Saturday, February 11, 2012

Improving on Jesus

As a dogmatic and sacramental culture, I find Christianity pretty simpatico. As a moral system, not so much. And its not just the sexual restriction, but something deeper. Holding to the Triune God or the Chalcedonian definition, to the Seven Sacraments, etc. was never a trial for me. For an intuitive thinking type, it was a match. But when it came to "love your enemies and do good to those that hate you" or "Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" or "Forgive your brother not seven times but seventy times seven times" or "Blessed are the meek"...I had to demur.

A lot of people have, even if they wouldn't admit it.  Probably a lot of Churches solve the problem by making Christ be and say what they prefer. It's a primal strategy. After all, what other world religion has four separate biographies of the founder published side by side? Ever try to alternate reading St Mark and St John? Dizzying. Are they actually talking about the same person?

Prezident Barry Hussein O, for example, in the best traditions of the Religious Left, recently transgressed the hallowed liberal lines which hermetically separate Church from State by declaring that, in so many words, Jesus wanted him to tax the rich. In my long absence from corporate Christendom, I have learned to be more honest, to recognize that when it comes to ethics and morals, I really don't like a lot of Jesus' attitudes.

The simplest way to put it is that too often they set the bar inhumanly high. I am not the first to feel this way: it's what brought Martin Luther's sense of guilty unworthiness to such a pitch that he had to provoke the Reformation. Rawly put, Jesus created a huge problem for him that he brought in Paul to fix.

Not being privy to the divine counsels --despite the title of this blog-- I don't know why the perfectionist ethics of the Gospels were necessary. Given some time, I could probably come up with a moral program that would be decent but not extreme. Why was I not consulted? But maybe moderation can only avoid being mediocrity when it follows in the wake of world-founding heroics, be it of the martial or moral order.

And maybe because I have lived my life inside one of the strangest and most exceptional bubbles of comfort in human history (I mean the modern West), my vision is skewed away from what most of the race has taken for granted. Christian missionaries from Europe record being astonished at how much Africans "hear" so loudly those very elements in the Bible which the Enlightenment and an established Church have taught them instinctively to gloss over: tribes and kings, sacrifices, demons and possession, healings and miracles. I certainly judge a lot of my contemporaries to be deluded by the ease of their lives into thinking that utopia is possible. Who's to say that I am not similarly deluded, but about somewhat different issues?

The post-Roman West (Latin and Greek, then Barbarian), what we used to call Christendom, became Christian, but in a highly accomodated and partial way. Which is really all you would want. Jesus, as opposed to Mohammed, or Moses for that matter, was not a lawgiver. Trying to run a state, of any size, based on the New Testament, is a recipe for suicide. When he said his kingdom was not of this world, he wasn't kidding.

IMHO, communities which wish to live a complete Christian life, without compromise, must take the form of separatists, like monastics or Amish, or itinerants, like the early Franciscans. If a state or people really try to be in the world but be not of it, they won't be in it very long. And to his great credit, the Lord did give us that render-to-Caesar principle, thank God. A Christian society can, I think, only ever be a failed Christian society because to exist on this planet it has to, perforce, and needs must accomodate and moderate and functionally nullify the elements of the Gospel --poverty, pardon, perfection-- that were not meant for this world. Especially as a state or nation.

Leaving aside Islam (for once!), I think the Buddhist civilizations of southeast Asia and secondarily the Buddhist-influenced societies of Japan and perhaps China, are instructive and as puzzling. For kingdoms to embrace the doctrines and values of Gautama seems as odd, even odder, than for them to accept the Cross. Buddha was indeed not only a great and startling thinker (dogmatist, as it were) but a lawgiver...but for a monastic order consciously separated from the world of family and government. It makes nor more sense for a ruler to take on a doctrine of non-attachment than it does for one to be baptized into a path of love of enemies. For what are rulers about --and quite rightly-- but attachment and war? There must be something in the alchemy of opposites that is at play here.

But again I ask,  if the original message were itself moderate and realistic, would it ever have had the spiritual power to provoke the founding of civilizations and kingdoms? Are there moments in civilization or personal life where people would rather embrace a startling code they know they cannot live up to rather than keep one which has served them well but no longer surprises?

Oops. Time for lunch.

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