Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus (3/4)

This is part three of four of ‘Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus’, where I critique early liberal Quaker Edward Grubb’s understanding of Jesus. You can find the first part of the series here.

D. The Cross as an example of God’s love

A central question about Jesus is ‘what did Jesus’ death achieve?’ Grubb offers an ‘exemplarist’ interpretation of the cross – Jesus death exemplifies God’s love, and demands a response from us. The cross is Jesus yielding ‘up his life as a final appeal,’[1] an appeal that seeks to melt the hearts of a selfish and hard-hearted humanity. [2] In his death Jesus meets evil as God meets it, overcoming it ‘not by violence, but by great-hearted gentleness, long-suffering, and the genuine forgiveness that becomes possible when self is forgotten in love.’[3] Through the cross, Jesus wins over his opponents ‘with gentleness and love to the uttermost.’[4] The cross is the end result of Jesus’ pacifism. [5] Jesus’ followers are those who live as he lived, and ‘are prepared if needful to die with him.’[6] Like other aspects of Grubb’s thought, this is an interpretation that was popular within 19th century liberal Protestantism.

I am sympathetic to this position, as Grubb doesn’t want to present God as coercive.[7] Humanity must be free to respond to Jesus, and not be forced. I also agree that the cross has something to say about the cost of discipleship, and agree with Grubb when he writes that ‘until the profession of Christianity visibly costs us something in comfort, money, or reputation… our hold on the truth of Christianity is likely to remain feeble.’[8] However, this position has its problems. I think it’s naïve in its estimation of human nature. Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago, and there appear to be as many heard-hearted, self-centred people as ever. Grubb’s understanding places too much trust in human goodness. When we combine this with his judgement-free understanding of the Kingdom, the answer to ‘what did Jesus’ death achieve?’ appears to be ‘not much.’ I also think this position doesn’t account for the nature of Jesus’ death. It leaves me wondering: *why* was Jesus crucified? Jesus was executed in a manner reserved for enemies of the Roman state. He must have been seen as a threat by those in power. Grubb has painted a picture of Jesus as an apolitical figure concerned with the spiritual life of individuals, but Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy. Additionally, by describing the crucifixion as an act of love, undeserved suffering is turned into something inherently virtuous. Again, Grubb strikes me as someone theologizing from a position of privilege. The cross is surely something we should hate! We can say that, considering his ministry, his crucifixion was inevitable, but that’s different to saying it is a demonstration of love. If the cross is going to have any meaning for us today, we need a much more robust explanation.

E. The Resurrection as psychic phenomenon

The Resurrection is central to Christianity. Any exploration of Jesus must be able to make some sense of this claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Grubb’s account of the Resurrection is intriguing to say the least. He acknowledges the mysterious nature of the event, and that something must have happened to give the early Church ‘an absolute assurance that their Master’s career was not ended by the Cross.’[9] However, in keeping with his rejection of the ‘supernatural’ elements of the Jesus story, Grubb attempts to explain the resurrection as a natural, psychic phenomenon, implying that what happened at the Resurrection could theoretically be achieved by anyone. Grubb’s speculations are so fascinating they’re worth quoting in full:

”Something must have happened” – but what was it? The reanimation of the physical body? This has been the general belief of the Christian Church, and anyone who doubted it has been regarded as an unbeliever. But the careful study of human personality, in its abnormal and supernormal manifestations, carried on in recent years by the Society for Psychical Research and others, suggests a theory less loaded with difficulties and more in accordance with the bulk of the evidence. It has been proved that some persons of rare “psychical” endowment have succeeded, by an effort of concentrated attention and will, in projecting a “veridical hallucination” of their presence to others at a distance; and the appearance of “wraiths” of persons at the moment of death or severe distress is not very uncommon. It is now becoming widely held that the Resurrection of Jesus was a fact of this order.’[10]

Grubb explains Jesus’ healing miracles in a similar way,[11] and suggests that ‘when the spirit of man is fully dedicated to, and infused by, the Spirit of God, it may express itself in ways that transcend the normal limitations set by the physical body.’[12] For Grubb, the Resurrection is a case of mind over matter.

I have great difficulty with Grubb’s body/spirit dualism. In emphasising the spiritual and playing down the material, Grubb sees the spirit as superior to the body. The physical resurrected body of Jesus is of little consequence to Grubb. He considers the physical presence of the resurrected Jesus in Luke 14:39-43 to be misreported. This dismissal of the body is particularly evident in his discussion of the empty tomb:

The average Jewish mind, I gather, could not conceive of continued personality apart from a physical body. If the belief in immortality meant for them the resurrection of the body, however this may seem to us like crass materialism, it was at least a great advance on the older conception of the survival of disembodied spirits in the unreal and shadowy world of Sheol… The belief in “resurrection,” to which more the more spiritually-minded Jews in our Lord’s day had advanced, meant the assurance that personality would be restored, with full powers of self-expression and fellowship. Given this belief, the disappearance of the dead body of Jesus would seem to have been necessary to assure these pious Jews that he was actually alive and in full possession of his personal powers. It seems to me therefore extremely probable that something apparently “miraculous” did happen to the body – that it was not stolen, nor even lost… May not the command of his spirit over matter, shown in his so-called miracles, have been sufficient to meet the necessities of the case by the absorption, or “dematerialization,” of his physical body? This is speculation, and happily it is not the heart of the matter.’[13]

So for Grubb, the empty tomb is not proof of the resurrection, but a concession to, or literary invention for, the ‘average Jewish mind’. He makes a similar argument for the Ascension.[14] Again, he offers a natural ‘mind-over-matter’ explanation for the body’s disappearance.

I previously described how eschatology – theology of the ‘final things’ – is connected to justice, and how Grubb ignores Jesus’ eschatology, and those Biblical passages that speak of Divine judgment. This is connected to Grubb’s attitude to the Resurrection and the body. In Christian thought, Jesus’ resurrection anticipates the resurrection of the dead on the Day of Judgement at the end of time. The Resurrection is an eschatological idea. True justice means the righting of relationships between individuals. For there to be individuals, there must be bodies. How can there be such a thing as identity without the body? I don’t believe that the ‘real me’ is something immaterial that can be separated from my body. I don’t *have* a body, I *am* a body! I’m a spirited-body, rather than a spirit in a body. The ‘crass materialism’ of the ‘average Jewish mind’ actually makes much more sense to me than Grubb’s talk of psychic projection. My identity is shaped by my physical existence. I see the resurrection of the body as affirming the importance of bodies and bodily identity. I’m particularly aware of my embodied nature because of my experience as a gay man, and I think Grubb’s denial of the body is perhaps a symptom of theologizing from a position of privilege – oppressed and marginalised people are all too aware of their bodily existence.

Grubb’s talk of ‘the average Jewish mind’ will have alerted you to another problem – Grubb’s treatment of Judaism and the Jewishness of Jesus – and I shall be tackling this in the next and final blog post in this series.

You can read part 4 here.

[Featured image photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash]


[1] Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. I. Christianity as Life (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1927), 61.

[2] Grubb, 60.

[3] Grubb, 27.

[4] Grubb, 26.

[5] Grubb, 252.

[6] Grubb, 32.

[7] Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. II. Christianity as Truth (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1928), 125.

[8] Grubb, 214.

[9] Grubb, Christianity as Life, 65.

[10] Grubb, 66.

[11] Grubb, Christianity as Truth, 198.

[12] Grubb, Christianity as Life, 70.

[13] Grubb, 67–68.

[14] Grubb, 79.

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