Saturday, August 01, 2009

In Hoc Signo Vinces


"Turn the other cheek," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "As you have done to the least of my brethren, so have you done unto me" are hardly pro-torture slogans. But in the hearts and minds of movement conservatives, not even Churchill, Saint Ronnie or Jesus himself can compete with the comforting violence of Jack Bauer.

- Battochio

Essays like this would be much better if they could leave out the dishearteningly inevitable appeals to the authority of a certain ancient demagogue. Scrutamini scripturas!

From J.L. Mackie's The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God:

Richard Robinson has examined the synoptic gospels as the best evidence for Jesus's own teaching, and he finds in them five major precepts: "love God, believe in me, love man, be pure in heart, be humble." The reasons given for these precepts are "a plain matter of promises and threats": they are "that the kingdom of heaven is at hand," and that "those who obey these precepts will be rewarded in heaven, while those who disobey will have weeping and gnashing of teeth." Robinson notes that "Certain ideals that are prominent elsewhere are rather conspicuously absent from the synoptic gospels." These include beauty, truth, knowledge and reason:

As Jesus never recommends knowledge, so he never recommends the virtue that seeks and leads to knowledge, namely reason. On the contrary, he regards certain beliefs as in themselves sinful...whereas it is an essential part of the ideal of reason to hold that no belief can be morally wrong if reached in the attempt to believe truly. Jesus again and again demands faith; and by faith he means believing certain very improbable things without considering evidence or estimating probabilities, and that is contrary to reason.

Robinson adds:

Jesus says nothing on any social question except divorce, and all ascriptions of any political doctrine to him are false. He does not pronounce about war, capital punishment, gambling, justice, the administration of law, the distribution of goods, socialism, equality of income, equality of sex, equality of colour, equality of opportunity, tyranny, freedom, slavery, self-determination, or contraception. There is nothing Christian about being for any of these things, nor about being against them, if we mean by "Christian" what Jesus taught according to the synoptic gospels.

And let's not forget that his famous love of man seems to have only obtained if you define "man" as "fellow Jew", not Gentiles.

What about the historical Jesus? What do we know about him?

It's popular to say he said the good stuff and not the less good stuff. I think it's the opposite.

He's typically seen as the great prophet of peace and love.

Yeah. But the fact is, the Sermon on the Mount, which is a beautiful thing, does not appear in Mark, which was the first written gospel. And these views are not attributed to Jesus in the letters of Paul, which are the earliest post-crucifixion documents we have. You see Paul develop a doctrine of universal love, but he's not, by and large, attributing this stuff to Jesus. So, too, with "love your enemies." Paul says something like love your enemies, but he doesn't say Jesus said it. It's only in later gospels that this stuff gets attributed to Jesus. This will seem dispiriting to some people to hear that Jesus wasn't the great guy we thought he was. But to me, it's actually more inspiring to think that the doctrines of transnational, transethnic love were products of a multinational, imperial platform. Throughout human history, as social organization grows beyond ethnic bounds, it comes to encompass diverse ethnicities and nations. And if it develops doctrines that bring us closer to moral truth, like universal love, that is encouraging. I think you see it in all three religions.

If Jesus was not the prophet of love and tolerance that he's commonly thought to be, what kind of person was he?

I think he was your typical Jewish apocalyptic preacher. I'm not the first to say that. Bart Ehrman makes these kinds of arguments, and it goes back to Albert Schweitzer. Jesus was preaching that the kingdom of God was about to come. He didn't mean in heaven. He meant God's going to come down and straighten things out on Earth. And he had the biases that you'd expect a Jewish apocalyptic preacher to have. He doesn't seem to have been all that enthusiastic about non-Jews. There's one episode where a woman who's not from Israel wants him to use his healing powers on her daughter. He's pretty mean and basically says, no, we don't serve dogs here. He compares her to a dog. In the later gospels, that conversation unfolds so you can interpret it as a lesson in the value of faith. But in the earliest treatment, in Mark, it's an ugly story. It's only because she accepts her inferior status that Jesus says, OK, I will heal your daughter.
But wasn't Jesus revolutionary because he made no distinctions between social classes? The poor were just as worthy as the rich.

It's certainly plausible that his following included poor people. But I don't think it extended beyond ethnic bounds. And I don't think it was that original. In the Hebrew Bible, you see a number of prophets who were crying out for justice on behalf of the poor. So it wasn't new that someone would have a constituency that includes the dispossessed. I'm sure in many ways Jesus was a laudable person. But I think more good things are attributed to him than really bear weight.

Why, it's almost like all he cared about was the supposed imminent end of the world! A fanatically anti-intellectual cult leader who demands unquestioning loyalty, even at the cost of alienating friends and family, who exults in the thought that anyone who rouses his resentment will suffer greatly in the new world order...you know, I don't think it's the conservatives who don't understand how to interpret his message.