Jesus — A Keeper
My “long and winding road” through three sortings (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], and Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]) has led to what I personally think is a reliable biography of Jesus (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]). This suggestive biography was made possible by the application of historical and biblical criticism developed for over a century and in continued development; Jesus’ life emerges as the outcome of a considered application of history as a tool of forensic science. This critical application functioned as an expose and was expressed by the metaphor of stripping off varnish- or paint-like layers applied over time to an original table top representing the end of Jesus’ life, an end agreed-upon by both believers and non-believers alike. Among that exposed was the epistemological bankruptcy of faith-based theology that presumably can be found in all religions, not just Christianity. Jesus’ teachings were dual-themed, a theological half based upon the messianic Son of Man and an ethical half based upon one of many versions of the Golden Rule (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]). I suggest from the biographical content that “survived” the table top stripping, that Jesus’ theological teaching was as the theology that was layered upon the table top to exalt Jesus eventually as part of the Divine Trinity — bankrupt, historically speaking.
The great evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins suggests religious belief in bankrupt theology is akin to a form of mental illness that spreads like a cultural virus. My position is a little different, although I do understand Professor Dawkins’ point. The reason religious theology is bankrupt of historical reliability is because theology is a flawed product of the imagination, and, therefore necessarily nonveridical (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]). (In fact, a veridical theology just might be oxymoronic.) Not all products of the imagination are similarly bankrupt, of course; it is just that the imagination generating theology is similar to that generating fantasy, with little or no correlation with the veridical data bombarding the brain from the “real world.” There is no accountability for theology, just like there is no accountability for fantasies; if one imagines a conclusion in science (including the forensic science of history), it must correlate veridically, correlate with the real world; not so with theology and fantasy. What makes the nonveridical theology of Christianity (and all the other major world religions) not only bankrupt, but also absurd in a scary sort-of-way, is that a.) it claims truth solely on the basis of faith and b.) that it originates in minds burdened by chronic stress (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]); there is no way truth can be veridically demonstrated in faith-based theology. That faith is usually based upon some form of supernatural god or deity, which is by definition beyond veridical verification. What makes the theology scary and toxic is there are in the theology veridical or, at least, veridically-sounding punishments that are concurrently conjured for not accepting the “truths” prescribed by the faith. (Those who don’t believe are going to Hell.) If those punishments were just expulsion into the group of “them” away from “us” (the “us-them” syndrome discussed in At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]), nonveridical theology might not be of such concern, but history has paraded before us example after example of religious wars, purges, pogroms, executions, persecutions, pillaging, and incarcerations (just to list a few) that existed and exist solely upon the basis of nonveridical, absurd, and toxic theology; in Christianity the nonveridical absurdity of Jesus being part of the Godhead has spawned very veridical atrocities (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, etc. etc.). [Voltaire needs to be re-quoted here: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”]
[Nonveridical theology need not be toxic, to be fair. My good friend and retired Presbyterian minister Dr. Jim Burns (He has the same degree as I — Ph.D. in nuclear physics; I call him “Rev. Dr.”) and I have periodically a fun and intellectually stimulating discussion on whether the rewards of Heaven are individualized or not. We do not try to convert each other, we agree to agree or agree to disagree, and nobody gets killed or maimed.]
Blind faith is a virtue in theology, a conclusion of pure fantasy. If positive feedback is concurrent with blind faith, that is pure coincidence, pure luck.
I apologize to the reader for the above because it might make for the reader the “long and winding road” a little too redundant, a little too long, and a little too winding. But I want to be sure my position is clearly understood and wanted to briefly summarize how we have come to this posting, which is to claim that Jesus’ ethical teaching, unlike his attendant theology, is more than worthy of keeping.
