Sunday, March 14, 2010

an important message

Please go here for a continuation of this blog.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

an individual struggle

'Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle' [Plato, apparently]

We all suffer from lethargy from time to time, or they may be mood swings, depression. We’re all, I imagine, bipolar to a more or less pathological degree. And we’re driven, not just to keep going, but to improve, to progress, to get smarter and wiser, to experience and learn more. And then we fall into a bit of a funk and feel ashamed, disappointed, overwhelmed by our ignorance, our uselessness, our vanity, our vaunting ambition.

It’s a particular problem, perhaps, of individualism, the myth of the auto-didact, the Nietzschean Ubermensch. I’ve said we, but I have no right to generalize from myself. I wish I was a team player. I wish I had a family of my own. A daughter in which I could recognize something of myself. Myself but more confident, more sociable. More of a team player.

In recent times I’ve been trying to get my head around science, in my dilettantish way. Science, I suppose that reveals the amateurishness of my quest. Not astronomy, not genetics, not oceanography or neurophysiology. Just science. This might seem to suggest ambition, and maybe in my youngers days that might’ve been so, but I’m no longer young, though not old.

It seems to be a search for somewhere to belong. Even a mental place in which to belong. A way of thinking that is mine, and also shared, appreciated, understood, warmly welcomed. Science, or philosophy, something analytical, speculative. A place in which to get lost, safely, delightfully.

Here I am, an unprepossessing member of the species Homo sapiens – I’ve also heard it designated Homo sapiens sapiens, I don’t know why – one of over six billion currently inhabiting the biosphere of this small planet. My essential purpose is to reproduce, like every other member of the species, and like every member of the species Semibalanus balanoides [one of some 1220 species of barnacles], the species Aedes aegypti [one of some 3500 species of mosquito] and the species Nocardia opaca [one of a number of bacterial species, the number being so great, and so much in flux, as to be meaningless]. I haven’t managed to fulfil this purpose, but I’m reliably assured that, given the nature of our highly social existence, there are other ways to contribute to the success of our species. Knowledge, artistic excellence, possibly even a smile displayed at the right time and place. So I need not despair.

I have my heroes, as we all do. Let’s take some big splash-makers – Darwin, Shakespeare, Einstein. All rather remote, I admit. From my life, I mean. My next door neighbour might have led a heroic and admirable life, after all, but those great, instantly recognisable splash-makers at least provide fine examples of success beyond mere reproduction. I know Darwin produced ten kids but they weren’t his most successful productions. It makes me wonder about the meaning of the word offspring. That’s what civilization does to you, it complicates simple meanings with all these metaphorical overlays, confusing the purpose of life.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

What is Christian morality? Part 11

roadsign for the soul - words words words

5:44-48 ....I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. [God] causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? And if you greet only your friends, what have you done that is exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, don’t they? To sum up, you are to be unstinting in your generosity in the way your heavenly Father’s generosity is unstinting [see also Luke 6:27-28, Luke 6:34-35].

I’ve always liked the maxim that we should be judged not on how we treat our friends but on how we treat our enemies, but I never associated it with Jesus, I thought it was La Rochefoucauld or someone. The point being that it’s common sense – of course we treat our friends well, of course it’s therefore a good idea to work on our treatment of our enemies, or strangers. To work on your generosity is always good advice, and many ‘sages’ throughout history have given it.

Of course there’s a paradox here. If you really managed to love your enemies they wouldn’t be your enemies – or would they? The renowned antitheist Christopher Hitchens has a real go at the ‘love your enemies’ injunction, calling it suicidal, amongst other choice epithets, and he certainly has a point, but, looking at the phrase in context, we can find a more sympathetic interpretation. Jesus really does seem to be trying to get people to extend the range of their generosity, to consider whether there are good, or good enough reasons to consider certain people our enemies. Often when we make a decision that person x is our enemy, or is a ‘bad’ person, we shut down on them, refusing to listen, referring to our earlier decision. Jesus is arguably saying nothing more than this, that we shouldn’t be too hasty in our judgements, and that we shouldn’t revile people for being different.

On the other hand, if we look at the actual language used, Jesus does seem pretty decisive himself about good people and evil people. This heightens the paradox. Should we really love evil people?

The phrase ‘love your enemies’ has a somewhat similar logical form to the paradoxical phrase coined by the French anarchist Proudhon, ‘Property is theft’. Such phrases have a momentary cleverness, but are soon shown to chase their own tails or to disappear up their own arseholes. To say that property is theft is to legitimise theft and to illegitimise property – both sides of the equation are diminished to the point of meaninglessness. There’s a similar problem with ‘love your enemies’, for if you love your enemies equally with your friends – if you love everyone equally, then the term ‘love’ ceases to have any real meaning, not to mention the terms ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. So why would Jesus have said this? Well, why did Proudhon say property is theft? My favoured response is a rather boring one. They were both only human, they sometimes preferred the flashy to the deep, they didn’t think things through.

Returning to Hitchens’ comment that this philosophy is ‘suicidal’ – this is based on an entrenched attitude about enemies. Our enemies will always be our enemies, they cannot be otherwise. It reflects a kind of evolutionary perspective, where the word ‘enemy’ is synonymous with ‘predator’, someone who threatens our very existence, someone we must either avoid or overcome. It doesn’t seem very useful to love your predator. Indeed it seems suicidal, as Hitchens claims. Better to know your predators, to work out their weaknesses, and to build on your own strengths in combating them.

We humans are inordinately good at that of course, to the point that we have no predators, outside of our own species, to be afraid of. We ourselves have become the most deadly and efficient predators on the planet. Our realisation of this is causing us to rethink notions of predator and prey, and even enemies and friends. A subtle Christian might try to convince us that Jesus anticipated all this with ‘love your enemies’. He was a god, after all. But this would just be another example of seeking other-worldly sources for our own ever-changing and increasingly nuanced view of ourselves. We invest ancient moral statements with all the subtleties that we have gleaned from the intervening years. We do this all the time.

6:3-4 ...when you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so your acts of charity may remain hidden. And your Father, who has an eye for the hidden, will applaud you.

Of course it’s impossible to keep your charitable or any other acts hidden from yourself, but the Jesus Seminar has a collective view that Jesus loved such paradoxical remarks. The idea, clearly, is that you shouldn’t do good works for the applause of others, but this is completely undermined by the claim that God will applaud you – thus assuming we still need applause to be charitable. Perhaps, though this is the moral message of Christianity in a nutshell. God will reward you for your good works. Is this the moral foundation of western civilization?

This sort of advice – don’t pray in public but in private, where God, who sees all that’s hidden, will applaud you, and forgive the failings of others because then God will forgive your failings – continues for several more verses. It of course captures the essence of all religious morality, that there are spirits or deities who are consumingly interested in human moral activities, who see clearly the good and bad in everyone and are able to dispense a proper and absolute justice at the end of things. It’s what you might call the ‘constant surveillance’ approach to morality. God’s cctv cameras are everywhere, get used to it and act accordingly.


What is Christian morality? Part 10

Obama disobeys Jesus

5:21-22 As you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You must not kill’ and ‘Whoever kills will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you: those who are angry with a companion will be brought before a tribunal. And those who say to a companion, ‘You moron,’ will be subject to the sentence of the court. And whoever says, ‘You idiot,’ deserves the fires of Gehenna.

Considering that Jesus himself got a bit shirty with his companion-disciples at times, especially in Mark’s version of events, this condemnation of ill-temper sounds a bit rough. I mean, if you can’t call your mate a moron, where’s the fun in life?

By the way, the term ‘Gehenna’, so much more evocative than ‘hell’, refers to a spot outside Jerusalem where the town’s rubbish was routinely burnt, along with the bodies of crims and the carcases of animals. Some of course dispute such a lowly truth, but they would, wouldn’t they?

5:23-24 So, even if you happen to be offering your gift at the altar and recall that your friend has some claim against you, leave your gift there at the altar. First go and be reconciled with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift.

