Thursday, 20 February 2014
‘It would be a grave mistake for us [Twelve] to neglect the word of God in order to wait at table. Therefore, friends, look out … men full of the Spirit and of wisdom, and we will appoint them to deal with these matters.’ Acts ch 6 vv2,3 I think it’s fair to say that the general public see clergy as performing four main roles: promoting supposedly comforting but actually unbelievable doctrines, maintaining old buildings, re-enacting picturesque ceremonies and being informal community workers. Church folk might reframe those same activities as maintaining the doctrinal and physical foundations that have shaped our culture, and serving the unseen God and working to create his Kingdom on earth. Clergy certainly perform the activities thus variously described, and in doing so they may make at least as useful a contribution as many other professionals in society. But as with most professions there is a purpose, a logic, to ministry that may not always be obvious to on-lookers. Ministers have to know what they are trying to do and understand the assumptions on which they operate, not just carry out the visible activities associated with ministry. First, ministry helps people find the strength and will to face challenging situations in their lives – failure for example, or bereavement, betrayal, serious disappointment, or impending death. The minister assumes that the resources we need to deal with these situations are available to us, but because we sometimes find it hard to access them we need support and help in doing that. Second, the minister helps people learn to love, to appreciate and respond with love to the real people behind the facades that it takes no effort to see. The minister begins with the assumption that every human being is capable of love, and that this capacity can be activated by feeling loved. Third, and perhaps even less obviously, ministry serves truth, even if truth is something that we can perceive only in a shadowy and ever-changing way. The assumption here is that people can be better and happier to the extent that they grasp truth – truth about themselves, about society, about everything. The faith that mysterious resources, love and truth have this central role in human life is at the heart of ministry; it is probably the most important thing we can mean by saying that someone ‘believes in God’. Insofar as someone is exercising ministry, their actions and words must relate to one or more of these three activities. I have no quarrel with anyone being interested in ancient buildings or music or ritual or doctrines, or getting involved in politics or business or art or sport, though it might take a bit of effort to convince me that such activities are part of ministry. But I am persuadable, because I recognise that helping people to access spiritual resources, to feel loved and to value truth are not things that can be done straightforwardly. There is rarely a one-to-one connection between action and result in any complex field of human activity, certainly not in ministry; that may be one of the lessons of the Parable of the Sower. But at least the sower knew what he was trying to do, as ministers need to know what they are trying to achieve through their ministerial activities. And no doubt the sower tried to evaluate his sowing technique in the light of his success in raising a crop. In real life, ministers – ordained or not – don’t always find it congenial or easy to evaluate their success in terms of the three ministerial objectives. This is especially true if those who support them financially are measuring their performance in terms of their success in the visible activities – bringing in the numbers, maintaining old traditions, and so on. If ministry – real ministry – is better served by abandoning the lovely old buildings, the gorgeous finery, and the other accoutrements of religion, abandoned they must be, or at the very least be relegated to hobby status. Notice the ‘if’ there, but don’t let it fool you. Pleasing the folk who go to church is not the way to judge ministry. It’s how ministry impacts on individuals in the wider community that matters to any religious outfit that wants to be more than a sect, a hobby-church. It’s therefore what the wider community makes of the religious accoutrements that really matters, not whether church-goers like them or not. After all, it is entirely possible that church folk are exactly the group that has become most attached to the accoutrements of religion, because they are the ones who attend services week by week. None of that is to downplay the importance of some traditional tools in the minister’s tool-bag; indeed the ability to use those tools effectively in achieving the objectives of ministry is what defines the minister. Rituals and sacraments, prayers and preaching are the main tools, but in every situation they have to be used appropriately and honestly, and sometimes creatively too. It’s no good performing traditional ceremonies just because we always have, or peddling traditional ideas that have had their day. That is why, strictly speaking, there is a distinction between the minister and the priest. The minister may use traditional forms to help people lead richer, fuller, happier lives; the minister’s personal experience and understanding must inform whatever is done to help others access spiritual resources, learn to love, and follow truth. By contrast the priest performs traditional rites and recites traditional formulae, and might claim to be doing so because this is what God wants, or simply because they are traditional; there is no requirement for the priest to bring personal experience and understanding, or even faith, to bear, because the rites have a stand-alone validity that does not depend on their effectiveness in improving human lives. The minister will abandon traditional forms if they don’t work in particular circumstances; the priest by contrast insists on performing the traditional forms, come what may – and if they don’t make people’s lives happier, it’s the people not the forms that have to change. That states the contrast too starkly of course: many ‘priests’ are in fact good ministers. But that’s because they have come to understand that all religious institutions, not only the Sabbath, are there to serve humanity, not the other way round. Maybe ‘waiting at table’ is the real heart of ministry.
