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Historical Jesus sparks discussion at forum

By Caleb McBride     3/13/12 7:00pm

Last Thursday, an estimated 300 students gathered in the Shell Auditorium for the 2012 Rice Veritas Forum. The title of this year's event was "Do We See Him Clearly?"

This year's speakers were Fuller Seminary Professor Marianne Thompson and Rice's Chair of Religious Studies Jeffrey Kripal. The moderator was Michael Emerson, a Rice professor in the sociology department.

The proceedings commenced with both professors sharing their personal views on Jesus. Both speakers said they had spent a great deal of time pondering the question of who Jesus is on a personal level.

Kripal argued that Jesus likely experienced unity with God. Kripal also said that there is nothing unique about Jesus' experience that places him above all other humans.

Having been raised in a Roman Catholic family, Kripal said he had all intentions of becoming a Catholic monk. It was through reading accounts of other religious traditions that Kripal lost faith in Jesus and began focusing on comparative religion.

"Such mystical states may be rare but are by no means restricted to any culture, community or religion," Kripal said. "They appear to be universal human potentials."

He defended his argument by sharing numerous accounts of men and women experiencing a union or connection with god.

Kripal said the reason people believed Jesus was the son of God in the past was due to their ignorance of social sciences and their lack of freedom to express opinions.

"We can think and say these things clearly and freely and safely now," Kripal concluded.

When discussing Jesus, Thompson said one must ask the question, "Who is Jesus?" rather than "Who was Jesus?"

Intending to share from both her personal experiences and the New Testament, Thompson told the audience to consider Jesus as unique.

When speaking about the New Testament and the events surrounding Jesus' death, Thompson said, "They all make the same judgment, namely this: that he is one with God in a way that distinguishes him from us and is one with us human beings in a way that unites him with all of us."

During the dialogue, Kripal told everyone he was not attempting to be faithful to Christian tradition.

Duncan College sophomore David Dalton said he wished the speakers had been more transparent instead of maintaining ambiguity.

"I feel like neither of the speakers really went out on a limb to state what they truly believed," Dalton said.

Throughout the night, students texted their personal questions to the speakers.

McMurtry College junior Tom Robak asked Kripal whether a drug user, such as someone who consumes LSD, was accessing true divinity.

Kripal replied that drugs can play the role of shutting down the social ego. However, Kripal said that drugs are not causal, but rather are simply a trauma that provides the way for the mystical experience."

One student questioned the idea of using the Bible as a speaking platform, stating that circular logic must be used to claim the Bible as true and asking if Thompson had any historical evidence regarding Jesus outside of the Bible.

"If it isn't in the Gospels, you're probably right, we can never know the historical Jesus," Thompson replied.

Emerson closed with a challenge for the audience to continue the historical Jesus discussion at Rice.

"I hope that you will take this thinking and ultimately figure out for you what it means," Emerson said.

Kripal said that the forum had gone exactly how the speakers had wanted it to go.

"It was a very civil, friendly discussion about really important questions," Kripal said.

McMurtry College sophomore Tyler Jenkins said she enjoyed the forum, particularly the student questions. However, she added that she thought neither speaker made a strong enough case. Still, she said the forum reminded her why she loved Rice.

Religious studies graduate student Enoch Gbadegesin said the forum was a significant learning experience.

"Whether we like it or not, a seed has been sown into the lives of some people," Gbadegesin said.

Those seeds of thoughts and emotions were shared and discussed among individuals in Willy's Pub following the forum.

The Veritas Forum is a nationwide program helping to organize university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life's hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ.

The forum is in its fourth consecutive year at Rice. Seventeen organizations worked to make the event possible.

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