For those who value friendship, this is a ‘nice’ piece of advice. It also seems typical of Jesus to value substance over form [unless I’m simply creating the Jesus I prefer], and to cock a snook at rigorous and traditional religious practice. Anyway, it’s one of the few of Jesus’s adjurations with which I would wholeheartedly concur.

5:27-28 As you know, we once were told, ‘You are not to commit adultery.’ But I tell you: Those who leer at a woman and desire her have already committed adultery with her in their hearts.

This is a tough one, but we can always rationalize our way out of it. In fact, it’s quite easy. Committing any crime in your heart is vastly removed from actually doing it. Murder is an obvious example. And we don’t punish anyone by law for anything they do ‘in their heart’, for very good reason. I wouldn’t like to guess how many women I’ve ‘committed adultery with’ [I prefer to think of it in fruitier terms] in my heart. Far more than in my bed, sadly. This whole business of thought-criminality is one that should be wholly rejected in my view – and generally it has been. Whether this remark has impacted on western morality, I can’t say. The thing is that lusting after someone who ‘belongs’ to someone, or who is happily devoted to someone else, or who doesn’t know you from a bar of soap, or who actively dislikes you, brings with it a sense of guilt as a matter of course, you feel you are imposing, though since you can convince yourself you’re not imposing that much, the guilt is minimalized and even lends a certain piquancy to the thoughts. Anyway, better a lustful thought than a murderous one. And of course the world of advertising and celebrity culture relies on lust and desire rather heavily – and a surer thing to rely on can hardly be found. I know of at least one female acquaintance who lusts after Barak Obama. Good luck to them I say. Anyway, Jesus just points out that lusting after someone is ‘adultery of the heart’, but he doesn’t call it a sin. Just don’t look at the tenth commandment.

5 33-37 Again, as you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break an oath,’ and ‘Oaths sworn in the name of God must be kept.’ But I tell you: Don’t swear at all. Don’t invoke heaven, because it is the throne of God, and don’t invoke earth, because it is God’s footstool, and don’t invoke Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king .You shouldn’t swear by your head either, since you aren’t able to turn a single hair either white or black. Rather, your responses should be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Anything that goes beyond this is inspired by the evil one.

Here’s another example of remarks attributed to Jesus that have been ignored by cherry-picking sermonizers down through the ages – though there have been Christians sects, modelled on a return to ‘the true word of Christ’, who have refused to take oaths for religious reasons [e.g. the Waldensians]. And how could any Christian argue with them? In fact, considering the last line here, there’s not much wiggle room for true believers – if you take an oath on the holy book, or on anything, you’re infected by Satan. How could the vast majority of Christians have gotten it so wrong for so many centuries? More positively, Jesus’s message here is that you should just tell the truth and make no fuss about it. Another example of his preference for substance over ritualistic form. Again, not very Catholic.

5: 38-42 As you know, we once were told, ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘A tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you: Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for you shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you; and don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you [see also Luke 6:29-30, Luke 6:34-35].

The scholars of the Jesus Seminar were pretty well unanimous in their conviction that these words about turning the other cheek, offering your coat as well as your shirt, and walking the extra mile, were the authentic words of Jesus. This is quite unusual, they’re generally an admirably sceptical lot. They usually reach such consensus when the words are very striking and paradoxical, when they contain no elements that could be attributed to the struggling, persecuted and sometimes paranoid early Christian community, when they make no exaggerated claims for Jesus himself, when they don’t go on about the Last Days, etc. Of course, I’m a little sceptical myself about whether a ‘real’ Jesus can ever be revealed by the careful removal of what are calculated to be the gospel writers’ innumerable additions and modifications, but the argument for their version of Jesus as a framer of paradoxes and phrases that stick in the mind, creating an oral tradition before the gospel writers got to them and half-mangled them, seems plausible enough. As to the ethical significance of these teachings, certainly they’ve been much sermonised, but few have actually followed Jesus’s advice here. They are much honoured and much ignored ideals. Is that what Christian morality is all about?

Perhaps more importantly, there’s an unhelpful vagueness and lack of detail and context about this advice, which is typical of all Jesus’s pronouncements. What’s meant by ‘the one who is evil’? Someone who annoys us? Someone who steals all our money and murders our children? No distinctions are made. We all know that sometimes turning the other cheek or going the extra mile is precisely the most effective response to mean-spirited or cruel behaviour, but not always, as some people are far less easily shamed than others. Of course, sermonisers often provide the detail and context the gospels lack, but they pull it from their own experience, not from Christ.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 9

the good irenic stuff


4:1-4 Then Jesus was guided into the wilderness by the spirit to be put to the test by the devil. And after he had fasted ‘forty days and forty nights,’ he was famished. And the tester confronted him and said, ‘To prove you’re God’s son, order these stones to turn to bread.’ He responded, ‘It is written, “Human beings are not to live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.’ [see also Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-4]

This testing is very briefly referred to in Mark, but Jesus’s response here doesn’t help us that much. The first part is a commonplace, but the second part is the real issue. God doesn’t talk to us much, though some Christians might disagree. In any case, priests talk to us a lot more. Interesting to find that God has a mouth – Jesus should know. Of course he originally said it in Aramaic, but I notice that the word is used in all translations, so it’s the beginning of a picture. We also have ‘the eyes of the lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth’ [2 Chronicles 16:9], so the guy’s starting to look almost human. I’d be willing to bet though that his mouth is much bigger than any of ours.

5:3-10 Congratulations to the poor in spirit! Heaven’s domain belongs to them. Congratulations to those who grieve! They will be consoled. Congratulations to the gentle! They will inherit the earth. Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice! They will have a feast. Congratulations to the merciful! They will have mercy. Congratulations to those with undefiled hearts! They will see God. Congratulations to those who work for peace! They will be known as God’s children. Congratulations to those who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice! Heaven’s domain belongs to them [see also Luke 6:20-21, Luke 6:24-25].

These are the first words of the sermon on the mount, the good oil. There’s little here to be objected to, except perhaps that it seems to offer rewards only in the next world, or some future world. The term ‘poor in spirit’ might suggest ‘mean-spirited’ or even ‘not very bright’ to a modern reader, but I’m assured that it simply means ‘poor’, which again suggests that Jesus just didn’t like the rich much. For the rest Jesus puts himself squarely on the side of those who suffer or are likely to suffer – the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers. Of course you could argue that these are the people most easily exploited by false prophets. Why would someone like Jesus go around offering a bright future to those already satisfied with their lot? I’m quite mystified myself as to what he’s up to.

Of course, being poor is not a sign of morality, nor is being in a state of grief. The best spin we can put on it is that he’s setting an example. We all should love the poor, and the grieving, and the gentle and so forth. Is this the foundation of Christian morality, the moral underpinning of Western civilization? If it weren’t for a lot of people becoming convinced that Jesus was a god, I doubt if these words would’ve rung down through the ages. Many similar sentiments have been expressed before and since – for example, scholars have pointed out that Matthew 5:5 [on the gentle] is a reworking of Psalms 37:11.

5:11-12 Congratulations to you when they denounce you and persecute you and spread malicious gossip about you because of me. Rejoice and be glad! Your compensation is great in heaven. Recall that this is how they persecuted the prophets who preceded you [see also Luke 6:22-23, Luke6:26].

Most scholars of the Jesus Seminar would argue that when persecution is the subject, it’s the early Christian community speaking, not Jesus himself. This seems fair enough, but there are obvious problems with always attributing the less palatable, or simply less memorable and striking remarks to the gospel writers rather than to Jesus, as it involves working from a pre-conceived notion of Jesus’s brilliance, or consistency, or particular orientation. If we accept, however, as Christians are expected to do, that every word attributed to Jesus in the gospels was actually spoken by him, then we must accept a contradictory and often confusing ‘teacher’, one more concerned with the political events of his time than with providing an ideal of human behaviour for all time, as well as one subject to moods and variations. The more human, the less ideal and worthy of imitation.