[Jesus] opened the scroll and found the passage which says, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. Luke ch 4, vv 17-19 Whether or not Jesus announced his programme of preaching in the way our text describes, it is clear from the gospel accounts that he had in mind, or at least developed in the course of his preaching, a fairly clear programme. He did indeed proclaim release for those imprisoned, by organised religion; he tried to let people see clearly what their lives could and should be about; he offered some welcome and useful good news about how happiness might be attained. This programme is not merely a matter of antiquarian or sectarian interest; as we shall see, it raises at least one matter that continues to matter to society today: how we try to ensure that the lessons we have learned about how our lives may most happily be lived are not lost but are passed on to successive generations. Jesus was deeply aware of the dangers of organised religion. It’s not clear whether he had himself been given a particularly devout or orthodox upbringing, but he would certainly have been aware of the various pious movements that were influential in early first century Judaism. Some demanded strict observance of every detail of the ancient Jewish religious law; others went further and called on Jews to cut themselves off completely from ordinary life in Roman Judaea. Then there were those religious Jews whose convictions seemed limited to maintaining their social position through the exercise of their inherited religious functions. There was in short a lot of religion about in Jewish society, but it seemed to Jesus that it wasn’t doing much to help ordinary people to live full and happy – makarios – lives. Indeed it only too often seemed to give religious people, whether pious or cynical, a cover or even a justification for attitudes and behaviours that were at best unhelpful and at worst anti-social. We now know that these difficulties are not untypical of organised religion generally, not just a feature of contemporary Judaism, but as far as Jesus was concerned, the problem was a distinctively Jewish problem, and his preaching about it was naturally addressed only to his fellow Jews. That was his negative programme. His positive programme had to do with how people could develop within themselves dispositions that would enable them to live full and happy lives. They needed to notice how the world worked, both in nature and in society. They needed the conviction that they were blessed, though not uniquely blessed. They needed to understand that good relationships with other people were indispensable to happiness. They needed to feel that the happiness that comes from having a grounded understanding of how things are, a sense of being blessed, and good relationships was within their grasp; they had only to want it enough and it could be theirs. He did not demand obedience to rules as a means to happiness; he asked only that people should prioritise their own deepest happiness and understand how that might be achieved in the real world, the everyday world of personal relationships, society and work. I’ll leave it to you to recall the various parables and sayings through which Jesus promoted both his negative and his positive programmes. Then there was something that was emphatically not part of his programme. Suspicious as he was of Jewish organised religion in all its forms, he made no effort to found a new Jewish sect like the Essenes or the Pharisees. And although his positive programme was as applicable to Gentiles as to Jews, he had no plans to set up a new non-Jewish religion to promote it; he wasn’t much interested in Gentiles, and even if he had been, he would have doubted whether a new religion could be an effective way of promoting his teaching among them. So sacraments and liturgies, conversions and persecutions, doctrines and controversies, judgments and condemnations, orthodoxies and heresies, clergy and churches – things with which we are so familiar, and which claim connection with Jesus, derive from St Paul’s Christianity, not from what we know of Jesus’s teaching purged of Pauline influences. We can only – and perhaps we should – imagine what Jesus of Nazareth would make of the edifice that calls him its ‘Lord’. The problem for Jesus’s programme, and indeed for us too, is that while his positive programme sets out an effective basis for leading full and happy lives, it’s not-at-all clear that its precepts are so obvious or ingrained that they don’t need to be spelled out repeatedly, generation by generation. There’s a case for hoping that we could now safely leave this to parents, teachers and others who set the tone for each new generation, a kind of free market for ideological teaching. But you might not feel confident to do that, not least because the resulting institutional vacuum might be filled, perhaps by organisations with a very different agenda. But if an institution is to maintain, promote and develop precepts like the ones Jesus taught, how do we prevent it from falling foul of the critique of Judaism contained in Jesus’s negative programme? The church has succeeded in maintaining and promoting Jesus’s positive programme for nearly two millennia, but in the process it has certainly not avoided the worst features of organised religion, including quite a few that Jesus’s negative programme could not have imagined. It is not acceptable, either to excuse the church’s excesses and irrelevancies on account of its good works, or to condemn the church, and organised religion generally, without thinking hard about how its most useful functions might be carried out were it to collapse under the weight of those excesses and irrelevancies.