Home arrow Recent Talks arrow Jesus as Philosopher

Jesus as Philosopher PDF Print E-mail

11 May   Jesus as Philosopher - Jonathan McKeown

“I find the founder of Christianity superficial in comparison with myself.” (Nietzsche, in a letter to his sister, May 1885)

Hypocrisy, from the Greek hupokrites meaning “an actor”.

“Are you genuine? or only an actor? A representative? or that itself which is represented? – Finally you are no more than an imitation of an actor….Second question of conscience.” (Nietzsche, ‘Maxims and Arrows,’ 38, from Twilight of the Idols).

“Woe to you experts in the law, and you Pharisees, actors. … You strain out a gnat and yet swallow a camel.” (Jesus, Matthew 23: 23-24)

“Once and for all, there is a great deal I do not want to know. – Wisdom sets bounds even to knowledge.” (Nietzsche, ‘Maxims and Arrows’, 5, from Twilight of the Idols.)

“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Jesus, Matthew 6:3)

An Introduction: Reframing Jesus

I was asked to talk about philosophy in everyday life but I have chosen to talk about Jesus because I think he is probably the most life-related philosopher I have ever read. He talks about relationships, about anger, sexual desire, divorce, love, hatred, revenge, litigation, money, taxes, worry about the future, fashion and many other interesting topics. But his philosophy is not merely life-related it is also essentially practical in its intent.

Let me say at the outset that it is not my intent to prove that Jesus was anyone in particular, the Son of God, for example, or the long awaited Jewish Messiah. My purpose is simply to frame Jesus as philosopher in the loose etymological sense of a “friend of wisdom.” I want to reflect on the ethical teachings of Jesus as they are presented in the Gospel of Matthew. In particular, I will focus on what is usually referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount” as it is presented in chapters 5 – 7 of that text. In line with the philosophical frame I am using, however, I have decided to call it “A Discourse on a Hilltop.” Admittedly some may regard this approach inappropriate since philosophy traditionally is an Hellenic and not an Hebraic form of discourse. I won’t be offended by such an objection however as I too regard it merely as a provisional approach. It is true that within the Jewish culture of his day Jesus would generally be regarded as a rabbi or “religious teacher” rather than as a “philosopher”. Nevertheless it’s worth bearing in mind that Jesus lived in a Hellenised world. The fact that the gospel of Matthew was written in Greek is significant in this respect. But I don’t want to get bogged down in definitions and these are terms loaded with connotations that I won’t have time to explore tonight. Having said that, I do have a number of reasons for thinking there is a certain aptness to the title “philosopher” which I hope will become more apparent as I discuss the form and content of his teaching. It’s also important to note that within ancient Israel there was a “wisdom” tradition which is reflected in what is generally referred to as the Wisdom Literature, some of which is incorporated in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, the books known as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. The concepts of “wisdom” and “folly” also permeate the book of Psalms and, as I will show, Jesus’ own teachings.
Two Guiding Questions

Like all ethical or moral philosophers before and after him Jesus addresses himself to two perennial questions  that concern human beings. The first of these is which life is the good life? In other words, what is really good for me? - What is genuinely in my interest? In which life is true well-being to be found and how do I enter it? How do I become well? The second question Jesus deals with concerns who, or more precisely which one, is the truly good person? Which one radiates, demonstrates or exemplifies true well-being? 