5:13-16 You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its zing, how will it be made salty? It then has no further use than to be thrown out and stomped on. You are the light of the world. A city sitting on top of a mountain can’t be concealed. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket but on a lampstand, where it sheds light for everyone in the house. That’s how your light is to shine in the presence of others, so they can see your good deeds and acclaim your Father in the heavens [see also Mark 4:21, Mark 9:50, Luke 8:16, Luke 11:33, Luke 14:34-35].

We continue the sermon on the mountain, which isn’t just about morality but, as in the above passage, also about ‘rallying the troops’. Passages such as this tend to be slated home to Jesus rather than the gospel writers [by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar] because they contain memorable imagery, but unless you think being a member of some elite [or being told you are] makes you a morally better person, I can’t think how such exhortations might contribute to right conduct.

5:20 Let me tell you: unless your religion goes beyond that of the scholars and Pharisees, you won’t set foot in Heaven’s domain.

Here, the term ‘religion’ is virtually synonymous with ‘morality’. In the verses preceding this sentence, Jesus exhorts his hearers to follow Judaic law and the wisdom of the prophets – a ‘back to basics’ approach which is always popular. Jesus would surely have turned Protestant had he lived long enough.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 8

12:28-31 And one of the scholars approached when he heard them arguing, and because he saw how skilfully Jesus answered them, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ Jesus answered: ‘The first is, “Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord, and you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul [and all your mind] and with all your energy.” The second is this: “You are to love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ [see also Matt 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-29]

Both of these ‘most important commandments’ can be found in the Old Testament [Deut 6:4-5, Lev 19:18]. The first reiterates what is evident throughout the earlier scriptures, that God is a jealous god, who demands lots of attention and lots of worship. The second is something of a commonplace. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus, or ‘Mark’, was merely echoing the teaching of the famous Rabbi Hillel, an exact contemporary of Jesus. Challenged by some wag to teach him the whole of the Torah while he [the wag] stood on one foot, Hillel provided a version of the golden rule: ‘What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole of the law. Everything else is commentary. Now go learn that.’

Some have argued that ‘neighbour’ here means only Jewish neighbours [certainly it does seem to mean this in Leviticus]. That’s to say, it was a call to Jewish solidarity. I don’t think so. To give him his due, Jesus seems genuinely to have reached out beyond his own community. This, I think, is brought out more clearly in the famous sermon in Matthew, as well as some important passages in Luke.

12:38-40 During the course of his teaching he would say: ‘Look out for the scholars who like to parade around in long robes, and insist on being addressed properly in the marketplaces, and prefer important seats in the synagogues and the best couches at banquets. They are the ones who prey on widows and their families, and recite long prayers just to put on airs. These people will get a stiff sentence!’ [see also Matt 23:5-7, Luke 11:43, Luke 20:45-47].

These remarks may have been directed at the Pharisees or other Jewish functionaries, who might’ve been compensating for their lack of any real power under the Romans by doing dress-ups and bumping up the pomp and circumstance, much as the Catholic Church does these days. The final comment about divine justice sounds more like retribution [and wishful thinking] to me.

12:43-44 ‘I swear to you, this poor widow has contributed more than all those who dropped something into the collection box! After all, they were all donating out of their surplus, whereas she, out of her poverty, was contributing all she had, her entire livelihood! [see also Luke 21:3-4].

This observation by Jesus is of course pleasing, but hardly original. As scholars have pointed out, they can be found in rabbinical, Buddhist and ancient Greek texts, and people make the same observations every day, for example on the disproportionate burden upon the poor of a flat tax, without needing to invoke Jesus or Christianity.

That’s about it for Mark, moral-wise. What follows is a passage known as ‘the little apocalypse’, in which Jesus, or ‘Mark’, gives his account of the last days. This is followed by an account of Jesus’s arrest, trial, execution and resurrection. Of course many Christians have drawn sustenance from a description of Jesus’s stoicism through these events, but it’s hard to see how his behaviour provides us with any specific moral guidelines. The stoicism of heroic figures in adversity was of course a commonplace long before Jesus came along, and it’s hard to see how the gospel writers would’ve gotten away with depicting him in any other way. Also, if we take the view that the gospel writers were inheritors of the eyewitness accounts of the disciples, it’s worth noting that the disciples dispersed after Jesus’s arrest, and they certainly weren’t eyewitnesses to his demeanour and remarks during his trial, supposing there was one. That part of the story is as mythical as the accounts of his birth.

Before going on to Matthew I should say that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, though often divided among themselves, generally take only a fraction of the above [and following] sayings of Jesus to be authentic. Most of the sayings they believe to be the creation of the early Christian community, given a twist by the particular preoccupations and character of the particular gospel writer. For example, Mark seems to emphasise the weakness and obtuseness of the disciples, and often has Jesus castigating them for not listening, for not ‘getting it’, and for being concerned for their own status [eg Mark 10:35-41]. Matthew has a near-obsessive tendency to tie Jesus’s sayings and doings to Old Testament prophecies, for obvious reasons. Luke, generally assumed to be a non-Jewish author, emphasises good works and broader sympathies, as in the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son parables, whereas John, or the Christian community writing under John’s name, is primarily concerned with Jesus’s status as ‘saviour’. All the gospel writers are, of course, concerned to make claims for the significance of Jesus that he is unlikely to have made for himself. I haven’t been so concerned myself to separate an ‘authentic’ Jesus from a constructed one, partly because I’m sceptical about this being possible, but mainly because I’m looking at the impact upon Western moral praxis of every remark and action attributed to Jesus in the canonical gospels, regardless of their authenticity. In other words, I’m assuming that throughout the history of Christendom, until very recently, everything attributed to Jesus in the New Testament was taken as gospel.


Friday, December 25, 2009

What is Christian morality - part 7

lashings of Jesus

11:15-19 They come to Jerusalem. And he went into the temple and began chasing the vendors and shoppers out of the temple area, and he turned the bankers’ tables upside down, along with the chairs of the pigeon merchants, and he wouldn’t even let anyone carry a container through the temple area. Then he started teaching and would say to them: ‘Don’t the scriptures say, ‘My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples’? – but you have turned it into a ‘hideout for crooks’!’ [see also Matt 21:12-13, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17].

This passage is indicative of Jesus’s adopted role as an unorthodox, reforming rabbi. Clearly, he’s committed to the Judaic religion and wishes to purify it of these course elements. The dark mutterings of the scholars after this event are enough to reveal the danger Jesus was getting into with his uncompromising stance.

Of course there’s an issue around the violence of this episode. It’s dealt with perfunctorily by the gospel writers, but in John an interesting detail is mentioned – he made a whip out of rope and drove them all out of the temple area... [John 2:15]. The pre-meditated decision to fashion a whip suggests more than just a sudden fit of pique. We will never know of course, but there’s surely a hint here of a deliberately confrontational nature. And how does this apparent defence of the orthodox use of the temple fit with Jesus’s unorthodoxy as regards the Sabbath and handwashing? It’s a mystery.

I’m sorry that none of this specifically relates to any unique Christian morality, but I’m afraid there just isn’t that much meat to pick at.

12:1-8 The parable of the leased vineyard [see also Matt 21:33-39, Luke 20:9-15]

This is an interesting and tragic story, repeated in Matthew and Luke, but it’s hard to draw any clear moral from it, other than ‘watch who you lease your vineyard to’.

A farmer leases his vineyard to some other farmers before going abroad. Later he sends a slave to collect his share of the harvest. They beat him up and send him away with nothing. So he sends another, and the same thing happens. Next time he sends someone the person is killed. He sends more slaves, and they’re all either beaten or killed. Finally he sends his beloved son, thinking this time some respect will be shown, but they kill him, hoping that, with the heir out of the way, they will inherit the vineyard.

Of course the story almost begs for an allegorical interpretation, with Jesus as the beloved son, in which case the moral might be that we humans are ungrateful sods, never satisfied with what the good lord gives us, ready to kill for more. It would also have prophetic implications, and you know how these gospellers love a prophecy. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Jesus was simply telling a hard luck story about a guy he knew.

