Jesus & Philosophy
A review by Judith Bore of Don Cupitt’s Jesus and Philosophy (SCM, 2009)
(Reviewed June 2010)
This book is Don’s explication of ‘ethics’ and one golden thread he disentangles is the link between the ‘gospel of Jesus circa early 1st century’ and his own ‘late twentieth century solar ethics’. First off he must persuade us that the faded matted tangle called ‘ethics’ is the most important item in the philosophy ragbag. Then he shows us why this knotted, colourless skein comes to have such a lack-lustre presentation.
Two and a half thousand years of human society’s attempts to establish security and order, peace and happiness are a slow repetitive wrestling match about habits and customs, rules, regulations, duty and obligations. The protagonists are God on the one hand and the human spirit that looks beyond safety towards freedom, spontaneity and love. And who of the great philosophers and teachers of antiquity was the main sponsor of humanity? The author of the book asks us to forget he has given us the answer to that question.
Relying appreciatively and confidently upon the work of Robert Funk, to whom the book is dedicated, and other members of the Jesus Seminar, the Cupittean Jesus is the not particularly religious wisdom teacher of the parables and kingdom sayings in the synoptic gospels of the New Testament and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. Don interrogates the best–authenticated slivers of text according to an agenda that includes whether Jesus believed in God, his attitude to ‘law’, and so on.
What we have here according to Don is not just another golden rule moralist but someone who understood that the individual human being’s greatest burden and threat to his/her freedom is not as Sartre would have it, other people, but the leaden heart. One of the major themes of the Old Testament is the human hankering after justice but as the parables of the workers in the vineyard and the prodigal son show the prevailing conditions of the day and the realities of family life tend to breed resentment, or ‘ressentiment’. (The French word brings out the automaticity and reactive nature of our feelings.) If we are to be really free, or allow the ‘kingdom of God ‘to take up residence within and among us then we have to be able to let go of ‘ressentiment’. Don shows us that the seeds of consciousness-raising that have enabled people in at least Western society in the last few centuries not to be bowed-down by lowly status or isolated by respectability are there already in the New Testament. He concludes, as he probably has to, that this ‘gospel of Jesus’ is a ‘slow-working dream’: a dream that began with the OT prophets who first talked of the law of the heart. The ethic of Jesus describes a re-orientation towards life for the individual from which he/she can cultivate indefinitely their love of life. But food, clothing, shelter all must be produced and there is a necessary but often unequal buckling–down to work. Rules for social order and justice cannot wait for the spiritual liberation of all, and anyway can do much to ease the spiritual burden as well as secure community life. So ethics must have two complementary faces, one pragmatic and sustaining, the other idealistic and liberating. In the preface to the book we are told that this book is meant to right an ancient wrong: the rescue of the pearl of great price from all the rococo elaborations of doctrine and dogma that have encrusted the figure of Jesus. We also discover that it also rights another ‘wrong’. The author did not mention Jesus in his summing up of ‘kingdom religion’ in Above Us only Sky, a book that appeared in 2008. He does explain why though.
There you have it, one reading of Jesus and Philosophy. I admit to being biased in my appreciation of this book because of the credit that the author gives to ‘ordinary people’. He says that the Jesus who emerges in the work of contemporary New Testament scholars turns out to be ‘not so very different from what ordinary people have long supposed him to be’. As an ordinary young person I found many puzzling contradictions in the Jesus that emerged from the entire sayings and acts recorded in the four Gospels. I guess I didn’t want to think of him as being a self-promoting activist who stirred up a conflict that would eventually bring about his own death. But equally I didn’t think he would have quite stood the test of time if he had been. What I was looking for instinctively was consistency and integrity and in so doing I put aside those parts of the gospels which have Jesus talking about himself and pointing up his relation to God. (Some would say this was an arrogance to think that I could do this.) I was also suspicious of the conflicting images of God, which emerge from the Bible. I now understand that much of what is attributed to “God” is just our own vicious superegos which constantly keep us running for safety and away from a genuine engagement with others. Surely it is this ‘god’ that Jesus did battle with.
Nevertheless for me, this book leaves a big question unanswered. How do we attain this level of detachment, freedom and lightness of being? The answer must be that just as socially and politically ‘the kingdom of God’ is and has been a ‘slow-working dream’, so individually it is too. That it is still at work in the human spirit at this individual level cannot be denied when we consider how many miles of bookshelves are taken up with self-help manuals.
So, what will help us to reach, in Don’s language, ‘solarity’? So come on Don, what practices, rituals, or disciplines will support and further this pilgrimage, aid us in giving up our ‘impossible loves’ and yet still find in Charles Wesley’s words ‘the flame of sacred love’ being kindled and rekindled in our hearts? To be fair, it is work we cannot expect anyone else to do for us. It is the big hurdle also faced by groups who like Sea of Faith, have set themselves the task of reinventing, rethinking religion for the 21st century. Not easy.