William Gayley Simpson
Tribute and Re-Appraisal.
The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the friend of all Mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the blind,
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy heaven-doors are my hell-gates….
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou reads black where I read white.
—William Blake: The Everlasting Gospel
A quarter of a century of further experience and thought have gradually but steadily weaned me away from that Jesus who had stood before my mind and heart through the days and nights of my Franciscan venture—as in a vision. Many of the pages of this chapter, originally penned in 1939, I could not write now. Nevertheless, the inspiration that I originally got from Jesus probably had more to do in determining the basic direction and the essential and enduring character of my life than any other that I have ever known—if only because it came to me in the formative days of my youth. And I am satisfied that this book would be incomplete and inadequate for its purpose if it did not contain something more about Jesus than is to be found in my series of papers dating back to the Forties.
It is not so much that I owe Jesus any further tribute. Any tribute I could pay in words must pale beside the stark fact that for nine years I literally laid my own life at his feet. But inevitably the consequences of this experience so worked into and permanently determined the very tissue and texture of all my innermost being—my dedication to truth, to beauty, to right, to the elevation of the life of man, that there is revealed, more fully and accurately than anywhere else, what manner of scales it is in which the civilization of the West is to be weighed in this book. Whether or not it is “Christian” each reader will have to decide for himself. But certainly religion, when it is vital, when it embodies what men live by and live for, what they hold most true and beautiful and sacred, is the most formative power in the world. And in my Franciscan days my conception of Jesus was the very embodiment of my religion. And if now it wound some of my readers to learn that I have moved on, let them ask themselves and face honestly, whether the same love for men and the same devotion to the truth as he saw it, which made Jesus what he was in the Gospels, might not have compelled even him to alter his course and to move on into new fields and new thought, if he had lived long enough to learn the lessons that his own experience might have taught him. What I myself have moved on to (was compelled by my very honesty, intelligence, and devotion to move on to), will gradually be revealed. But I suspect that an ineradicable element of Jesus still remains in it, and will remain to the end. Let us now see, therefore, what Jesus meant to me—meant to me even ten years after my Franciscan venture had come to an end.
But at this word let none of my readers settle back to go to sleep. Jesus, as I conceive him, is not for the conventional, or for the orthodox either. For me in my Franciscan days, he was no less dynamite than Nietzsche was later. Perhaps, if any of my readers be good Church people, they will find themselves wondering how in the world they could ever have read, and heard their preachers read, year after year, the words in the Gospels about Jesus, and ascribed to Jesus, without letting such a picture form in their minds as the words properly call forth. Well, they that have ears to hear, let them hear, even now. Let them ask themselves whether the Jesus that I picture doesn’t fit the words better than any other they have ever seen, whether it doesn’t make more sense, answer the troublesome questions, and—above all—bring before us a man who was real, who was alive, and who moves us to this day as no Jesus of the conventional and orthodox mold ever did or ever could.
But after this Foreword, let me now step aside and leave my reader alone with these words that I wrote about Jesus in 1939.
* * * * * * * * *
Jesus is for everyone. So the Church has taught. So practically all the world takes for granted.
But gradually it has come to seem to me preposterous that Jesus and his message could ever have been so conceived. Do we expect everyone to understand the theory of atomic fission, or to appreciate the last quartets of Beethoven? The treasures and deep secrets of the universe do not lie so open as this. In truth, they are very well guarded. Neither force nor presumption will ever unlock them. And in Jesus there was one greater than either Beethoven or our foremost physicist. To understand such a seer, one must be very much of a seer oneself. There is no other way.
But in trying to make the teaching of Jesus a teaching for everyone, it was inevitable that the teaching should be dragged down to the level of those to whom it was preached. That is, it was perverted into the opposite of Jesus. Sheep (which the great masses of people are) can hardly be expected to appreciate the virtues of the lion. And while Jesus was tender, he was no less terrible. We have remembered his talk of love (as is natural to sheep), but we have almost entirely ignored (as again is natural) his insistence on the place of hate and of the sword—or, if you prefer, of really having one master, and keeping one’s eye utterly single, and of having a God whom you love with your entire being.
Organized Christianity has looked too long and too far afield for the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ is none other than Jesus himself. For “Christ” is the name for what Christianity has made of Jesus, and what Christianity has made of Jesus is the opposite of what Jesus himself actually was.
Let me turn first to examine the conception covered by the word “Christ,” which, in the large, is the conception of Jesus that organized Christianity has been giving to the world since it first became a significant institution. It is the conception that has been the established, the prevailing, and the orthodox view of the Church, the conception—by the way—with which I grew up. We will try, next, to piece together from the fragments of historical evidence that have come down to us, what sort of person Jesus himself must actually have been. And in each case, both for the conception that is behind the word “Christ” and for the conception I put behind the word “Jesus,” we will examine his mission, his teaching about life, and the field where he chose to plant his seed.
First, then, I present the view of the Church.