The parable is immediately followed by a question and answer from Jesus: What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come in person, and do away with those farmers, and give the vineyard to someone else. Here we seem to be moving very much into allegorical territory, with the vineyard representing ‘God’s imperial domain’. Moral: if you do bad, no domain for you. Jesus follows this up with a verse [22] from psalm 118: A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone. It was the Lord’s doing and is something you admire. Presumably this means that God is full of surprises, he moves in mysterious ways, but always ends up making the right decisions. So just follow God. I’m not sure if this helps much for human decision-making.

12:13-17 And they send some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to him to trap him with a riddle. They come and say to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are honest and impartial, because you pay no attention to appearances, but instead you teach God’s way forthrightly. Is it permissible to pay the poll tax to the Roman emperor or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?’ But he saw through their trap, and said to them, “Why do you provoke me like this? Let me have a look at a coin.’ They handed him a silver coin, and he says to them, ‘Whose picture is this? Whose name is on it?’ They replied, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them: ‘Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!’ And they were dumbfounded at him [see also Matt 22:15-22, Luke 20:19-26].

Let me give some background to this famous episode. The Romans imposed a special tax on the Jews, which no other colonized peoples had to pay. This might seem discriminatory, but what the Jews received in return was the right to worship their own god. Generally, the Romans expected, as a matter of course, that defeated peoples would adopt the Roman gods as their own, as a symbol of their subjection. No doubt they turned a blind eye to what these people did in the privacy of their homes, as long as they displayed fealty to the Roman gods in public. But the Romans met surprising resistance from the Jews. Not that they were in any way a military threat, but they simply refused to betray their own god, who, as we know, was particularly jealous of other gods, inveighing against them as false idols. The Jews’ attitude was – kill us all if you like, but no way are we going to bow down to those gods. The Romans had no desire to inflict a massacre; it would cause bad blood among other subject nations, and might cost more than a few Roman lives. So they hit upon the idea of a special tax – a win-win situation.

Of course, as is the way with these things, not all Jews were satisfied with this solution. The more radical Jews urged defiance of the Roman authorities and their tax-collecting Jewish proxies [hence the low esteem in which tax collectors are held in the gospels]. Among these radicals were the Essenes, of Dead Sea Scroll fame. They’ve been described as the Taliban of the period [replete with their own cave hideouts], and it’s even been argued that Jesus was one of them, but that he turned his back on them to take a more populist, but also more idiosyncratic, middle line, as represented by this particular story. The Pharisees and Herodians, essentially collaborators, were spying on Jesus and testing him to see where he stood politically. Jesus’s response has been hailed as a prime example of wily evasiveness, while also, of course, carrying an anti-materialist message. Some have also interpreted the message as anti-political, or at least apolitical. It’s an important issue, as the separation of church and state is often defended by the citing of this passage, though I would argue that this separation doctrine, which is only a couple of centuries old, arose out of bitter experience in Europe – for example, the incredibly brutal Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, as well as the English Revolution, in which the insistence upon the divine right of kings meant that a questioning of the ruler’s authority entailed a disobedience to God. Jesus becomes a useful ally in the development of such a doctrine, but the fact remains that his words are ambiguous.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

What is Christian morality - part 6

essential life lessons: Jesus teaches his mates how to curse a tree with a fish-bowl on your head

10:17-27 someone ran up, knelt before him, and started questioning him: ‘Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except for God alone. You know the commandments: You must not murder, you are not to commit adultery, you are not to steal, you are not to give false testimony, you are not to defraud, and you are to honour your father and mother.’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have observed all these things since I was a child!’ Jesus loved him at first sight and said to him, ‘You are missing one thing: make your move, sell whatever you have and give [the proceeds] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come, follow me!’ But stunned by this advice, he went away dejected, since he possessed a fortune. After looking around, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘How difficult it is for those who have money to enter God’s domain!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. In response Jesus repeats what he had said, ‘Children, how difficult it is to enter God’s domain! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain!’ And they were very perplexed, wondering to themselves, ‘Well then, who can be saved?’ Jesus looks them in the eye and says, ‘For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God; after all, everything’s possible for God.’ [see also Matt 19:16-26, Luke 18:18-27].

This passage has always struck me as one of the most uncompromising in the gospels, and the most embarrassing, because least followed, for any modern Christian. Luckily, Jesus gives everyone an ‘out’ by readily admitting, in the last lines, that it’s impossible for mortals to be saved, given such conditions, so presumably there’s no point in trying. The last line is ambiguous, to say the least – is he saying that it’s easily possible for God to save himself [which is surely absurd], or is he saying that it’s possible for God to save others, even though they can’t save themselves? Perhaps he’s just pointing out that God is ‘powerful as’, which seems a bit beside the point.

One might argue that the whole Christian monastic tradition sprang from these lines, though there are a number of other ‘inspirational’ passages in the Old and New Testaments [for example, the lifestyle of John the Baptist, described in Matthew 3], and there are people even today who abandon all their wordlies for a life ‘devoted to Christ’, but it’s by no means a popular tradition. It seems that the most popular Pentecostal-type churches of today tend to wallow in their own opulence. Who of all these people can be saved?

The problem here of course is that the wealth/poverty distinction is surely no guarantee of moral worth/worthlessness, however much we might assume that the rich are more ‘corrupt’. Elsewhere Jesus congratulates the ‘poor in spirit’, for they’ll surely inherit God’s domain. Why? No explanation is given. So not only are we offered no moral guidance, but the issue seems to be deliberately confused by introducing anti-materialism as a ‘good’ without providing any grounding for this attitude.

10:42-45 ‘You know how those who supposedly rule over foreigners lord it over them, and how their strong men tyrannize them. It’s not going to be like that with you! With you, whoever wants to become great must be your servant, and whoever among you wants to be ‘number one’ must be everybody’s slave. After all, the son of Adam didn’t come to be served, but to serve, even to give his life as a ransom for many.’ [see also Matt 20:24-28, Luke 22:24-27]

These words are spoken in the context of a couple of disciples bugging Jesus about which of them would be sitting at his right hand ‘in his glory’, that’s to say, in the glory days of God’s imperial domain. The squabbling and dim-witted nature of the disciples is something of a theme in Mark. It’s also quite obviously spoken in the context of Judaea’s colonisation by the Romans. Jesus inverts the expected order, the greatest being the most effective servant, or the lowliest, just as ‘Many of the first will be last, and of the last many will be first’ [Mark 10:31]. Jesus shrewdly promises that the domain of the guy who might be his Dad will be a different kettle of roses altogether, though no bed of fish [just in case you were falling asleep]. There’s also of course the observation that it’s Good to serve, which again isn’t particularly original.

11:12-14 On the next day, as they were leaving Bethany, he got hungry. So when he spotted a fig tree in the distance with some leaves on it, he went up to it expecting to find something on it. But when he got right up to it, he found nothing on it except some leaves. [You see, it wasn’t ‘time’ for figs.] And he reacted by saying: ‘May no one so much as taste your fruit again!’ And his disciples were listening.

11:20-25 As they were walking along early one morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. And Peter remembered and says to him: ‘Rabbi, look, the fig tree you cursed has withered up!’ In response Jesus says to them: ‘Have trust in God. I swear to you, those who say to this mountain, ‘Up with you and into the sea!’ and do not waver in their conviction, but trust that what they say will happen, that’s the way it will be. This is why I keep telling you, trust that you will receive everything you pray and ask for, and that’s the way it will turn out. And when you stand up to pray, if you are holding anything against anyone, forgive them, so your father in heaven may forgive your misdeeds.’ [see also Matt 6:14-15, Matt 17:20, Matt 21:18-22, Luke 6:37, Luke 17:6, John 14:13-14, John 15:7, John 15:16, John 16:23-26].

