You are here

Part III. Ethics and Belief

Chapter X: Rationalism and Christian Ethics (II)


1 In the previous chapter we considered how far the Christian ethics, as presented in the gospels, is in accord with rational standards in its treatment of special groups—of the rich, of the poor, of malefactors, of slaves, of persons differing from ourselves in nationality or sex. We saw that on all of these points the ethics of Jesus differs, in some cases slightly, in others profoundly, from the standards current today, and even from what reflective moralists would conceive as the requirements of reason. To questions of applied justice also his answers were at times surprising and disturbing. They are bound to raise the question whether he gave to justice as important a place as it holds in the thought of most other moralists.

I think the answer must be that he did not. Indeed this conclusion follows from the all-importance he gave to love and from his intensely personal way of conceiving morality. He taught that if one loved God and man unreservedly, all other virtues would take care of themselves since they were all really manifestations of love. ‘Justice, self-respect, truth and honor,’ says Warner Fite, ‘are swallowed up in love.…’1 George F. Thomas points out that in his ethical teaching Jesus, ‘always seems to conceive of a moral situation as one in which one person stands in relationship with another person or with each of several other persons’.2 But as Professor Thomas adds, this is not the sort of situation in which reflection on justice most easily arises. Justice is no respecter of persons; it attempts to abstract from the personal; it seeks a rule in accordance with which the peculiarities of the individual case may be disregarded and people may be treated alike. Love with its bent toward partiality, and justice in search of impartiality, at times conflict with each other, as those well know who have to write letters of recommendation or consider their children's advantage in school. But I follow Professor Thomas in thinking that justice, though often at odds with the immediate and personal demands of love, is a necessary instrument of that larger love—really a settled benevolence—which is directed to mankind. That is the kind of love Jesus advocated. Still, his preoccupation with the personal was so strong as apparently to stand in the way of that abstraction which produces the rules of justice and that reflection on long-range consequences which provides their warrant.

2 The result is a set of teachings that in their general drift are nobly humane but resist reduction to any consistent whole. Classes that were unjustly treated in his own time, and indeed in all subsequent times—slaves, women, children, the poor, the sick, the exploited—have always felt that he was on their side, that if his compassion ever crept into the general mind it would sweep away the injustices from which they suffered. Their intuition is probably right. Nevertheless there is evidence that his insight into the relations of love and justice wavered. His illustrations of what love requires in the way of justice are sometimes puzzling, nor do we always find that reflection removes the difficulty.

Consider the central Christian teaching that God is morally perfect. His love and justice are presumed to be without defect; and we are enjoined to strive to be perfect, even as he is. And yet God is described as holding attitudes which, in those enjoined to imitate him, would be considered unjust in the extreme. It is man's duty, for example, to forgive seventy times seven, that is, indefinitely or without limit. But God is held to have no such obligation. ‘Whoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come’ (Matt. 12:32). Some persons have wondered whether Jesus could have said anything so incongruous with his teaching that God is love. But the German theologian Schmiedel has argued that this passage is one of the ‘foundation pillars’ of whose authenticity we can be most certain; it is so obviously at odds with the general drift of his teaching that a worshipful biographer would not have included it unless it were undeniably authentic. Other commentators such as Henry Churchill King, apparently committed to the truth of everything Jesus said, take the passage as a statement about man rather than about God; it is a warning against ‘moral suicide’, that ‘playing fast and loose with one's conscience’ which blurs and in the end destroys one's sense of good and evil.3 But the question is not whether this is a serious sin, which no one doubts, but whether God will ever forgive it, which is here clearly denied. Such absolute unforgiveness seems triply inconsistent. It is inconsistent with the notion that God is love, with the injunction to man to forgive without limit, and with man's own sense of justice.

Similar difficulties arise about Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and of others for their lack of compassion. No doubt the Pharisees did show varying degrees of hypocrisy. But in the long, sweeping, and bitter arraignment of them ending, ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ (Matt. 23), it is hard to discern the accents of love or justice, to say nothing of mercy. The punishment Jesus promises for certain sins of omission is no less severe. God will say to those who have not fed the hungry or clothed the naked, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matt. 25:41). To inflict the unimaginable suffering of being burnt in an everlasting fire (or even one that is age-long, if one prefers so to translate) for such sins of omission is clearly not in accord with human conceptions of justice.

Such reflections cut deep, for they affect the Christian conception of God and his relations to mankind. They could indeed be carried further. For just as the punishment meted out to sinners is out of accord with what we know as justice, so also is the traditional theory of how that punishment may be averted. The edge of the divine wrath against mankind is turned by the voluntary submission to torture and death of a wholly innocent person. Theologians admit that in a merely human light it is a mystery how such suffering on the part of the innocent could affect the deserts of the wicked, or how a just Deity could either require or allow such substitution. Some critics find in the dogma of the atonement not profound and mysterious truth but the lingering remains of a primitive morality. ‘Christianity in its essence’, said Albert Camus, ‘is a doctrine of injustice. It is founded upon the sacrifice of the innocent and the acceptation of that sacrifice.’ We have repeatedly brought to light in both Catholic and Protestant theologians, and above all in the line of thought that runs from Luther through Kierkegaard to Brunner and Barth, a tendency to meet such problems by throwing them into the realm of the unintelligible, of truth that outsoars human reason. This, as we have seen, is an evasion. If the doctrine is unintelligible, in the sense of meaningless, it is not a doctrine at all. If it does say something meaningful about justice, what it says must be appraised by our own moral sense, for we have nothing else to use. If what it says is then rejected by our moral sense, we can only abide by that decision. One is cutting morality at the root if one insists that what to this sense is black is really white. Human reason, as embodied in our moral sense, is a fallible instrument; granted. But one will not get a better by throwing away the best we have.

3 We have been considering Christ's teaching about justice as exhibited in his thought of Deity. Unhappily the difficulty is not much relieved when we turn to his account of justice in individual behaviour. The law of Moses said, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. As we have already noted in another connection, Jesus repealed this law, and in doing so urged a surprising alternative. ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain’ (Matt. 5:39–41). Of course few of those who consider themselves Christians behave in this way. Even if they restrain the impulse to return blow for blow or take out their anger on the thief or mugger, they would probably see to it, with the aid of the police, that such molestation of themselves and others did not continue. They do not do this with an uneasy conscience. They regard the active prevention of injustice as not only a right but a duty. ‘Not to do wrong is one side of justice,’ says the eminent moralist Friedrich Paulsen; ‘its complement is not to permit wrong to be done, either to self or to others. This is what the Greeks and Romans understood by the duty of justice.…’ He goes on: ‘Primitive Christianity does not recognize justice in this sense as a virtue; it is acquainted with only one side of it, with the duty not to do wrong, not with the duty not to permit wrong.’4 Professor Francis W. Newman, the Cardinal's brother, made the same criticism: ‘Jesus forbids us to stand up for our rights; we are to surrender them to the first violent claimant.’5 Could a society maintain its safety or freedom if its members thus bowed to coercion? The answer is only too certain. The decent many would be terrorised by the unprincipled few, and these few are always present. No community is secure whose individuals are unwilling to stand up for their rights, and for the rights of those others who are unable to stand up for themselves. It is a truism that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Christian ethics, with its attention focused on personal attitudes, overlooks this public and preventive side of justice.