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Matthew ch7 v7 Jesus of Nazareth was much less a religious teacher than a life coach. He often draws attention to things people need to understand if they are to live fulfilled lives, as he does here. One of the important things we need to understand is that wanting and having belong together; the one leads towards (if not always quite to) the other. You want something; you acknowledge that you want it; you reach out for it; you obtain it – or perhaps you don’t; there’s no guarantee of success, despite this saying. The only guarantee is that wanting and having can do damage to us when they are consistently split apart. Without wanting, having loses its savour. Without having, wanting tends to make us disappointed and bitter. Yet wanting and having can be split apart, and religious teaching often plays a part in this. John Wesley for example encouraged parents to ‘break the wills’ of their children, and a very effective way of doing this is to systematically disappoint a child’s desires. But there is worse yet. Merely to systematically disappoint wantings by preventing them fulfilling themselves as havings is not nearly as effective in stifling wants as the thought that to want things and to reach out for them is not merely unlikely to be successful or even is shameful. Much more effective is to inculcate the idea that there is something terrifying about fulfilling one’s wants. The point of ‘terror’ is that it is unspecific; if we knew what we were terrified of, it would be, not a terror, but something we could consider facing and maybe overcoming, and in doing so come a little closer to being makarios. Now obviously children must learn that they can’t have everything; but they need to grow up understanding that their wanting is connected in a reliable way with their having, via asking, trying hard, saving up, working patiently and so on. They must be taught, and shown, how to knock on life’s doors in the confident expectation that they will, eventually, be opened. Of course it’s important to remember that what we may want, or think we want, is not always in our longer term truly best interests, or may damage valuable relationships, or may seriously hurt other people’s legitimate interests, or may be illegal or even simply impossible. But that means that we have to learn to be discriminating about our wants – and you don’t get to learn that by being systematically discouraged from turning your wantings into havings. Indeed, if the wanting-having link is broken for you, you have no reason to learn to be discriminating in your wanting; you can fantasise about all kinds of outlandish wants safe – you hope – in the knowledge that they won’t ever be realised. But to the extent that you know the wants are outlandish, you’ll frighten yourself by your outlandishness, and that in turn gives an added reason to make sure that your wants are never realised. If you are brought up to accept as a rule that what you want you can’t or mustn’t have, several unfortunate things may follow. You may deal with your unfulfillable wantings by denying to yourself, never mind to other people, that you wanted those things in the first place; you learn not to know yourself in this important regard. One reason why this is serious is that sometimes it is in the deepest longings of our hearts that what we mean by ‘God’ calls us to our vocations; if we cannot dare to hear that call, we are likely to find ourselves leading aimless lives. Another is that if we can’t allow wanting to lead towards having, we will often find ourselves having things we never wanted, and needing, perhaps rather disconsolately, to make the best of what we happen to have been given. And even when what we have been given does turn out to be something we wanted, we won’t have them because we wanted them; in that sense they can give us only limited satisfaction. As far as ordinary life is concerned, religion generally seems to want to contradict Jesus, to say ‘Knock all you like, but it shall NOT be opened to you’. Christianity as a consequence has had to spiritualise this saying of Jesus to imply that the only things we can seek and reliably find are things like divine forgiveness and spiritual strength. There are several possible reasons for religion taking this approach: • From the agricultural revolution until very recently, many wants