The best New Testament scholars, who are always on the lookout for the authentic words and deeds of Jesus, supposing there are any, and disentangling them from the propaganda and aspirations of the early Christian community and the gospels writers who were part of that community, are naturally drawn to stories such as this of the fig tree. The story, or at least some of it, has an authentic ring to it. It’s even quite funny in a Pythonesque way. I particularly like the sentence ‘And the disciples were listening.’ Poor old Jesus, caught without his make-up on. I like to wonder what words he used when he cursed the tree. Maybe it was nothing more than ‘you unpleasant, thoughtless little tree’, but then that wouldn’t be much of a curse would it? Of course, the gospel writer wouldn’t have had much trouble transforming this story into a very minor miracle. The tree was probably half dead anyway, but I prefer to imagine it was Jesus whodunit, by shaking and throttling and kicking the tree in his temper [naturally played down in the story]. He’s bad.

I also like the way Jesus ‘recovers’ in the second part of the story, by diverting attention from his embarrassing outburst as well as utilizing it: faith can move mountains [and wither fig trees, but let’s not dwell on that], and uhhh... forgiveness, yes forgiveness, when you ask for things, always remember to forgive everyone a lot, because then God’ll look kindly on you...

But that fig tree, Jesus...

Look, forget the bloody fig tree... think of mountains and... and forgiveness and all that...

But you...


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

What is Christian morality - part 5

The Jesus industry - a $100 book presumably based on a few words in Mark

The book of Mark, continued

7:14-15 Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand! It’s not what goes into a person from the outside that can defile; rather it’s what comes out of the person that defiles [see also Matt 15:10-11].

Again this is more a jibe at orthodox Judaism, with its obsessions about oral defilement and food prohibitions, than a moral truth, though of course it does have moral implications – what we say and what we do, whatever springs from us, is what we should be judged by. In case we don’t get the idea, Jesus elaborates it at some length [Mark 7:18-23], but you could hardly describe it as insightful stuff.

9:42-48 ‘And those who mislead one of these little trusting souls would be better off if they were to have a millstone hung around their necks and were thrown into the sea! And if your hand gets you into trouble, cut it off! It is better for you to enter life maimed than to wind up in Gehenna, in the unquenchable fire, with both hands! And if your foot gets you into trouble, cut it off! It is better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into Gehenna with both feet! And if your eye gets you into trouble, rip it out! It is better for you to enter God’s domain one-eyed than to be thrown into Gehenna with both eyes, where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out!’ [see also Matt 5:29-30, Matt 18:6-9, Luke 17:2]

What are we to make of this famous but strange passage? The last words, about eternal fire, are cribbed from Isaiah 66:24. Richard Dawkins, of course, would applaud the first sentence about misleading children, but the passage generally is just a striking way of saying that we must reform ourselves even if it means deforming ourselves. It would have been particularly striking in Jesus’s day, when deformities were considered abhorrent. Yet, apart from its striking formulation, and the notion of Gehenna or Hell, which is thankfully foreign to most modern sensibilities, the idea is familiar enough. I recall in my younger days that my eyes so troubled me, so guilty did I feel about the ‘male gaze’ so castigated by feminists of the time, that I made conscious efforts, when out and about, to stare at the pavement, or to focus specifically on elements of architecture or interior design, to make myself ‘blind’ to attractive passersby or party guests. Here we have the same idea, rendered apocalyptically. I doubt that my response to my troubles was inspired by this passage. These are issues around desire, temptation and control that humans have wrestled with since long before Jesus’s advent.

10:3-12 ‘What did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses allowed one to prepare a writ of abandonment and thus to divorce the other party.’ Jesus said to them, ‘He gave you this injunction because you are obstinate. However, in the beginning, at the creation, ‘God made [them] male and female. For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother [and be united with his wife], and the two will become one person,’ so they are no longer two individuals but ‘one person’. Therefore those God has coupled together, no one else should separate.’ And once again, as usual, the disciples questioned him about this. And he says to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’ [see also Matt 5:31-32, Matt 19:3-9, Luke 16:18].

This passage, some of which is still used today in Christian marriage ceremonies, has no doubt been influential. Jesus here shows himself to be stricter than ‘Moses’ [i.e. Judaic tradition] on the permanence of marriage – though an exception is made in the case of the wife’s infidelity in Matt 5:32, another example of inconsistency in the reported ‘message’. This may well have led to a tightening of marriage laws once Christianity became the ruling religion in the west. Whether this would have been better or worse for society is of course a huge question – but essentially an empirical one, and thus answerable. Regardless of the answer, though, I’m prepared to concede that the Christian concept of marriage – particularly the heavy notion that these two people have been joined for all their lives by God, has profoundly affected and reinforced notions of commitment and family. This is not, of course, a statement of approval or disapproval, but it’s an acknowledgement that Jesus, or the gospel writers, came out strongly on this matter, with little room for interpretation. Nevertheless, different Christian denominations, and before that different Popes, have chopped and changed on the sanctity or indissolubility of marriage.

10:14-16 ‘Let the children come up to me, don’t try to stop them. After all, God’s domain is peopled with such as these. I swear to you, whoever doesn’t accept God’s imperial rule the way a child would, certainly won’t ever set foot in [his domain]!’ And he would put his arms around them and bless them, and lay his hands on them [see also Matt 18:3, Matt 19:14-15, Luke 18:16-17].

This is one of a few examples of Jesus’s kindness towards children. I don’t think too much should be made of this, as we’re all drawn to innocence, not always for innocent reasons. It will no doubt seem grossly offensive to some that I’m reminded in this context of footage of Adolf Hitler laying his hands on and smiling affectionately at children. I saw this as a child, and it left an indelible impression. It made me aware that these moments of tenderness and affection, which might be quite frequent, are not what we should judge, it’s the totality of a person’s life and actions.

Of course, the call to accept religion like a child, unquestioningly, is not quite as acceptable as it once may have been.


Friday, October 23, 2009

what is Christian morality? Part 4

Jesus and the mythology of family

3:31-35 Then his mother and his brothers arrive. While still outside, they send in and ask for him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they say to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers [and sisters] are outside looking for you.’ In response he says to them: ‘My mother and brothers – who ever are they?’ And looking right at those seated around him in a circle, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother!’ [see also Matt 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21; for other negative remarks about family, see Matt 10:35-37, Luke 12:52-53, Luke 14:26]

This story seems to reveal some family tensions, but the message is clear enough. Of course, it’s not one we associate with modern Christianity. Rather, we associate it with new cults, which Christianity once was – in fact we’ve got a snapshot here of the cult before it became Christianity. The cult becomes the new Family – if others in your family don’t want to join the cult, abandon them and join your new brothers and sisters under God, or the new Messiah, or whoever. Many new cult leaders don’t get on with their own families. Jesus’s family thought he was mad [Mark 3:21], and he very likely felt the need to be clear of them in order to be taken seriously. One can sympathise, but it does raise doubts about the traditional family values theme of conservative Christianity. Such values may or may not be Christian, but they weren’t affirmed by Jesus in this passage. One has always to remember that Jesus himself was never a Christian, though Christianity may have derived from him.

This is a good place to reflect on all Jesus’s remarks about family. Of these, probably the most shocking is the one in Luke 14:26: If any come to me and do not hate their own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – they cannot be my disciples. Seems fairly clear-cut. In order to be a follower of Jesus – what was later called a Christian -you have to hate every member of your family, as well as yourself. I wonder why this passage isn’t more well-known? On the basis of this passage alone, one would surely have to conclude that Jesus was completely opposed to ‘traditional family values’. Or was he just having a little joke?

In Matthew 10:35-37 [and similarly in Luke 12:52-53] Jesus claims that he has come to bring conflict rather than peace, and especially conflict within families: I have come to pit a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A person’s enemies are members of the same household. Jesus is by no means a family man. It’s unlikely that even the most ingenious sermonisers could spin that one around. For example, you won’t find much in the way of off-setting positive remarks about family to cherry-pick [but see Mark 7:9-13 below]. Clearly, ‘family values’ conservatism does not derive from the teachings of Jesus, it just thinks it does.

4:3-8 The parable of the sower.

