The Pharisees asked him, ‘When will the
come?’ He said, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes … For in fact the kingdom of God is among [or within] you.’ Luke ch17 vv20,21 kingdom of God
The first century Mediterranean world was infested with religious teachers who undertook to give their followers secret knowledge that was not obtainable elsewhere; it was of course unverifiable and had little to do with the world around them. It was about the princedoms and principalities of the unseen world, about what lay behind creation, about when the world would end and what would happen after that, about mysterious causes behind events in the world. These teachers are referred to as ‘Gnostics’ but of course knowledge, gnosis, was the last thing they offered. Sometimes their stories had the quality of myths, attempts to express in stories truths about human life that are hard to express or to grasp less concretely, but often they were personal obsessions played out to impress the credulous and attract a following of people needing to believe in something, anything. We are familiar with a similar phenomenon today, in the form of various sects. We’re familiar with the phenomenon in the New Testament too: some of Paul’s theology is not terribly far removed from the kinds of ideas the Gnostics peddled, though it is more anchored in ancient Jewish traditions.
In one sense, believing such teaching is easy: unless you include belief in predictions of an early end of the world, you can be sure that you will never in your lifetime discover that your beliefs were misplaced. And if in your lifetime you find that believing such teaching gives you a confidence you would lack without it, one might say that it was pretty harmless and even positively helpful. But it is not grounded in life as we know it in our daily lives, and nor does it take its cues from what we can find out about life through careful observation and thought. So while belief in Gnostic-like teaching is easy, it is also fragile. Like a house built on sand, it may not withstand the more serious of life’s tempests – and then the once-believer has nothing to give himself the confidence he lacked. This is why credulity – the willingness to believe any old stories about the unseen world – is different from a faith that, while it is not explained or proved by our experience of life, is nevertheless grounded on the firm rock of what we know of life and can survive the challenges that life sets before us.
The approach of the Gnostics and of Paul stands in marked contrast to what we know about the approach of Jesus of Nazareth. Occasionally we find attributed to him descriptions of the unseen world, much of a muchness with his contemporaries’ Gnostic teaching. But mostly, and more strikingly and therefore so much the more reliably, his teaching repeatedly draws his followers’ attention to what they can see for themselves in the world around them if only they will do so. His parables ask them to look and see how the world works and prompts them to draw conclusions from that. His beatitudes ask them to notice what kinds of people can be called makarios, happy, blessed, so that they can shape their dispositions appropriately. His famous prayer to Our Father is wonderfully earth-bound. He explicitly rejects the idea that anyone might know when the end of the world is coming.
In this important sense Jesus’s teaching is not a revelation at all. His teaching is focussed on drawing his hearers’ attention to what they could have seen – and many perhaps did see – in the world they knew. We have heard of Jesus of Nazareth only because
seized on his disciples’ emotional accounts of his resurrection to be the basis of his new, Christian, religion. For all we know there might have been other teachers with a similar approach to Jesus’s, who made no more effort than did Jesus himself to commit their ideas to writing, and who have been lost to history. And if we had had our attention focussed by someone else on the same things that Jesus drew attention to, perhaps we would have taken just as much notice and given that person just as much honour. (Incidentally, it’s not only Jesus who would have been lost to history save for the happy chance that someone felt he wanted to write down his ideas; without the testimony of Plato, Socrates too would be forgotten. Both Jesus and Socrates saw it as their business, not to tell people what was what, but rather in their different ways to lead people to their own conclusions. It is the Pauls and Platos of the world who have a harder-nosed approach to working out, writing down and passing on a clear, coherent philosophy who usually get remembered, rather than those who are content to make and share their discoveries about life as they go along, like Jesus and Socrates.) St Paul
What might have been revelatory to Jesus’s hearers is the assurance that you can get along just fine without the kind of other-worldliness that religion always seems to generate, provided you pay proper attention to how this world is and how people can be truly happy in it. That’s an important proviso. The Jesus approach is not simply to try to undermine the beliefs of the credulous or mock the pretensions of the religious, though examples of both can be found in his teaching. To do that without offering, and indeed putting the emphasis on offering, an alternative and stronger basis for living well would be cruel for individuals and unhelpful for society. Perhaps that’s why Jesus sometimes carefully links what he has to say with the religious traditions of his hearers, showing how those traditions have provided the basis for the progress that his teaching represents. It must be said that this caring and careful approach is not always shared by teachers who are powerfully aware of the shortcomings of religion but either cannot or will not balance their attacks upon it with something better upon which their readers can base their approach to life. Yet in the end it is the alternative that matters; if that is clearly understood perhaps religious other-worldliness may be left to die naturally away.