Sunday, 5 August 2012

Sunday Sermon: Soteriology; The Gospel of Empathy

Good morning Everything! You are all things and all things are in you, of you and through you. We worship you because it is not possible to do otherwise. Thank you for the privilege of life and consciousness. Thank you for all continuing revelation. Bless your scientists as they land the new Mars Rover on Mars tomorrow afternoon. We await new knowledge of you with anticipation. Help us to do thy will. Amen.


The more I attempt to determine Jesus' historical message the less I want to write about it. His theology about the coming of 'The Kingdom' and his own central place in this plan, especially in retrospect, is not flattering at all, to him or his followers. If he was alive today he would be considered a nutjob, and rightly so. I don't see any point covering that up but it's certainly not what I want to get at either.

It's not the love and forgiveness stuff in itself I want to get at either, though that is very attractive, apparently liberal, doctrine. The important thing about "Love thy neighbour as thyself" and even "Love your enemies" is that they are quotes from Jewish scripture. That is, Christian love as taught is a Jewish idea, not an innovation of Jesus. I would go so far as to say that claiming these quotes as innovations of Jesus and hence Christianity is anti-semitic. The claim depends upon a degrading and misrepresentative caricature of the Jewish religion (as does Pauline Christianity in general, in a way).

The historian Josephus tells a story where Jews, protesting the installation of busts of Caesar in Jerusalem, were surrounded by Roman soldiers and ordered to yield. The protestors bared their throats and told the soldiers to kill them, and eventually Pilate backed down. Apparently even the power of non-violent action was not an invention of Jesus or Christianity. I think this is an important point.

For a full discussion of the non-uniqueness of Jesus' message, my source is EP Sanders', The Historical Figure of Jesus, 1993.

But that doesn't go far enough and to attribute the Golden Rule to the Jews would still be implicitly racist. The thing about 'The Golden Rule' is that it comes from everywhere. One does have to admire Jesus' (and the translator's) turn of phrase in, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you", and it is absolutely right for Christians to hold the principle in great importance, but it does not arise with Jesus and does not belong to Christianity. It belongs to everyone, and it appears as written Logos in dozens of places, times and languages. Rather than repeat intellectual labour that others have done better than I could, I refer you to Wikipedia for a good summary of the origins of the Golden Rule.

The thing that interests me in the Sermon on the Mount, the thing I'm calling, "The Gospel of Empathy," is more specific than just the Golden Rule because, although I've never seen anyone argue this, it appears to be a salvation message, a personal equation for Jesus' followers to seek forgiveness ('remission of sins') without needing to go through a whole lot of sacrifices, purity rituals and temple stuff. Jesus had no intention to be permissive, as some interpret Jesus injunction to "Judge not" (Matthew 7:1). He was very clear he wanted his followers to be very righteous indeed (5:48), according to Jewish Law, and that their 'perfect' righteousness was imminently crucial as the Jewish Kingdom was about to come, in some way defeating the Romans and bringing in a new dispensation (like, pretty much any time, maybe at the next Passover in Jerusalem). It was in this context that he gave them their means to salvation, meant as an imminently accessible ritual adjunct to actually being righteous from now on. Just not sinning any more was not enough, in Jewish Law or in the comprehension of Jesus.

So far I probably have a few Christians nodding eagerly because this is the narrative of Christian soteriology ('the doctrine of salvation'), at least up to this point. But at this point Christian theologians will start talking about Jesus' gruesome death, 'the atoning power of his blood', the slaughtering of lambs in the Old Testament, and the like, none of which Jesus actually taught. Dare I suggest that Jesus taught a gospel, a message of 'salvation', while he was alive? Furthermore, did it really depend on his person? On whether or not folk call the messenger, "Lord, Lord" (7:22)? In short, might he have offered us something useful, however accidentally? I think he did.

In short the equation appears to be that we are forgiven our faults by forgiving others, and that we are completely forgiven if we have completely forgiven the faults of others. By this interpretation, "Judge not that ye be not judged" (7:1) is the climax and key point of the Sermon and the key to interpreting the rest of it. The equation is also in the prayer (6:12), "Forgive us as we forgive" and immediately after the prayer it is interpreted explicitly, "For if you forgive your heavenly Father will forgive you" (6:14). That seems pretty clear.

Once you see the equation you see it more, and indeed the rest of the Sermon fills out the theme in different ways. Worry about the mote in our own eye (7:4). "Love your enemies..." etc so that "ye may be the children of your father." (5:44-45).