Jesus’ ethical teaching is centered around the so-called Golden Rule, or, the Ethic of Reciprocity, though it is made up of far more, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapters 5, 6, 7) and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22; Luke 6:24-26; Luke 11:37-54). The Golden Rule is an idea that has been around since the beginnings of history among theologians and philosophers. It is an idea, however, that appears transcendent of theology itself, in that it does not have anything to do with a god or gods. It is based upon the idea it is better to treat one’s fellow human being, whether family, friend, neighbor, or stranger, in the manner you yourself would like to be treated. It is solidly built upon an individual’s self-interest, for it implies that your kind action will receive an equally-kind reaction, making your life easier, better, and, therefore, happier. Evil treatment among individuals tends to be weeded out with repeated application of the Golden Rule, as it is in the best interest of both parties, unless one or both is a masochist, to be nice to one another. I particularly like it because it contains its own intellectual and practical motivation — treating someone kindly, respectfully, and courteously is its own reward. A deity or deities is/are not needed to command you to be good; the East realized this unnecessary need-for-the-gods centuries before the West; the East separated religion and ethics way, way before the West, which waited until Enlightenment philosophy (18th century CE) to resurrect the ancient Greek separation of the two. Ethics requires no blind faith; blind faith, because of its susceptibility to toxicity of the mind, is not a virtue in ethics; often, it is to be avoided like a vice. Positive feedback is not only real in Golden-Rule-based ethics, it often is not long in forthcoming, as in the gratitude of a stranger to whom you have just done a simple act of kindness/courtesy.
[Note the Synoptic Gospel references in the above paragraph leave out quotations from Mark — the earliest, and, perhaps, the most “historically honest” Gospel of them all. Near-absence of humanitarian parables as vehicles of ethical teachings in Mark does not bode well for my ethics-over-theology case, admittedly, but careful scrutiny of Mark reveals that benefactors of Jesus’ humane treatment (healings, etc.) needed to be receptive to have their needs met; they needed to have “faith” that Jesus could meet their needs. (People needed to have the faith of a child, for instance.) Though cynics might claim that Jesus merely took advantage of the credulous through the power of suggestion, it could also just as well be the case that Jesus was by example teaching the importance of “faith in the physician” or “bedside manner” — that following the Golden Rule reaps rewards only when the benefactor is humble enough to appreciate what is being freely given him/her. This “receptiveness to kindness” might well be the best interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9; Matthew 13:1-9; Luke 8:4-8). It was certainly important to Jesus that this parable be understood, as all three of these passages end with Jesus’ exhortation: “Listen, then, if you have ears!”
The “faith” in Mark is faith in one another to do good to each other, perhaps. Mark, then, is just as ethical as the other Synoptic Gospels.]
Listed below is a litany of religious or religious-like recognition of the Golden Rule, which over time has apparently always been in our religious and ethical thinking. Jesus was but one of many who saw the Ethic of Reciprocity as being necessary and fundamental to an ethical and fulfilling existence. Listed in chronological order when the time is available, each quote’s setting is given; if a specific work is cited, the time of that work’s origin is given (if known); if not, then the approximate date of the religion’s or belief system’s origin is given. Note how Jesus’ ethical Golden Rule center was also taught both before and following Christianity in history. The “first” to record the Golden Rule may never be known; as shown in the most recent on the list, it is still being recorded, claimed, and cited:
* “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 – 110 [Ancient Egypt, 1800 BCE]
* “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated. ” Sutrakritanga 1.11.33 [Jainism, 9th-7th centuries BCE]
* “Let no man to do another that which would be repugnant to himself; this is the sum of righteousness. A man obtains the proper rule by regarding another’s case as like his own.” [Upanishads, Hinduism, circa 700 BCE]
* “…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”, Leviticus 19:18 [Judaism, 7th century BCE]
* “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18 [Buddhism, 6th-4th centuries BCE]
* “To those who are good to me, I am good; to those who are not good to me, I am also good. Thus all get to be good.” [Taoism, 6th-5th centuries BCE]
* “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.” Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5 [Zoroastrianism, 5th century BCE]
* “Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'” Doctrine of the Mean 13.3 [Confucianism, 5th-4th centuries BCE]
* “If you see a jackal in your neighbor’s garden, drive it out. One might get into yours one day, and you would like the same done for you.” [Bakongo people of the Congo and Angola]
* The law imprinted on the hearts of all men is to love the members of society as themselves [Roman Paganism, BCE-CE]
* “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12 [Christianity, 1st century CE]
* “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths [Islam, 7th century CE]
* “The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form.” Munetada Kurozumi [Shintoism, 7th century CE]
* “Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he who you wrong, but yourself.” Pima proverb [Native American Spirituality]