This is the first recorded parable of the canonical gospels, repeated in Matthew 13:3-8 and Luke 8:5-8. I won’t quote it in full here, nor will I comment on the lengthy explanation of it that follows [Mark 4:13-21]. The story, well-known enough, is about a farmer’s seed falling in four different places; by the path [eaten by birds], on rocky ground [it sprouted quickly but couldn’t take deep root and was burned off by the sun], among thorns [where it couldn’t compete and bore no fruit] and in good deep soil [where it thrived and bore fruit]. Jesus’s explanation reveals, or strongly suggests, that he’s talking about his message – i.e. God’s imperial rule. In some people it will take root, in some not. In the broadest sense it’s about receptivity to ideas, but I don’t think there’s any great ethical dimension to this.

4:24-25 And he went on to say to them: ‘Pay attention to what you hear! The standard you apply will be the standard applied to you, and then some. In fact, to those who have, more will be given, and from those who don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away!’ [see also Matt 7:2, Matt 13:12, Matt 25:29, Luke 6:38, Luke 8:18, Luke 19:26]

This is another troubling passage, oft-repeated, which would require some sermonising work, to make it ‘obvious’ that Jesus isn’t talking of material possessions here, he’s probably talking of, say, holy spirit. If you have lots of holy spirit inside you, you’ll be given more, come God’s imperial rule. If you haven’t enough, what you do have will be taken away – perhaps to render you fit for eternal damnation. Clearly, those with lots of the holy stuff inside them are morally superior to those with little, but this doesn’t offer us much in the way of moral guidance.

7:5-13 the Pharisees and the scholars start questioning him: ‘Why don’t your disciples live up to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with defiled hands?’ And he answered them, ‘How accurately Isaiah depicted you phonies when he wrote: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart stays far away from me. Their worship is empty, because they insist on teachings that are human commandments. You have set aside God’s commandment and hold fast to human tradition!’ Or he would say to them, ‘How expert you’ve become at putting aside God’s commandment to establish your own tradition. For instance Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘Those who curse their father or mother will surely die.’ ‘But you say, If people say to their father or mother, “Whatever I might have spent to support you is korban”’ [which means ‘consecrated to God’], you no longer let those persons do anything for their father or mother. So you end up invalidating God’s word with your own tradition, which you then perpetuate. And you do all kinds of other things like that!’ [see also Matt 15:1-9]

This passage provides an interesting example of Jesus as unorthodox rabbi. Certainly Jesus in this gospel spends far more time arguing with the traditionalists over ritual matters [as well as exorcising demons and performing miracles] than he does pontificating on real moral issues.

It’s worth noting though that, in this dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus picks out the ‘honour your parents’ commandment as being defiled by them. The basic idea is that the Pharisaic notion of ‘korban’, consecrating certain goods to God, allows those goods to be subtracted from whatever is owed to the devotee’s parents. Whether or not Jesus’s accusation is correct, he seems to have forgotten that he himself has refused to even recognize his own mother. I’m sure Socrates would never have been so glaringly inconsistent.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 3

1:15 The time is up: God’s imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news! [see also Matt 3:2, Matt 4:17, Matt: 10:7, Luke 10:9-11]
This is Mark’s summary of the message of Jesus, placed before he actually starts telling Jesus’s story. It morally exhorts people to change their ways – pretty vague - and provides a rationale. That is, if you don’t change you’ll miss out, because with the new rule will come God’s judgement, presumably. It’s the old story of year zero, renewal, the blank state – one of the oldest tricks in the book, and not original to the gospels or the Bible. Matthew [3:2] puts more or less the same words in the mouth of John the Baptist.
1:17 Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people! [see also Matt 4:19, Luke 5:10]

This is the first, and probably most well-known, of a number of calls to possible recruits, made much of in subsequent sermons. To be a good Christian you have to spread the word. Hard put to find anything ethical in this, though it might require bravery and self-sacrifice.
2:5 Child, your sins are forgiven [see also Matt 9:2, Luke 5:20, John 5:14].

This isn’t so much about right conduct, but I think it’s crucial. The remark, directed at a paralysed child, whom Jesus also cures, is soon followed by outraged comments from some scholars listening in. They question, not surprisingly, the moral authority of Jesus. It also, of course, suggests a connection commonly made in this era, but rejected by the modern world; a connection between ‘sin’ and sickness or injury.
When we’re young, the moral authority generally comes from our parents. They have a near-absolute power to punish us or forgive us. Who hasn’t experienced the fear and anxiety of waiting for their judgement? When, say, you’ve broken something precious in the family home. They might just forgive you if you have a good explanation or show sufficient remorse. And their response will have some effect, however slight, on how you behave, and how you justify your behaviour in future. Of course, your parents are unlikely to say, we forgive you for everything bad you’ve done in the past, and you probably wouldn’t know how to take it if they did. You may well even lose respect for them, for this undiscriminating forgiveness. Does this mean they’ll forgive you for all the bad things you do in the future too?
The point is that forgiveness isn’t really what we want, or need. What we need is justice and consistency, together with an understanding of and sympathy for our human frailties.
2:17 I did not come to enlist religious folks but sinners! [see also Matt 9:13, Luke 5:32, Luke 19:10]

This remark emphasises the Christian appeal to outsiders – the sinners, the lost, the marginalised. Also the sceptics, and those who were dissatisfied with the current Judaic orthodoxy. As a recruiting slogan, it’s probably quite effective, and I’m sure missionaries use it still. But even if we choose not to treat this openness cynically, it tells us little about the moral behaviour expected of those recruited.
2:22 And nobody pours young wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and destroy both the wine and the skins. Instead, young wine is for new wineskins [see also Matt 9:17, Luke 5:37-39].

This ‘common wisdom’ remark is made in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist regarding religious traditions, especially fasting. Assuming Jesus was a real person, his fame or notoriety during his lifetime would’ve sprung from his religious heterodoxy. The Messianic and deistic claims would’ve come later, largely. Jesus here is comparing himself to a young wine, which needs a new container or framework to be fully appreciated. Again, this is about renewal and year zero. However, in Luke 5:39 Jesus adds this assertion: Besides, nobody wants young wine after drinking aged wine. As they say, ‘Aged wine is just fine’. This is of course generally true of wines, but how does it relate to Jesus’s ‘new’ teaching and the traditional teaching of the Pharisees? It’s completely confusing, and has no doubt been ignored by sermonisers, but these are the anomalies that the sceptic has to highlight. No doubt it can be explained by the gospel writers’ own confusions as to what they’re trying to say, or get Jesus to say.
2:27-28 The sabbath day was created for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve for the sabbath day. So, the son of Adam lords it even over the sabbath day [see also Matt 12:8, Luke 6:5].

3:4 On the sabbath day is it permitted to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it? [see also Matt 12:10-12, Luke 6:9]

Probably Jesus’s most interesting remarks so far, again made in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees, this time over the sabbath. Essentially it’s a liberal v conservative dispute, with the conservatives emphasising tradition and the liberal Jesus emphasising freedom and the priority of people over tradition. We should be in charge of tradition, tradition shouldn’t be in charge of us. I’m not sure if this is an example of Christian morality, but it’s worth reflecting on in the light of the Catholic Church, for example.
3:28 I swear to you, all offenses and whatever blasphemies humankind might blaspheme will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit is never ever forgiven, but is guilty of eternal sin [see also Luke 12:10].

This is the first nasty pronouncement. To a modern reader, it might seem almost meaningless. What is the holy spirit anyway? Have I just blasphemed against it by wondering what it is? Why are other blasphemies forgivable? A blasphemy by definition involves using the name of a god in a non-religious way, or in a way disapproved of by religious authority. Of course by this definition, god’s name is used blasphemously far more often than in any other way these days, at least in this part of the world. Jesus seems to be saying that a blasphemy against a god is forgivable, but one against the god in its manifestation as the holy spirit is not. It might be argued that he’s distinguishing between the letter of god and the spirit, it being much worse to blaspheme against the spirit, or the very idea of god. That, however, would surely be an unacceptably modern take on Jesus’s actual words. Such passages seem to me to indicate the obvious; that Jesus, however constructed, was a creature of his time, and all too human.
Perhaps more interesting is the distinction here between eternal sin and the ordinary garden variety. Eternal, unforgivable sin presumably dooms you to the forever fires of hell. So you’d better brush up on your holy spirit, brethren. We’re very far here from the gentle, forgiving Jesus of Christian spin.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 2

I'm having some blog troubles, but here at last is part 2 of my longest essay [12,000 words and still incomplete].

