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!

Standard