all of this in its assertion that our concern is with God’s word and not human words. Insofar as Christianity is a religion, it suffers from all the limitations of any religion as a way human beings try to save themselves. But if we mean by Christianity a hearing of God’s word to human beings, then it is not comparable to any religion. It is not a religion at all. This was clearly a rejection of the liberal program, a rejection that became central to discussion among Protestants for several decades.
Of course, the liberal program continued around the margins. The Divinity School of the University of Chicago, which I attended, was a bastion of liberalism. For me, at that stage of my life, that was crucial. The assertion that God speaks through the Bible in a supernatural way made no sense to me and could not respond to my existential needs. If that had been the only form in which I encountered Protestant theology, I would have given up on Christian faith. I have, therefore, no choice but to face the problems of liberal Protestantism, however serious and difficult they may be.
In any case, by the mid-1960s the convincing power of the neo-orthodox message was giving way to other voices. Partly this was simply the growing incredibility of the implicit supernaturalism and fideism of neo-orthodoxy. But equally important was the impact of liberation theologies, which changed the subject. They focused attention on oppression and the way in which Christianity could be used to support it but also to oppose it. The task was to bring to the fore the grounds of opposition that could be found within it. Issues of truth gave way to issues of justice. This was a form of liberalism, but one that was a radical break from the tendency of earlier liberalism to be in close association with culture. It had learned a crucial lesson from neo-orthodoxy.
3. The Transformation of Liberal Protestantism and the Question of Discipleship
Those of us in the liberal tradition were strongly drawn to the various liberation theologies, but those of us who were white North American males remained outsiders. Our task was to reformulate our liberal heritage in light of liberation thinking but also with a view to rethinking the relation of Christianity to the natural world and to other religious traditions. Of special importance was rethinking the relationship to Judaism in light of our new recognition of the terrible consequences of the deep-seated anti-Judaism of the Christian tradition beginning with the gospels themselves. We found much else of which to repent. Since the liberal form of Christianity had shown its weakness in relation to apostate cultures and had participated in so much evil, the term “liberal” became less and less comfortable.
The new term that has caught on is “progressive.” I spoke originally of liberal and progressive Protestants as facing the question I am addressing in these lectures. I want now to clarify my understanding of the difference. I understand “progressives” to be liberals who have broken with the dominant strand of past liberalism but have continued its most basic character. This most basic character I described as openness to developments in the culture and presentation of reasons for the Christian faith without any appeal to supernatural authority.
The most important change embodied by progressives is a shift from a basically positive relation to culture to a basically critical one. Whereas we once saw Western civilization as an expression of Christian influence, we now see its dominant forms and expressions as distortions and corruptions of that influence, and as operating on assumptions that are not acceptable to Christians. Progressives have learned much from neo-orthodoxy and liberation theologies, but we have not given up the liberal quest for truth in light of all the evidence.
Progressives face with all liberals the question whether we should remain Christian at all. If, as a progressive Protestant, I am fully committed to the truth, whether or not it is supportive of my Christian biases, should I in fact continue to follow a Jewish teacher of the early part of the first century whose teaching obviously reflected a very different socio-cultural situation than mine? Are there not better informed and more comprehensive thinkers who can give my life more reliable direction? Given the enormous evils that have been inflicted on human beings and on the planet by those who have understood themselves to be followers of Jesus, is it not a mistake to continue this tradition?
Or, if there is no reason to reject Jesus altogether in favor of some other individual, would it not be better to be equally open to the wisdom of many great teachers? Perhaps I can find those in recent times who have drawn on many sources and integrated these into a richer and fuller system. Or perhaps it is my task and that of others to create our own syntheses.
4. The question in John and the Question Today
We noted in the scripture read this evening that a question of this sort is not new. Whether John’s account tells us anything about actual historical events in the relation of Jesus to his disciples I do not know. But it certainly tells us something about the thinking of the early church. It was then often costly and dangerous to identify oneself as a disciple of Jesus. The question of whether one should follow another path surely occurred to many, and many no doubt chose to do so. But some asked the question: “To whom can we go?” and decided to stay with Jesus.
In the Johannine passage the event is described as follows. Jesus was teaching about himself in ways that offended the Jews. Accordingly many of those who had been following him left. He turned to his close disciples and asked, “Do you also wish to go away.” Simon Peter answered him “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-68)
Simply to understand the text, we need to ask what is meant by “eternal life.” Christians have often understood this as life after death, but this is not John’s primary meaning. The term “eternal” does not function here as meaning outside of time or enduring through all time. It refers to a quality of life, an ideal quality, of course. The Jesus Seminar translates it simply as “real.” Peter stays with Jesus because it is Jesus who teaches how authentic life is attained.
