This will be my last post for a while dealing with the question of whether Jesus’ ethics can be translated from his own mythological context of Jewish apocalyptic thought into the modern world that is based (for me at least) on a completely different view of life, meaning, and reality. In my last post I indicated that I thought that it was indeed possible to make this kind of translation if one wants to. But I ended by asking why one – or rather I – would want to. That is, why focus on Jesus in particular?
I don’t think I want to do so because I think that Jesus is “the greatest ethical teacher of all time.” I have no idea if this is even a contest that can be won, and even if it is, I am not qualified to evaluate Jesus in relation to other great ethical teachers so as to declare him a winner. So that seems to me to be a dead end.
So why Jesus?
I don’t have a compelling answer, but I do have one that – for now, at least – seems acceptable to me. I should preface this by saying that I do *not* and never *will* maintain that anyone should have an exclusive focus on Jesus’ teachings, any more than on the teachings of Socrates, Epictetus, Montaigne, or Thoreau. I love to read 19th century novels, mainly because I do indeed find their moral lessons worthy of learning and because I find that they ennoble my spirit and make me want to be a better person, whether I’m reading Austen, the Bronte sisters (all three!), Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or – well, pick your great author! And I think that one could build an ethical life on the basis of such writers.
But I do also think that the teachings of Jesus can contribute to making people better and society better. That itself should be reason not to ignore Jesus. Why would anyone insist that you ignore Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot? If we wouldn’t insist on this, why should we insist on ignoring Jesus? Or Seneca? Or the author of Ecclesiastes?
But why pick Jesus in particular, at least, as ONE of the figures to focus on? For me there is an issue of reality and an issue of practicality.
In terms of reality, my reality is this: I was raised in a Christian culture, in a Christian household, and in a Christian environment. That is the world I emerged from. Why should I reject everything from my past, everything that had a formative influence on me, simply because I have moved on? My world has been shaped by the Christian tradition whether I like it or not, and I am who I am in no small part because of the Christian tradition, whether I like it or not. As it turns out, I rather do like it, even though I am no longer in any identifiable sense a Christian. I think there is a lot to be said about the Christian tradition, even though I’m not in it. And it is the tradition that has most affected me.
I should stress: it is IMPOSSIBLE to be raised OUTSIDE of a tradition. And EVERYONE is shaped by the tradition they are raised in, whether they think so, want it be so, wish it were not so, or not. Finding what is good in one’s tradition surely is a noble way of being human.
In terms of practicality, my practicality is this: I am a New Testament scholar. What do I know best? The New Testament. This is where I live, move, and have my being. I study, teach it, and write about it for a living. And so why *not* celebrate aspects of it (while, of course, rejecting whole heartedly other aspects of it)? I am a scholar who specializes, among other things, in the historical Jesus. Why would I ignore what I know most about when trying to determine what I believe and how I should live?
Let me put it in the shortest form I can. Jesus held to a mythological view that said that the world as we know it was soon to end, that God was soon to intervene in history in a cataclysmic show of power to destroy the forces of evil and bring in a kingdom in which the righteous would be rewarded. In that kingdom life would be perfect – and those who wanted to inherit that kingdom needed to begin implementing its ideals in the present. In the kingdom there will be no war and so people should strive for peace now; there will be hatred and so people should love one another now; there will be no demonic forces and so people should oppose the demons now; there will be no illness and so people should heal the sick now; there will be no loneliness and so people should visit those who are isolated now; there will be no oppression and so people should work for justice now.
I myself think Jesus was completely wrong about his mythological view (just as, in 2000 years, people will think that my 21st century American ideology is completely wrong). The apocalypse never arrived and was never *going* to arrive. There never was to be a cataclysmic break in history, never was to be a destruction of the forces of evil, never was to be a utopian kingdom here on earth.
At the same time, I myself have a vision of a perfect world, the world that I would like there to be. It’s a lot like the world Jesus imagined, but without a messiah to rule it and without God to bring it in. It too is a world without poverty and homelessness and oppression and injustice and greed and backstabbing and violence and hatred and war; a world where people who suffer from natural disasters receive fast and sufficient relief; a world where climate change is brought under control, where all people – whether gay, straight, black, white, young, old – have equal rights. I don’t think this world will ever come, but I believe in it. And if I imitate the teachings of Jesus, I will strive for it. I will work to feed the hungry and house the homeless, I will work for peace and justice; I will advocate for fairness and for the impoverished and oppressed and slighted; I will visit the sick and lonely; I will push for policies that avoid and prevent war and that do not destroy the planet. And so on and on. This would be Jesus’ ethic transposed into a 21st century key. And I guess at the end of the day, it’s an ethic I believe in.