The mission of the Christ was to “save the world.” There was a transaction between the “Father” and the “Son,” and the Son’s part in this, the Christ’s part, was to “pay the price.” Man’s part may have been to “believe in” him, which was to believe something about him, believe that he was God, or that he actually did pay the price. But the Christ’s part was to die for man’s sin and so to “make atonement” for man’s shortcomings, to “fix it up” with God. Such was the belief, and such was the teaching.
In fulfillment of this mission, the only parts of his life that really were relevant were his alleged virgin birth, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. Conception without bodily passion made it possible for a divine life to enter human flesh. Thus was it ensured that the destined victim should be man paying the price for man, and yet divine, so that the sacrifice could have the necessary value to compensate for the sins committed.
The life thus conceived is not so much superhuman as un-human. It has no organic connection with human life. It is shaped according to the cold hard demands of an abstract, mechanical and mechanizing logic. It is something done for man, to be sure, yet neither as inspiration nor as example. It is merely the fulfillment of a transaction.
In Protestantism, of course, and in so-called modern times (as I shall point out later), there has been an effort to stress the significance of Christ’s life and his place as a reformer, but it never really fitted in with the rest of the picture nor was it ever very effective.
Of Christ’s psychology (according to the Church), of the thinking that went on in his head in connection with his part in the transaction, it can only be said that it was utterly unreal. He might as well have had no head. Certainly he did not need any. Anything in the way of a problem, or consequent doubt, was pure pose and pretense. He knew from the beginning why he was on Earth and how his life must end. And as he had divine power there was never any question but that he would carry out his part faithfully and fully. He was an actor with his role all laid out for him. Indeed, he was little better than a puppet pulled by heavenly strings.
With us, on the other hand, the greatest struggle is not so much to do what one sees, as to see—amidst all the conflict of values and loyalties, to be sure. We fail not so much from lack of courage as from lack of certitude. Which is to say that the experience of the Christ simply lies outside our world. It does not touch us. It is dead, alien, other, mechanical—like a dynamo, if you will, something that we may be able to use for our advantage, but which really does not touch the springs of our own human existence. The teaching, therefore, that the Christ really took human flesh upon himself and was “in all points tempted like as we are,” simply has no foundation. It would hardly be too much to say that it is a hoax.
The character that the Christ manifested was quite in keeping with his life purpose. He was sinless. And indeed, as this purpose was conceived, this was logically necessary. The sin against an infinite God could not be paid for by the death of any ordinary man, but only by the death of one who was perfect. So—the Christ, though “tempted like as we are,” was yet “without sin.”
Moreover, the “perfection” that we see consists largely of the feminine, and herd, virtues. The Christ is represented as the essence of unselfishness, charitableness, forgiveness, humility, patience, pity. His life was one of doing good, of helping others, of service. For the ordinary churchgoer, it is epitomized in his parable of the Good Samaritan and in the miracles of healing. He is the Good Shepherd, the Shepherd of the sheep. His work was largely an expression of pity—for the weak, the sick, the defective, the inferior, the suffering and the sorrowful. He is love all over.
And as for his teaching about life, this, like the kind of life he lived, was really, or at least logically, without significance. All that finally counted was his death, his paying the price on the cross.
In reform movements, to be sure, the effort has been made, as already intimated, to stress Christ’s teaching and his example, but really this effort has always been brought to nought by residues of the orthodox belief or by the almost total lack of comprehension of what Jesus’ teaching was.
The orthodox teaching has been, virtually, (1) that all of us are born in sin, are evil, and in and of ourselves are worms and nothings; (2) that on this Earth we cannot be like Jesus, since he was God and we are human; (3) that, moreover, we do not need to be like Jesus, since he “fixes it up” for our shortcomings, anyway. Look at the logic of it: no one can be like Jesus; no one need be like Jesus. The natural conclusion, and in any case the actual result, is that no one tries to be like Jesus. The most conspicuous thing about the life in the Christian Church is the almost total absence of any wholehearted attempt to put the teaching of Jesus into practice. Everyone is content to do the very thing that Jesus himself condemned: everyone cries “Lord, Lord,” but no one addresses himself to the difficult and painful, yet always possible task of actually doing what “the Lord” so obviously said.