were for most people entirely unfulfillable; to encourage unfulfillable wanting might be thought of as cruel. But times have changed at least in our society, and they might have changed a good deal earlier if ordinary people had not been taught not to want, or at least to accept that they weren’t going to have, good things. • The notion of sacrifice – giving up what you most dearly want to keep – is ingrained in ancient religion because it felt a need to propitiate a powerful, jealous and capricious god. But we know that the God of Jesus of Nazareth is not like that, but is rather to be thought of as a loving father. • Discipline is undoubtedly a good thing, and we know that people who can delay the gratification of their desires tend to be happier and more successful in life. But religion has tended to interpret the ‘not just now, not just yet’ of discipline and delayed gratification into the ‘never’ of ‘Thou shalt not’. And of course not wanting, making endless sacrifices, and ‘thou-shalt-not’ discipline do not demand anything more of the believer than obedience; in particular, they do not demand or allow, and certainly do not help, believers to make thoughtful judgements about their wants and needs. They do not help us to grow up, and it’s his children’s growing up that a truly loving father hopes for and works for.
On the mountain, Jesus gathered his disciples round him and taught them … Matthew ch 5 vv 21-37 Here in Matthew’s Gospel, we find an account of Jesus discussing two of the Ten Commandments: Do not murder, and Do not commit adultery. In each case he says that the old rule is in some sense inadequate: anger leads to murder, and lust leads to adultery, so it is anger and lust that must be confronted if we are to deal with murder and adultery at root. Let’s for the moment assume that this represents the thrust of Jesus’s teaching, even if the details of the account are not to be relied on, partly because they look like a hodgepodge of ideas and sayings, and partly because no-one was jotting down the details of what Jesus said. Clearly getting behind actions to the psychology that underlies them is an advance in human thinking. It doesn’t make law superfluous; whatever one might say about adultery, killing people because you’re angry with them is unequivocally wrong, and the law is surely right to forbid it and punish it. But while it’s an advance, it’s not necessarily the last word on the subject. Jesus stands somewhere along the line of people who have helped move human thinking forward; he does not stand at the end if it, and neither do we. There surely ought to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that human thinking is not, and cannot be, stuck in the first century. Generations of Christians have understood this part of Jesus’s teaching as forbidding them to be angry, or lustful outside marriage. But I don’t think that people can help being angry and lustful; these are feelings that arise in our minds, yours and mine, whether we want them to or not. If we think that we ought not to have them at all, certainly not if we have been ‘saved’, we will not be able to confront such feelings. Instead we will be prompted to deny that we have them – and to make that denial not only to other people but also to ourselves. I may be wrong, but if you think that violent anger and extra-marital lust are things you have never even felt, that might possibly be because you are trying to convince yourself that you are obeying this piece of Jesus’s teaching. I dare you to claim you haven’t felt them, and to cast the first stone at those who admit to having done so. So if we can’t obliterate our anger and lust, how are we to manage them? Clearly they must be managed: we can’t go around killing whoever we are angry with, and bedding everyone we happen to fancy. Step one is to admit to having these and similar powerful and potentially disruptive feelings. I rather suspect that part of Jesus’s subtlety here is precisely to point out that avoiding actually killing and actually committing adultery does not make you existentially different from the rest of humanity; we are all cut from the same cloth, woven through with anger and lust. Step two is to ask what they may be telling us about our lives and our relationships. What is it that’s causing us to be angry or to look lustfully elsewhere? Can something be done about that, maybe using the energy of the anger or lust to some positive purpose? Perhaps some such thought process caused Jesus’s anger about profiteering in the Temple to express itself constructively but still angrily in the minor riot he caused in the Temple courtyard. Step three is to think about our emotions in the context of our commitments and our relationships, taking the commitments seriously and taking account of how our relationships may be affected by our giving a freer reign to the emotions we have confronted. You can’t read this passage without noticing that it speaks about divorce, a subject that is of deep concern to the churches. The text is not wholly certain, by the