4 To such criticism it may be replied that we have the teaching of Jesus only in fragmentary form, and that if we had his applications of it in parable and practice the difficulties would vanish. That is possible. But we do have several parables touching on justice, and they increase rather than remove the difficulties. Consider the parable of the householder. This man owned a vineyard in which work had to be done. He went out early in the morning to hire labourers in the market, offering them a shilling a day. Needing further help, he went out again at nine o'clock and hired more, saying that he would pay them ‘whatever is right’. He repeated this process at twelve o'clock, at three in the afternoon, and again at five, when the working day was nearly over. In paying the labourers off at the day's end, he gave exactly the same wage to those who had worked all day and to those who had worked an hour. Not surprisingly, there was grumbling among those who had worked the whole day: ‘“These last have only worked a single hour, and yet you have ranked them equal to us who have borne the brunt of the day's work and the heat!” Then he replied to one of them, “My man, I am not wronging you.… Take what belongs to you and be off. I choose to give this last man the same as you. Can I not do as I please with what belongs to me?”’ (Matt. 20:12–15, Moffatt.) The parable is offered to illustrate the attitude of the king in the kingdom of heaven toward his subjects. The moral it most obviously teaches is that a person of wealth is not called upon to obey the rules of justice in disposing of it; he can do what he will with his own. There is no suggestion that the last shall be first and the first last on any ground of superiority or merit. The persons paid at the higher rate are those who have spent most of the day in idleness, and the persons paid the lower rate are those who are expressly said to have borne the burden and heat of the day; nor is there any intimation that the householder has acted unjustly. As it stands, the parable seems cut to the order of Kierkegaard, suggesting as it does that divine and human justice are incommensurable.

Other parables touching on justice offer similar puzzles. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field’ (Matt. 13:44). Slightly expanded, the parable seems to be this: a man finds in another man's field a large treasure, worth more than the field itself. He conceals its existence from the owner until he can command the price of the field. He then with ‘joy’ gets both field and treasure from the man he has kept in ignorance of the value of his property. On this Warner Fite remarks: ‘The lesson of the parable is then a recommendation of what I think more honourable men of today would condemn as a piece of sharp practice in dealing with a stranger, and certainly as a gross bit of trickery in dealing with any one with whom one might be on friendly relations. Of this it seems that Jesus is quite unconscious.’6

The parable of the talents is also puzzling. A man about to travel ‘into a far country’ leaves his money in the safekeeping of three servants. To the first he gives about five thousand dollars, to the second two thousand, and to the third one thousand. On his return, the first two report that, by enterprising investment, they have doubled the money left with them, and they receive their master's thanks and praise. The third makes a different report. He says: ‘Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed. And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine’ (Matt. 25:24–25). Though he returned intact the money entrusted to him, his master's judgement was, ‘Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed. Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury’ (26–27). The parable ends, ‘cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’. What is striking about the story is, first, the purely commercial tone of it, and, second, the acceptance by the master of the charge of being a hard man, reaping where he had not sown; this is strange because the master is the symbol of Deity, and therefore of perfect justice. The harsh business tone has been hidden for many by the ambiguity of the word ‘talents’, and the consequent ease of taking the parable to mean ‘Develop your talents’, or ‘Realise your potentialities’. But the word ‘talent’ meant in its Greek original, and also for its King James translators, simply a weight or amount of money; its use for a natural gift seems to have stemmed from this interpretation of the parable rather than to have preceded it. In any case the parable leaves the reader with an uneasy sense that justice is being conceived as that of an avaricious and arbitrary employer rather than that of an ideal morality.

To conclude this brief review on justice: Christian ethics, through its emphasis on love and compassion, rectified many injustices to the poor and the exploited; but its conception of justice, whether as exercised by God or as a pattern for relations among men, was undeveloped and ambiguous.


5 From this mention of the New Testament conception of justice in the rewards of work, we may conveniently turn to the Christian estimate of work itself. On this point, as on many others, there is a curious contrast between Jesus’ own teaching and modern Christianity. The teacher who has done most to fix the attitude of the modern Christian toward work is John Calvin, whose view had a profound effect on the Christianity of the new world. He sought to bring the whole of life under religious direction, abolishing the distinction between sacred and secular, and making a man's work as farmer, mechanic, or business man a part of his divine calling. Idleness was a serious sin. The diligent performance of one's work, without waste of time or money, and without indulgence in pleasure except as contributory to one's work, became a religious duty. ‘So we can understand’, writes Dean Inge,

how Calvinism created that curious product, the modern business man, who works like a slave in accumulating money which his tastes and principles forbid him to enjoy, and about the value of which to himself and others he asks no questions. No system was ever devised so effectual in promoting that kind of progress which is measured by statistics. If a nation can be convinced that steady industry in profitable enterprise is eminently pleasing to God, but that almost all unproductive ways of spending superfluous wealth are wrong, that nation will become very rich.7

There is no doubt that the strong Calvinistic strain in Puritanism, with its gospel of hard work, has had much to do with the moral ideal of the American business man. The Puritan influence on such business paradigms as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford is plain.

But did Jesus teach this Calvinistic Puritanism? There is small ground for thinking so.

If the daily toil were so important, Christ Himself would surely have set an example of work, or have praised the sanctity of work; yet there is no evidence of His having toiled at all for a livelihood, and all His teaching is against work, or at least the overshadowing cares of work. Anxiety for bodily needs—food and raiment and shelter—how light He made of them! The lilies in His parable neither toiled nor spun, Martha was rebuked for housewifely care. It was a gospel of simplicity, of peace, of love, never a gospel of work.8

‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on’ (Matt. 6:25); that was the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. The fowls of the air did not sow or reap, yet they were amply cared for. To be sure, the Gentiles sought security in mammon, but for Christians this was needless, for if they sought ‘the kingdom of God and his righteousness,’ even the things that mammon could buy would be added to them unasked. And it was idle to think that God and mammon could both be served; one must be chosen and the other left.

Here, as so often, the Oriental custom of speaking in metaphor and parable leaves us at a loss. Jesus seems to be saying that the sort of work men normally have to do to support themselves and their families is superfluous. ‘Neither from the practice nor from the precepts of Jesus as we have them, could anyone discover that Industry is a duty.’9 It may be that during the unreported years of his life he had followed the trade of carpenter, but of those years we know nothing. We do know that in his time manual labour was held in small respect. His own people, the Jews, thought of it as a punishment for sin imposed by God, who said to Adam ‘because thou hast eaten of the tree, in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’. The Greeks thought manual labour the appropriate lot of slaves, not of free men. They seem to have included in their aversion even the manual labour involved in experimental science, and thus, according at least to John Dewey, were prevented from reaching the level in such science which they attained in mathematics and metaphysics. The Romans also turned over to slaves such work as they could, looking with respect on the gentleman farmer and the wealthy patron of sport and the arena, but holding the manual labourer in something like contempt.

Jesus was probably not immune to the influence of these attitudes, particularly that of the Jews. The early Christians are known to have disparaged trade, and to have disapproved the taking of interest on money. Many mediaeval and modern students have thought they found in the Christian ethics an attempt to spiritualise labour, to make toil the expression of humility, fidelity, and worship. The monks were fond of saying labor are est orare. ‘He doeth much that loveth much,’ said Thomas a Kempis. George Herbert wrote ‘Who sweeps a room as to thy laws/Makes that and the action fine’; and Browning added in like vein, ‘All service ranks the same with God’. But this does not seem to have been the actual teaching of Jesus. Mary and Martha are set over against each other, as are the service of God and the service of mammon; and when the Apostles were called, it was not to continue their old work in a new spirit but to abandon that work for a type of life in which worldly goods and worldly work were left behind. One suspects that Jesus’ teaching at this point was tied to his expectation of an imminent end of the world. At any rate, his words and example would have been more helpful to labouring mankind if, instead of sharply contrasting the realms in which he lived, he had shown how they could be joined.


6 Work is, of course, the normal means by which the family is supported, and if Jesus placed so little emphasis upon it, it might be expected that his view of family relations would be unconventional in other respects also. And it was. His teaching in this field is important, since the family is the most universal of all social organisations, and on its character and strength depends in large part the moral health of any people. When children are brought up in an atmosphere of parental love and justice, they absorb these attitudes as norms for themselves, and go out into the world as potentially good neighbours and good citizens. Christianity as traditionally interpreted, stressing the permanence of marriage, likening the relation of man and wife to that of Christ and the church, and harbouring memories of Christ's tenderness toward children, has had important civilising influences on family life; and its conception of God as the exacting but loving Father of mankind has made the brotherhood of man an easier and more credible notion.