And why should anyone do so? Such teaching as we have had, has cut the very taproot of moral earnestness and spiritual endeavor. It may all be very true that none shall see for another, not one; and none eat for another, not one; and none climb for another, not one; that none, God, man or devil, so long as we remain responsible growing creatures, shall take the place of, or be any substitute for, any other. But seeing, eating, climbing, and getting over hurdles and recovering from falls are all costly, perhaps painful. And in most people there is a lazy streak. If they can be made to believe that there is an elevator to the top of the mountain, they will ride rather than climb. And they flock to bargain counters. They love to get much for little, something for nothing, and are all too ready to get into the show without paying if they can believe that free tickets are available. Of course it is all a delusion. None can stand for another; and there is no substitute whatever for our own struggle. He who would get the view and the air that go with mountaintops, must himself climb there. There is no other way. But the teaching that has been given to us has lulled to sleep men who could have climbed, and would have climbed, so that they have laid down and, spiritually, died in their tracks. And each man who makes a mistake pays the price, internally if not externally; and he pays it immediately. If, with his soul, he sees one thing and yet allows himself to do another, that soul of his, his sensitiveness to all that is a matter of value, his aliveness in the realm of all life’s meanings, will go a little bit soft, lose its edge, and begin to die. If he keeps on thus, it will die altogether. And there is no forgiveness whatever, either of man or of God, that can make him as he was before. He shall never be where he was before, let alone go higher, until again and again he shall have met the same sort of issue in which before he was false, and this time proved true. The law is: Do what you see or go blind. Everyone is entrusted with a measure of spiritual comprehension—some with a measure that might be represented by “ten talents,” and others with only five or one. How much one starts with does not so much matter. But there is one law that holds equally for all: if you use what you have you will get more. But if for any reason you fail to use it, if you take it and, as it were, wrap it in a napkin and bury it in the ground, you will wake up at last to discover that even what you started with has been taken away.
And this is the worst of the matter. The worst is not that the Church has perpetrated upon mankind a pious hoax, and turned the life and teaching of Jesus into a piece of hocus-pocus, an imaginary transaction to counteract imaginary sin to get people into an imaginary heaven. (For there is no such heaven as people picture, and the sins people labor under are mostly of man’s making, and the transaction never took place.) Neither is the worst that the Church has made promises that are utterly impossible to fulfill and that thereby people are lulled into a false sense of security.
It is rather that they are thus led to trifle with the only real Life, with their spiritual potentialities, with the comprehension, the instinct, the sensitiveness, intuition and living impulse, which alone can lift them to heights and hang rainbows over them, and give them stars—in short, give their days on Earth some meaning, some value, some significance. It is the crime of the Church against Life not only that it promises a life it does not and cannot give, but that it takes away from men the real life they did have, and which might have gone no one knows how far. In the beginning they saw, but led by the Church to believe that doing is not necessary, that Jesus will “fix it up” with God, it comes about that they “see and do not”—as Jesus said of the Pharisees. (Matt. 23:3) And presently they are not able any longer even to see. They “see and do not” and are not aware that they do not do. They are false and do not know that they are false. They are stone-blind, and it never enters their heads that they are blind. All sense of reality in their moral and spiritual existence has vanished. They live in an artificial world, a world of imaginary values, which cuts them off from all actuality, so that their organic spiritual existence slowly starves to death. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t eat. It doesn’t digest, assimilate, or excrete. Shut off from food and light and air, it languishes and dies. Dies because it never exerted itself, never kicked, or used its fists, or raised its voice, or got up and went anywhere. It allowed itself slowly to be wound about with grave-cloths, over its eyes, and ears, and mouth, and around its arms and hands, and legs and feet. And now it’s a mummy. People walk around, talk and laugh, but within their breasts all the while is a mummy, a dead thing, a corpse. And presently it rots, and stinks, and infects, and poisons everyone who comes near. Until today almost our whole society is poisoned—poisoned above all with false values, which make our whole direction false, and the sickness is so prevalent that it escapes notice and is looked upon as health, while the truly healthy man, instead of being recognized as the norm and held up for admiration, is regarded with suspicion and pressed to become sick like the rest.
And it is the Church, with its paralyzing conception “Christ,” that has done this thing. The Church has been the great enemy of the Life of man. In the parable, the sower sowed seed in his field, hoping that it would grow each according to its kind, in fulfillment of the shape and color and strength it bore within itself. But in the night an enemy came and sowed tares in the field. But the tares were not so bad as what the Church has done to the field. With the tares the seed could at least struggle. Some of it might come to be what it was meant to be. But the Church has sterilized the soil, so that nothing would grow at all—so that even the weeds grow sickly. The Church has taken away man’s belief in his innermost self, which is his belief in Life. It has taken away his struggle, without which there is no growth, no fulfillment. It has not, as it were, told the seed that it was a life-and-death necessity to struggle—to get its own roots deep down into the soil, to food and drink, and to force its tender shoots up towards the sky, to sun and air. On the contrary, it has told the seed that all this costly and painful labor has been done for it, by another, and that if only the seed would accept this as fact and rest in it, eventually it would be transplanted to another garden and be miraculously transformed into full-grown and perfect flowers. But there isn’t any other garden. Regardless of locale, all life is one. So that the net result is that the garden remains barren and bare. The seed, which might have come to every sort of flower and fruit, comes to nothing. It rots in the ground. And it was this that made Nietzsche to declare that the two greatest stupefiers of the Western world have been alcohol and Christianity.1
To be sure, a measure of moral earnestness has persisted in the face of the Church teaching. There have been those ready to ask what we must think of the sincerity, not to mention the divinity, of a teacher who tells men to do what he knows beforehand they cannot do. Ever and anon, therefore, it has been insisted that Jesus meant just what he said, as for example, by men as far apart in time and space as St. Francis, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Bernard Shaw. But the effort to take Jesus’ teaching seriously and to find some vital significance in his life as well as in his death has been nearly all misdirected owing to the gross misunderstanding as to what Jesus’ purpose was.
