The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
The existence of God, Part 8: What Russell missed (part 2).

The goodness of Jesus, Part 1: Christian hypocrisy
Last modified on Sun Dec 3 16:40:02 2017

This is the latest post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or are just completely invalid in the first place. The first part of Russell's essay discussed the existence of God; the second part the moral character of Jesus. In this post, I discuss the opening section of his discussion of Jesus' character.

Before turning to his complaints about Jesus' life and teachings, Russell starts by paying some compliments, albeit ones intended to cast Christians in a bad light for being insufficiently Christian.

Russell highlights these four sayings as good moral principles spoken by Jesus. One might ask why Russell believes them to be good, but that is a question for the next few posts. Russell's complaint, however, is that Christians on the whole don't follow these principles. Punch the prime minister of the time in the jaw, and you will likely receive some retaliation. Christian magistrates are in a hopeless position, for they are commanded by religion not to pronounce judgement and by the nature of their jobs to do so. Politicians and credit card companies frequently fail to give or lend to those who ask them. How many Christians sell all they have and give it to the poor?

Russell finishes with the words:

All these, I think, are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then after all, it is not quite the same thing as for a Christian.

The bulk of this statement I would not disagree with. They are good maxims. They are more than a little difficult to live up to; they are utterly impossible to do so consistently and completely. Russell certainly didn't live up to them himself. Neither do I, for that matter. But does it matter that Christians fall short of the standard?

So how should we respond to this charge?

  1. First of all, I would say that the charge is not quite as serious as Russell supposes. Context is important; literary form is important. Russell pre-empts this objection by writing

    I think you might find that he [the prime minister] thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.

    But one cannot just dismiss the point as quickly as this. Jesus frequently employed hyperbole, and in his moral teaching no less than elsewhere. When we are asked to turn the other cheek, the point that Jesus is making is that Christians (indeed, all followers of moral truth) should not retaliate or seek vengeance. Jesus, of course, was not the first person to say this, nor the last; but he might have been both the first and the last person to truly live the principle.

    For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

    To say simply "Don't retaliate," would make the point directly, but that wasn't Jesus' way. Jesus would exaggerate the point, to make it more easily memorable; to stand out.

    Then we have the need to read the text in context. Both the wider context, and the immediate context.

    Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

    Judge not, that you be not judged out of context seems like a wide ranging pronouncement, but the next, clarifying, sentence narrows the application. Jesus' warning here is not so much about judgement as about hypocrisy. Don't condemn others for things you do yourself. And since we are guilty of most things ourselves (in thought certainly, if not necessarily in deed), we ought not to condemn people, otherwise we ourselves will by the same measure also stand condemned. Then, we narrow it further, with the next passage, which makes it clear that Jesus is discussing personal relationships, between brothers and friends, and personal hypocrisy. Taking it all together, it is clear that magistrates in courts of law or councils in the church, or even parents disciplining their children, are not the subject of Jesus' saying, at least when they are acting in office and out of agape love. Nor does it mean that we should not criticise certain behaviours or attitudes. After all, Jesus himself in this passage judged those people who judge hypocritically. To extend this saying to legal as well as personal judgements is to ignore the wider biblical context which clearly states that one of the duties of lawful authority is to pass judgements on wrongdoers, both to protect the wider community and to help the wrongdoers themselves recognise their evil.

    But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler - not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."

    Then we need to look at the circumstances. The man who was told to sell all he had was a man who had made material possessions his God. He believed himself to be moral, and probably in most respects was as close to goodness as anyone else in society. But he valued his own wealth and luxury as more important than he ought; to truly follow God means that one should renounce all rivals. For him, that meant renouncing all money and possessions; for others it might mean renouncing a television or job or political party. Jesus was asking the man to let go of that which prevented him from being a whole-hearted follower of Jesus. The command was directed towards that one man, and it targeted his own individual weakness. It is applicable to all of us, because we each have our weakness. For some, it is a love of money and material wealth. For others, it is something else. For those who love money above all, they should renounce that love and show it by giving all they don't need to the poor (once again, Jesus used hyperbole to make his point). For others, it might be a sports team that needs to be surrendered, or a television show, or to wear the latest fashion when sackcloth provides all we need, or the desire for a new phone when the clockwork antique we currently have still does its job: whatever it is that we regard as more important than God. We have to show our devotion by putting that thing aside, just as the rich man was asked to put aside his own idol. He couldn't do it, at least not on that occasion. The question is are we any better?