Can that be asserted today? Certainly, not so easily! Psychologists have taught us much about ourselves in ways that seem quite different from anything we learn from Jesus. Indian holy men have explored the potentialities of the interior life in a depth and detail quite lacking in Jesus. Most people today who seek to attain greater psychological health or spiritual depth look elsewhere than Jesus. They are not wrong to do so. Nevertheless, I will return to this topic and make a case for following Jesus in a way that is close to the text of this verse.
Before proceeding, one more caveat is important. To follow Abraham, or Moses, or Isaiah, or Jesus, or Socrates, or Buddha, or Confucius, or Mohammed, or Plato, or Aristotle, or Rene Descartes, or Adam Smith, or Hume, or Kant, or Hegel, or Karl Marx, or Leon Trotsky, or Charles Darwin, or Abraham Lincoln, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or Sigmund Freud, or Karl Jung, or John Muir, or Martin Heidegger, or Michel Foucault, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Chairman Mao, or anyone else, does not mean that one learns nothing from the others. It means rather that one evaluates what others offer from the perspective of one’s leader. The thought or example of the one whom one follows provides the unifying basis for organizing one’s overall vision and life orientation.
For example, to follow Freud would not exclude learning from other psychologists and even modifying Freud’s views. But it would mean that one would understand other historical figures and also contemporary people and ideas basically in Freudian terms and evaluate and respond to them accordingly. Freudians can learn something from Marx, but basically they will understand Marx in Freudian terms. If they were persuaded by Marx in any fundamental way and began to interpret Freud in Marxist terms, they would no longer be Freudians.
One may also refuse to give primacy to any one perspective and instead seek to put together a new synthesis of one’s own or remain simply eclectic. One may learn from both Freud and Marx without interpreting either only from the perspective of the other. One may integrate what one has learned in one’s own way, or one may simply end up with a multiplicity of insights and beliefs without much concern about how they relate to one another. We need to consider multiple alternatives to following Jesus.
You may have noticed that many names that you might have expected were missing from the list above. I did not mention Paul or Augustine or Francis of Assisi, or Thomas Aquinas, or Hildegaard of Bingen, or Luther, or Calvin, or Wesley, or John Woolman, or Friedrich Schleiermacher, or Karl Barth, or Walter Rauschenbusch, or Reinhold Niebuhr, or Albert Schweitzer, or Toyohiko Kagawa, or Paul Tillich, or Martin Luther King, or James Cone, or Gustavo Gutierrez, or Rosemary Ruether. In one way or another, to follow one of them is a way of following Jesus, since they all derived their primary identity from their devotion to Jesus. The reality is, of course, more complex than this, and I will have to deal with some of these complexities before we are through. But to follow a follower of Jesus is not to forsake him even if other followers of Jesus might disagree about the right way to follow.
To follow Jesus then is to be open to learning from many others but to appropriate what one learns from them from a perspective shaped by Jesus. Much of this work has already been done by other followers of Jesus through the centuries, and one may follow some of these followers as well. To follow Jesus today is to stand in a long succession of followers, and one can appropriate their achievements and criticize their failures and distortions. One may also learn directly from many other sources whether or not other followers of Jesus have already drawn from them. For example, in learning from Plato one follows a long tradition of such learning. But if one learns from Foucault, one may need to do more original work.
As we noted in the case of Freudians and Marxists, in the process of studying another figure, for example, Foucault, one may find that one is now understanding and appropriating Jesus from his point of view, that Foucault’s insights have become the organizing principles for one’s thought and life. One may continue to appreciate the contribution of Jesus. But when this change occurs, one is no longer Jesus’ follower.
One further preliminary. Just as Paul and Augustine and Francis of Assisi intended to follow Jesus, so, one might well argue, Jesus intended to follow Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah. To follow Jesus might then be interpreted as a particular way to follow those he followed. This is a possible relationship. Today some Jews have come to a deep appreciation of Jesus. In the extreme case, a few Jews might decide that Jesus’ interpretation of the Jewish tradition is the key to its deeper understanding. For the sake of observing that tradition fully, they might make Jesus quite central in their thought. Jews for Jesus represent something of this sort.
The difference between this and the Christian way of following Jesus need not be great, but it is still significant. Through Jesus those who follow Jesus appropriate the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ day. But they do so more as a way of understanding Jesus and his message than as the primary goal. Where following Jesus maintains continuity with the earlier tradition they maintain continuity. Where following Jesus leads them to break with that tradition, they break.