Among modern “liberals,” effort has evidenced its lack of comprehension, as well as its lack of really deep moral earnestness, by taking its departure from the parable of the Good Samaritan and the conception of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The emphasis has been on the herd virtues, and in our midst has appeared the “social gospel,” which its protagonists have thought to be of profound significance, a great rediscovery of Jesus. Everybody accordingly wanted to find some place where he could “help others”—some slum, some feeble-minded, some heathen, some underprivileged, some sick, or sorrowful, or suffering. Would you be a true Christian, then—“do good.” “Service” became the cry of the age. Presently everything became “service”—even government, even profit-seeking and profit-making business. Service! And everyone tried to find someone or something to “do good” to. It was the way of being Christian, of putting Jesus’ teaching into practice. That is to say, it was the way of climbing in the social scale of the religious world—of gaining virtue, especially the name of virtue, with all the powers that go with the name. Though of course it was all very “unselfish.” The unselfishness was inherent in the doing good. To do good, one had to be “unselfish,” don’t you know?
No, I am afraid that I do not know anything of the kind. What I do know is that all this had rather little to do with the teaching of Jesus. Actually, it was but another artifice by which men avoided the teaching of Jesus, and yet hid from their own eyes the fact that they were avoiding it. It was another means of self-deception. They put up as the teaching of Jesus what in truth was not the teaching of Jesus, or at best, but an incidental part of it. And then, with this relatively easy and unimportant thing done, they let themselves feel self-righteous and superior: they were in the light, in the spiritual vanguard of mankind; it was their mission to open the eyes of their benighted brethren, the believers in the old-fashioned Gospel, to the “selfishness” of trying to get one’s own little soul to heaven. One must forget one’s self, even one’s soul, and become unselfish, utterly absorbed, like the Good Shepherd, like them, in “helping others.” And yet all the while, commonly, they were only running away from themselves, and dressing up this running away so that they would not see that they were running away.
To be sure, wherever the human heart has been sensitive and has felt an underlying unity with the life of all mankind, men have tended to lend a hand as they went the way that belonged to them, and have undertaken to remedy abuses under which other people were crushed or broken. And whenever society has been soundly constituted, it has been recognized that the welfare of the mass of the people was one of the first responsibilities of those in power. But all this to-do about the social gospel, this tearing around to change someone else or to effect some reform has never had anything very deep about it, or significant, nothing especially connected with what distinguished the life and teaching of Jesus. Certainly he never talked, as the social gospelites talk so fulsomely, about “advancing” the Kingdom of God. I venture to say this conception never so much as entered his head. He does not seem to have shared our idea of progress, and maybe we shall get over it after a while.
Jesus did not envisage an advance of the whole mass. The possibility of movement depended on seeing, and see the mass of the people could not. They were without either eyes or ears for the world he lived in. For his purposes they were dead, debris, obstruction to those who could move, trees that could not bring forth fruit and were fit only to be cut down and burned. For him the Kingdom of God was nothing that required any “advancing.” It was not like some old prairie wagon or royal chariot that had to be pushed laboriously up a hill. The Kingdom of God did not require any doing-to-it at all. It already was, it existed, as a present reality. It was a way of seeing life, oneself, other people, the world, the universe. It was a way of seeing that made everything look profoundly different. It was a way of seeing that depended upon having a certain kind of eyes, a new and added faculty of perception, which most people lacked. And the whole task was to live then and there according to this different way of seeing, right in the face of a world that was blind to it. Obviously, therefore, he was no reformer. Success at reform depends upon being ahead, but only a little ahead, of the thinking of one’s day, upon rallying to one’s support large numbers of very mediocre people (if one goes in for numbers, they will of necessity be mediocre); of being sheep enough to attract sheep and to hold onto sheep. One must not put up the hurdles too high. One must not go too far ahead, lest one lose one’s hold on the sheep and fail to keep them at one’s heels.
But no such was Jesus. He was no sheep, and he was not looking for sheep. He did nothing to attract the mass or to keep the mass with him. He was one who had cut loose from the mass, cut all the bonds by which the mass could hold him, and was bent on going as far as he could go, though he had to go entirely alone. He did not try to reform anything—not poverty, or slavery, or prostitution, or war. He believed that if one had eyes for that kind of seeing that belongs to the Kingdom of God, and could be severe enough on oneself to live according to one’s own seeing rather than the world’s, this simple living of one’s own honest life, this mere letting one’s light shine, would in the long run count more, even as regards change in social institutions, than any kind of social tinkering and patching, more even than any revolution that stopped short with a mere change in society’s externals. He believed in direct action. He believed in beginning with what was nearest, with himself, where he was. Here was his first responsibility, here the effect was most sure, and here his ability to produce the effect was greatest. In any case, effect or no effect, if he was sincere, here he must begin. If he really believed so much in this better world the social gospelites raise such a sweat about, it would be necessary for him to get at least himself ready actually to live in such a world.
