As people across the world prepare to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birthday, it seems a good time to think about what Jesus’s philosophy was. Yes, his philosophy. I’m an atheist, but think that some of what he preached is nevertheless worth considering as secular moral philosophy. I’m no theologian, but a conversation I had with Don Cupitt, who is a theologian, has had a deep influence on how I think about Jesus.
Cupitt argued in a 2009 interview for the Philosophy Bites podcast, and in his book Jesus and Philosophy published the same year, that the historical Jesus was the most influential and important moralist who ever lived. Although we can’t know much at all about Jesus’s life, we can, he believed, be more confident about what he taught.
According to Cupitt, about 20 years after his death, like the Buddha, Jesus was given an exalted cosmic status that obscured his teaching with supernatural accretions, but that he was originally neither the Saviour nor the Messiah, but rather a remarkable secular moral visionary, something akin to a sage. Jesus’s message was that human beings should learn to love one another, and accept each other without the envy and enmity that are so characteristic of human interactions.
How did Cupitt come up with such a radical reading of the Gospels? The answer is that he took seriously the findings of the Jesus Seminar, a group of theologians based in California who in the late 1980s and early 90s made a detailed analysis of Jesus’s pronouncements. Their aim was to examine the evidence available and rank them according to the likelihood that they were genuinely part of Jesus’s teaching, and not something that others had added at a later date. Their conclusion was that there was a core of perhaps 60 sayings that most probably were recorded by Jesus’s contemporaries, and that the rest, including those that were linked to the empty tomb and the resurrection, had a less reliable provenance, and had been added years after his crucifixion.
The Jesus that emerges from this research is a secular moral teacher who, rather than appealing to moral or religious law, taught by parables that emphasised the human heart and going beyond what is expected of us. We should love one another including our enemies, go further than asked, and if someone sues you for your coat in court, give him your cloak, too. Jesus told his followers to be non-judgmental, or rather to judge themselves before they judged others – remove the plank from your own eye rather than the speck of sawdust in someone else’s.
Jesus’s was an ethic of non-violence and non-retaliation, a radical non-violence that told people who had been struck on one cheek to turn so that their attacker could hit the other one, too. Cupitt sees in this something akin to the doctrine of ahimsa, the ancient Indian principle of non-violence common to Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sikhism, an approach adopted by Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Cupitt himself, though for some time a priest in the Anglican church, came to describe himself as a Christian non-realist – someone who was inspired by Christian teaching but who did not believe that God was real in the sense of existing independently of human thought and interpretation.
Not surprisingly, as someone who described Christmas as “the Disneyfication of Christianity” Cupitt was a controversial figure within the church. It would be easy to dismiss him as simply projecting his own views on to the historical Jesus, finding a thinker he’d like to find, but his view of him as a moralist advocating a clear and simple human-centred approach to life, a utopian thinker with a vision of how human relationships could be, is intriguing. And this image of morality as flowing from human compassion, love and goodwill, rather than from law-like principles, can appeal to religious believer, agnostic, and atheist alike.
As a prologue to his book, Cupitt reprints William Blake’s poem The Divine Image, which includes this stanza:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
The poem ends with the lines:
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
Given enough leeway in the interpretation of what “God” means (and Cupitt has written of it as “a mythical embodiment of all that one is concerned with in the spiritual life”), that is as good a Christmas message as any.