For many persons, this general benignance toward family life is enough; it gives them a text which they can embroider into their own pattern for family life. But to stop with those generalities would be untrue to the reported facts of Jesus’ words and actions. He had more to say, and the more is puzzling. He was an individualist whose ultimate loyalties were to no organisation and whose orders he believed to have come to him directly from on high. These orders showed little regard for family ties. If such ties conflicted with them, they must be ruthlessly broken. Jesus, who remained without wife or family, demanded of his followers a loyalty to himself that should take precedence over any family loyalties of their own. ‘He that loveth his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matt. 10:27). ‘For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’ (10:35). ‘If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters… he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26). One person who had decided to follow him begged for a brief delay to perform a pious duty: ‘Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead’ (Matt. 8:21–22). We have already noted the coolness shown to his mother and brothers. And his coolness toward his family seems to have been heartily reciprocated. They once attempted, as we have also remarked, to place him under restraint as out of his mind. His brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5), and let him make his crucial trip to Jerusalem alone. His neighbours are reported to have had similar feelings about him. When he returned to his own country, his townspeople were so sceptical of him and ‘offended at him’ that ‘he marvelled because of their unbelief’ and could ‘do no mighty work’ among them. ‘A prophet is not without honour,’ he lamented, ‘but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house’ (Mark 6:1–6).

What are we to make of such passages? It is idle, in the light of them, to say that Jesus’ view of family duty is clear and simple, and if we forget these passages, there are persons who will remind us of them. ‘By the Chinese and the Japanese it is regarded as one of the great defects of Christianity that it acts rather as a solvent than as a consecration of family ties.’10 That the great exponent of love for all men should, without very special reason, have countenanced indifference to one's own kith and kin is incredible, to be sure. The only plausible interpretation would appear to be this: he conceived himself as the bearer of an all-important message whose delivery to mankind could not wait, since the end of the present order was impending; and in his mind the urgency of the situation reversed the ordinary priority of duties. It was precisely men's family loyalties that would stand most obstructively in the way of their giving up everything and following him; hence if his summons was to be heeded at all, the primacy of these loyalties must be denied in the sharpest way. This removes the inconsistency between his teaching of love and his strange disparagement of it within the family circle. But it must be admitted that consistency is bought here with a price. The price is that one can no longer take his teaching about family duties as generally or permanently applicable, since it was offered under a major misapprehension about God's relation to the world and the course of future history. Indeed the Christian is left in a dilemma. If he accepts at its face value Jesus’ teaching about the family, he must do violence to his natural feeling and even his conscience; he cannot ‘hate’ his own family, or leave a beloved father's body to be collected by the sanitation department. On the other hand, if he claims exemption from this teaching on the ground that it was offered under a delusion, how far does that delusion extend? It cannot be confined to the sphere of family relations. It threatens to undermine Jesus’ teaching in many other areas as well.

We have made no attempt to explore the influence of this delusion except indirectly, by raising as we went along the question of the rationality of a given teaching. We found in our various confrontations with Christian theology that reasonableness in the light of reflection is the only standard which holds in the end. This standard is harder to apply to feelings than to clearly formulated dogmas, but since Christian ethics chiefly consists in injunctions to inward attitudes, we have had to make the attempt. And there are some attitudes as yet unconsidered that enter essentially into the kind of life enjoined by Jesus. These now call for comment.


7 In his own summary of his teaching, the love of God took precedence of everything else. This is a difficulty for us. Neither the feeling he entertained toward God nor the ethical importance he attached to it is easy for the modern mind to understand. The love of another person who is near and intimately known to us is intelligible enough; we have so much in common with him that we feel at home in his presence; his hopes and defeats become our own in the sense that we follow his successes with pleasure and his sorrows with anxious sympathy. Can we love God in any such way? It seems very dubious. In love for him, just what object are we loving? Do we know, for example, what we mean by calling that object ‘he’? There seems to be no ground for regarding it as father rather than mother. And what do we own in common with it that supplies a basis for intimacy? With a human stranger we can easily conceive of finding enough in common—interests, likes and dislikes—to arouse comradeliness and affection. Can we feel anything similar toward the maker of the Milky Way and the galaxies beyond it? The God of traditional theology is a being who, as omnipresent, could love only himself or part of himself; who, as all-powerful, has none of our weaknesses and none of our unattained ends; who, as all-knowing, has none of our problems; who, as all-good, has none of our vices, none of our unsatisfied interests, and none of our temptations. The profoundest philosophers have been baffled in the attempt to provide any definite conception of such a being. And how can man love he knows not what?

Theologians also have floundered desperately when they have sought to describe the ‘love of God’. According to Anders Nygren, it is not a human possibility at all, but a divine implantation in men; furthermore, it is irrational in the sense of being unmotivated and hence is independent of the moral character of its object. This theory does not make sense. Besides being curiously non-moral, it ends in self-contradiction. For God's love, which is admitted to provide a paradigm for man's, is also admitted to be discriminatory; it grants salvation to some and withholds it from others. Augustine, by a bit of legerdemain, equates God with good, and thus translates the love of God into the pursuit of moral perfection. He can then show that both self-love and the love of others are really the love of God in disguise; self-love is the pursuit of one's own perfection, i.e. the realisation of God in one's self, and the love of others is really the love of God as embodied in those others. This theory has some interest if offered as the philosopher's own; but it is fantastic as an account of the meaning of Jesus. He was a Jewish prophet, not a Greek metaphysician; he thought in images and taught in homely parables. He talked of God very much as a Palestinian son would talk of a Palestinian father. His ‘father who was in heaven’ was loving but also stern and formidable, concerned about his children's health and comfort but more about their character, a being close at hand for consultation or petition, whose commands were not always intelligible but must be obeyed without question, who was grieved by a child's disobedience, delighted by the return of a prodigal son, and at times driven to terrible anger when treated without due reverence.

8 The Bishop of Woolwich is surely right in saying that the love of God in this sense is not open to the modern mind. Its object is too plainly a product of man's imagination in the service of his need—his need for comfort and assurance in the face of a universe that is too much for him. Religion is largely a cry for help in a world one did not make and cannot control; ‘When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, oh abide with me’. This motive remains at work in modern man's religion, but it found readier play in more primitive times. Nature as we know it had not entered into the mind of the Palestinian of the first century. It was not, as it is for us, a fixed order of law, but an arena where God on the one hand and Satan and his minions on the other did continual battle for the souls of men. The agency of God or his enemies might be witnessed daily in the raising or stilling of storms, in plagues of drought or locusts, in epidemics of disease and sudden inexplicable cures, in strange portents, in the inspired words of prophets, and in old prophecies fulfilled. God had not yet been pushed by science into the dim distance beyond the natural order, for in the modern sense there was no such order; he manifested a somewhat capricious will through individual events; and this will might be deflected by earnest and timely pleas. He was, as Arnold said, ‘a magnified non-natural man,’ whose co-operation might be obtained by due obeisance, and whose favour was essential if one's future, here or hereafter, was to be secure.

