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.


pavlov's cat