But not so the social gospelites. Simply to be an honest man, simply to stake everything on being true to one’s own highest vision, that would be too small a task for one of their capabilities. Moreover, if such a course were not tangibly and demonstrably effective in helping somebody, saving somebody, or ameliorating some social condition, it was all “selfishness”—and the thought of any sort of selfishness was abhorrent to the social gospelites. It was all right even to keep a slave in your own kitchen if only it gained you more time to talk against slavery! But all the while, to those who had eyes, it was evident enough that the social gospelite was moved by the same selfishness that in other people he condemned. Only in him it was more odious, because it was not honest and aboveboard. In fact, his sanctimonious philosophizing was but an effort to avoid that most difficult and painful and costly task of putting his own ideals and convictions into practice, by letting himself become engrossed in taking those ideals and convictions to other people. His dishonesty, his cowardice, his lack of real love, all the escapism of it, he hid from his own eyes by turning it into a duty, a mission, the very imitation of Christ himself. And thus, at little cost to his own comfort, he was able to sun himself in the feeling that he was better than other people, and to rise to one of the front seats of the synagogue.
Another attempt to take Jesus’ life and teaching seriously is very well illustrated by Tolstoy. But Tolstoy lacked the direct inner perception and simplicity of the child of the spirit. He was a rationalist. For every position he took he had to have his reasons—if necessary, even to the fiftieth. And the teaching contained in Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount, the spirit of which is like air and light, he undertook to grasp and fasten in the hard iron grip of his mind. But behold! when he opened his hand, all that was there were “Jesus’ five little rules,” as he called them: the light and life that are in the Sermon on the Mount were gone. Passed through the mill of his mind, all that came out was—another moral code. And by no code, by no rules of conduct, can anyone live, though it be the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount, so long as it be received as a set of fixed forms of right behavior. For all life, so long as it remains alive, lives from within, from within itself, according to its own bent and direction, and not according to any set forms, however ideal some mind may have conceived them. The idealizing power of the mind becomes a dead hand on life when we allow it to force our living impulses into deeds and ways of approved and standardized pattern. No unspoiled and untamed life ever wants to “be good.” It wants to be itself. It scorns human approval, and refuses to twist itself out of shape in order to be like others. Unspoiled life is ever breaking the moral codes of society, in order to be true to itself. It has its own good and its own evil, which are in sternest and strictest relation to an inner behest. For it ever lives by the impulse that comes from the depths of its innermost being.2
Jesus, therefore, cannot be useful to us even as an example. If we make him our pattern and authority, if we take what he said as true because he said it, or try to do what he did because he did it, then he whom men have thought of as their Saviour will become our destroyer. For, again, all that lives must live from within itself. What a man does and the way he goes must come out of what he himself sees and believes, as his fingernails come out of his blood, as leaves come out of a tree. Otherwise his deeds are like a foliage that has been, as it were, pinned on a tree, pinned on for the sake of some concern for appearance that he has not enough pride and love of life in him to despise and hate and refuse. Foliage, which, moreover, the first storm will strip off, leaving him naked and exposed to the public gaze for what he really is. But when a little oak sapling, a few inches high, finds itself growing in the presence of a maple tree a hundred feet tall and over a hundred years old, it does not, for all its immaturity, try to copy the older and bigger tree. And if the oak sapling did thus try to copy the maple tree, what kind of an oak tree would you get? Nor when you plant a potato in the ground does it roll its eye around to see how the cabbage grows. But each, so long as it lives, struggles with all the strength in it, to unfold after its own kind, after the shape and color and size it bears within its own heart.
There is no use, therefore, in trying to wear the coat that Jesus wore. It might have fitted him perfectly. But he had a different father and mother from any one of us. He lived in a different age, and its problems were different. There is no coat made that will fit you or me. We must grow our own as a turtle grows its own shell, as every son of woman grows his own skin. If we try to wear another man’s coat, it will only bind us when we come to strike a blow, so that we cannot swing with our full force; or its long sleeves, dangling (it may be) below our finger tips, will get our hands all tangled up just when they are suddenly needed to grasp a situation. No, regardless of what kind of a figure we may cut, the only way is to keep our own coat. That will never come off, and, like one’s naked skin, it will fit perfectly. There is nothing else in which a man can run so fleetly, or strike so hard, or dance with such abandon.
Therefore, let not a man copy Jesus. What he is to follow is not Jesus, but what Jesus himself followed. Let him find the God within himself, and let him love that God, as Jesus loved his, with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his strength, and all his mind—with all the passion of his being. Let him realize that this God within him is his real Self, the core of himself, what he is in his innermost being, and that He contains all the promise of what he may become. The will of his God is his own holiest and deepest desire. And in finding Him he has come home—to himself. Therefore let a man stand forth in what he really is: and in obeying every glance and whispered behest of his innermost will, let him be as ready to be a child, or a fool, or a “failure” as Jesus was. Then will he also speak with authority and not like the Scribes. And he will not need to quote Jesus and the Prophets to bolster up his own uncertainty. He will be as ready, if need be, to say of Jesus and the Prophets, as Jesus said of Moses and the Prophets, “They have told you so and so, but I tell you the direct opposite.” And his authority? His own experience—his own inner perception. He sees, and what he sees he says, and does—and that is enough.