Love for such a being was in many ways similar to love for another man. God was the father of his people and captain of the host in whose ranks they were serving. He fought and suffered much as they did; he had them under his solicitous care; in his tenderness he numbered the very hairs on their heads. Jesus’ converse with him was intimate, constant, and undoubting to the end—or almost to the end. There came a moment, the most tragic in human history, when he too doubted. His doubt was not apparently whether the God he had worshipped was real, but whether that God had not forsaken and repudiated him. To the man of later time the wonder is not that the doubt arose but that it did not arise earlier and more insistently, for the God that Jesus revered could hardly be held in permanent reverence by a deeply reflective mind. If he was tender about the fall of sparrows, he could also order destructive demons into the Gadarene swine; he could strike a man dead in anger for telling an untruth; he could turn his face forever from a certain class of miserable sinners; he could be jealous, vengeful, and exceedingly cruel; he was capable of consigning men, for the missteps of a transitory life, to suffering without mercy and without end. Love as mankind knows it is not offered without regard to the character of its object, nor should it be. Men have tried for many centuries to achieve the love of God as Jesus conceived him; some of them have professed achievement of it and even a readiness, by reason of it, to suffer damnation themselves. The human mind being what it is, one wonders whether the incentive to both professions was not an overmastering fear of what such professions might serve to avert. In any case, with the recession of this fear from the modern mind, the love of God, as either the Old or the New Testament represents him, would seem to be neither rationally nor practically possible. This does not imply that it is impossible in all its senses. Indeed the love of God may be made the essence of religion, and thus given whatever importance its proponent chooses to assign to religion as such. It is of course capable of profound philosophical interpretation, and that it has received at the hands of some contemporary thinkers. One of the ablest of them, Paul Tillich, conceived it as an ecstatic ‘participation’ of the finite spirit ‘in the transcendent unity of unambiguous life’.11 Whether this recondite notion is really Christian is debatable, but I doubt whether Professor Tillich would think the answer greatly mattered. He was clear that the Christianity of the first century could not be the standard for the twentieth, and that the conformity to be demanded of the theologian was not conformity to a Biblical text, even that of the New Testament, but conformity to truth as it presented itself to the reflective and rational mind. In this of course we agree. Unfortunately the task of interpreting ‘the love of God’ rationally, whether in his or in other terms, is not one that can be undertaken in passing.


9 The reason for introducing the idea at all is that Jesus took the love of God to be an essential part of morality. Jointly with the love of man, it was the prime motive of the good life. True Christians were to be childlike in their teachableness and affection, and of such he declared the kingdom of heaven to be composed. Their trust in their divine father was absolute; the good life meant his will for them, and their overriding concern must be to learn that will and do it. The love of man was important too, but Jesus seems not even to have considered the possibility of its standing alone. Human selfishness, lust, and greed would be too much for it. It was only as morality was infused with religion and human souls were seen as children of God that their infinite value could be recognised. And

‘in asking… “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” he put a man's value as high as it can be put. The man who can say “My Father” to the Being who rules heaven and earth, is thereby raised above heaven and earth, and himself has a value which is higher than all the fabric of this world.’ ‘A man may know it or not, but a real reverence for humanity follows from the practical recognition of God as the Father of us all.’12

It was Christianity, Harnack goes on to contend, that first made men fully aware of the value of human life; and civilisation, as a result, was lifted to a new level. Conduct took on a new seriousness. The decisions of daily life—of getting food and drink, of working or idling or helping one's neighbour—became issues of eternity, not in the sense alone that one's eternal destiny depended on them but in the sense that the lord of the whole universe was concerned about them and might even serve as a partner in making them. Indeed a moral choice, made in a right spirit, could have something of the sweep of luminous vision with which divine decisions themselves were made. The right spirit was a prayerful spirit—if prayer is conceived in Emerson's manner as ‘the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view’. In the daily decisions of moral living, one immortal soul was interacting with other immortal souls, with tremendous issues hanging in the balance, and all under the scrutiny of an eye that missed nothing in either motive or consequences.

Morality has never reached, before or since, so lofty a level of seriousness. A rationalist view of morals is likely to seem cold and pinched in comparison with it. And some of its high seriousness may be gratefully accepted by the rationalist. Even the sceptical John Dewey admitted that morality at its best exhibits ‘religiousness’, by which he meant the attempt to act in the light of the longest and most comprehensive view of the consequences.13 Any added discernment a man can acquire as to how his action affects other minds, any advance of insight into the values of those minds or their experiences, will reflect itself in action that is more finely ethical. Still, it would be absurd to say that what Dewey called ‘religiousness’ exhausted what the New Testament meant by the love of God and its place in conduct. When Jesus spoke of God he meant an existing being, as real and near as an earthly father or mother, in whose devoted service religion and morality alike consisted. A morality cut off from religion he would probably have regarded as no morality at all, but a half-blind groping under the guidance—or rather misguidance—of selfish and sensual impulses. Without a constant reference to the divine will, which could be consulted, like that of an earthly father, at any time of need, even he would have felt himself lost. And the question is whether this opening to Deity is essential to the moral life.

10 Clearly it is not. It adds an incentive to right conduct, to be sure. If life is lived as ‘under the great taskmaster's eye’, both fear of God and the love of God will contribute a motive power not otherwise present. But there are two considerations that show them to be not ethically necessary. First, they are not obviously ethical motives at all. Take fear. So far as a man pays his debts and avoids stealing because he is afraid he will be caught and punished, he is doing what is right for the wrong reason; and if the punishment anticipated happens to be that of ‘the great taskmaster’, the reason is still the wrong one. As for love, it is no doubt a higher motive than fear; the love for a human father that leads to sacrifice for his welfare or happiness is a noble impulse. Must not the love of a divine father be similarly regarded? Unfortunately the two are not really parallel. To say that human love could advance the welfare of God is hardly an intelligible notion; and to increase his pleasure or happiness, while intelligible enough if he is conceived as a magnified man, becomes all but meaningless if he is conceived in more modern and critical terms—in those, for example, of Tennant, Tillich, or Whitehead. And if the love of God does its work in conduct through the delight in doing his will, this too needs analysis. To do something because one loves the person who commands it is not necessarily to do the right thing or even to act from a high motive; one may kill for the love of a Hitler. If one does something because one knows the person loved to be wiser and better than oneself, the motive is a good one, but still not the best, for it falls short of what moves that wiser person himself. That person presumably does what he does because he sees it to be right, and when we reach moral maturity, that is our own proper motive also. We may put the argument as an alternative. If the love of God moves us because we see that his will is ‘true and righteous altogether’, the ethical part of our motive is respect for right doing itself, and in this there is nothing necessarily religious. On the other hand, if God is loved regardless of his moral quality, the love remains in a sense religious, but it is now a positive moral danger; it may lead, as it did for Kierkegaard, to the glorification of immorality.14 From the moralist's point of view, the love of God thus tends to resolve itself into a purely moral passion, or else into a worship that is morally ambiguous.

The second reason why such love is not a necessary component of morals is that moral values may be authenticated and fully potent without it. The ultimate warrant for a rule of conduct is not deliverance by authority, religious or otherwise, but its self-validating power when seen as belonging to a form of life which carries certain intrinsic values with it.15 Justice, wisdom, and beauty are not good because God approves them; if he approves them, it is because they are good. And the mere perception of these values is a powerful motive to their realisation. Indeed the insight that wisdom is better than ignorance is so effective a motive to the getting of wisdom that all three of the great Greek thinkers believed that if the insight was clear, action in accord with it followed inevitably. And though this is not quite true, it is very nearly so. Such insight and such a motive are not themselves religious. The existence of purely secular goodness has often puzzled religious persons, but there is no doubt of its existence. Take for example what may be done from devotion to the goods of the intellect, which we have just mentioned. If Benjamin Franklin gave of his substance to found the University of Pennsylvania, and Jefferson of his means and energy to found the University of Virginia, if Grote, James Mill, and Bentham did the same for University College, and Sidgwick for Newnham, it was not out of Christian motives, for none of them could be called Christian, but because (no doubt along with other motives) they prized the educated mind.

The conclusion is that while the love of God, in one or other of its senses, may be, and often has been, a powerful supplementary motive, it is not, as the New Testament teaches, indispensable to the moral life, or on an equality with the other great principle of the love of man.