Interestingly in the very first book of the New Testament written, Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, blood atonement is not mentioned, but this salvation atonement is: "Jesus made you abound in love toward one another and toward all humans to the end that he may establish your hearts unblameable."(3:12-13; my italics). This is the earliest known Christian document.

Can we note that not even Moses in himself was essential to Jewish salvation and the idea that Jesus taught that belief in him was essential to salvation, is barely plausible. Within Jewish thought that doesn't mean Jesus might not claim to be a great man of God, a prophet, a healer, an exorcist, even 'the messiah', which in context would imply that the people of his generation should believe him and follow him, but that does not make his person essential to salvation - such an idea certainly would be heretical, it is not in Jesus' teaching, and doesn't make historical sense. The messenger is not the message.

In contemporary terms (ie. ignoring the historical Jesus almost entirely) the principle is that we can be cured of anxiety and guilt over our flaws and mistakes - a very common, everyday condition of many ordinary people - by forgiving the flaws and mistakes of others. The proposition is that this works, it is potentially contagious especially if reinforced in a tight community, and may even help us explain both Jesus' popularity and his heresy. It is challenging to find any statement of Jesus that is actually heretical according to Jewish Law. If he was actually saying that remission of sins could happen by the act of forgiveness of others - ie it is in any Jew's imminent power - that would be heretical - and popular.

So what's the point of all this? There's two really. Firstly I think this is a way forward for Christians and the Christian church. The blood of Jesus stuff is archaic and, despite Jesus' own warnings against this, ties the notion of 'salvation' up with the messenger - with him. But to preach salvation from 'sin' (flaws, mistakes, addictions, depression, whatever) by means of the act of forgiveness of others - now that can still be a powerful doctrine, potentially a uniquely Christian yoga. Arguably, if you like, it is the hope of the world.

But secondly it is a practical principle. Most of life - relationships, politics, law, diplomacy - is so complicated that it's hard to test the proposition, but I find traffic a good, controlled testing ground for forgiveness. When some complete dickhead cuts you off, try actively forgiving them immediately. For one thing until you do your day will be crap and your driving will be more dangerous - that's a practical insight in itself. Meanwhile your anger will be having precisely zero impact on the dickhead. And when I think about it and consider why I might have been angry in the first place, is it possible it is because I know I've done exactly the same thing before? In my case anyway I can say yes, that's quite possible, in most of these types of situations. If nothing else the insight makes forgiveness easy.

So there it is, The Gospel of Empathy. I'm going to leave the Jesus sermons here for now because I want to travel East. But I will inevitably come back to Jesus. Humanity is stuck with him regardless of our various religions. Every religious tradition seems to have a take on him, our atheists, humanists and mystics are all obsessed with him, not to mention our historians. His story has become one of the universal stories of human civilisation, and the House of Every can only reflect that. It is a story however which, like all stories, must live and breathe.

Every, thank you for this opportunity to teach your word. I pray that I may do Logos some justice, and provide a fresh and fruitful perspective for my readers, and that if I have failed in this, that my readers not be deceived, and forgive my errors. So be it.


  1. Hamish I really like your framing of the gospel of empathy as Christian yoga. Yoga can mean union and this seems
    appropriate as the path of forgiveness seems to encourage a recognition, in all our diversity, of how we might be alike. Your driving story illustrated this well, I thought. Could you talk more about who is doing the forgiving? If Everything is another way of saying All That Is, but is NOT an interventionist supernatural being, who is it that is forgiving us? Is it that we forgive ourselves and in so doing find the compassion to treat others with respect and in peace? I have never been able to forgive anyone until I could touch, even fleetingly, the position they held; or found in myself the capacity for wahtever behaviour has offended or hurt me. Until I can soften my judgement of my own *shadows* my heart remains a little bit hardened to others. Thanks for the Sunday morning reflection. I will practice this Christian yoga to see if, like my other yoga practice, it leads me towads a strong centre and a softening of edges. I love you. Dawn

  2. To your question Dawn, "Who is doing the forgiving?", I think you thought your way through to the answer yourself when you then asked, "Is it that we forgive ourselves and in so doing find the compassion to treat others with respect and in peace?" I think that's essentially what is occurring.

    IF is a mechanism with which we can unite our reason and ego with the complicated unconscious machinery of our psychology. It's a powerful mechanism in my view, that if not consciously utilised is capable of carrying on having a big impact anyway. It is a mechanism which makes use of well articulated abstractions - people, gods, 'spirits'. However there is no reason at all why we need have any illusions about what we're doing.

    That's the thesis re: prayer anyway. Some may be disappointed that it strips the magic from prayer, but for me it is potentially exciting.