As our inspirer, therefore, Jesus serves us, or not at all. But—yet again his inspiration is to be ourselves, as he was himself—not at all to get men to copy after him, to turn themselves into an imitation of him, which must ever be but a poor thing as compared with the original. Even as the sun, in its shining, does not attempt to turn every plant it shines upon into a sunflower, but to make all that grows more alive after its own kind.
We have been examining what lies behind the concept “Christ,” which is what the Church, down through the centuries, has made of Jesus. And we have seen that in its most direct results it turned men away from life, sucked life out of them, was the arch-betrayer of the Life in men. Under its touch men died, died in their souls, remained dead in life, as under the touch of some leprosy or some creeping palsy. And even when there has been an effort to take the life and teaching of Jesus seriously, it has resulted in little more than the soft sentimentality of humanitarianism and the escapism and hypocrisy latent in the social gospel, or in the barrenness and slavery of another moral code.
All this, obviously enough, was exactly suited to the plane on which the masses of the people of every land and age have always lived. It was suited to people of little perception and feeble aspiration, weak of will and recoiling from pain, afraid to think for themselves or to stand alone, feeling freest and most content when they were like everyone else (or at least, not too unlike)—grains of sand in a sand pile, knowing nothing of a life of their own, seized with panic at the thought of undertaking to stand up in the face of the world and of the universe by a certainty and a strength they found wholly and solely within themselves. In short, it was for the sheep. And as the sheep are in the overwhelming majority and naturally always seek to enhance their importance, and in this case, moreover, were making the pronouncement, they have always declared that their religion was a universal one, it was for all men, its field was the world. And if there were any for whom it was intended especially, it was for the poor, the weak, the sick, the defeated, the lowly, and sinners and outcasts. But there was one part of the population to whom it really offered nothing. These were the well-constituted, and healthy, and beautiful, and capable, and strong, and proud. But as these were relatively few, and as it was always the part of the sheep to bring down these people who carried their heads high and who walked much alone, and to infect them with the sickness of the mass and to make them also like the rest, it was to be expected that no exception should be made for them. It applied to them even though, as yet, it was still rejected. Ultimately it was indeed—for everybody.
But such a position as this Jesus himself would have been one of the first to reject, and in no uncertain terms. And I should like now to present, in contrast to what the Church has made of Jesus, what it seems to me Jesus himself and his teaching were actually like. The material for this picture I gather almost entirely from the so-called Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These, as scholars have long recognized, and as the word “synoptic” itself means, were written from a common point of view. They are the earliest of the four Gospels, and, as against John, they are in very substantial agreement with one another. So that, if one wants an authentic record of what Jesus actually did and said, the nearest he can come to it is in these three Gospels. John, on the other hand, is in an entirely different class. It is not, and on the whole I should say it rather obviously is not intended to be, an historical record. It has, rather, all the atmosphere of an interpretation. It was an attempt, on the part of its author, to represent what Jesus had meant to him. But in any case, this picture of Jesus in John cannot be reconciled with the picture of Jesus presented in the Synoptics. It is simply impossible. One must take one’s choice. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus really walks the Earth, and his body has substance and weight. Whereas in John he does not walk, he moves, as one might imagine a ghost moving, without legs, as a shadow moves. In the Synoptics Jesus’ voice vibrates to his changing mood. His spirit loves and hates, and caresses and curses, and pleads and labors, or exults and sings and dances. It is vibrant, flexible, varied. But in John it seems always hushed, repressed, pious, something like the tone in which the preacher today reads it. The book has no passion in it, no reality. You can put your hand through it, as it seems you could have through Jesus’ body. The whole atmosphere of it is repressed, oriental, ethereal, supernal, eerie. How can anyone let the statements of a book like that stand against the contrary statements of books like the Synoptics? From the latter, in spite of the rubbish of the miracles, you feel standing forth the figure of a man who, whatever else he may have been, was real, who could bleed and who could stab.
But worse than this is the complete change as regards the person, and purpose, and teaching of Jesus. In the Synoptics the important thing was how you lived, what you loved, and how much you loved. Jesus does not point to himself. Rather he always points on to God. What one thinks of him does not greatly matter. A man cries, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life”—or, as we should more likely put it today, “What must I do if I want really to live?” Jesus had reason to consider his answer well, and his answer was, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all the passion of thy being; and thy neighbor as thyself. This do, and thou shalt live.” Really live. Know what really living is. But there is no mention of himself. This saying, however, is confined to the Synoptics.