Still I intend to stumble on. I’ve decided to base my exploration of Christian morality on the first, tightest definition above, and as my source and guide, I am relying on the collaborative work The Five Gospels: What did Jesus really say? The search for the authentic words of Jesus, published by a group of New Testament scholars collectively known as The Jesus Seminar. However, I’ve chosen to ignore the fifth gospel, Thomas, because, however authentic it may be as a representation of Jesus, it has remained ‘buried’ for almost all the Christian era, only coming to light in the twentieth century. My aim here is not to uncover the ‘real’ Jesus, but to answer the question in the essay’s title, with an eye to the influence of Christian morality on our society.
There’s a question as to whether Christian morality is really Christian, in the sense that what we call the west has been dominated by Roman Catholicism, and the Protestant reactions to it. The central figure in Catholicism was Paul of Tarsus, not Jesus. Paul knew virtually nothing of the life and teachings of Jesus, and it certainly shows in his writings. Though Paul often extolled Jesus as the son of God, something never claimed by the gospel writers [though John came as close as may be] he was notoriously vague on the details. However, he was the first to commit to writing what seems to have been an oral tradition [albeit only twenty or thirty years old] which underpinned the fledgling religion.
That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised up on the third day according to the scriptures. [1 Cor 15:3-5 – New International Version]

This idea that Jesus [but now, importantly, identified as Christ] died for our sins is arguably more important for Christian morality than any of the parables and pronouncements, so it’s worth dwelling on. It’s not particularly easy to get your head around the concept. Much has been made, usually in very negative terms, of the relationship between this idea and the idea of the scapegoat, an animal ritually slaughtered to wash away the crimes of the community with its blood. This idea, that you can do what you like, individually or communally, as long as you perform the requisite sacrifice afterwards, is of course anathema to most modern sensibilities, even though it still exists, in modified form, in the Catholic confession, in which you’re encouraged to ‘come clean’. Ideas around purification and cleanliness are of course integral to all religions, but, to be fair, the idea of the scapegoat or the Christ-figure, permitting believers to get away with anything because some other person or animal has ‘taken on’ their sins, seems inadequate. Whatever the idea means, it has rarely been used as a recipe for anarchy or moral licence. There is surely a sense in which Christ’s death, and the idea that he had to die for our sins, is an attempt to focus on sin itself, on its enormity. The wages of sin is death – that seems, at least partly, to be the message.
But if Christ’s dying for our sins doesn’t mean that we can sin with impunity, what does it mean, and what difference does his dying for such a purpose make? There’s an elaboration in the first book of Peter:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed [1 Peter 2:24 – New International Version].

We carry our sins about like injuries or scars – if we could be magically absolved of them we’d be healed, and this would be like a rebirth, encouraging us to go off and sin no more. It can be a powerful idea, especially as a tool to convert non-Christians - though you’d first have to convince them of the whole concept of sin and its associated burden of guilt – but it is only indirectly a moral idea. It’s the idea that you’ll be a better person if all of the bad things you’ve done in the past could be wiped away – the ever-attractive myth of the blank slate and the new leaf. The trouble is that the convert or the born-again can’t keep on wiping clean the slate or turning over the leaf – they have to learn to settle down with the same old same old sinning self.
More importantly, none of this gives us half a clue as to what sins are, and how to ‘live righteously’. So what did Jesus himself –real or constructed – teach us about right conduct?
So let’s look closely at the canonical gospels [there are some thirty or so different gospel texts or fragments, and many were destroyed during the early Christian era] to see if anything coherent and foundational can be derived from Jesus’s moralising pronouncements and stories, and exemplary acts, described therein. In doing so, I’ll follow the order of the gospels in The Five Gospels. While there is endless contestation in this field, the majority of New Testament scholars agree that Mark is the oldest of the extant gospel writings, dating from around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE. I should also point out that, due to the repetition of stories and remarks, particularly in the synoptic gospels, most of the analytical work will be done in looking at the first gospels in this order. In any case the gospel of John contains no parables at all, and it concerns itself much more with the status of Jesus than with moral issues.


Monday, August 17, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 1

Here is the first 1000 words or so of my essay on this subject [unfinished as yet].

You hear it endlessly, and not just from Christians. Christianity provides the ethical bedrock of western civilization. I’ve never been convinced, but how can it be proven or disproven?

Well, the first thing to do is to define terms. So what exactly is Christian morality?

I can think of three definitions, each one more expansive than the last.

1. It is any morality that can be derived from the teachings of Jesus - the Sermon on the Mount, the parables and other incidental remarks, found in the gospels.
2. It’s any morality that can be derived from the Bible in general – the Decalogue, the proverbs and psalms – but particularly the New Testament [the teachings of Paul and the other epistle writers as well as Jesus].
3. It’s all of the above plus any morality that can be derived from any teacher, from Augustine of Hippo to Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Simone Weil, whose thinking is inspired by Christianity - including all the sermons of all the parish priests throughout Christendom and beyond throughout the last two millennia.

The trouble with this nest of definitions is that each one’s not only more expansive, but also more diffuse and, arguably, more untenable. For example, as many observers have mentioned, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Christian sermons and commentaries tend to track changes in our moral outlook. The fire and brimstone sermons, so common in the nineteenth century, and so powerfully rendered in James Joyce’s goodbye-to-all-that novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are long gone, and we now have ‘eco-Christianity’, as well as a Christianity celebrating multiculturalism and diversity and inter-faith dialogue, and we have female and gay clerics in some denominations. These are developments that secularists would argue, pretty convincingly, are driven by forces external to Christianity, but many Christians argue, also pretty convincingly to some people, that it’s a return to ‘real’ Christianity, that Christianity has always been about environmentalism [who urged us to consider the lilies?], embracing all cultures [like the good Samaritan] and ways of life [fisher folk, beggars, tax collectors, laundresses].

I’ve known Christians who ‘shop around’ for priests who give sermons they approve of. In fact, I’m sure this is commonplace. If you’re a liberal, you’ll just be annoyed by a conservative anti-gay sermon. The priest just hasn’t absorbed the message of Jesus correctly, so then you’ll find a parish where the message is right. Sometimes the message will be so liberal that the priest will be in trouble with the higher church authorities, and, if he’s Catholic, excommunication might be in the air, and heresy, and heroism, and martyrdom. The embattled priest will collect a loyal flock of followers, he will take his stand for true Christianity, he might even hint that this is where Jesus Christ himself stood against the Pharisees, and what could possibly be more Christian than that?

It does seem, on the face of it, that the life and teaching of Jesus, with his emphasis on the meek, on children, on the poor, his generally positive attitude to women, and his emphasis on faith over strict ritual observance and tradition, offers more to the left side of politics than the right, so it might seem strange that, especially in the US, it’s the other side that’s making the most fuss about Christian values. What the Christian right seems to be emphasising is ‘traditional family values’, including a puritanical attitude towards sex, regular church attendance, hard work, clean living, and a spreading of the gospel message [the message being no sex outside marriage, regular church attendance, hard work and clean living, etc]. I just wonder if this was what Jesus, or the gospel writers who put the words into his mouth, were really on about.

I think it’s undoubtedly true that, since the rise to power of Christianity, a huge volume of ethical claims and pronouncements have been made in its name. Indeed, until a couple of centuries ago, just about every ethical pronouncement – with the notable exception of those made by a handful of secular philosophers like Spinoza and Hume – was made in the name of the Judaeo-Christian god and his son, the other and same Judaeo-Christian god.