The Hebraic or, more specifically, Rabbinic tradition in which Jesus primarily located himself was however grounded in a set of holy scriptures known as the Law (Torah) and the Prophets. For any serious-minded Jew these scriptures formed the basic and authoritative reference for all life-related questions. The Greeks had something vaguely similar in their great poets, Homer, Hesiod and others. If you read Plato or Aristotle you can’t fail to notice that they make constant reference to the poets. Incidentally, the Greek word for poets is poietes, which literally means “a maker, producer, or author.” There is some sense in which these poets do not just manufacture texts or compose poetry, they shape the thinking and life of people who dwell in their stories and inhabit their thoughts. And it’s important to bear in mind that all thinkers and philosophers think in a tradition of some kind, they think in a concrete context which in profound ways shape their concerns and assumptions. The Buddha, for example, did this. Although it is the case that his philosophical path does not require a person to believe in God or the gods, this does not mean that the Buddha did not believe they existed, he did. He simply began with something which he considered more accessible, the Self. But the Buddha had metaphysical assumptions which he accepted, for example, the idea that life was a cycle of death and rebirth that all beings - animal, human, demonic and divine - were more or less stuck in. This belief forms a fundamental assumption of the Buddha’s thought which he took as a given. - And not because he was not aware of other views. He was aware of “annihilationism” for instance, the view that there is no post-mortem survival, and he considered it a heresy. My point is simply that every philosopher, that is to say, every considerate person, has founding assumptions which they deliberately take as given, and from which they begin to think in a constructive, but also in a critical way. Buddhists do this, atheists do this, even agnostics do this, as do Jews etc., and Jesus also did this.

Now in considering the first guiding question that I mentioned - which life is the good life? - Jesus began with the assumption that the good life is the life lived in God. This in fact is what is implied by the term ‘gospel.’ Gospel means ‘good news’. The good news that Jesus proclaimed was quite simple: he said, “The truly good life is the abundant life found in God, found in allowing things to be the way God intended in the beginning, and found in working with God to restore ourselves and things to their original state as God made them to be. It is available right now, [he said] check it out.” Or in the terse and more literal way that this is usually translated: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven  is at hand.”   This of course immediately raises questions and indeed at the time many people wanted to question Jesus about what he meant by this saying. And when we today attempt to relate ourselves thoughtfully to such an assertion we of course bring questions that reflect our own assumptions and experiences about ourselves and about the world we inhabit. And these affect how or even whether we relate to Jesus’ sayings at all.

The notion that life can be lived in God implies of course that there is also a “life” not lived in God, a life lived outside God, or apart from God. And this was something that Jesus very much took into consideration. Just as the Buddha observed that “Life is suffering” and then set about diagnosing the cause and then developing a cure, Jesus also observed that life was suffering. But unlike the Buddha who thought that the cause of suffering was desire per se and so developed a path for bringing about the cessation of desire, Jesus thought that it was ungoverned, misdirected, or delusional desire that caused our problems. Jesus taught that the reason people persist in doing what makes them miserable and wretched is they believe these activities will get them what they want, that they will bring satisfaction or happiness. Jesus taught that desiring God and his will above all other objects of desire was the way to true happiness - or “blessedness” as he calls it in the discourse on the hilltop. In other words, there is an ultimate object of desire which transcends all immanent objects of desire and which if desired correctly will take precedence over all worldly desires and will as a result rightly relate us to ourselves and to all other people, living beings and things. This was what he meant by living in God.

Separating oneself from God is not necessarily a conscious or deliberate act however. It is not the same as professing atheism. There are many people who if asked would no doubt say that they believed in God, but this profession does not make any difference to the way they live. For the sake of clarity it is important to see the difference between an individual that consciously and deliberately lives in God, and one that, if asked, would say, “Yes, I believe in God” but who lives as though this belief made no actual difference. So although Jesus acknowledged the possibility (and indeed the prevalence) of “godlessness” we have, nevertheless, no record of Jesus ever having met or talked to a person who was a self-confessed atheist, that is to say, a person who lived under this self-definition. Such a person was rare to the point of non-existent in the ancient world and especially in Judea at the time of Jesus. The people of his day, the people of the Greco-Roman world, and the Jews in particular, were basically very religious. So if the question of God came up (and it often did) it tended to be about the nature of God or the gods rather than about their existence per se. Now I’ve heard rumour that atheism is in fact on the rise today. I believe there was even an atheist convention recently with T-shirts and everything. But historically speaking this is a modern phenomenon which has really only taken actual positive shape since the epoch known as the Enlightenment. So unfortunately we don’t have Jesus engaging explicitly with such points of view. Although there are a few exceptions, he is primarily concerned with his own people, the children of Israel, and all of these had a more or less Jewish understanding of God.