* “No one is my enemy, none a stranger and everyone is my friend.” Guru Arjan Dev : AG 1299 [Sikhism, 1699 CE]
* “Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.” “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” Baha’u’llah [Baha’i Faith, 1844 CE]
* “Don’t do things you wouldn’t want to have done to you.” [British Humanist Society]
* “Try to treat others as you would want them to treat you.” [L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology]
Here are some versions of the Golden Rule or Ethic of Reciprocity from some famous Western philosophers in chronological order, along with their settings. These can be considered secular sources, clearly free of a theological context, in contrast to the above list:
Socrates: “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.” [Greece; 5thcentury BCE]
Plato: “May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me.” [Greece; 4th century BCE]
Aristotle: “We should behave towards friends, as we would wish friends to behave towards us.” (This is a restricted version of the golden rule limited only towards friends.) [Greece; 4thcentury BCE]
Seneca: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors,” Epistle 47:11 [Rome; 1st century CE]
Epictetus: “What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others.” [Turkey; circa 100 CE]
Kant: “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.” [Germany; 18th century CE]
John Stuart Mill: “To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.” [Britain; 19th century CE]
Jesus-stripped-of-theology must be what Thomas Jefferson in his The Jefferson Bible was trying to achieve; I like to think, thanks to my long and winding road, I now know why he was striving so. (Perhaps, too, Jefferson’s friend Thomas Paine was similarly motivated in writing Age of Reason [Prometheus,1964, ISBN 0-87975-273-4, pbk].) Jesus-with-just-ethics is worth keeping; it is a blueprint of stress-free, confident, and happy living for both Christian and non-Christian alike; as shown above, it is transcendent of theology, and, therefore, free from absurdity, and, hence, non-toxic. Anyone can follow the Golden Rule or Ethic of Reciprocity, regardless of what they believe, or don’t believe. You don’t need a god or gods; you don’t need a guru or teacher to follow. If one must have someone to tell them what to do, then pick out one the quotes above by a religious leader or secular philosopher and try to live by that quote.
Though the following reference may well be another long and winding road (Don’t worry, I’m not taking it, just noting its “entrance gate.”), the words from John Lennon’s song “Imagine” also seem to “fit in” here: “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace.” The absurdities and toxicity of political ideology clearly parallel the absurdities and toxicity of theological ideology, thanks to history’s lessons, but to talk about political ideology as has been done here with theological ideology is, as I said, another long and winding road not taken just now.
Theology, compared with secular ethics, has the tremendous disadvantage of apparently needing a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. Time and wealth has to be invested in some kind of edifice of worship and veneration. (However, atheism, which I consider a nihilistic theology, at least does not require an edifice.) Another disadvantage is the need for a clergy to “run” the edifice. (Quakerism, of all the sects of Christianity, may be the only group to “get it right” when it comes to a clergy; it requires none, but does need a meeting place. Atheism also requires no clergy.) Imagine if all the effort and money that goes into building an edifice and supporting a clergy went instead into meeting human need when encountered, as Jesus taught in his ethics! Modern organizations such as the Red Cross, UNICEF, (I like to think also the Red Crescent), Live Aid, and the Carter Center work to meet human needs with no “theological strings” attached; imagine liquidating all sacred wealth and channeling it into secular causes such as these (I’m sure the reader could name other worthy secular organizations in addition to these.). Theologically-based organizations cannot possibly do as well serving mankind as the secular ones, until the costs of the “theological strings” are eliminated. Sound too fanciful, like theology? I don’t think so, as these organizations have obtained tangible, veridical results; none of these existed until the late 19th and the 20th century came along; how many more will emerge in the 21st?
Do not think this is uplifting atheism in the place of Christian theology, or, for that matter, theology in general. As I said above, atheism seems to me to be a nihilistic theology of some sort; atheism seems itself to be too “churchy;” I’ve met atheists who seem as evangelical as Christian evangelists. One can have a theology or not have a theology, but theology is a personal commitment or belief, not transferable to anyone else. Dawkins may have a point: to have someone agree with your personal theology willingly or unwillingly necessarily fosters the toxic “us-them” syndrome (At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015]), which is a “slippery slope” to human misery, according to history. The toxicity of theology spreads from human mind to human mind, like a disease.
I have a personal theology, but feel no need for anyone else to feel and think the same. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I am a sect of one.” I often express elements of my theology, but never with the purpose of “converting” anyone. Any agreements or disagreements with my personal theology are purely coincidental and carry with them no necessary consequences; my theology has no “baggage” and no “strings attached.” I would never “condemn” anyone to a theological heaven, purgatory, or hell; I think the paraphrases of Jesus’ words “Judge not, that ye be not judged…” (Mark 4:24; Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37) are ethical, not theological.
