Sunday, May 26, 2013
Face to face
Recently I went out for a drink with a friend who worries a lot about money. She worries so much, in fact, that she told me she'll only feel financially secure when she has about $80 000 dollars in savings. I said, 'Do you know that passage in the Bible?' (That's not something I say very often.) 'The bit about the lilies in the field?' I've sat through a lot of church services in my time.
'Look at the birds in the air', the passage runs. 'They do not sow or reap and store in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them...Consider how the lilies grow in the fields; they do not work, they do not spin; and yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of these...So do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself'.
It's not great financial advice. All the same, there's something true and valuable about the main idea it expresses: we constantly fall into the habit of worrying how we'll survive, and yet somehow usually do. (Except when we don't, in which case there's really nothing to worry about). In case you're wondering, the lines are spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, the 1st-century CE religious leader. (And the lines are at Matthew 6.19-34.)
That's a strange way of introducing him, of course, because most people know who he is. All the same, it's often useful to look at things that are familiar to us as if we were considering them for the first time. That was partly what led me to read through the whole of the Bible over the last three years. I've already written about the Old Testament, and now I've finished the New Testament too.
I thought the Old Testament was mostly really bad, in both the moral and aesthetic senses. Since I wrote about it, a few people have told me that I should have read it with a scholarly commentary or companion. And there's no doubt I would have gained a better knowledge of the text that way. But I didn't have time to do that. I also thought it might be interesting just to read the thing and see what struck me about it.
The New Testament is a lot better than the Old Testament, in both the aesthetic and moral senses. For a start, it's much shorter, taking up around 300 pages of my 1000-page Bible. It tells a coherent story, running from Jesus' life, through the early history of the movement he founded, to the writings of one of that movement's early leaders, Paul. It's a bit repetitive, but it's not a bad thing for historians that it includes four different versions of Jesus' life.
Jesus is a pretty nice guy, and his teachings have a lot of good in them. He thinks the peacemakers are blessed, wants us to love our enemies, and claims religion boils down to loving God and loving your neighbour. What he says at Luke 6.28-9 neatly encapsulates this side of Jesus: 'Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you.'
Jesus is also something of a revolutionary. Often this is a good thing: Jesus is impatient with pointless rules, and tells a rich man to sell all he owns and give his money to the poor. Sometimes, though, he can be a little unsettling. 'You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth', he says, strangely enough, at Matthew 10.34-6. 'I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a son's wife against her mother-in-law'.
In other words, he is complex. Despite all his talk of love and forgiveness, he occasionally loses it and talks about how sinners will be flung by angels into a burning furnace, 'the place of wailing and grinding of teeth' (Matthew 13.47-50). He also believes that he is the Messiah and the son of God.
But we are now in the murky territory of things the gospels attribute to Jesus, but which he might never have claimed to be true. All the gospels say that he was a miracle-worker, for example, and that he rose from the dead.
One element of his teaching that emerges clearly is his belief that the world will end sooner rather than later. To be precise, he believes that the world will end in the lifetime of some of his disciples. As he says to them, 'There are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the kingdom of God already come in power' (Mark 9.1).
That was what struck me about Jesus as described by the gospels. He's a religious leader with his heart in the right place but who also has a vengeful streak and who believes he's the son of God. His followers for whatever reason were inclined to attribute miracles to him. Finally, he explicitly predicts on several occasions that the world will end within the next century at the latest.
That looks like an example of a falsifiable claim that was falsified, but that didn't stop the early Christians. The Acts of the Apostles were for me the most unfamiliar and surprising part of the New Testament.
On the one hand, they're heartening, the story of the survival and growth of a tiny sect in the teeth of violent repression. The early Christians are simple folk, and live in a kind of commune: 'Not a man of them claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common' (4.32).
On the other hand, they can seem like a cult that comes under the increasing control of a violent and unscrupulous leadership. Peter kills two dissidents by miraculous agency (5.5-10), and claims the privilege of passing on God's word through the laying on of hands - a monoply he vigilantly protects (8.18-25).
Once we get to Paul, things have normalized somewhat. The Paul whose words we read in the letters is clearly the head of an organization, who is giving instructions to subordinates. At the same time, his advice is often wise, and always well expressed. The influence of Greek literature on his paradoxical prose style is noticeable; this is an educated man, learned and literate.
A lot of the highlighs I was read as a child were written by Paul, including the famous passage on charity (or love, depending on the translation: Cor. 13.1-14). He tells us that we brought nothing into the world and can take nothing out of it. He reminds us that we reap what we sow. He encourages us to be humble, helpful, and cheerful. In the best tradition of his master, he assures us that 'He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law' (Rom. 13.8).
In Paul's writings there is no trace of Jesus the revolutionary. Instead, Christianity emerges partly as a way of being stable and dependable. As he says, you are free to do anything - but not everything is for your good, including extra-marital sex (Cor. 6-12-20). Members of the Christian community should be honest and upright and religious teachers should lead especially blameless lives.
Paul's moralizing often spills over into condemnations. Women were made from men, and therfore should be subordinate; a woman preaching a sermon is an abomination; in fact, women should just be quiet (Cor. 11.8-9; 14.35; Tim. 2.12). Homosexuality is unnatural and will be punished (Rom. 1.26-7). All of these judgments are extremely clear in the text.
Those were my main impressions of the New Testament. (Revelations is just batshit.) What conclusions do I draw from my reading of it? That Jesus meant well and was a charismatic leader but was probably delusional; that his followers very quickly clouded his life with stories about miracles; and that Christianity had both good and bad in it from the very beginning. I won't try to substantiate those judgments further; they're simply what I concluded after reading the Bible.
I was raised as a Christian, both at home and at school. Am I still a Christian? Culturally, yes: I still celebrate Christmas, have an understanding for Christian mythology, and am often moved by Christian art. I can't imagine being married or buried without some sort of Christian ceremony.
I also think that there is a lot in the New Testament that makes sense and is ethically valuable. It's just that I don't see why you need to believe the miraculous portions of the text to value kindness and humility. I also don't think that we should cling to every word of a book that advises us to punish homosexuals and prevent women from having a voice.
This is part of the reason I practice Buddhist meditation. It's true that the more Buddhist scriptures I read, the more offended I am by their nonsensicality and superstition. But none of the Buddhist scriptures has quite the status or authority of the Bible; there are scriptures, but not one Holy Bible.
It's an interesting historical question how this came to pass. And an important one, too. It might explain why nobody (at least in the West) has ever told me that I have to believe anything at all about the Buddha's life, while most Christians would still say that believing in the resurrection defines them. It might explain how I can (at least in California) be a Buddhist without being a Buddhist. And why, until Christians stop being Christians, I can't be one too.