Yesterday I explained why, in my own opinion, I can no longer consider myself a Christian, and I received a lot of responses: some sympathetic, others not so sympathetic; some seeing the point and others disagreeing.
One particular disagreement gets to the heart of what I was trying to say. Several people (OK, lots of people) have commented that if I follow the ethical teachings of Jesus that in that sense I really am a Christian and might as well admit it. Part of me agrees with that – it’s what I’ve long thought – but what I came to realize yesterday during my class lecture is that there is a strong sense in which that is also not true. Here I’ll try to explain.
I do indeed try to adhere to the ethical teachings of Jesus as I see them. He himself summarized the entire Torah of Moses by stating two principal commandments. The first was Deuteronomy 6:4-6, that you should love God with all your heart, soul, and being. OK, I don’t follow that one because I don’t believe in God. But it’s not a directly ethical statement in any event (except to the extent that one loves God, in large part, by how one lives one’s life). The second was Leviticus 19:18, that you should love your neighbor as yourself. That’s getting to the core of ethics.
For Jesus, love was to be the major guiding factor of one’s life. Originally the commandment in Leviticus referred to how Israelites should live together in their Israelite community. The “neighbor” was your fellow Israelite. You were to love – that is, treat – your Israelite neighbor as yourself. That didn’t mean you were supposed to love/treat anyone else that way. On the contrary, you were supposed to *kill* the Canaanites, Moabites, and Midianites. But your fellow Israelite you were to love as yourself.
Jesus had a broader vision, as I understand him. Your neighbor included even your worst enemies. You were to love them as you love yourself. And what exactly does that mean?
It’s debated of course (what isn’t?). But I think Jesus had a very simple understanding of it. You feed yourself, so you should feed anyone else who is hungry; you clothe yourself, so you should clothe anyone who is lacking; you provide shelter for yourself, so you should help those who are homeless. You should be as concerned for the welfare of others as you are concerned for your own welfare.
The other way Jesus expressed the same (or roughly the same) idea was in the Golden Rule, an ethical principle endorsed by numerous other ethical teachers both before and after Jesus. Normally the Golden Rule was expressed negatively: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” Jesus, though, expressed it positively, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The positive way of expressing the saying is much more difficult than the negative since it requires action: doing things that are helpful rather than simply not doing things that are harmful.
I deeply admire both these summaries of Jesus’ ethical teachings (“Love your neighbor” and “Do unto others”). But I also have two problems with them. The first is practical and the other is theoretical. They both strike me as rather severe.
The practical one is that I really don’t practice either principle. I don’t really love my neighbor as myself. It’s true that I am deeply concerned about the hungry and homeless and I donate a good deal of my resources, time, and money to help those in need – including doing this blog for no other reason (for me) than to raise as much money as I can for these causes. But do I really do everything I can? Not even close. I live in a fantastic, large, and amazing house; I own other property; I drive a very nice car; I buy lots of nice clothes, and I spend a lot of money on travel. I absolutely am not one who has given up everything for the kingdom. Not even close. If there is a future judgment scene with the separation of the sheep and the goats, I can pretty well imagine the cosmic judge saying, “What the hell were you thinking???”
The theoretical problem is one I’ve thought about a lot over the years but is the thing that really hit me yesterday. Jesus’ ethics were completely grounded in a view of the world that I simply don’t have. Jesus believed the history of this world was very soon to come to a crashing halt, that God was soon to intervene to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom here on earth, a utopian existence in which there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering. Followers of Jesus were supposed to implement the ideals of that kingdom in the here and now.
In the kingdom there would be no war, so Jesus’ followers were to be peacemakers now; in the kingdom, there would be no hatred, so Jesus’ followers were to live lives of pure love now; in the kingdom, there would be no hunger, so Jesus’ followers were to work to alleviate hunger now; in the kingdom, there would be no illness, so Jesus’ followers were to heal the sick now; and so on.
These ethical principles were predicated on the apocalyptic idea that God was ultimately sovereign over this world, and he was very soon to reassert his sovereignty by destroying all the powers of evil opposed to him and establishing an eternal kingdom here and now. The meaning of life in the mundane present was determined by the transcendent reality that was to become manifest in the near future.
I don’t believe any of that. I don’t think there is a divine realm above our realm. I don’t think that God exists, let alone that he grounds the meaning of existence. I don’t think that there will be a supernatural intervention in the course of human affairs in which all that is evil will be destroyed and all suffering and misery will be removed from the human realm. I don’t think there is a kingdom of God coming.
But Jesus’ entire ethics were completely predicated on the coming kingdom of God. And so even though I do try (in a small way) to follow the ethical principles of Jesus, it is for *entirely* different reasons. If I happen to follow and admire some of the principles of Buddhism (for example, I meditate) that doesn’t make me a Buddhist; and if I happen to follow and admire some of the principles of Jesus, that doesn’t make me a Christian. That, at least, is how I’m thinking about it at the moment.