5. What It Means to Follow Jesus
If we are asking whether there are good reasons to continue to follow Jesus today, we will need also to ask what is entailed in following of Jesus. Jesus called people to follow him in his lifetime. This was often quite literal. They were to join a band that walked with him from place to place and purchased its food from a common purse. But Jesus had many followers, even in his own brief lifetime, who did not accompany him physically. They were those who accepted his teaching and lived accordingly. Something of that sort is possible today.
But what was the teaching? The synoptic gospels all agree that Jesus’ message was that the basileia theou was drawing near. This was the good news, the gospel, and it had great consequences for how one should live. All the other teaching attributed to Jesus can be understood to spell out the character of the basileia, the persons who inhabit it, the manner of its coming, and its supreme value.
I have retained the Greek, because a particular understanding of what this message means is expressed in any translation. The standard translation is “Kingdom of God.” Since Matthew avoids speaking of God and replaces “God” with “Heaven,” “Kingdom of Heaven” is the usual translation of Matthean passages. These are certainly possible translations. A basileia was a politically defined region, and many of them were ruled by kings. The Kingdom of God can then be contrasted with the kingdoms of this world. The point is then that it is God who rules rather than a human being. From this notion is derived the idea of the “sovereignty of God” that has played so large a role in Christian teaching and especially in Calvinist theology.
Jesus’ teaching of the basileia of God was heard by the political authorities of his time as a threat to the sovereignty of Rome. To bring out this contrast, the Jesus Seminar has shifted from “kingdom” to “empire.” That, too, is certainly terminologically justified. It further heightens the sense of God’s control and, perhaps also, of God’s transcendence. The emperor was quite remote to the people of Palestine.
However, I believe that in making the correct point of the opposition to Roman imperial rule, the Jesus’ Seminar has distorted Jesus’ meaning. Their translations reflect and intensify the Calvinist emphasis on God’s total control. They write of God’s or Heaven’s “imperial rule,” thus shifting the focus from the basileia that is constituted by a politically defined region and people to the mode of rule. This they declare to be imperial, suggesting that God controls and compels.
This focus leads to a translation of the Lord’s prayer that I find grating. Instead of “Thy basileia come,” they want us to pray: “Impose your imperial rule.” Instead of “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” they propose: “enact your will on earth as you have in heaven.” Certainly, asking that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven could mean, on someone else’s lips, that we are asking God to assert divine sovereignty and force all to obey the divine will. But I do not find that convincing as an interpretation of Jesus. Does heaven consist of beings who are compelled to do what God wants or of beings who want to act in those ways that God also desires? Surely it is the latter. It is the free love and service of one another that expresses God’s will. That is characteristic of the basileia that Jesus says is at hand.
What we find in Jesus’ teaching is not an emphasis on ruling. He addresses God not as king or emperor but as “abba,” which is best translated today as “Daddy.” Since I grew up calling my father “Papa,” and since the sound there is more similar, I would favor translating “abba” as “papa” if that term were still in use. But in praying to my heavenly Papa, I would not ask him to impose his imperial rule! The term Jesus used in addressing God does not accent authority and rule, certainly not imperial rule and compulsion. The translation of the basileia of God is misleading when it shifts into this conventional mode.
Jesus’ teaching about the basileia of God leaves many questions unanswered, but it nevertheless makes some points very clear. In the basileia theou the structures of prestige and authority in the world are turned upside down. The one who would be first must be the servant of all. Prostitutes enter before the righteous. Children have the advantage over adults. To me this does not suggest an analogy between God and kings or emperors. Further, Jesus points to his table fellowship as a foretaste of the basileia. In this table fellowship it is not a question of who rules and how, but of the inclusion of all. Jesus’ emphasis is on mutual love and care within the basileia rather than on outside control. These indications of the nature of the basileia do not support the language of imperial rule, even if the ruler is now thought of as God.
The same is true of Jesus parables about how the basileia of God comes into being. Consider the parable of the mustard seed. The Jesus’ Seminar translates this as follows: “Heaven’s imperial rule is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. Though it is the smallest of seeds, yet, when it has grown up, it is the largest of garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and roost in its branches.” I have great difficulty in understanding how any form of imperial rule, even if the emperor is God, can be like a mustard seed. One can understand, however, that something as simple and apparently insignificant as the inclusive table fellowship of Jesus could catch on and become widespread.