But in this personal theology, I am intellectually hamstrung. I have no way of knowing whether or not my nonveridical creations of my mind correspond to the reality providing me in all my waking hours veridical persuasion that something is “out there.” I cannot “check out” my theological impressions; I can believe in a religious way, but I cannot know if I am believing in something true, something independent of my mind. In 1763 Voltaire said, “The interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists.” This is the “subjective trap.” It is impossible to verify in a scientific sense any nonveridical, faith-based theology. In fact, I have to assume that others are in the same subjective trap, but I can never demonstrate that is the case beyond doubt. On the other hand, behaving ethically yields veridical feedback, usually from the benefactor(s) of my kind and courteous acts — feedback so empirical it seems part of the natural world “out there,” a world so “real” that doubt of that world existing outside my skull common sense reason refuses to allow. In the same way the “hardest” of the sciences, along with all the other sciences, like forensic history, do not doubt the existence of the natural world. All personal theologies, like all knowledge, are fallible.
Therefore, the destinations of my long and winding road here, my conclusions, may be wrong. For instance, my position of the fate of Jesus after the crucifixion in At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015] may be shown to be erroneous if the ossuaries found in the Talpiot Tomb in Jerusalem mentioned near the end of Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012] are studied and turn out to be the actual remains of Mary’s and Joseph’s family, including their son Jesus. But, just as in the sciences, I can live with the possibility of being wrong, of being content with tentative, temporary answers. The journey never ends; “it’s not the kill, it’s the thrill of the chase.” I trust that as new historical evidence is revealed, I will draw closer to the truth about Christianity and theology in general than at the time of this writing. The great physicist Richard Feynman in a BBC interview stated, “I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.” Revealed religion, with its nonveridical theology based upon the quicksand of faith-based epistemology (as opposed to evidence-based epistemology) declares it is true and demands of believers unquestioning belief in that declaration; I say revealed religion offers no reason for either the declaration or the demand.
Evolutionary psychology suggests that anything that marks definitively human existence must have some time in our evolutionary past been beneficial to our survival as a species. Perhaps this explains why we as a species are so “religious.” The origins of human religion have, relatively speaking, just started as a serious study to be discovered. Given the potential of lethal religious theology spawned by our minds, progress in this study seems not only needed, but imminently vital.
We must “own up” to the possibility in cultural anthropology that without the development of some form of theology that went unquestioned by the “believers,” preservation of “us” from the attacks of “them” on the other side of the hill, human or beast, would not have been possible; the “us-them” syndrome may have played a vital role in our survival. “Don’t ask why, just have faith, praise god or the gods, and grab a spear or knife!” “Us” needed to have a vision beyond our visible, tangible leaders to conjure sufficient communal courage to meet the challenges of our hunter/gatherer past; we needed gods and “god stories.” Communal bonding and identity developed around some local form of religion.
All who survived to the dawn of civilization, then, were probably predisposed to be religious. Not that we had “religious genes,” but, rather, our genes worked in concert to make us tend to be religious. As civilization grew from city states into nations and into empires, religion grew and consolidated into state or world religions. Lethally, religions never lost their “us-them” syndrome. Because Voltaire’s words above are so true (both quotes), we have molded our once-upon-a-time survival tool into potentially murderous madness. We have met the enemy and it is us, or, rather, our gods and god stories. (Not to mention our nationalism, patriotism, and politics.)
But we who survived to the dawn of civilization were also probably predisposed to be ethical — to love one another and to treat each other with kindness and courtesy. Ethics was at least as responsible for our survival as religion. The Golden Rule never lost its value, and someone, somewhere, always recognizes that it and its implications can, if we will, trump the gods and god stories, if for no other reason than ethics is not potentially toxic like religious theology. Ethics fosters no “us-them syndrome.”
Whether Jesus separated in his head theology and ethics as exemplified in the two preceding paragraphs may be never known. What is known about Jesus is that there was a duality about his message. The theological part of his message has not turned out so well in the modern world, just like the theologies of other world religions. But the ethical part of his message resonates with the best that human beings can be in the modern world.
For almost three hundred years, enlightened rationality in lots of free, courageous minds has boldly separated the sheep from the goats, the theology from the ethics, the sacred from the secular. Civilization’s philosophy may well need to redefine a “Great Commission.” Instead of going out and teaching or conquering all nations, we need to go out and just be decent to each other — to live, in Lennon’s words, “life in peace.”