  2. Secondly, I think the point can be made is that Russell does not realise the extent to which many (not all) Christians do follow these commandments. Yes, there are exceptions, and plenty of them. But there are also those who might seem to be exceptions who are not. Not all who claim to be Christian are Christian. This is not a 'No true Scotsman' fallacy; one of the key steps in becoming a Christian is to repent of one's wrongdoings, not only by asking forgiveness but by turning away from the desire to do evil. A Christian would still commit wrong, through ignorance, weakness, deliberate acts where the mind momentarily wanders from its fundamental principles; but no Christian could consistently claim that what is really evil is a good while having truly repented from their sins. To desire to be morally good is part of the definition of what it means to be Christian; thus if one does not desire goodness one is not a Christian, whatever one claims or believes about oneself. Yet there are people who claim to be Christian who do openly pronounce that the evil that they or others do is not really evil.

    For example, I would struggle to say that anyone, no matter what they oppress, who is not moved by the sight of someone in poverty is truly Christian. How best to exercise that compassion is a matter of legitimate dispute (does one give him a fish, or fishing rod, directions to the nearest river, and most importantly train him in the self-discipline and patience needed to use it well? -- the difference between the compassionate part of the political left and the compassionate part of the political right), but all genuine Christians would feel the desire to help if they are able to do so. That some prominent people claim to be Christian and yet are obviously bound by the idolatry of greed should not make us ignore the good done behind the scenes by Christians and Churches who are out of the public gaze.

  3. But, of course, these last two points are merely tinkering. They blunt Russell's edge a little, but it still seems to be a fearsome blade, and if Russell's assumptions were correct, it would give a mortal blow to any Christian (though even that would merely prove the Christian life to be impossible rather than Christianity false). There is no doubt that no Christian, not even the best (and I am far from the best myself), lives up to these standards even when interpreted most generously. But Russell makes a key wrong assumption, which destroys his argument. He assumes that Christians are measured by their ability to satisfy Christ's teaching. That is not what Christianity is about at all.

    This brings me to my third and most important point. These teachings set a moral standard, one for us to aim at but which we cannot reach. And that is why they are set so high: so we can realise that on our own we are helpless to satisfy God. We have to fall on God's mercy and grace. Jesus' whole life was to provide a way out; a way for God to reach out and help us reach that standard in spite of our own inadequacies. No Christian reaches the standard of Christ's teaching. Christians, nor anybody else, cannot become good by their own efforts, but solely by trusting in God. Human efforts to craft a heaven on earth will always end up with a version of hell, just as they always have in the past. If the standard were something easy to keep, we might start thinking that we were good enough to reach heaven on our own -- that is a fatal arrogance. Jesus' teaching makes our inadequacies and the impossibility of the task clear; they force us to fall on the alternative path laid down by Jesus' sacrifice.

    A Christian must still aim to be good, and work their best towards it, while accepting that he or she will never achieve that goal by their own efforts. It is like the high jumper who wants to break the world record by more than two meters. He won't succeed without a six million dollar enhancement, but he will go further if he tries.

    So are Christians hypocrites for not living up to the standard any more than non-Christians? No. A hypocrite is someone who judges the quality other's eyes while ignoring that he has a log obscuring his own vision. A hypocrite loudly pronounces the failures of others, while failing to acknowledge their own. Christians have that log, just as anyone else, but unlike others we fully recognise how far short of the goal we are, while still desiring that we be good and acting as much as is in our power to achieve that end, trusting in God to do the rest. If Christians were defined as people who satisfied Jesus' commandments, then there would indeed be a problem. But Christians are defined as people who acknowledge their weakness and trust God to renew their characters and consequently endow them with all virtue. Having weaknesses is no barrier to acknowledging them and trusting that God desires our good despite them.

  4. Whether Christians succeed in living up to Jesus' standard is not the issue. More pertinent is whether or not Christians try to live up to that standard; whether Christians by their actions at the point of crisis as well as by words when sitting comfortably agree that Jesus' teachings provide the standard. Christians fall short; so do people of every other creed.

    However, whether Christ's moral teaching is easy or difficult, whether or not it is followed in practice, the main question is whether or not it is true. Is it good to not be judgemental towards others; to not seek vengeance; to not hoard excessively when there are poor who need it more than ourselves; to desire good for our enemies? This is the question that matters when assessing the truth of Christianity. One cannot blame Christianity for Christians who breaks its commandments and consequently do evil. The fault then is with the people who fail to live up to the religion, not the religion itself. One can blame Christianity if there are occasions when Christians do evil by following its commandments. Is that the case? That will be the discussion of the next posts.

    The goodness of Jesus, Part 2: Was Christ Wise?

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