This fits with Jesus’ parable of the sower. Jesus understood himself to be scattering seed, that is, proposing ideas and practices that contrasted sharply with those pervasive of the society. Some of these reached receptive ears and took root and produced consequences so that the nearness of the kingdom had greater effect in the world.
The parable comparing the basileia with leaven is translated by the Jesus Seminar as follows: “Heaven’s imperial rule is like leaven which a woman took, and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.” Once again the work of leaven in flour seems very different from any form of imperial rule. Instead it seems that Jesus’ believed that the order of society constituting the basileia, already operating in his ministry, was having a hidden but important effect far beyond what was immediately visible.
Other parables describe the discovery of the supreme value of the basileia. It is like treasure hidden in a field. When someone finds it, he conceals it from others until he has sold everything else in order to buy the field and possess the treasure. I see nothing here that suggests imperial rule of any kind. I do see that the mode of being in community that Jesus practiced and taught can be considered to be of supreme value, worth the sacrifice of everything else.
How shall we translate basileia theou if not as Kingdom of God or imperial rule? How can the translation emphasize the kind of relationships that obtain among the citizens of the basileia and the resulting richness of their life together. It embodies what God wants for human beings but not something God imposes upon them.
There is a tension between what Jesus says about the basileia and the political meaning of the word. What Jesus points to is a way of being together that is already being, at least partially, realized. Although the word basileia does not specify the nature of the government, it points to a politically defined region with its people. In the Lord’s Prayer, the basileia theou for which we are praying would be a transformed world. That means that what is now occurring is not itself the basileia theou, but a foretaste of what that world would be. This foretaste does not require a politically defined region. Hence it may be understood as an expression of the nearness of the basileia.
Since no political society has ever been ordered in the way Jesus proposed, there is no term derived from our past experience that is fully appropriate to that for which we pray, what Jesus called the basileia thou. I have concluded that the best term available is “the divine commonwealth.” “Commonwealth” points to the people rather than to their rulers and the manner of ruling. It suggests that they may rule themselves. Although “public welfare” may be an obsolete expression, that connotation still hovers around the word “commonwealth.”. The word is in some tension with the idea that a ruling class exploits the rest. Thus speaking of a commonwealth places the emphasis on the relations among the inhabitants and their shared well being. It at least suggests a movement away from hierarchy.
I am proposing “divine commonwealth” instead of “Commonwealth of God” because the “of God” can suggest a possession. A king may in some sense “own” a kingdom, and an emperor, an empire. But the commonwealth belongs to the people, whatever form of government they choose. Jesus is not proposing a theocracy. He is proposing that order of human relationships that God desires for human beings. A commonwealth that embodies those relationships is divine.
The divine commonwealth contrasts with the Roman Empire not only by replacing the primacy of Caesar by the primacy of God, but by replacing all imperial values with those of mutual respect and love, inclusively and universally. Even while the Roman Empire remains in control of the public world, people can already live and relate to one another in counter-cultural and counter-imperial ways. In that sense the divine commonwealth was already realized in the ministry of Jesus.
A final question is of importance as we try to understand what it means to follow Jesus. How did Jesus anticipate the full coming of the commonwealth on earth for which we all pray? Was he at that point an apocalyptic. Could this fulfillment come only by a supernatural intervention? Perhaps, but the parables do not point in that direction. They suggest that the plant comes from the seeds, that what was already beginning in his ministry would blossom in a transformed world. He seems to have expected this change to happen quite soon. If so, of course, he was quite wrong, and we cannot share his beliefs at this point. If he expected an apocalyptic transformation, he was even more wrong.
If following Jesus meant that one judged Jesus correct in all his judgments and expectations, such following would be impossible. I assume that Jesus would be surprised and in many ways shocked by the full range of consequences of his life and teaching. For us this whole history is important in judging what it means to follow Jesus and whether we should continue to do so. Obviously, this distances us from Jesus.
What then does it mean to follow Jesus? It means to hope and pray for a world structured on principles that would turn present society upside down. It means to live now as far as possible from those principles, and that means to relate to others in ways that create countercultural communities. It means to do what we can to influence the larger society to change in the direction called for by these principles. It means to do all this nonviolently and without antagonism to those who oppose our efforts. It means to keep on keeping on even at personal risk. It means to know God’s love and forgiveness in the midst of this life. It means to trust God’s working in us and amongst us. It means to do all this while remaining open to ideas and ways of being of quite different sorts. And it means to share this way of being and thinking with others as good news, the best there is.