As already mentioned all Jews deferred to the authority of the Law and the Prophets - though naturally there were traditions and schools which emphasised or interpreted these texts in different ways. Some of the most interesting and revealing conversations Jesus had were with the religious leaders of his day: the Sadducees, the Scribes and Pharisees. These were religious leaders and lawyers and as such they were passionately concerned about God and how we should live in light of what the Law and Prophets say about God. They deemed those who observed the laws to be “righteous” and those who failed to observe them to be “sinners.” The Law they believed governed every aspect of daily life. So they were very serious characters, and very religious. They spent their time discussing and debating aspects of the Torah and applying it to the countless complex ethical issues and conflicts that arose in their world. And in their encounters with Jesus they continually tried to draw him into such situations and scenarios of conflict to see how he would respond. In this way they believed they could judge him and determine whether or not he was right or wrong in accordance with the Law.

The gospels, that is to say, the ancient apostolic texts that give accounts of Jesus life, reveal that there was something about Jesus’ philosophy that provoked opposition from these religious leaders and lawyers. And this polemical element in Jesus philosophy is evident in the small but dense discourse that I want to consider briefly tonight, the discourse which is better known as The Sermon on the Mount. So to begin I want to take an example which I hope will help the radical and polemical aspect of Jesus’ teaching come into view. I have chosen this example also because it helps us get right to the heart of his philosophy.


The Folly of Knowing Good and Evil

In the middle of Jesus’ discourse he says, “Do not judge.”  By saying this, however, he was not merely offering people a helpful ethical principle to live by. He was not criticising “the sinners”. He was actually striking at the heart of the good person, the moral person, the ethical person, the person who considered the knowledge of good and evil as the highest good, and, by implication, him or herself as the ultimate criterion of that knowledge. For knowing good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, valuable and valueless, proper and improper, appropriate and inappropriate, authentic being and inauthentic being; whatever terminology one might prefer for this kind of knowing, the fact remains, that in this knowledge a human being has entitled him or herself to judge. This assertion requires some explanation.

Most of us will have heard of the book of Genesis which is the first book of the Hebrew Torah and the Christian Bible. The very first chapters of this book describe God creating the heavens and the earth and setting up the natural order of things. In the very first chapter it says, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” This in fact is stated seven times to emphasise the perfection of the created order. And human beings are given the special status of being made “in the image of God”. In the second chapter, the story of the garden of Eden is told. This was a garden planted by God to be the idyllic home for Adam and Eve, the archetypal parents of humanity, who were placed in the garden. And we are told, “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” God told them to “work it and take care of it”. And then God said: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” I’m sure you all know what happens after that; they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and as a result everything starts to go pear-shaped. They experience fear and shame, they hide from God - and their nakedness from one another, and their lives become increasingly filled with hardship and pain, they become careworn and anxious, frustrated and miserable. In the very next generation we’re told how Cain murders his brother Able out of envy. And so on until we are told a few chapters later that, “The Lord saw how great human wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil all the time.” The rest of Hebrew Scripture, the Law and the Prophets, is the account of how Yahweh had continued to engage human beings, to keep as it were the rumour of God alive, and to remind human beings of the possibility, of the hope, and indeed of the promise of redemption: that the original well-being that their archetypal parents had known in the beginning would one day be restored.