In John, on the other hand, Jesus occupies the center of the stage, and the stage is a time-less and place-less stage, a world-stage, a stage suspended in the middle of the universe—in short, an unreal stage. And from this stage, this imaginary stage, he utters eternal truths for all mankind. He does not talk to the actual individual or group of people in front of him. They are almost like dummies, stooges, set there to give Jesus a show of justification for a long disquisition on some idea or other. And it seems that he speaks less to be understood than to make an impression—one is almost tempted to say, to show off his superior wisdom. In the Synoptics, on the other hand, everything is said, as it were, at high noon. Everything stands out sharp and clear. And the purpose is to make clear, to reveal, to let light in, to be understood, and, at that, to be understood by the people to whom he was talking. Whereas, in John, it often seems that Jesus’ purpose is not to illumine but to obfuscate. To “love your enemies” and to “judge no man,” injunctions found only in the Synoptics, may be very difficult to do, but they are not difficult to understand. But when he is made to talk about himself as the “bread of life” or about the “vine and the branches” (which occurs only in John), one feels confronted not so much with the inherent, impenetrable, and eternal mystery of life, but with mystification. The razor-edged masculine “hard sayings” and the simple luminous similies of clear direct child-like inner gaze, which you get in the Synoptics, are replaced by the soft, sugar-sweet, feminine fairy-airy generalities and abstractions that the reasoning faculty has fabricated in John. Mystery is made more mysterious. The listeners are not let in but held off. Jesus talks over their heads. He does so deliberately. His unavowed but real purpose is not to reveal but to impress. The teaching is less important than the teacher. The effort is to make Jesus sound like a God. The effort is to make people feel that he is God, Son of God. The only trouble is that this God-Jesus does not talk so well as the man-Jesus of the Synoptics. His teaching is less deep, less clear, less beautiful; and there is far less love behind it.
From the point of view of the teaching, the drop from the Synoptics to John is really enormous. The “hard sayings” are gone entirely: there is nothing about judging not, condemning not, never being angry, not resisting evil, loving one’s enemies; nothing about “if a man does not part with all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple”; nothing about “if any man comes unto me and does not hate his father and his mother . . . and his wife and his children . . . and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple”; nothing against repetitious formal prayers and praying in public, or about the absolute necessity of rising above all one’s resentment: “forgive all men always.” The talk is constantly about “love,” and in a soft “loving” voice, but nowhere is there the Synoptics’ clear definition of what you are to love, without which all loving becomes but softness, sentimentality, effeminacy. The author of the Gospel of John must somehow have lacked full manhood.
The worst thing about the Gospel of John is that it does not cut into life. The central question is no longer how to live, but only what you think about Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on him. . .” “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” No matter what these lines may have meant to the man who wrote them, there is no question but that for the Church, even for the authorized teachers of the Church, the “belief” spoken of here has meant “belief that Jesus died for you.” From the Synoptics’ emphasis on Life, innermost perception and vital effort, from something involving your entire being, there is a qualitative drop in John to a mere matter of what you think, of something you can turn over in your head: “Jesus was born of a virgin,” “Jesus died on the cross.” The rigorous, vital, moral demand of the Synoptics has given way to something that may mean no more than the acceptance or rejection of an idea, without its necessarily having any effect whatever on all the rest of your life. The message of John is therefore apart from living, something even against living, because it placed emphasis not on living but on a mere idea, on the importance of having the correct, the approved idea, and not even on an idea about life but only on an idea about something that was itself apart from life, unreal.
Here, in the Gospel of John, and in the Apostle Paul, we have the beginning of that shift from an insistence on the primary importance of how you live to an emphasis on what you think about Jesus. And it was this shift that was finally to result in that denial and opposite of Jesus, that frustration and betrayal of Jesus, which is organized Christianity. For the Church is due less to Jesus than to Paul, and it always has taken its picture of Jesus less from the Synoptics than from the Paul-like Gospel of John. Though in so doing churchmen have revealed their lack both of taste and of perspicacity in spiritual things.
But for myself I reject John, as I reject Paul. My picture of Jesus, as I believe he actually was, will be based upon material I find in the Synoptics.
But I am by no means able to accept everything even in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But if one is going to select, one must have means by which to make sure that one does not merely pick out such parts as fit into a picture that is preconceived. My means seem to be chiefly three.
First, for help in resolving conflicts between the different records, or between the record and my reason, I turn to the scientific assistance of Higher Criticism. The correction of a text may immediately lift the obscurity that has long hung over a passage, and make its meaning both clear and consistent with its context. The absence of any mention of the “virgin birth” of Jesus in Mark, the earliest Gospel, the references in the body of the Synoptics to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son,” or the like, and the inclusion of the genealogies of Joseph, which are simply irrelevant and their presence in the text meaningless except on the assumption that Joseph was Jesus’ father, all make it easy and yet sound to reject the birth stories almost in toto. Joseph was Jesus’ father, and the birth stories are simply a halo with which pious followers, with great reverence but with little comprehension, attempted to express their wondering adoration, long after the events recorded. Also, the discovery that the oldest manuscript of the earliest Gospel—i.e., Mark—ends with Chapter xvi, verse 8, before there is any allegation that Jesus was ever seen in the body after his body was dead and buried, lends support to the conviction, towards which reason of its own accord inclines, that the appearances to the various disciples were later additions, accepted because they helped to substantiate a growing belief in Jesus as the Redeemer. That belief was of great importance for the post-mortem attempts to understand and explain what had happened on Golgotha, but for which, actually, there was no factual evidence. At first no one knew anything about either a virgin birth or a resurrection.
