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?



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