So with that in mind I come back to what Jesus says in his discourse: by saying, “Do not judge”, he is not merely propounding an ethical principle. In saying this he is invalidating all ethical knowledge insofar as the knowledge of good and evil is the aim of all ethical reflection.  The important point to grasp here is that the knowledge of good and evil, according to the Torah, is obtained through defection from the origin, by defecting from God; and this insofar as eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the one thing that, although God gave Adam and Eve freedom to do, he also (for their good) commanded them not to do. So in saying “Do not judge,” Jesus is pointing out that the assumption of the right to judge what is morally good and bad for ourselves is obtained at the expense of our union with God, and therefore is absolutely incompatible with the true righteousness, and consequently the true well-being, found simply in friendship with God. All the particular issues that Jesus deals with, therefore, he does so in the understanding that they are consequences of what in theological discourse is called “the Fall”. Desiring the knowledge of good and evil, wanting to judge for itself, and the presumption that it is capable of judging rightly apart from God, therefore, is humankind’s fundamental error, its “original sin.” And insofar as human beings persist in this presumption, they participate in that original sin and show themselves to be the dysfunctional children of Adam and Eve rather than the children of God. I will try to clarify this point more in what follows but I want to go back to some of the opening sections of Jesus’ discourse in order to explain why I think he is a very practical philosopher of everyday life matters.

The Wisdom of Practicing Ignorance

It is at this point that I want to reflect a little on the second of the two guiding questions I mentioned at the outset: Which one is the truly righteous person, which person shows forth the well-being one would expect to see in a child of God? Here Jesus is obliged to clarify his position for it was known that he did certain things which seemed to transgress the law. For example, he healed people on the Sabbath, and he picked grain on the Sabbath, he didn’t wash his hands in accordance with the ceremonial laws, he often associated with people the religious leaders deemed “sinners” and “unclean,” people such as prostitutes, Samaritans, tax collectors and the like. He seemed to show a blatant contempt for the Law such that people were starting to wonder if he was leading some kind of revolutionary movement against the established religious order. So Jesus makes his intentions clear. He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”  What he means by this is that his objective was not to do away with the Law and Prophets as such; his objective was to demonstrate what an understanding of the Law and Prophets means. In other words his purpose was to lead an exemplary life. This meant quite simply doing the will of God. So Jesus declares his allegiance to the Law and Prophets, but in the next breath he declares where his true opposition lies. He says, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and the Pharisees you will certainly not enter the good life God intended.”  Jesus makes it crystal clear: the so-called way, the truth, and the kind of life that the Scribes and Pharisees exemplify is not the way to God, and consequently it is not the way to the good life. Living in God, or entering the kingdom of God means going beyond the Pharisaical understanding and practice of righteousness. So the Sermon on the Mount, or, the Discourse on the Hilltop, as I have called it, is not Jesus’ interpretation of the Law and the Prophets, no; it is quite straightforwardly an explanation of his own actual practice, of what it means to do the will of God.

So the first thing he explains is that the Law (e.g., the Bible), above all things, is not to be used as leverage to increase one’s personal status or advantage in the world. It is not to be used to increase one’s status or standing in society or among one’s peers, and it is not to be used as a means of getting what you want out of another, or of manipulating or coercing others. It is not a thing to be applied to the other, it is a thing that must be applied to the self. In other words it is, first and foremost, to be practiced. It’s not that Jesus forbids the teaching of the Law, on the contrary, he says that true teachers will be honoured by God with the well-being of the good life. But listen to how he puts it: “Whoever practices and teaches these commands will experience the well-being of the good life that God bestows.”  Notice here the priority he gives to the importance of practice over that of teaching. What qualifies a person to be a teacher is that they are first and foremost a practitioner. And this point is reiterated again and again throughout his discourse. I’m sure you are all familiar with the famous saying, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your sister’s eye but pay no attention to the plank in your own?”  It is not something that one studies in order to teach others and instruct them. True understanding of the Law is obtained or appropriated, not through study, but through practice - by attempting to do what it says. For Jesus, ethical thinking and knowledge is to be grounded in practice. This practice “goes beyond” the practices of the religious examplars that were prevalent at the time (e.g., the Scribes and Pharisees). Jesus’ practice goes beyond by going below the surface, by going beyond external appearances, by going within. And he elaborates what he means by looking at a few particular laws. And these are not selected at random. I think that he chose them because they are the things he considered closest to the “everyday”. But more importantly, I believe, because they were the main hindrances to personal inner well-being - which is the gateway to the good life. These, in other words, are the first things one must deal with.

