Myth-Busting the Christian Right- page 2

We can never know with any certainty whether or not Jesus claimed to be divine, since he didn’t sit down and write on that topic, or any other.What we can know, from reading what evangelists recorded about his life and teachings, is that his ethic was not reducible to exterior rules of normative behaviour, but emphasized the intention of the agent over catalogues of right and wrong acts.This is because actions in their external aspect tell us nothing about the motives behind them.To understand what a particular act means, we need to take human intentions into account.Westerners attempt to do something of this sort in our law courts. We establish guilt or innocence based on the interior aspects of a given act.This allows us, for instance, to distinguish between different acts of killing.One act of killing may be ‘premeditated murder’ while another may be ‘accidental homicide’ or ‘self-defense’.Likewise, Jesus made a radical distinction between the dirtiness or cleanliness of acts in themselves and the intent to do good or harm by means of those acts. This was a new approach, and threatened to undermine the Biblical method of proclaiming particular categories of actions as absolutely wrong, regardless of intent or circumstance.Jesus taught that Biblical laws needed to be flexible to adapt to the human situation.

If Christianity has failed to make a radical departure from the Pharisaic Jewish modus operandi (which was oriented towards scriptural legalism) then we have St. Paul to thank. ‘Christian’ talk radio hosts do not quote the Synoptic gospels. The Synoptic gospels would contradict not only their theocratic posturing, but also their political agenda. Can you imagine a talk radio host quoting Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek”? Sayings like “He who is without sin among you, cast the first stone” or “The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath” or “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” would be incompatible with the theocratic agenda.Instead they quote Paul.

Jesus was never a Christian.He died a Jew. Christianity was founded by St. Paul and did not exist until approximately twenty years after Jesus’ death. As historian Paul Johnson has noted, it was Paul who insisted that Jesus was God.[1]This insistence on the divinity of Jesus, says Johnson, is the only thing that really matters, otherwise the Pauline theology collapses, and with it Christianity. The divinity of Jesus is crucial to maintaining theocratic authority.If Jesus was a human being who set the supreme example of human virtue, then his followers could strive to imitate him. But Pauline Christianity rests upon the doctrine that this is impossible.By making Jesus into an instrument of God’s agency Paul was able to preserve the myth that human free will, unassisted by God, cannot bring about any good.This move preserved the mediating function of the theocratic authorities, and protected the theocratic form of government from the immanent threat of democracy.

On one level, St. Paul appears to acknowledge a dualism in human nature between Spirit and flesh. But in fact Paul’s premise is that humans can will the good but they cannot do it. Spirit is not something within humanity, it is a gift from God. Human will is weak and cannot overcome the sinful passions of the flesh. This, of course, makes nonsense of human moral agency.Having established this monistic and deterministic model of human nature, Paul goes on to assert a cosmic dualism between human nature (sin) and divine nature (redemption). It is only because humans accept their utter moral impotence that they have to depend on an external authority for salvation (grace).This pessimistic picture of human nature flies in the face of the modern, dualistic Cartesian picture of rational human subjectivity and responsibility that was in vogue when America’s founding fathers were drafting the Constitution.[2]Their assumption was that human nature is a product of human agency. Humans become virtuous or vicious through their own choices, not through the past sins of Adam and Eve.

In the early part of the nineteenth century Thomas Jefferson began the first of two New Testament studies, which he called ‘The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth’.Almost two decades later he completed his version of ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English’. Jefferson’s primary interest was not so much in investigating the historical Jesus as in identifying the philosophical essence of the religion of the Gospels. Although he was aware that the teachings of Jesus had been subjected to much editing and commentary, Jefferson believed that the fragments remaining reflected a profound teacher, whose “system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime. . . ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers.” In 1803, Jefferson wrote in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush:

 

“[Jesus'] character and doctrines have received still greater

injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples,

and who have disfigured and sophistacated his actions and

precepts, from views of personal interest, . . . “

 

Jefferson was convinced that the real villain in the Christian story was the self-appointed apostle Paul, who had corrupted the religion of Jesus by making it into a religion about Jesus.Jefferson felt that the Pauline teaching, in conjunction with the supernatural outlook of the Fourth Gospel, had produced the perversions of dogma, superstition, and priestcraft, which had become tantamount to Christian orthodoxy.Jefferson blamed “the corruption of [Jesus'] schismatising followers” for the fact that many were throwing out the baby of the gospels with the bathwater of the Pauline perversions.Jefferson attempted to revive the authentic teachings of Jesus of Nazareth by wresting them away from the distortions and allowing them to speak for themselves.

If liberals are more sympathetic to secular humanism than to Christian doctrine it is because Christian scripture is ambivalent in its view of human nature, and second, because Christian doctrine has over-emphasized Paul’s pessimistic construction of human nature.The latter makes nonsense of moral responsibility, because it posits a deterministic model of human nature that is inconsistent with human experience, moral exhortation and human reason.Jesus’ system of morality, which most liberals greatly admire, conflicts with the misanthropy expressed in Pauline doctrine. Jesus’ ethical teachings are more consistent with the values of enlightenment humanism than with Biblical theocracy, which Jesus spent his career assailing.

‘Christianity’ is an abstract concept badly in need of analysis and definition.The Christian right have assumed, with little argument, that Pauline doctrine is more important to ‘Christianity’ than the teachings and traditions about Jesus, where they conflict.

 

5,215 words

 

© 2006 by Terri Murray.All rights reserved.No portion of this manuscript may be reproduced in any form without the written consent of the author.

 

Terri Murray holds a Master of Theology Degree from Heythrop College, University of London. She is co-author of Moral Panic: Exposing the Religious Right’s Agenda on Sexuality (London:Cassell, 1995). She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Social and Contextual Theology at Brookes University, Oxford.Her articles have been published in Philosophy Now magazine, Tikkun magazine, Journal of Social Philosophy, and others.She is an American who presently resides in London, UK.

 


[1] in his A History of Christianity (New York, Macmillan), 1976.

[2] Feminisms observe that patriarchal societies have represented the body as the locus of sin, equating embodiment with femininity and reason with masculinity.Consequently, they reject the privileging of reason, and emphasize embodiment as the vehicle through which knowing takes place. In my opinion this feminist approach concedes too much to patriarchy. In accepting patriarchy’s masculinizing of reason, and then demonizing it or demoting it vis-à-vis embodiment, feminists ally themselves with political and social conservatives, who tend to be suspicious of reason, favoring tradition and forms of social Darwinism.

Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Resource Types: Articles.

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