Ask Me Anything, Religion

What do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

Leah asked:

Simply curious: what do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

This is where I’m supposed to say that even though I don’t believe he’s the son of a god, I do think he was highly enlightened and was one of the great spiritual teachers of history.

But that’s not exactly what I think.

First off, I should disclose my bias. For a long time I felt that Christianity as a whole was fundamentally flawed, and that Jesus’ teachings did more harm than good. I no longer believe that, and I’ve tried to distance myself from that former hostility toward Christianity.

However, for many people the damage that’s been done by Christianity as an institution outweighs the good that Jesus did. Obviously, there’s a difference between Jesus Christ the individual and Christianity the religion, and he didn’t directly found any of the churches. Even so, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to be gun shy. When a person creates a movement that goes on to do awful things they have to bear at least part of the responsibility. And if you’ve been on the receiving end of a church’s bile and rhetoric, it’s not much consolation to know that their founding father was a swell guy.

So, to anyone out there who has a very bad taste in their mouth about Christianity: I understand.

I personally however have warmed up on Jesus. I’m intrigued by alternative readings of his teachings. For example, in this amazing podcast theologian Don Cupitt argues that Jesus was a radical humanist. He bases his argument entirely on Jesus’ actual sayings in the Gospels rather than any of the rest of the Bible. If that’s accurate then Jesus and I agree on a lot of things.

Rarely, I’ve also seen people truly live by his example and it really is a marvelous thing to behold.

(For a delightful, irreverent book that combines both of these things—Jesus as radical humanist and people daring to actually follow his example—I highly recommend A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost.)

A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost

Anyway, on to my thoughts.

I’m a polytheist. That means I believe the divine appears with many faces, and that there’s value in relating to them as a plurality. Likewise, as a polytheist I believe we need a plurality of beliefs and doctrines as well. We need them because no one religious structure will reach everybody. So I’m in favor of embracing multiple gods, multiple doctrines and multiple religious organizations—as all polytheists should be.

In my view then there’s no reason to exclude Jesus. I realize that many polytheists will hiss to hear me say that—monotheism! forced conversion! universalism! But as a committed polytheist, if the teachings of Jesus speak to people, I don’t see why they aren’t just as good an addition to the pantheon as the teachings of Apollo or Dionysus.

And his teachings are valuable. As far as I can tell, Jesus’ main message promotes a sort of deep and committed selflessness, not just love and forgiveness but a commitment to love and forgiveness so deep that they can stop the cycle of violence and revenge. Jesus, like Socrates, challenged an eye-for-eye moral system and taught people to put each other first, to be the first ones to put down their swords.

That teaching was, I think, fairly novel in ancient Europe. (Socrates taught something similar, and was also killed for it.) I admit I get rankled when people pretend that Classical religion was all brutish and awful before Christianity. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a concept of charity, they valued generosity and kindness, and they had a beautiful moral system based on striving for virtue. But did they have a sense of selfless mercy, or forgiveness for the sake of peace? If they did, it wasn’t prominent.

Other polytheist systems, like Hinduism, already have a concept of this kind of compassion; no outside messiah is needed. (Jesus is neatly folded into Hinduism as an avatar of Vishnu, the god who incarnates as a mortal to guide and help humankind.) But I don’t see that kind of selfless compassion in Classical ethics—nor Celtic or Germanic ethics. Compassion and kindness were reserved for one’s friends or countrymen, never for one’s enemies.

A lot of other ideas got mixed into early Christianity—Heaven and Hell, meekness, the resurrection—that are terrible whether they came from Jesus or not. But to the extent that we can separate Jesus’ teaching of compassion from all the rest of it, I believe he made a much needed addition to Western religion.

Happy Christmas, all of you who celebrate it. I hope it’s a wonderful, magical day and a time for reflection on how to be the people we imagine we are.

Tomorrow, if you can pull yourself away from the festivities, I’ll be unveiling a major new development in my quest for the heroic life. I hope you’ll take the time to read it and offer critique.

Happy holidays!


7 thoughts on “What do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

  1. Beth says:

    Oh my gosh, I could write a book about this. I will try to contain myself.

    I am personally Christian, although liberal enough in my theology that many Christians would deny me any right to that name (as you will see below). Luckily, they don’t get any say in the matter. But I don’t blame anyone who has, as you put it so well, a bad taste in their mouth about Christianity. That’s certainly understandable – it’s history is UGLY. But I think its present can be inspiring, as well.