way: some ancient manuscripts have Jesus forbidding divorce even in the case of the wife’s adultery. Nor does all of it make sense: a man cannot by divorcing his wife make her into an adulteress in any strict sense. I’m not convinced that Jesus of Nazareth really wanted to lay down the law about sexual relationships; it doesn’t seem to be central to his programme, and what Jewish Matthew has him say here is pretty much what you’d expect of a Jewish writer of the period. But I don’t doubt that Jesus thought that people ought to take their sexual relationships seriously, for at least two reasons. First, his harsh words about those who let down children suggest that he would have thought that the interests of any children needed to have priority over the parents’ inclinations. Second, since in his view our human relationships are of such critical importance, he would surely have wanted to discourage us from trifling with the feelings of other people, including those with whom we have intimate relations. He also knew that people make and not only recover from but also grow through mis-steps on life’s path, as did the Prodigal Son. How all this applies to any particular relationship is up to us to work out, because every human situation is unique. It’s only a particular type of legal mind that pretends that rules can be written that cover every eventuality, and Jesus for one was not of that mind. That’s because he was not in the business of laying down any kind of law, even if he would no doubt have understood the inevitability of law in complex societies like his own. Rather he wanted to help people lead makarios lives, developing dispositions that would enrich their relationships and bring them inward joy and peace. Institutions that share that motive and try to act on it out on a large scale find it hard to avoid what seems to be the easy route of reviving the legalistic approach Jesus had gone beyond, replete with rules and prohibitions governing actions. When they find themselves becoming part of the apparatus of government, it becomes impossible to avoid it. Perhaps that was one reason why Jesus’s programme did not include the establishment of a new institution. A lesson there perhaps?
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
To the angel of the church at
write, ‘ … I know all your ways; you are neither hot nor cold. How I wish you were either hot or cold! But because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.’ Revelation ch 3, vv 14-16 Laodicea
One way of dividing people up is according to their religious allegiances – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Atheist, and so on. Another is to divide them according to the way they approach their religious allegiances: nominal, cultural, secular, dissident, practising, liberal, orthodox, fundamentalist, militant for example. Encouraged by religious leaders, we tend to assume that it is the allegiances that really matter; if you are a Christian of any style, we assume, you must be closer to all other Christians than to any Muslims or Hindus. Along with this there often goes a suspicion among non-fundamentalists of any religious allegiance that their fundamentalist co-religionists are somehow more committed to the religion than they are themselves – that their own faith is somehow just a watered down version of the full strength religion of the fundamentalists. They may feel distinctly uncomfortable about some of the more extreme expressions of fundamentalism, yet be unable to say clearly, even to themselves, that they reject fundamentalism when it is the fundamentalism of their co-religionists. It’s almost always the fundamentalist wing of other people’s religions that frighten us, not that of our own. But maybe this is exactly wrong; maybe the greatest threat to any group’s own religious tradition comes not from outside but from their own fundamentalists.
And certainly fundamentalists of every allegiance think less of their non-fundamentalist co-religionists for what they would characterise as their lukewarmness. They see them as making unacceptable compromises with the world of unbelievers merely for the sake of a quiet life here-and-now. Yet such lukewarm co-religionists are not quite so far outside the fundamentalists’ pale as those who belong to a different religion; maybe it would be a much greater leap from one religion to another than from lukewarmness to fundamentalism; surely it wouldn’t take all that much to turn a lukewarm Christian into a fundamentalist one. But maybe this too is exactly the wrong way of looking at the matter; maybe, for example, dissident Christians have more in common with dissident Muslims than they have with fundamentalist Christians, who in turn may have more in common with fundamentalist Muslims than with their formal co-religionists. Maybe it’s objectively easier to make the leap from, say, being fundamentalist Christian to being fundamentalist Muslim, or from liberal Hindu to liberal Christian, than to change your style of religion, from liberal to fundamentalist for example.
