Paul P. Mealing

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Monday, 4 January 2010

Jesus' philosophy

Normally, I wouldn’t look twice at a book with the title, Jesus & Philosophy, but when the author’s name is Don Cupitt, that changes everything. In September last year, I reviewed his book, Above Us Only Sky (under a post titled The Existential God) which is effectively a manifesto on the ‘religion of ordinary life’ to use his own words.

Cupitt takes a very scholarly approach to his topic, referencing The Gospel of Jesus, which arose from the ‘Jesus Seminar’ (1985 to 1995). And, in fact, Cupitt dedicates the book to the seminar’s founder, Robert W. Funk. He also references a document called ‘Q’. For those, like myself, who’ve never heard of Q, I quote Cupitt himself:

“Q, it should be said in parenthesis here, is the term used by Gospel critics to describe a hypothetical sayings-Gospel, written somewhere between the years 50 and 70 CE, and drawn upon extensively by both Matthew and Luke.”

Cupitt is a most unusual theologian in that he has all but disassembled orthodox Christian theology, and he now sees himself more as a philosopher. The overarching thesis of his book, is that Jesus was the first humanist. From anyone else, this could be dismissed as liberal-theological claptrap, but Cupitt is not anyone else; he commands you to take him seriously by the simple merit of his erudition and his lack of academic pretension or arrogance. You don’t have to agree with him but you can’t dismiss him as a ratbag either.

Many people, these days, even question whether Jesus ever existed. Stephen Law, has posed the question more than once on his blog, but, besides provoking intelligent debate, he’s merely revealed how little we actually know. Cupitt doesn’t even raise this question; he assumes that there was an historical Jesus in the same way that we assume there was an historical Buddha, who, like Jesus, kept no records of his teachings. In fact, Cupitt makes this very same comparison. He argues that Jesus’ sayings, like the Buddha’s, would have been remembered orally before anyone wrote them down, and later narratives were attached to them, which became the gospels we know today. He doesn’t question that the biblical stories are fictional, but he believes that behind them was a real person, whose teachings have been perverted by the long history of the Church. He doesn’t use that term, but I do, because it’s what I’ve long believed. The distortion, if not the perversion, was started by Paul, who is the single most responsible person for the concept of Jesus as saviour or messiah that we have today.
I actually disagree with Stephen Law’s thesis, and I’ve contended it on his blog, because a completely fictional Jesus doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If you are going to create a fictional saviour (who is a Deity) then why make him a mortal first and why make him a complete failure, which he was. On the other hand, deifying a mortal after their death at the hands of their enemy, to become a saviour for an oppressed people, makes a lot of sense. A failure in mortal flesh becomes a messiah in a future kingdom beyond death.

Also if Jesus is completely fictional, who was the original author? The logical answer is Paul, but records of Jesus precede Paul, so Paul must have known he was fictional, if that was the case. I’m not an expert in this area, but Cupitt is not the first person to make a distinction between a Jesus who took on the Church of his day and stood up for the outcast and disenfranchised in his society, and Paul’s version, who both knew and prophesied that he was the ‘Son of God’. H.G. Wells in his encyclopedic book, The Outline of History (written after WWI), remarks similarly on a discontinuity in the Jesus story as we know it.

But all this speculation is secondary, though not irrelevant, to Cupitt’s core thesis. Cupitt creates a simple imagery concerning the two conflicting strands of morality, theistic and humanistic, as being vertical and horizontal. The vertical strand comes straight from God or Heaven, which makes it an unassailable authority, and the horizontal strand stems from the human ‘heart’.

His argument, in essence, is that Jesus’ teachings, when analysed, appealed to the heart, not to God’s authority, and, in this respect, he had more in common with Buddha and Confucius than to Moses or Abraham or David. In fact, more than once, Cupitt likens Jesus to an Eastern sage (his words) who drew together a group of disciples, and through examples and teachings, taught a simple philosophy, not only of reciprocity, but of forgiveness.

In fact, Cupitt contends that reciprocity was not Jesus’ core teaching, and, even in his Preface, before he gets into the body of his text, he quotes from the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ to make his point: “If you do good to those who do good to you, what merit is there in that?” (Gospel of Jesus, 7.4; Q/Luke 7.33). Cupitt argues that one of Jesus’ most salient messages was to break the cycle of violence that afflicts all of humanity, and which we see, ironically, most prominently demonstrated in modern day Palestine.

Cupitt uses the term 'ressentiment' to convey this peculiar human affliction: the inability to let go of a grievance, especially when it involves a loved one, but also when it involves more amorphous forms of identity, like nation or race or creed (see my post on Evil, Oct. 07). According to Cuppit, “Jesus says: ‘Don’t let yourself be provoked into ressentiment by the prosperity of the wicked. Instead, be magnanimous, and teach yourself to see in it the grace of God, giving them time to repent. Too many people who have seen the blood of the innocent crying out for vengeance have allowed themselves to develop the revolting belief in a sadistic and vengeful God.’” (Cupitt doesn’t give a reference for this ‘saying’, however.)

I don’t necessarily agree with Cupitt’s conclusion that Jesus is the historical ‘hinge’ from the vertical strand to the horizontal strand, which is the case he makes over 90 odd pages. I think there have been others, notably Gautama Siddhartha (Buddha) and Confucius, who were arguably just as secular as Jesus was, and preceded him by 500 years, though their spheres of influence were geographically distinct from Jesus’.

Obviously, I haven’t covered all of Cupitt’s thesis, including references to Plato and Kant, and the historical relationship between the vertical and horizontal strands of morality. He makes compelling arguments that Jesus has long been misrepresented by the Church, in particular, that Jesus challenged his society’s dependence on dogmatic religious laws.