However, this doesn’t mean that Christianity forms the bedrock of our ethics, because I strongly suspect that, had Christianity never risen to power, the volume of ethical pronouncements made over the past millennium or two would’ve been about the same, and their quality would’ve been about the same too, only they would’ve been made in the name of other gods and other religions, or maybe they would’ve been made in the ethicists’ own name, as with the ethics of Aristotle or the moral letters of Seneca or the essays of Montaigne. What Christianity did, through Catholicism, and the later Protestant sects who largely kept the Catholic model, was to provide a structure and a building program which encouraged people to congregate at particular designated sites to listen to sermons and homilies from more or less wise and charismatic characters. This provided them with an ethical education and a sense of community and solidarity – not to mention a focus for networking, deals and gossip.

What I’m suggesting is that Christianity was always a vague, catch-all term, allowing people to come together and celebrate and reinforce their conservative or liberal views, pat each other on the back, and selectively quote scriptural stuff to each other. It’s this vagueness that is the key to its success. Jesus, insofar as his teachings have been paid any mind at all, was a man for all seasons, but above all he has become a symbol of positivity – kindness, charity, forgiveness, love. Who can turn their backs on such grand themes? Only evil people, surely. And we can all work out the details for ourselves.

In this essay I was hoping to try to separate the accretions – the sermons, the infinite commentaries and elaborations, and the myth-making – from the actual words and deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels. Sounds simple, and no doubt it has been attempted many times before, but immediately difficulties arise. For a start, the four canonical gospels were written in Koine Greek [though even this has been contested – some argue for a missing ur-text, perhaps written in Hebrew]. The first, and perhaps only, language of Jesus was probably Aramaic – though some disagree. So how much has been lost or distorted in translation? Jesus may [or may not] have died in the mid thirties CE, while the first extant gospel was [probably] that of Mark, written about 70CE [a date which is the centre of a great storm of contestation].

Each of the gospel texts is stylistically unique, and there are contradictions amongst them, as well as different emphases. Further, there are other gospel texts to be considered, most notably Thomas. How reliable is this text? Why was it excluded from the canon? Should it simply be ignored because, not having been included in the canon, it has had little impact on the subsequent development of Christianity?


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Opening the chinks of reason

This evening, in a news report about Jewish settlements in the occupied territories – the new US administration is trying to pressure the Israeli government into halting the spread of these settlements – a Jewish settler was interviewed. Her remarks, as presented, were brief.

'People say we shouldn't be building here because it's Arab land, but that's not accurate. This is Jewish land, given to us by God.'

Such arrogant claims aren't likely to endear themselves to a secular audience, and yet, on reflection, there was one word in this small stream that shone out like a glimmer of hope. That word was 'accurate'. While not exactly a scientific word, it's a word science is fond of. Accuracy in measurement, accuracy of results, accurate experiments, accurate targeting. It's a word much associated with reason, and it tends to draw attention to itself as such. So when somebody says, 'uhh, excuse me, but that's not accurate', it alerts you. You eagerly await the details of this inaccuracy.

So the second sentence above seems a grotesque anti-climax, both hilarious and tragic, like much religious belief.

The hope lies in the choice of the word 'accurate', the appeal to reason of some kind, some claim to objectivity. The person using that word wishes to invoke an objective truth-claim, offering some hope that she can be reasoned with.

Since my youth I've always fantasised that people could be swayed, their certitudes undermined, via the Socratic method. Get as many people to talk like Socrates as possible and the world would be a much more sociable and reasonable place. My growing awareness that I was too hot-headed, emotional and impatient to hold down the Socratic role for more than thirty seconds in 'real life' only served to make the fantasy more enticing. I talked rationally enough to myself – at least from time to time.

Socrates: Good afternoon, Hannah, how is the building going?

Hannah: Slowly Socrates, slowly, but God willing it will be complete before my sister gives birth in August.

Socrates: And are you feeling any pressure, Hannah? I couldn't help but overhear what you said to that journalist just now.

Hannah: Ah, I should've known you would bring that up, you can always be counted on to sniff out a dispute. No, I feel no pressure Socrates, God is on my side.

Socrates: No doubt, Hannah, but I was interested in the precise words you used. You said, did you not, that it is not accurate to say this is Arab land?

Hannah: That's right.

Socrates: It's more accurate to say that God gave you and your people this land. Correct?

Hannah: Correct.

Socrates: A little more accurate or a lot more accurate?

Hannah: Socrates, I know you're trying to trip me, but it's completely accurate. It's the truth.

Socrates: Right, completely true then. And the claim that this is Arab land is completely false, even though the Arabs vehemently say it's true.

Hannah: We have God's word on it.

Socrates: And do you think that you've convinced the journalist, and the global audience he reports to, of the accuracy of your claim?

Hannah: The world can think what it wants, Socrates, the truth is the truth.

Socrates: But Hannah, surely you are concerned with what the world thinks, otherwise why would you talk to the journalist and point out the inaccuracy of one group's claims to this land, and the accuracy of another's? You recognise that there are standards of accuracy, measures of accuracy, do you not?

Hannah: Yes of course.

Socrates: Universal standards of accuracy, recognised by everyone we can imagine this journalist's report reaching – the Russans of the Steppes, the Australians of the Outback, the Americans of the Prairie, the Chinese of the Provinces, the Italians of the Alps, the Indians in their crowded cities. You accept that all these people will have standards of accuracy, and that they may agree with each other on these standards, as they apply to different measurable entities?

Hannah: Well, no, I'm not so sure about that. I think there would be a lot of disagreement.

Socrates: Well maybe there would be some entities that people will agree can be measured accurately – the height of a mountain, say, whereas others are not so easy to agree on, as for example your case.

Hannah: There is no measuring in the case I put forward Socrates. Who can measure God?

Socrates: The God who gave you this land?

Hannah: There is no other God.

Socrates: So you say, Hannah, but where I came from people believed in many gods, a squabbling nest of gods. Out in the wider world, the world this reporter reports to, there are also many gods, with strange names, gods you and I have little inkling of, just as some of the people out there have little inkling of your god. You are claiming, I presume, that their gods are all false, even though these people believe in their gods as fervently as you believe in your god, and would if asked, presumably say that it is your god who is false. Do you agree that they would most likely say that?

Hannah: Most likely.

Socrates: Most likely indeed, for these are the matters upon which people most fervently disagree, is that not so?

Hannah: Yes, history shows this. Let me assure you I'm not a fool Socrates.

Socrates: I've never thought so, for I recognise and admire your great concern for accuracy, in this and in all matters. But here we have reached an impasse. You say there is one god, your god, the Jewish god, and that this land was given to you by that god. The Arabs in this neighbourhood say it is their land and, though I haven't spoken to them, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they claimed this land in accordance with their own god. How can this situation be resolved?

Hannah: For me it is already resolved. We are on this land and we will remain on it.

Socrates: You would be prepared to die for the sake of this land?

Hannah: I don't think it will come to that, but if need be, yes.

Socrates: And does that make your claim more accurate?

Hannah: That's a very clever question Socrates. I know your tricks. I think I need to be getting on with my work now.

Socrates: But I can assure you Hannah, I ask this question only because I want to know what makes your claim to this land an accurate one, or more accurate than the claim of the Arabs. Do I understand from your response that you don't consider the preparedness to die for this land of you and your people a proper measure of the accuracy of your claim to it?

Hannah: No I don't. You're right about that.

Socrates: So we return to our impasse. You claim this land according to your god. The Arabs claim this land according to their god. We need a way of measuring the objective accuracy of these competing claims, do you agree?

Hannah: Yes, but that will never be achieved.

Socrates: That's a terribly pessimistic response Hannah, but at least you agree that an objective standard is needed, even if it's impossible to arrive at such a standard? You will concede that much?

Hannah: I concede no such thing. I'm not prepared to concede anything, Socrates, least of all my own God-given land. This conversation is futile, and I really have work to do. Good day to you.

Socrates: Well I'm sorry you feel that way. For me it's been most absorbing. You've recognised the need for objective standards of judgment, and that's very wise, though there's so much more to discuss and hammer out. Hopefully we'll both continue to think about these matters, and get further on in some future discussions.

Hannah: Yes, yes, goodbye Socrates. You're a good man.

Socrates: Well thank you Hannah, you're a good woman to say that, whether it's true or not! Good day to you.

pavlov's cat