Perhaps we are talking here about individual psychology as much as about cultural and social influences; perhaps what unites fundamentalists of every kind is a lack of understanding, an apprehension or even an outright fear of how the world is changing. Fundamentalists are keen to get back to the foundations of their religion, and two words there ought to give us pause: ‘back’ and ‘foundations’. As a pilgrim people, we can go only forward from where we really are now; back there is where we have come from, not where we are going. To want to stay where we are, let alone to want to go back, shows a lack of courage, a lack of faith. We might not agree about what direction we ought to take from here, but that’s a different discussion. And ‘foundations’ gives us the wrong picture, of a building whose shape and stability once established must owe little or nothing to the inspiration or creativity or changed circumstances of later builders. If this is right, we need, first to reject decisively Christian fundamentalism, and then to learn far more than we generally do about our fellow non-fundamentalists in non-Christian religions, about their religious customs and their ways-of-speaking about spiritual matters.
It has sometimes been observed that converts to any religion are often ‘more Catholic than the Pope’. Unlike most birthright members of a religion, they know – or think they know – exactly why they have converted. They can’t help seeing their pre-conversion views as wrong and perhaps evil rather than merely different and maybe misguided or just underdeveloped. They also have to show their new co-religionists how keen they are in their new religion. For all these reasons, converts have a marked tendency towards fundamentalism. That may be in itself a good reason not to encourage conversion – the making of an abrupt change of religious allegiance – but rather to encourage ‘developmentalism’. I’d rather see Muslims developing their understanding of Islam to take account of what they learn from other religions and ways-of-thinking, including the scientific method, and still praying in the mosque, than see them converting to Christianity. For the same reason, I’d prefer to see birthright Christians being encouraged by the churches to develop their inherited religion to take account of new understanding and new circumstances rather than being driven by church inertia and stubbornness towards a possibly ‘fundamentalist’ Atheism. And in both cases, ‘developing’ will mean discarding old ideas as well as adopting new ones – exactly what fundamentalist cannot bring themselves to do.
We might ask which approach might be favoured by the Jesus who could see past the Good Samaritan’s bastardised Jewish religion to his human kindness; the Jesus who quarrelled with his extremely observant, one might say ‘fundamentalist’, fellow Jews, the Pharisees; the Jesus for whom the Sabbath had to have human utility. And also the Jesus who carefully showed how his approach to faith built on, but crucially went beyond, his inherited Judaism. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would find himself in the ‘developmentalist’ rather than the ‘fundamentalist’ camp. If you think you take notice of what Jesus said – as distinct from what
said he was – I don’t think you can be a fundamentalist. The real Jesus demands your attention, not your worship. St Paul
I am astonished to find that you are … following a different gospel. Not that there is in fact another gospel; only there are persons who unsettle your minds by trying to distort the gospel of Christ. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, ch1 vv6,7
The lives of Jesus of Nazareth and Socrates have often been compared. Both stood in and carried forward a long tradition of thinking about life within their own culture. Both gathered followers who were keen to hear what they had to say. Their teaching methods, if not absolute innovations, were refreshingly stimulating. Both accepted execution by the authorities of their city as the consistent with their teaching. But not the least suggestive similarity is that neither of them seems to have written down his teaching; both were content to leave whether or not they would be known beyond their own here-and-now to chance and other people. And inevitably in writing down their heroes’ ideas and teaching, their followers refracted them through their own preoccupations and even their own agendas. Paul of Tarsus, who was principally responsible for causing Jesus to be known to history, naturally founded a religion because he came from a devoutly religious background; by contrast Socrates’ publicist, Plato, was from the academy not the temple and equally naturally founded a school of thought.