One interesting point Cupitt makes, almost as a side issue, is that it was the introduction of the novel that brought humanist morality into intellectual discourse. Novels, and their modern derivatives in film and television, have invariably portrayed moral issues as being inter-human not God-human. As Cupitt remarks, you will go a long way before you will find a novel that portrays morality as being God-given. Even so-called religious writers, like Graham Greene and Morris West, were always analysing morality through human interaction (Greene was a master of the moral dilemma) and if God entered one of their narratives, ‘He’ was an intellectual concept, not a character in the story.

There is one aspect of Jesus that Cupitt doesn’t address, and it’s the fact that so many Christians claim to have a personal relationship with him. This, of course, is not isolated to Jesus. I know people who claim to have a personal relationship with Quan Yin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) and others claim a relationship with the Madonna and others with Allah and others with Yahweh and so on. So what is all this? This phenomena, so widespread, has fascinated me all my life, and the simple answer is that it’s a projection. There is nothing judgmental in this hypothesis. My reasoning is that for every individual, the projection is unique. Everyone who believes in this inner Jesus has their own specific version of him. I don’t knock this, but, as I’ve said before, the Deity someone believes in says more about them than it says about the Deity. If this Deity represents all that is potentially good in humanity then there is no greater aspiration.

In the beginning of Cupitt’s book, even before the Preface, he presents William Blake’s poem, The Divine Image. In particular, I like the last verse, which could sum up Cupitt’s humanist thesis.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

In other words, God represents the feeling we have for all of humanity, which is not only subjective, but covers every possible attribute. If you believe in a vengeful, judgmental God, then you might not have a high opinion of humanity, but if you believe in a forgiving and loving God, then maybe that’s where your heart lies. As for those who claim God is both, then I can only assume they are as schizoid in their relationships as their Deity is.


dwight said...

Jesus was a Humanist philosopher teaching his species how to adapt to the new urban reality around the Med.

His story was "sold" like most Arab tales as oral traditions liberally laced with hyperbole. You can say the same about Muhammed, Krishna, Buddha.

All of them ethical philosophers addressing the fact that agriculture and cities were displacing the hunter-gatherer societies that had preceded them.

What was obvious to some had to be made explicit to all.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Dwight, for your comment.

Regards, Paul.

larryniven said...

That's quite an interesting point about the novel. I think maybe GK Chesterton stands as a counterexample, but that's about all I can come up with. (Although it's not like I go out looking for fiction written from a traditional religious perspective, so...)

Paul P. Mealing said...

Yes, I found it an interesting point as well, and one I hadn't come across before, which is why I mentioned it on the sidelines so to speak.

I'm still curious as to what similarities or parallels you believe you have found between me and Hesse.

You've probably seen this debate on Stephen Law's blog. It would be interesting to see a debate between Prof. Russell Cowburn and Cupitt. What it reveals is that you can't really debate the Bible, or any aspect of it, with people who take it literally as 'Gospel'.

Regards, Paul.

Paul C said...

Hi Paul

Sorry I have taken a while to get back to you. One of the reasons is that I read your blog once and became hooked on it. But I wanted to go back over it again to take more of it in. I must say in many ways it is very consistent with much of my own current thinking, although I would never have used the construct of a vertical and horizontal axis. I am still mulling on that. Cuppitt's articulation of Paul's role is interesting, and after some thought I am inclined to agree. I am not sure how to do this, but when I have a little more time, I'd like to have the text in front of me and make a time to meet with you over coffee and discuss it.

Thank you also for the Sarah Phillip's interview. I really enjoyed it. I was very impressed with her experience and knowledge, and her restraint in taking black and white positions.

Regards Paul C

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Paul,

I'll lend you the book next time I see you.

I appreciate your scholarly opinion, and I'll post this correspondence on the blog.

Happy New Year by the way for 2010.

Best regards, Paul to Paul.

Steve said...

I'm quite liking Cupitt and appreciate your review of this book here. Regarding the existence of a historical Jesus, you suggest a completely fictional Jesus might have been created by Paul, except “records of Jesus precede Paul." Out of curiosity, what records naming Jesus are older than Paul's letters, in your view? Thanks!

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Steve,

I'm assuming that the apostles were written prior to Paul, but I may be wrong - I'm neither a theologian nor an historian. Having said that, I think I can safely say that, without Paul, Jesus would not be the religious icon we know today.

Have you read Cupitt's Above Us Only Sky?

Regards, Paul.

Steve said...

I think most scholars would date Paul's authentic letters as earliest, mostly in the 50's CE, followed by the gospels a few decades later -- 'Mark' around 70 through 'John' around 100. An early version of the hypothesized Q document containing sayings of Jesus may have existed during Paul's lifetime, but he gives no hint of knowing it. Paul's letters offer only the sketchiest of details about the historical Jesus: just a half-dozen biographical notes and a detailed description of the Last Supper. Otherwise Paul's emphasis is on his own visionary experience of the resurrected Christ and its theological meaning for the salvation of the world. It was left to later writers to shape the few known biographical details and sayings, together with their nascent and (perhaps) differing theologies, into narrative or epic forms. I think you're right that Paul's vision ultimately dominated and colors how later readers read the gospels as well.

As for Don Cupitt, I've consumed several books and interviews and find his work quite persuasive and his manner winsome and accessible. His theology -- supernatural non-realist, non-theistic, Christian humanism -- sounds about right to me, and I'm inspired by his philosophy of 'solar living'. I highly recommend him. Here's a link to his outline for a Religion of Ordinary Life from this book, as you mentioned. Thanks!

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Steve,

You're probably right about Paul and the gospels - I'm not an expert, as I said.
You may be interested in my other post on Cupitt:
(Sorry, I've forgotten how to create links the hard way).

Paul P. Mealing said...

I'll give it a go. Try this.
It works.