The miracles fall into two classes. There are the cases of mental healing. These I have least difficulty in accepting. The presence of any man who is whole, who is deeply at peace with himself and with the universe, is very quieting and ordering to anyone who is nervously or mentally unstrung. That sort of thing happens even nowadays. The other group of miracles, such as the walking on the water, the healing of the blind, the raising of the dead, I frankly incline to reject altogether, simply on the ground that such things do not happen. Those dead to the point where organic disintegration has set in, do not rise—ever. But when it comes to the walking on the water and the healing of blindness, I must admit that I can no longer be so dogmatic as I might have been ten years ago.3 When science is confirming the mystic’s perception that matter as it presents itself to our eyes and to our consciousness simply does not exist, that matter is only something stamped upon our energy that reaches the subconscious receiving-apparatus of our organism and has no reality except for a receiving-apparatus of the human sort; when trained and experienced scientific observers of the English Society for Psychical Research can report (and show actual photographs to support their statements) that a certain Indian yogi had walked across a prepared bed of red-hot coals, some fifteen feet wide, without any apparent injury even to the skin of his feet, whereas the feet of others who attempted the same thing were so blistered that they were forced to give it up;4 when a scientist of the standing of Alexis Carrel, famous as a winner of the Nobel Prize and for brilliant biological research at the Rockefeller Institute, can soberly record “his awe at seeing a large cancerous sore on a workman’s hand shrivel to a scar before his eyes,” and cures of other sorts involving an alteration in the whole human organism, effected either by the faith or prayer of the patient himself or even by the faith or prayer of someone else nearby5—in view of all this, it has become almost impossible for me to draw the line anywhere and say, “This cannot happen.” I don’t know what can happen. I don’t know what can not happen.
Nevertheless, I must admit that for me, for my conception of Jesus, the miracles are most unimportant. The whole lot of them, even if they were all true, would not weigh heavily. For one thing, there is internal evidence enough, if one but have the eyes to see it, that Jesus himself did not like doing them, did not like having people come to him for this sort of thing.6 Their self-centered absorption in being relieved of their physical ailments got in the way of his real purpose. He was combing the land for men who had eyes to see and ears to hear, whose spirits hungered and thirsted for what he had found, and throbbed and leaped in response to what they heard him say—about Life, Life here and now; and in all the length and breadth of the land he was able to find only a few, only a handful. Instead, all these sick, crippled, defective people throng him and with importunity demand his time and strength—the blind, the deaf, the lame, the leprous—yes, they actually bring their dead to him—to him who showed how he felt about the dead when he said, “Let the dead be attended to by those who are spiritually dead, but go you and preach the good news.” (Luke 9:60). Just picture this swarming mass of diseased humanity—limping, crawling, dripping, smelling—pressing close to plead piteously for some sort of salve—not caring at all about Life as Jesus saw it, not at all about quality of Life, about that complete renovation of Life, from the very core out, that he had achieved in himself and that he was eager to help other men to achieve. What, therefore, could there be in common between Jesus and these people with their lust for healings? What could they be but an obstacle to him, something that stood between him and his purpose?
No, I am afraid that in spite of Alexis Carrel and the Indian yogi, I cannot believe these miracles happened. I may be unable to deny their possibility, but I cannot believe that, as a matter of fact, they did happen. Or, if they did, it was the result of some intangible power that involuntarily emanated from Jesus, which people felt and sought to bring themselves within reach of. But Jesus himself—no. He must have felt about it more like Mohammed, who “disclaimed supernatural powers” 7 and solemnly enjoined upon his followers that they were never to attempt miracles. More like Vivekananda, who, in spite of stupendous mental powers, never attempted any miraculous work of healing. Or Whitman, or Blake, or Tagore, or Gandhi. Men like these, men in considerable part of Jesus’ purpose and caliber, simply do not do this kind of thing.
In any case, the miracles are not important. Jesus’ stature, his divinity if you will, is not and cannot be evidenced by walking on water or healing of any sort whatever. It is evidenced in the profundity of his insight into the meaning of Life; the singleness of purpose and depth of devotion with which he is able to give up his family, the possibility of marriage, his security, his good name, even his influence; the strength by which he is able to stand up in the face of all the powers and authority of his age, absolutely alone, sure of his values and his course by a certainty he found only within himself. This is magnificent. But for me the miracles would only spoil the picture. They really do not fit in. It is only they who do not have eyes or ears for Jesus who want miracles.
The first means of sifting the material in the Synoptics, therefore, is reason, and her handmaid, Higher Criticism.