After so many centuries during which Jesus has been the central figure in a major religion and whose sayings have consequently been interpreted in an essentially religious fashion, it’s hard to uncouple him and his teaching from what we understand as conventional religion. But suppose for a moment that the person who had brought Jesus to our notice had, like Plato but unlike Paul, actually not only heard his hero teaching but had also not been any more than conventionally devout. There might be a bit of a paradox here: if Jesus’s teaching was all that interesting to non-religious listeners, why didn’t one of them write it down? It’s possible that some of Jesus’s sayings were indeed collected by people uninfluenced by Paul’s religious view of Jesus and that bits of those collections found their way into the synoptic gospels, but it’s certainly true that the records we have of his life and teaching were written in a church created by Paul and permeated by Pauline thought. But then, there have surely been great and original teachers of whom we know nothing because no-one wrote up their teaching. Of course in both cases we have to try to make allowances for the preoccupations and agendas of those who wrote up the teacher’s ideas, Plato on the one hand and Paul’s Christian followers on the other. This is hazardous and to some extent speculative. As it’s Jesus I’m principally interested in, let me outline the main assumptions that guide me in doing this for his teaching. Paul knew nothing of Jesus’s teaching, so when they agree on something surprising that wasn’t part of common culture, it’s pretty certain that Jesus is being made to say something that originated in Paul’s thinking and beliefs. When Jesus is quoted as saying something that was distinctively religious that contrasts with something innovative that he says elsewhere, I prefer the innovative saying to the religious one. When explanations for Jesus’s parables are offered, I reject them on the grounds that the point of telling parables was to encourage people to develop their understanding – and surely not to bamboozle them, as some gospel accounts suggest.
And when all these allowances have been made, what does the Jesus teaching look like as it might have been passed on to us by a Plato rather than by Pauline Christians? Religious certainly, to the extent that a concept of divinity is integral to it; but the way that divinity is re-pictured as father is full of important implications, including that misfortune is not a divine punishment. Jesus clearly had some serious reservations about religion and its effect on religiously observant people, which is one reason he addresses his fellow Jews rather than humanity generally. You certainly wouldn’t call him conventionally pious. He was well aware of the richness and value of many ordinary, not-particularly-religious lives. He thought that people should aim to become makarios, happy, and that the means of achieving this is not to follow rules or to be hell-bent on getting rich, but to shape our dispositions so that we could live imaginatively and creatively in our relationships with other people. Care and commitment trump shared religion and tribal identity as the basis for relationships. We would be foolish to allow these relationships to break down over injuries and slights, if that is at all avoidable. We should not be censorious about other people’s lives because that poisons relationships. For the good of society, we should respond to good turns done to us by doing good turns to others, and not just those to whom we are indebted. The natural and social world around us is worth observing for the suggestive, practical insights it offers into how life works. There is no need to give up on our lives, however pear-shaped they may have gone; it’s always possible to turn your life around by developing dispositions that support positive living. The worst thing anyone can do is to set children off on a path that will limit their flourishing.
There’s more of course but that’s a fair summary of the thrust of Jesus’s teaching, and it all seems very commonplace, you might think. You’d be right. But it’s worth thinking about why it’s all very commonplace, because it didn’t have to be; societies as well as individuals have existed and do exist that question at least some of these principles. These principles are commonplace because they have been preached and been found to work in the sense of shaping a society that humans generally find it desirable to live in. That preaching has been spearheaded by the church, despite its many faults and its overlay of Pauline theology. But what really matters is not who keeps insisting on the Jesus principles: it is rather that they continue to be promulgated as a firm basis for flourishing human life. On the evidence of his life, I doubt if Jesus would care whether or not you attributed them to him.