11 We turn to another attitude regarded by Jesus as fundamental, humility. The first and the third Beatitudes are both commonly read as enjoining this virtue: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ and ‘Blessed are the meek’. What does humility mean? It is not an easy virtue either to define or to appraise. We should hesitate to call a man humble who takes himself at his full worth, and hence humility seems to involve taking oneself at less than one's true worth. But to regard that as a virtue seems to be glorifying error. Apparently we do at times think better of a man morally for being deceived about himself intellectually, for thinking less of his powers and importance than they deserve; Sidgwick, holding this misprising of oneself to be part of ‘the common account of humility’, found this account unacceptable.16 And there is surely something absurd in making a virtue out of a mistake. Still, it is not this mistake, if such there be, that we prize in humility, any more than it is the reverse error that we deplore in Aristotle's unattractive picture of the great-souled man. It is rather an attitude or disposition that readily gives rise to error but does not involve it necessarily. It is a disposition to think comparatively low of one's own attainments and deserts, and in the meaning of this ‘comparatively’ lies the essence of virtue.

The meaning is twofold. First, the standard by which humility measures its attainments and deserts is not the standard of what is, but of what might be and ought to be. One may in fact be cleverer, more sensitive, more hard-working, truthful, and loyal than any of one's neighbours, and there is nothing inconsistent with humility in being aware of these facts. But the humble man knows well enough that, judged by the standards of what ought to be, he is dull, crass indolent, untruthful, and unfaithful, in short a pretty miserable sinner. Humility consists in the habitual measurement of oneself, not by others or by current standards, but by a standard transcending these. Jesus perceived that being humble in this sense provided the soil of teachableness and therefore a moral growth. The Pharisee who proclaimed his virtue in public was hardened against change because he was self-satisfied; the despised publican had the root of the matter in him because he was self-dissatisfied, and hence prompted to reach out for better things. It has indeed been argued that the Beatitudes were a deliberately arranged progression, and that in putting the demand for humility first Jesus was suggesting that it was the gateway to the other virtues.17

There is another and more subtle implication of humility, which lies in the difference of attitude taken by the proud man and the humble man toward their fellows. Let us suppose that each of them is in fact more able, honest, and generous than any of those around him. Now the relation of being higher than his fellows is exactly the same relation as their being lower than he. But the same relation may be the object of morally different attitudes. The proud man regards the gap between him and his fellows with satisfaction because he is on the upper side of it. The humble man regards the same gap with less satisfaction or none, because his fellows are on the lower side of it; he cannot take pleasure in contemplating their shortcomings and misfortunes. Pride fixes on one aspect of the relation, humility on the other. One's self is superior to others; pride gloats over that. Others are struggling along on the flats below; that is what impresses humility; and it extends its compassion to them. Pride is thus self-regarding, humility other-regarding. This intimate connection of humility with compassion and consideration is one secret of the charm it has always exercised over men's affections.

12 Jesus raised humility to a new and lofty place among the virtues. But there is a curious rift of consistency in the New Testament picture of it. Consider Luke's parable of the master and his servants:

‘Which of you, with a servant out ploughing or shepherding, will say to him when he comes in from the field, “Come at once and take your place at table”? Will the man not rather say to him, “Get something ready for my supper; gird yourself and wait on me till I eat and drink; then you can eat and drink yourself”’? (Luke 17:7–8, Moffatt's trans.)

What is arresting about this parable is first its disclosure of the accepted way of treating servants, and, secondly and more surprisingly, Jesus’ implied approval of that treatment. The servant has been out labouring in the Palestinian sun; the master wants his supper; and without for a moment considering the servants’ hunger, thirst, or weariness, he commands him, ‘wait on me till I eat and drink’. Humility is conspicuously absent; the assumption is that we are masters who owe our servants nothing, and further, in the light of the context, that God is a master who owes us nothing. How this is to be reconciled with the doctrine that he is chief among us who is the servant of all is not apparent.


13 A further problem about humility, and one that will take us far, is whether Jesus himself exemplified it consistently. It is true that on one side of his life, where St Francis has been his most notable follower, he was the greatest of all exemplars of this virtue. He had none of the worldly goods that men commonly take pride in, and he pointed out that though the foxes had holes and the birds of the air had nests, he had not where to lay his head. He was as ready to associate with the dregs of humanity as with those in power and place; he talked with disdained Samaritans and Syro-Phoenicians; he washed the feet of his own disciples; he left an image of humility that has attracted the readers of many centuries by its simplicity and beauty. But along with this humility went claims that were not merely exalted but stupefyingly vast. He was that member of the house of David who, according to ancient prophecy, would come as the Messiah to give deliverance and victory to his people. He could cure diseases instantly through the direct power of his spirit over other minds and bodies. He could create by a wave of his hand a supply of loaves and fishes that would feed thousands. He could turn water into wine, walk on the sea, and calm the winds and waves. He could raise the dead. He could recognise the presence of demons and cast them out. As the surrogate of God on earth, he could forgive men their sins. In the gospel record, his claims went even further. He was God. ‘I and my Father are one’ (John 10:30). ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). ‘Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world’ (John 17:24). He would return after his death in the clouds of glory as the judge of all the earth. It cannot be said that his cosmic claims are limited to the gospel of John, for this latter claim at least appears in all the gospels.

How to bring into harmony the self-abasement of Jesus with this limitless self-exaltation has been a problem for sixty generations of theologians. The orthodox answer is that all these claims are true, and that the humility of Jesus was divine condescension. Suppose, however, that he was not incarnate Deity but only a human being; how then account for the appearance in a humble mind of these cosmic pretentions? Did he know that they were untrue, and make them nevertheless in order to attract his gullible countrymen who were expecting the Messiah? This position has actually been taken, but it seems incredible. For whatever his shortcomings in science or history, he was a passionate moralist, and to make this side of his life a deliberate imposture is irresponsible. Were the claims then sincere, but those of an unbalanced mind? A group of critics trained in psychopathology have professed to find in him the standard symptoms of paranoia. Albert Schweitzer, himself a physician, examined these findings with care, and found them quite inadequate to the conclusion drawn from them.18 The only tenable alternative to these theories would seem to be that he was a moral genius whose claims were sincere but in part mistaken and in part attributed to him in error by his very human biographers and interpreters. This is the conclusion to which I think the evidence points.

The two major hypotheses between which we must choose are, first, that he was God, second, that he was a great but in part mistaken man. One's confidence in his moral teaching will vary as one adopts the first hypothesis or the second. If he was really the embodiment of omniscience and perfection, no pains could well be spared to determine what he said and did, and no refusal on the part of a believer to accept and follow his teaching would be excusable. On the other hypothesis, one will have to make up one's mind as best one can as to the soundness of his teachings; their validity will not follow from his authority, but his authority from the degree of their validity. It will be evident from the whole tenor of the discussion to which of these two camps I belong. There may be readers from the first camp who have been deterred from taking the discussion seriously because they have sensed its tendency from the beginning. This process of picking and choosing among the doctrines of an inspired text, this rationalistic sniping at a body of teaching that, in spite of all the difficulties of transmission, has stood for some twenty centuries as ‘the church's one foundation’ will seem to them something like sacrilege.

Over and over again in earlier parts of this study I have encountered this attitude, and I have tried to treat it with due respect. ‘The feeling of reverence should itself be treated with reverence,’ says Santayana, ‘although not at a sacrifice of truth, with which alone, in the end, reverence is compatible’.19 Any fair-minded critic will recognise that the worship of Christ as Deity has been the attitude of many better, abler, and more learned persons than himself. James Anthony Froude, the historian, a friend and follower in his youth of Cardinal Newman, tells how in a sermon in St Mary's, Oxford, ‘Newman described closely some of the incidents of our Lord's passion; he then paused. For a few moments there was a breathless silence. Then in a low, clear voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St Mary's, he said, “Now, I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God”. It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying.’20 Between the Newmans of the world, who believe without reservation that Christ was God, and the doubting, tentative rest of us, there is a great gulf fixed. But I do not think that anyone unable to understand that silence in St Mary's is likely to write about Jesus convincingly to those on the other side of the gulf.