In this vein Jesus offers a saying that has often been interpreted to mean the exact opposite of what I think he intended. He says, “Do not give to dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls before swine.”  Here Jesus mimics the language of contempt and condescension, even exaggerating it to make his point. “Dogs” and “swine” were common Jewish derogatory terms for referring to pagans. Unless we feel no discomfort with the possibility that Jesus could speak of people – even metaphorically – in such derogatory terms (as “dogs” and “swine”) then we need to think more carefully about this saying. If it is interpreted in the context of verses 1 – 5, however, I think the meaning becomes clear: that the Law is not to be dispensed in a contemptuous, condescending or superior manner, or even on the questionable assumption that I am helping my friend or neighbour, or even my enemy, by giving them some valuable advice. Baz Lurman may have a point when he says, “that advice is a form of nostalgia” and that “dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”  But I think Jesus also has a point: people, especially religious people, too easily get in the habit of using Holy Scriptures for the purpose of moralising to others, of “casting pearls”, and often there is an inadvertent condescension or hidden contempt in this that has reduced the recipients of our wisdom to the status of “swine” and “dogs.” Such an attitude certainly doesn’t reflect human sympathy or genuine concern for another’s suffering. It is more likely I am using such people (the “swine” and “dogs”) to elevate myself, as a way of making myself feel better in comparison. I think Jesus is warning his hearers of the danger of slipping into this attitude. What it really signifies, Jesus suggests, is that I am avoiding myself by focusing on the other person’s “problem,” but more importantly, I am - like Adam and Eve - avoiding God, and thus avoiding my primary obligation to God.

At the top of Jesus practical list of things to deal with then are our anger and contempt. Jesus says, (and I paraphrase) “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother or sister should treat this just as seriously as murder. And the way you speak to one another matters too. Saying things like, ‘You’re a waste of space,’ or, ‘You’re a fucking idiot’ shows that something is seriously wrong. Besides the harm that inflicts on others, putting people down like that actually debases yourself and removes you even further from the good life. Think about it: does being angry at others make you feel better or worse? And speaking like that to others actually indicates what is happening within you - that you’ve been cultivating anger, and finding reasons to justify it, instead of facing it and dealing with it properly. So don’t think that just because you haven’t murdered anyone - that makes you a decent person, it doesn’t. Only moral and religious phoneys believe that shit. So don’t worry about how things might seem, or whether other people will admire you or think you’re an idiot. What other people may or may not think is not what’s important. Don’t let your pride or status anxiety hinder you from doing what you know is right. Do whatever it takes to deal with the anger you feel toward another person, whoever it is, even at the risk of them thinking less of you. And another thing, if you know that another person is angry with you (no matter who they are) then you should go to them and try and sort it out. But don’t assume that they’re the one with the problem. Try to listen and see it from their point of view. It may well be that you really were unfair, or inconsiderate, or even downright abusive. What’s more, if you take my advice you’ll save a shitload in legal fees.”

So Jesus places much more importance on the inward life of the person rather than on how a person seems from the outside. It is this inward life that when put in proper order leads to the well-being of the person. Now I would love to go on through Jesus’ list because everything he says here is food for thought. For example, I would love to talk about adultery, lust and divorce which Jesus deals with next but since I don’t have a lot of time I want to skip over these and briefly discuss some of the deeper practices in Jesus philosophy.

