Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Philosophy of Jesus Christ

Today, I would like to do something rather unusual: to analyze Jesus as a philosopher. NOTE: I am not suggesting that Jesus was only a philosopher. I believe that Jesus is/was the Messiah, the King of Kings, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity – all that good stuff. Nevertheless, I fear that these categories tend to separate Jesus’ person from his ministry, and so today, I will attempt to describe Jesus as a philosopher as a somewhat ironic corrective.
But first I need to explain what I mean by “philosophy.” Clearly, Jesus was not a philosopher by modern university standards. In the West, we have become accustomed to thinking of philosophy and religion as clearly distinct fields. Philosophy, it is assumed, asks a certain set of abstract questions on the basis of reason alone. We look to Socrates and Descartes as the founding fathers of this method: they refused to accept any claims that were based on authority or custom and instead sought truth through natural insights and empirical observations. [E1] Religion, by contrast, does not take reason as its starting point. Instead, it is grounded in experiences that “transcend” empirical evidence and point to the divine realm. At least, this is the way we distinguish religion and philosophy in the West. By this division, Jesus falls squarely into the “religion” category and has no business in philosophy.

However, there is an artificial division. Religion and philosophy cannot be so cleanly divided. If I offered a full critique here, I would get too far off track from the point of this entry. [E2] But suffice it to say that Socrates does not mark the beginning philosophy itself. [E3] Instead, he represents one philosophical tradition, one that found it valuable to assign religion and philosophy into different categories. No doubt, the “Western” tradition that runs from Plato and Aristotle, through Augustine and Aquinas, and into Descartes, Locke, and Kant, is a powerful one. It has led to incredible insights that have profoundly shaped our world. But there are also other philosophical traditions, of equal intellectual rigor, that do not treat religion and philosophy as separate subjects. [E4] In fact, most of the cultures of the world have bound religion and philosophy together because they are so clearly interrelated: both make claims about what life is all about and the best way to live it.

If we are going to speak about Jesus as a philosopher, then Judaism would be his philosophical tradition. This tradition taught that the universe was created by one God, who is sovereign over it and who gave humanity a special place within it. It also maintained that God had made a special covenant with the Jewish people, where they would live as the ideal human community, under the guidance of the laws that God gave Moses, in exchange for God’s favor and blessing. These are all things that Jesus inherited from the Jewish tradition and that his followers should also embrace. We worship one God with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strength, alongside of Jews and Muslims (although there are admittedly some differences in how God is understood).

However, just like any other philosophical tradition, there was plenty of room for innovation and disagreement within Judaism. Rather than using the term “philosophers,” the competing schools of thought were led by “rabbis,” who took different interpretive approaches to this tradition. Although this often took the form of debate over Scripture, they were not simply “Biblical scholars” in the modern meaning of the term. No, their various interpretations represented different life philosophies, which had implications for ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics – everything a Western philosopher would find interesting.

Consequently, Jesus shared much in common with his Jewish contemporaries, as they shared the same philosophical tradition. He frequently criticized them, but these criticisms should be understood as correctives in an internal debate. For example, Jesus agreed with the Pharisees on more subjects than he disagreed with them about, including their high view of Scripture, their commitment to a high ethical standard, and their belief in the resurrection. [E4] But he did have one major view that made him stand out from his contemporaries; there was one dimension to his life-philosophy that was so powerful that it eventually created a separate religion. It is best represented in Mark 10:42-45 [E5]:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This is the philosophy of Jesus Christ. It is his distinctive teaching, which sets him apart from every other "philosopher" in the world. It has ethical, metaphysical, and political implications, but at its core, it is about human relationships. [E6] In it, Jesus observes that most societies are structured by power. We “survive” in this world by appealing to our physical, economic, and legal strength to defend ourselves from others. At the broadest level, governments “lord over” enemies by raising armies and developing police forces. At a business level, consumers “lord over” businesses by maintaining the right to sue them, and employers “lord over” employees by maintain the right to fire them. Even at a personal level, friends and family members “lord over” one another by keeping track of favors, threatening to withhold support, yelling or being physically or emotionally intimidating. All of these are manifestations of what Jesus calls “lording it over” others. Radically, he demands his disciples never to do this: not as family members, employers/employees, citizens, or anything at all. They were called to a different way of life.  
Instead, Jesus inaugurated a “life philosophy” where people relate to one another as voluntary servants [E7]. When feeling powerless, Jesus’ followers are not supposed to appeal to their rights or threaten others with their power (however great or small it might be), but to confront their opponents with truth and love. Rather than trying to “change the world” by coercing others into cooperation, Jesus’ followers are called to live righteously even without the world’s cooperation and to trust that their lives will persuade some others to join them on their quest. Rather than embracing the hierarchies of the world, Jesus’ followers would live in mutual service, mutual accountability, and mutual care for one another, thereby creating a community unlike one the world had ever seen. Of course, not everyone who claimed Christianity has lived up to this vision – in fact, the vast majority of Christians haven’t – but I believe that being a follower of Jesus ultimately means trying to live by this philosophy.