14 The chasm is not of the sort that is readily bridged by argument. No one could accuse Newman, still less perhaps Augustine, Aquinas, or Pascal, of intellectual obtuseness; and yet one can hardly imagine any of them surrendering his central convictions to the dialectical sword-play of an unbeliever. Belief or unbelief in these regions is more likely to turn upon what used to be called the ‘apperceptionmass’ of accepted ideas and attitudes that one brings to bear on the issue. In ‘the ages of faith’ nearly everyone believed; in the age of science the tendency of most educated men is either to dismiss the claims of tradition as obviously incredible because beyond assimilation to the world they live in, or, if they accept them, to do so with an unhappy sense of living in two worlds imperfectly joined. We have seen that this latter course is the one that both Catholic and Protestant traditionalists are in fact taking.

We have seen also that none of the minds we have studied has been able to live in both worlds at once without compromising his intellectual integrity. The acceptance of two standards of truth—authority and reason—ends sooner or later in conflict, and there is only one way to resolve the conflict. One cannot discard the standard of reason even if one tries. To do so would be to discard the condition of sanity itself. If two inconsistent things can both be true, one cannot with confidence believe anything whatever. Of course, people do believe irrationally. Newman believed that Hume's argument against miracles was unanswerable; he also believed that the blood of St Januarius was liquefied yearly to the edification of the faithful, that the commandments were actually engraved on tables of stone by God's finger, and that the house of the Virgin at Nazareth had been miraculously translated through the air to Loreto in Italy. We have all achieved the height, such as it is, of believing both sides of a contradiction. What no one has ever done is to make both sides true. At that point the nature of things intervenes and we shall do well to recall Carlyle's remark on hearing that Margaret Fuller had decided to ‘accept the Universe’: ‘Gad, she'd better.’

In view of the multiple causes of religious belief as well as men's gift for believing absurdities, it is perhaps oversanguine to expect anyone's belief on the central issue now facing us to be affected by a mere appeal to consistency. Yet for speculative problems of this kind, it is the most applicable and decisive of tests. The author of the Sermon on the Mount and the founder of Christianity—was he God or only a very remarkable man? That is the issue. No third theory is available. The theory that he was both God and man is not a third theory at all, but a form of the first and exclusive of the second. Other theories are of course conceivable, for example that he was a demon or that he never existed at all; but their degree of plausibility hardly justifies their discussion. Fortunately the two eligible theories are so related that each excludes the other, and the falsity of either would in effect, even if not in strict logic, serve to establish the other.

15 Here, as so often with disjunctions, the easiest course is to go to a conclusion through disposing of its alternative. And there can be little question which of the alternatives is the more vulnerable. It is the first, the identification of Jesus with Deity. The other alternative, that however exceptional he was only a man, is much harder to dispose of. The natural way to attempt it would be to show that some of the things he taught and did were beyond human powers. Was this not true, for example, of his ethical teachings? But how are we to show this? We do not know the range of human powers in this field. Can we say, then, that his miracles were beyond human range? Before we say yes, we must assure ourselves that the miracles occurred. But if one proceeds upon the assumptions that govern historians elsewhere, the hypothesis that the reporters of these wonders were in error is much more credible than the hypothesis that storms were actually stilled or that loaves and fishes were created at command. Supernaturalists may then fall back on Jesus’ own claims that he was more than human, that he was one with the Father, that he was the coming judge of all mankind; and they may add, ‘You must either accept these claims as true, or else, if you take them as authentic at all, you must set them down as colossal errors. And how can you admit the genius of Jesus and also lay such errors to his charge?’

Many humanists have offered hypotheses to reconcile these things, the more important of them recounted in Schweitzer's Quest.21 They all face the initial difficulty that we do not certainly know what the claims of Jesus were; the gospel of John, in which they took their most exalted form, is of all the gospels the least reliable historically. Furthermore, the genius of Jesus was moral, not scientific or philosophical, and who knows how much depth of moral perception is consistent with great intellectual error? One of the most certain facts about Jesus’ teaching, reported in all the gospels, is that he prophesied the speedy coming of the end of the world. On this major point, then, whatever his moral stature, we know that he was in error; and if he erred in this, he was capable of erring in other things. It would be impossible without long research to say which of the humanistic theories covers the known facts most adequately. But to demonstrate beforehand that in the nature of the case none of them could cover the facts would be an impossible undertaking.


16 Are we in the same position regarding the other hypothesis? I do not think so. The attribution of Deity is commonly taken to imply that the subject has unlimited knowledge, power, and goodness. Now there are two ways of showing that a subject alleged to possess these attributes does not really possess them. One of them is purely logical, is temptingly short and sharp, and has often been used with effect; but it is, I think, irrelevant. The other, though merely inductive, is both relevant and decisive. It is the one I shall employ. But the first deserves mention if only as an illuminating mistake.

It attempts to show that the ascription of Deity to anyone is illegitimate, since the traditional notion of God is self-contradictory. Is God infinitely powerful? In that case, as the Sunday-school boy asked his teacher, could he make a stone so big that he could not lift it? If you say he could, you admit that there is something he cannot do, namely lift that stone. If you say he could not, you are admitting equally that there is something he cannot do, namely make that stone. The same difficulties break out with regard to the other attributes. Is God all-knowing? In that case, could he contrive a puzzle so difficult that he could not solve it? Is he perfectly good? Then he could never be really tempted by evil. But if never tempted, he lacks one kind of goodness, namely resistance to temptation. All these puzzles turn on definitions. If you define ‘almighty’ in such a way that God can do anything whatever, even to making both sides of a contradiction true, then the very ascription of it is incoherent. And so of the other two attributes. But as Rashdall objected to McTaggart, who had used this sort of argument against theology, no philosophically competent theologian would so define his terms. If ‘almighty’ is to have an intelligible meaning, it must be defined in some such way as ‘capable of doing anything not inconsistent with itself’. And so of the other two terms. If they are so defined, they can no longer be dismissed on purely logical grounds.

Can the attributes of Deity, when ascribed to Jesus, be dismissed, then, on inductive grounds? We shall see that they can. It is surprisingly easy to show that if any reasonable meaning is given to these attributes, the New Testament record itself excludes them all. On such inductive grounds one error would nullify the claim to completeness of knowledge. One clear bit of evidence that the agent was ever frustrated of his aim would reveal limitation of power. One unkind word, one loss of temper, one act of less than full justice, one instance of underrating or overrating any of the intrinsic goods of life, would be inconsistent with a claim to moral perfection. Now, however ungrateful the assignment, we can only report that the recorded life of Jesus does not pass these tests. That he was an extraordinary moral genius, a great teacher and reformer whose life turned the current of history for the better will not be disputed here. The world owes him an incalculable debt, if only for his attempt to substitute good will for violence in the relations of mankind. But he has been transfigured by a partisan theology into something he was not, so that it would now require both immense historical erudition and extraordinary independence of mind to see him as he was. Since the present writer cannot lay claim to either qualification, his conclusion cannot pretend to much weight. But it may be reported for what it is worth. Jesus was a sensitive and discerning moralist, a new kind of personality, in whom an order of unworldly values was embodied with unexampled attractiveness and grace; he was a uniquely great man. But he was not God. The positive parts of this statement hardly need support. The negative one perhaps does.