In chapter 6 Jesus says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in the way actors play to the theatre crowd. If that’s how you understand righteousness well good luck. You might impress the crowd but don’t expect God to clap. You may give a flawless performance but the fact remains: you can’t have your mouth full of cake and whistle as well. In the same manner, it’s ridiculous to pander to the crowd and think you can be doing the will of God at the same time. So when you do a charitable deed, what ever it is, don’t do it as a way of getting your foot in the door, or in the hope that people will notice and be favourably disposed to you. But even more than that, when you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In whatever situations you may find yourself consider carefully what God wants you to do and do it in good faith. But don’t then stop and turn around and congratulate yourself for what you’ve done. Doing the will of God is not like other deeds, it is not like doing your tax, for example. You don’t finish doing the will of God and then think, ‘Now I’m home and hosed,’ or ‘Now I’m done and dusted,’ I can relax. No, doing the will of God is not one possibility among others, it is more like breathing, it should be your only concern, your all consuming purpose. It is not about winning brownie points. You are badly mistaking God if you imagine him like a big accountant in the sky. That whole attitude misses the point entirely and it won’t help you enter the good life.”

Here Jesus says something which from the psychological point of view seems impossible: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” But unless we want to make Jesus seem merely absurd or self-contradictory we have no reason to be caught up in this psychological objection. His point is quite simple: we don’t help ourselves one step closer to the good life by playing a game in which we imagine God as a cosmic Accountant keeping a tally of all the deposits we’ve made so that one day we will be able to retire comfortably. According to Jesus this is a false economy. According to Jesus one does not obtain the good life by seeking the good life; one obtains it incidentally when one is preoccupied with doing the will of God. It is a kind of unexpected fringe benefit. The preoccupation with doing the will of God and with the deed itself implies an “ignorance” of the possibility of knowing this as meritorious or not. Humbly and unobtrusively doing the will of God is simply one’s obligation before one’s Maker; any thing else would be impudence. What exactly the will of God is proves itself to the doer. In doing it the doer is blessed, that is to say, he or she enters the good life and knows this because they experience inner well-being. In his discourse Jesus gives heaps of practical examples and suggestions as to where to start in our everyday lives. Whether it be in the way we relate to our family members or our spouses, the people we do business with, the poor, even our enemies, but also to money and possessions, and our own anxieties about various things. Once again I don’t have time to go into all of these but there is one more point I want to consider.

The last point I want to discuss is what has been called the golden rule. “So in everything,” Jesus says, “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  It is perhaps the most universally applicable rule that Jesus gives. And he makes grand claims for it. He claims that in practicing this we do everything that the Law and the Prophets teach; he claims that if we do this we do the will of God, and in so doing we enter the good life. The objection could be raised: “What if what I want the other to do to me, isn’t what the other person wants done to them? Everyone is different after all. Doesn’t this rule assume that all people want the same thing?” One of the beautiful things about the golden rule is that it, if I think with it, it helps me answer my own questions. So if I assume that everyone is different, that I am a unique individual as everyone else is also, then the rule simply states that that is how I should treat other people. In other words, don’t assume that they want what I want, don’t project my own desires onto the other, but try to perceive their unique need.

The golden rule comes at the end of a particular passage that I think brings out another important aspect. Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and she who seeks finds, and to him who knocks the door will be opened.”  Jesus is addressing people who feel they lack something, that they need something, but don’t know what to do about it. “Ask,” he says. “Seek out someone you think might be able to help, knock on their door and ask them. Try it and see what happens. Don’t be afraid or too proud, just do it. Most people will be more than willing to help you if they can. Just think, what would you do if someone knocked on your door asking for a favour - perhaps your daughter, or your friend, or perhaps a person you thought didn’t like you? How would you respond to them? Would you tell them to get lost? Not likely, most of us like being asked for help. It puts us in a position where we can be generous and feel useful. So don’t be afraid to ask and don’t let your pride get in the way either otherwise you’ll never enter the good life.”  But another objection might be raised from the point of view of the person being asked: “What if what the other person asks me for is something I believe is bad for them?” This is a good question because sometimes people do ask us for things that we don’t feel we can give. I believe Jesus would say, “Don’t ask me to tell you how to suck eggs. Think with the rule: Put yourself in their shoes and treat them like you would like to be treated in their place.”

Personally I have found driving the best place to start practicing the golden rule. I think if everyone in Sydney practiced this as the principal road rule when they were driving Sydney would be well on the way to the good life.

Thank you for your attention.

< Prev   Next >