    One theological perspective that I and many liberal Christians take is one of looking at the historical Jesus. This means you look at what scholars consider to be Jesus’ most likely sayings (versus things attributed to him later), and you also investigate the historical situation in which they were found. One of my favorite examples is the ubiquitous “turn the other cheek” teaching. This has been used to various horrible effects, including telling women to stay in abusive relationships. Historical study tells us a different story. Imagine someone slaps your left cheek with their right hand, which would be standard for striking someone (the left hand is evil and all that). If you immediately turn the other cheek, they would have to hit it backhanded in order to strike you again. In that time and culture, backhanding someone was a specific kind of insult. Turning the other cheek isn’t just being meek; it’s actually a form of very powerful non-violence resistance. It basically says “Really? Are you willing to do THIS to me?” The same kind of historical contexts apply to many stories in the Gospels – but we’ve lost their meaning in modern society. Kind of important stuff to uncover.

    As it’s almost Christmas, I will also share one other historical Jesus item. From a historical perspective, the birth stories of Jesus are not about literal truth. “Son of God’ was a regular claim made of Greek leaders. So was “born of a virgin,” for that matter. This stuff isn’t about “how did Mary get pregnant without having sex.” They were used in a time when those particular claims had a resonance with their audiences – a resonance that said, “This baby is going to be important, the way that your political leaders are important.” They were “Harry Potter Truth” – the deeper truth that does not rely on historical accuracy. Unfortunately, the post-Enlightenment world isn’t very good at understanding that kind of truth.

    So, for some of us, what this all means is that a poor, non-white, regular little baby became someone who taught us about the love of God, and what it looks like to live that love. It looks like living a hard life, being tempted and overcoming that temptation, and being killed by the state because you scare the powers that be witless. No honest person will ever claim that they live this every day – it’s something we struggle to understand, struggle to apply, and struggle to live. It’s an inspiration that comforts us when we are hurting, but also challenges us every day to be better people and show the love of God to all people.

    That’s how I think of it, anyway. Plenty would disagree with me, but I’ve also found plenty who agree.

    Happy Solstice, Hannukah, Christmas, and all other holidays to all of you. This is a time of rejoicing that dark is turning to light, just as we believe that the arc of history bends towards justice. As we say at the closing of services at my church, “LIfe is short, and we haven’t much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us along the way. Therefore, be quick to love, make haste to be kind, and the blessing of (G)(g)od(s) goes with us.”

    • I’m guessing the closing of your church services doesn’t actually mention Big-G little-g god or gods :) But I warmly appreciate the gesture and everything meant by it.

      Thanks for this Beth. I’ll just add a little perspective on the holiday of Midwinter (solstice as you put it). It is a time of rejoicing that dark is turning into light, but for those of us who celebrate it, this isn’t really akin to the arc of history bending toward justice. That implies that the darkness of winter represents injustice and the light of the sun represents justice. But in six months we have an equally important holiday, one where the sun begins to fade and the darkness begins to return. That holiday is equally sacred and equally joyful – and also celebrated with light (traditionally in Ireland there are bonfires on every hilltop). For us the deeper lesson is that there is light in darkness and darkness in light, that the universe comprises both extremes and both are not just natural, but sacred and essential; that we are part of this holy universe with all its heights and depths and that to find happiness we must embrace both.

      Much love and a merry Christmas to you.

      • Beth says:

        Well said, and totally fair. And although Christianity doesn’t have a midsummer holiday, many Christians will express similar sentiments. Darkness is not just bad; it represents rest, it represents the learning and transformation that growth that happen during hard times, and more. Thanks for balancing that out for me.

        • Christianity does have a midsummer holiday, actually – St. John’s Day, which absorbed almost all of the prechristian Midsummer associations and customs. The annual bonfires in Ireland, for example, were rolled over directly from Midsummer to St. John’s day along with lots of other traditions. And every year there is a massive Vodou ceremony at St. John’s Bayou in New Orleans on his day. Just a few examples.

      • Beth says:

        Oh – and the saying my church uses is from someone else, and I suspect we added the “God” reference on ourselves. So I feel no qualms at re-editing. :)

  2. Kenneth W. Johnson says:

    You routinely go where most people would never go: Geographically, spiritually, intellectually, and economically. Again you never cease to amaze me. Merry Christmas 🎄 It is 38 degrees here.

    • Merry Christmas to you Ken!

      Interestingly, when you posted this comment it was about 38 degrees here in Xalapa… and rainy. It struck me how Corpus-esque the weather is now that I’m back on the Gulf coast.

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