17 Consider the claim that has been made for Jesus to perfect knowledge. There are three principal forms in which a falling short of such knowledge might be evinced: ignorance, error, and inconsistency.

Is there any reason to believe that Jesus was free from the burden of ignorance? He could hardly have been thus free if he grew in knowledge, as it is recorded that he did (Luke 2:52), for such growth means ascent from one degree of knowledge to another, and degrees of knowledge are, from the other side, degrees of ignorance. Henry Parry Liddon, the eloquent Victorian Canon of St Paul's, argued ‘that since the founder of Christianity, in divinely recorded utterances, alluded to the transformation of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, to Noah's ark and the Flood, and to the sojourn of Jonah in the whale, the biblical account of these must be accepted as historical, or that Christianity must be given up altogether.’22 The acceptance of this as a true dilemma would ensure the abandonment of Christianity. However great a figure Jesus was, he was not infallible and not omniscient. Did he know, for example, what the modern biologist knows about the origin of species, or what the geologist knows about the formation of the earth, or what the psychologist knows about conflict and repression? There is no evidence that he did, and a strong presumption that he did not. He knew his Old Testament, with its account of the creation of the earth and the sun (in that incorrect order), of the creation of birds and reptiles (also in that incorrect order), of the creation of man from ‘the dust of the ground’ and of woman from the man's rib. He read these things in his Scripture, which he regarded as inspired, and presumably accepted them as others did. Diseases that a modern psychiatrist would probably diagnose as epilepsy or schizophrenia he took as demon possession, and believed that he cured them (which he possibly did) by casting the demons out (which he pretty certainly did not). To say that he was somehow in command of modern knowledge in these fields is not only without ground; it is to indict him for indifference to his own people; for if he knew what the modern mind knows without making any effort to impart it, he was deliberately keeping his people in darkness. Since there is no reason to impute to him such a desire, we can only believe that in these and many other fields he shared the ignorance of his time.

Did he commit errors of fact? The New Testament records that he did. There were errors as to the past, the present, and the future. As for the past, he accepted the content of the Pentateuch generally as written by Moses, whereas it was not, and ascribed to David the authorship of the 110th Psalm (Mark 12:36), which most modern critics agree could not have been David's. As for mistakes about what to him was the present, he mistook the character of Judas when he was selecting his disciples. As for the future, he told his disciples that they should not have gone over the cities of Israel before he returned to earth in judgement (Matt. 10:23); they went over the cities, but his promised return did not come. He predicted that those who were faithful to him would receive ‘now in this time’ a hundredfold in such things as houses and lands (Mark 10:30); they did not receive them. He seems indeed to have held important misconceptions about himself. Was he the Messiah expected by the Jews? His own opinion on this point apparently varied. He never called himself the Son of David, a common way of referring to the Messiah, and preferred to call himself ‘the Son of Man’, which was not so used; indeed in one passage he seems to disavow the Messiah-ship (Matt. 22:41–45). But in another he seems to accept it (Matt. 11:2 ff.). It is probable, as Erdmann argues, that his conviction of being the Messiah came to him gradually, in which case either the earlier or the later conviction must have been in error. And how are the final tragic words about having been forsaken to be interpreted? The only intelligible way to construe them is that he had expected some form of divine co-operation and that the expectation had not been realised.

18 The record, then, does not support a claim that he was free from errors of fact. What of consistency in his reported life and teaching? Here too theological zeal on his behalf has shot beyond the mark. We have noted several instances already in which his teaching, as recorded, was not coherent. There were the two doctrines about divorce, the universality of his mission combined with its confinement to the lost sheep of Israel, the exhortation to honour father and mother combined with the refusal to let a disciple bury his father; the injunction to non-resistance combined with the violent clearing of the temple. One inconsistency that we have noted must be stressed again, since it comes so near to the heart of the ethical teaching. If there was anything central in that teaching, it was the stress on love and forgiveness. Yet in both his teaching and his practice Jesus seems to have departed from the ideal repeatedly and in perplexing fashion. ‘Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:33). This sounds uncomfortably like the expression of a vengeful spirit. A different kind of vengeance, but one still strangely at variance with the central Christian teaching, is ascribed to God by Paul. He writes of certain persons who ‘received not the love of the truth’ that ‘for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie’ (2 Thess. 2:10–11). To the modern mind this seems more like cat-and-mouse morality than like love or even justice. Along with the injunction of love, the spirit of revenge played a part in early Christian teaching that is explicable only on the assumption that this teaching had imperfectly broken away from the semi-barbarism of the day. In the epistle to the Hebrews, it is taught that even repentance is impossible on the part of a Christian who has been baptised and slipped away (Heb. 6:4–6); he will presumably be damned in spite of all efforts to repent.23

It may be suggested that though a vengeful spirit may have been displayed on occasion by Paul and some of the other early Christians, it was never approved or exhibited by Christ himself. This is not borne out by the recorded facts. Christ specifically ascribed acts of vengeance to God: ‘Shall not God avenge his own elect…? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily’ (Luke 18:7–8); and we have seen that he represented God as inflicting for certain sins a penalty of everlasting agony disproportionate to any finite offence. Furthermore, if his denunciation of the Pharisees as ‘full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness’, as ‘serpents’, ‘offspring of vipers’, and due for ‘the damnation of hell’ is expressive of love or forgiveness, it is difficult to see what resources of language are left to provide a vehicle for condemnation. It may be answered that he denounced the sin, but loved the sinner. But he seems in some cases to make the sinners blacker than the sins. ‘So far as I can make out…,’ writes Professor Fite, ‘the dark picture of the Pharisees presented in the Gospels, often in the words of Jesus himself, stands alone in the history of the sect, unconfirmed by other evidence’.24 In his parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man, condemned incidentally for no reported reason except his wealth, is denied, even in the flames, the means of wetting his mouth or of warning his brothers of what lay in store for them. Immediately after saying that the stone which the builders rejected would become the head of the corner, Jesus added: ‘but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder’ (Luke 20:18). He is widely believed to have preached and practised unfailing love. But toward certain classes of persons, most notably hypocrites, his attitude as expressed would be more accurately described as an intense and withering detestation.

There were other breaches of consistency. He declared: ‘whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire’ (Matt. 5:22), but on more than one occasion he used the forbidden phrase himself (Matt. 23:17; Luke 12:20; 24:25). He announced that he came not to destroy but to fulfil, and that not a jot or tittle of the law was to pass away; but he repeatedly set aside the law with the remark, ‘it has been said… but I say unto you’. He promised that his yoke was easy and his burden light; he also warned that any man who would follow him must ‘deny himself and take up his cross’. He blessed the peacemakers, and his birth was heralded, according to tradition, by the proclamation of peace on earth; but he also said that he came to bring not peace but a sword, and to set one member of a household against another.