… he [your Father who is in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew ch5 v45
In my college, the grace we used before meals was ‘Benedic nos, Domine, haec donum tuum, Per Jesum Christum, Dominum nostrum. Amen’: ‘O Lord, bless this your gift to us’. This could suggest that if you don’t believe in a God-out-there, there is no need to think of the good things that have come your way as having a gift-like character. You could then take them for granted instead, and maybe come to believe that you deserved the good things in your life, that you were entitled to them, that they are in some absolute sense ‘yours’. Greed, pride, arrogance, wastefulness, luxury, overweening ambition – most of the traditional ‘deadly sins’ in fact – arise from this one cause. Of course resolving to devote our time, energy and ability to trying to succeed in some endeavour makes it more likely that we will succeed and to that extent deserve to succeed. But the fact that we had the resolution, time, energy and ability in the first place is undeserved; these things, like life itself, come to us undeserved, like a gracious gift. In absolute terms, we deserve nothing. Understanding this is a personally and socially important corrective to the idea that what we get, we deserved.
But there is no need to believe in a God-out-there to understand that in an absolute sense none of us deserves what we get in life. What we most obviously don’t deserve is what we inherit from our ancestors or predecessors, including but not limited to life itself. And if the good things that come our way have a gift-like character, our first response to receiving them should surely have a gratitude-like character. In our everyday lives, saying Thank-you can be a handy way of encouraging a giver to give again, and more; but such cynicism, as well as implying a giver we can manipulate, misses the subjective value of gratitude: expressing gratitude makes us more aware of how fortunate we are and how wonderful are the things we have received, and that in itself enhances the value of those things. Whatever we take for granted is thereby devalued for us, which is only one reason why the old suggestion that we ‘Count our blessings’ is such good advice. The challenge is to find ways of counting our blessings that does not imply beliefs we do not have: systematically reviewing each day’s satisfactions at the day’s end might be one way; another might be to note down the good things in our lives as they come to us.
Our proper response to this understanding is to feel that the good things that have come our way are to be shared as well as enjoyed, to be employed in the service of others as well as of ourselves. We have no absolute right to withhold our gifts from others – hence Jesus’s encouragement to ‘go the second mile’. But the Jesus teaching does not say we have a duty to not enjoy what we have been given. Sometimes people who understand that they do not deserve what they have, come to think that they ought to give it all up. This is a mistake, not least because, short of suicide, we cannot give up everything that we do not deserve. It’s also a mistake because it suggests the idea of a duty to obey a rule, and so comes dangerously close to a surrender to a legalistic outlook. Maybe Jesus’s challenge to the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that he had (presumably) inherited and give the proceeds to the poor was a way of reminding him that he no more deserved his great wealth than the poor deserved their poverty, and reminding him too that that understanding had implications he needed to think about rather than just ask for instructions.
Religion is sometimes accused of promoting pious quiescence among society’s have-nots: be grateful for what you have and don’t try to get more from the rich and powerful. Certainly religion has sometimes done that, whether deliberately or accidentally. But to recall that the good things that have come our way are in essence gracious gifts not just our desserts is implicitly to claim that the wealth and power of the rich and powerful have the same character. To demand a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth and power is simply to demand that the rich and powerful acknowledge the same truth. But it can turn out to be an awkward truth: any successful demand for a more equitable distribution on these grounds must, if it is not to look like a tawdry excuse for simple envy, be followed by a continuing commitment to distribution that takes account of the gracious-gift character of the good things we enjoy. It has to be said that in practice political revolutionaries often forget this.
You might say that the Jesus teaching asks us to strike a balance between using the gifts that have come our way for our own benefit and using them for the benefit of others, but that’s not quite right. We can enjoy what we have been given, and enjoy it all the more if we remember, or, even better, want, to share it with others. So it’s not a zero-sum game or even a 50:50 deal. If we invest what we have been given in our relationships with other people, particularly those with whom we interact directly, the reward will be greater than the investment. Taking this completely seriously takes a lot of faith; most of us, I guess, hedge our bets to a greater or lesser extent. But to the extent that we can dare, and can be bothered, to make this investment we do in fact benefit from doing so on the only scale that in the end really matters: we become more makarios, more blessed, happier.