End Notes

[E1] Often times, we trace the trajectory of “ancient philosophy” to Socrates and “modern philosophy” to Descartes. Of course, neither of these thinkers wrote in a vacuum. Both already inherited philosophical traditions that shaped the way they thought. On the other hand, both offered new methodological approaches to philosophy which were influential in their respective periods.

[E2] Nevertheless, here are some preliminary thoughts to offer a sense of what might be wrong with the faith/reason or religion/philosophy divide:

#1 – This way of distinguishing religion and philosophy places all the “great” philosophers in the Greco-Roman-Christian tradition. In other words, it seems to imply that every great thinker was a white man, which is racist, sexist, and false. This problem is mitigated when you see Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and others as participants in one philosophical tradition and you realize that in that particular tradition, white men had greater access to it than other people. However, in other philosophical traditions, we have equally brilliant insights from people of all backgrounds.

#2 – Postmodernism may be a crude term, but it nevertheless offers a valid critique to modern philosophy. It represents the internal discovery that philosophy could not proceed “by reason alone,” but that whenever it was making assumptions that were not rationally founded all along, many of which it inherited from religious traditions.

#3 – I don’t like the view of “religion” that grounds it in “transcendence” or “religious experiences.” Obviously, God is transcendent, but my faith is based on the concrete person of Jesus of Nazareth, who revealed the nature of God in his person, lifestyle, and teaching. Everything I believe about God can be traced back to him; this does not nullify religious experiences but it makes them an insufficient epistemic foundation for religious belief. This is one of the many reasons I am at home in the Mennonite tradition: Mennonites aren’t inclined to embrace “mystical” views of communion or conversion that appeal to mystery and personal experience. I would also add Scripture to the list of items that could stand to be demystified (but not demythologized).

[E3] Nor does Pythagoras or Thales or whomever historians might choose to identify as the founder of the Greek philosophical tradition. The search for a person who could be identified as “the founder of philosophy” is as hopeless as the search for “the founder of religion”.

[E4] To list just a few examples, consider Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism, Shinto, Bantu, and Buddhism. It’s really just the Abrahamic faiths that have come to embrace the “modern” division of faith/reason or religion/philosophy. And there are significant voices in each of these traditions that reject it.

[E5] Because of the significant overlap between the followers of Jesus and the Pharisees, Paul was able to avoid punishment by the Sanhedrin by claiming that he was being persecuted for being a Pharisee, e.g. for believing in the resurrection (see Acts 23:1-10). See also Matthew 5:20 and John 3 (especially verses 1 and 10) as further evidence that Jesus shared more in common with the Pharisees than we typically think.

[E6] This passage is also quoted in Matthew 20:25-28 and Luke 22:25-27. The same idea is conveyed symbolically in the gospel of John when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet (John 13:2-17). Paul teaches it as the “philosophy” of Jesus in Philippians 2:1-11, Peter represents it at the crux of his letter in 1 Peter 3:8-18, and James makes it clear through a number of instructions that he is on the exact same page, such as 1:19-20, 3:17-18, and 4:7-10. I mention all these passages to make it clear that this is not just a peripheral comment that Jesus makes in the gospels. It is central to Jesus’ teaching and to what it means to be a Christian.

[E7] Again, I do not have time to detail the ethical, metaphysical, and political dimensions of this text now, but here is a small sample to open the doors for developing thought:

Ethically, not lording over others entails never threatening others with any kind of physical, economic, or emotional retaliation when they hurt or threaten us. It puts us in the uncomfortable posture of having to “turn the other cheek” quite often, and of always being prepared to forgive the repentant.

Metaphysically, this philosophy is based on the fact that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” In other words, this is the way that God functions. This would mean that the universe is not actually governed by the threat of death, but that there is a power which is greater than death, which can overcome death. One should not underestimate how profoundly our views of the “nature of the universe” impact our everyday decisions, and most of us assume that the universe is a fundamentally violent place, which means that the only way to survive in it is to fight.

Politically, this means that Christians cannot appeal to legal power as a way of trying to coerce others. Even though we can respect and work with “the governing authorities,” we recognize Jesus as the true king of the universe and his nonviolent love as the only source of real power. This means we should be suspicious of everything from voting to participating in the military, for as noble as they may be, they all assume that we must lord our power over others to survive.

[E8] The voluntary dimension of this participation is crucial, and it happens to be one of the distinctive values of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Historically, Christians have abused many people by trying to subject them to this servant-like status without embracing it themselves. This issue must be discussed in greater detail later.