19 The ease with which such inconsistencies, which are certainly not all verbal, can be found suggests that Jesus’ mind belonged to a different mould from the mind of the West, with that interest in clearly reasoned positions which it inherited from the Greeks. This impression is strengthened when we study the replies he gave to the many who questioned him. Seldom is a quite straightforward answer given. Sometimes the question is evaded. Was it in accordance with the law of Moses to give tribute to Caesar? The answer, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's’ (Mark 12:17), was scarcely an answer at all, since the question was precisely whether such tribute was to be included among ‘the things that are Caesar's’. The evasion here may, to be sure, have been a justified resort to political expediency. But it was not always so. The Sadducees, who disbelieved in personal immortality, asked him regarding a woman who had been married seven times, whose wife she should be ‘in the resurrection’ (Mark 12:18–27). The reply given, namely that ‘when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels which are in heaven,’ answers the question in a sense, but by suggesting a degree of impersonality and sexlessness in the next life that threatens the notion of personal survival itself. The Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God would come. His reply was that ‘the kingdom of God cometh not with observation’, meaning apparently that whenever it did come it would not be outwardly observable. The evasion is not made easier to understand by the fact that on another occasion he frankly stated that he did not know when the kingdom would come (Mark 13:32), and also that men would ‘see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory’ (Mark 13:26; italics mine). The Pharisees asked him whether divorce was lawful. He replied, ‘What… God hath joined together, let not man put asunder’. They pointed out that their lawgiver, Moses, had expressly permitted divorce, which was correct. He replied: ‘Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives’ (Matt. 19:3–8). The reply again is puzzling, both because there seems to be no ground for it in the relevant Mosaic account (Deut. 24), and because it is hard to see why, merely because men were hard-hearted, their hard-heartedness toward their wives should have been legitimised. Sometimes the evasive answer was given with impressive intellectual skill. Certain doubters, noting his confidence that his acts embodied the divine will, asked him by what authority he did these things. He replied that he would tell them if they would first answer a question of his own about the baptism of John: Was it from God or from man? This was a dilemma on whose horns the questioners were neatly impaled, and they found themselves unable to give either answer. Whereupon Jesus said, ‘Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things’ (Mark 11:33). His disciples seem to have complained to him on one occasion that they were short of bread, to which his response, as reported, was, ‘Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod’ (Mark 8:15). The disciples were puzzled as to the relevance of the remark. So is the modern reader.

Much that puzzles us would no doubt be cleared up if we knew the circumstances of the case and the motives of the questioners. Jesus possessed an extraordinary power of divining what these motives were, and of giving answers that were relevant not so much to the questions asked as to the state of mind of the inquirers. And in spite of the skill he sometimes displayed in intellectual thrust and parry, it was not this kind of activity in which his heart lay, or his power. He was a practical moralist who wanted to regenerate men's feelings about others and about the goods they lived by, and he instinctively adopted the language that would speak to their feelings, the language of parable and poetry. When challenged to formulate his ethical counsels exactly, or to state in express propositions what men were to believe and why, he was still inclined to fall back on metaphor and simile, so that we do not know, and presumably never shall, what precisely he meant by some of the cardinal terms of his teaching: ‘the kingdom of God’, ‘the love of God’, ‘the fatherhood of God’, ‘the son of man’, ‘everlasting life’, ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘peace’. The fathers of the church and Catholic theologians have developed an immense intellectual apparatus to explicate and relate these ideas, all based on the assumption that through the simple language of the sower and his seed, of lost sheep and prodigal sons, houses built on rock or sand, candles hid under bushels and lambs led out to slaughter there is peeping an elaborate and articulated cosmology, with the Trinity, the creation, the incarnation, the atonement, the salvation of the faithful, and the eternities of heaven and hell all taking their precisely defined and rationally appointed places. To anyone who tries to get rid of preconceptions and to read for himself the simple and beautiful language of the gospels, all this seems just the way in which the mind of Jesus did not work. He was not an ‘intellectual’. A third-rate logician can point out inconsistencies, obscurities, errors, ambiguities, and fallacies almost without number in the record of his life and teaching. This does not show that he was not a great moralist or great man. It does show that the attempt to make of him an embodiment of omniscience does not correspond to fact.


20 So does the attempt—on which we may dwell more briefly—to show that he is a being of unlimited power. That he did possess powers not owned by ordinary human beings will seem probable even to those who interpret the ‘miracles’ of healing as faith-healing, for though this kind of therapy is common enough, few can employ it, and no one fully understands it. There is no compelling ground, however, for classing such cures as miraculous in the sense of transcending natural law, for we have not explored sufficiently the relations of body and mind to be able to say of a particular wonder whether it is a suspension of law or an exemplification of some law unknown. Such performances as the walking on the water and the bringing to life of a body four days dead might well show supernatural power if in fact they occurred, but their occurrence is surely less probable than errors on the part of observers or reporters. With the dismissal of the physical miracles, the ground for attributing to Jesus supernatural power largely disappears. He is recorded indeed to have said: ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth,’ but the statement appears only in the questionable appendix to Matthew, where he is said to have made it after his death to a group of somewhat sceptical disciples. The vast claims of St John were part of an apologetic tract rather than of a factual history. And in more reliable passages, Jesus admitted his sharp limitation of power. We have seen that when he returned to his own town he could ‘do no mighty work’ because of the attitude of the townsfolk. He said in a curious passage that when a woman in a crowd around him touched his robe and was healed, he felt power passing from him; and such power as he had was not beyond the need of recurrent periods of restoration. But a more telling kind of evidence for his limitation of power is that if it had not been thus limited he could, and presumably would, have done so much that he did not do. He could have saved his people from the Romans, have carried his message into all the world, and, using only powers attributed to him in the gospels, have saved men without number from famine, deformity, and disease. We cannot suppose that, being what he was, he did not desire these goods. If he did not achieve them, it was because he could not.

21 To all this it may be replied that the uniqueness of Jesus lay in a wholly different direction. Limited in knowledge and power he may have been, but on the ethical side, in his moral teaching and moral character, he was subject to no such limitations. His ethical teaching, it is confidently claimed, showed an originality and penetration as far beyond human authorship as his life—the one stainless life on record—was beyond human imitation.

This view has been so long and widely held that many or most persons in Western lands feel an inner resistance to any criticism of it. They would feel no such resistance to the imputation that there were flaws in the ethical teaching of a Socrates or Marcus Aurelius, a Thomas More or Martin Luther, or even perhaps to the charge that one of these moral heroes had told a lie or done something dubious in business. About Jesus they feel differently. Others abide their question, but not he. The truth of his teaching and the perfection of his life do not seem subject in the same way to the cavils of the moral philosopher or the historian. They belong in the sphere of religion, where they stand under the guarantee of revelation; and even for those who do not hold to revealed truth, they are still surrounded by an aura of sacredness that arouses a vague sense of impiety in those who try to dissipate it. Even minds whose primary loyalty is to reason may be troubled by such a sense, though they may be intellectually clear that no limit should be placed on rational inquiry and that such inquiry would only add strength to claims that were really valid.

For a free mind the question inevitably arises whether the teaching or the character of Jesus provides us with an ethical absolute. As for the teaching, we have already given our answer. In one important respect it has stood the test of time and criticism, and will presumably continue to do so. The law of universal love, or, as we have understood it, the duty of settled good will toward all mankind, seems unassailable. On the other hand, the claim of the Christian ethic to completeness as a guide to the good life, its applicability to the modern social and political scene, and its internal consistency have been shown to fail at many points; and it is needless to pursue the matter further. One fresh question, however, may well be asked. Part of the claim for the Christian ethic has often been that it is unique in the sense of being original and unprecedented. Is this claim valid?


22 Of course originality has nothing to do with truth. Much that is original had better never have been said, and many unoriginal minds have been admirably loyal to truth and reason. But a combination of truth with thoroughgoing originality would place anyone in a category unique among mankind. Does Jesus belong to this category? It is now well known that in many of his cardinal teachings he was anticipated by other moralists to whom in fact he had access. Take a few of these teachings almost at random. On the duty of loving one's neighbour, consider this from Leviticus: ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (19:18). On the fatherhood of God: ‘Have we not all one father?’ (Mal. 2:10); ‘Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him’ (Psalms, 103:13); ‘I am a father to Israel’ (Jer. 31:19); ‘the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace’ (Isa. 9:6). The Jewish Talmud taught that ‘the real and only Pharisee is he who does the will of his Father because he loves him’. ‘Every Jew of the period,’ says D. C. Simpson, ‘could have subscribed to the opening formula of “the Lord's prayer”’.25 On the duty of charity, Sidgwick writes: ‘in laying stress on almsgiving Christianity merely universalised a duty which has always been inculcated and maintained in conspicuous fulness by Judaism, within the limits of the chosen people’;26 and he points out that the teaching of humility also is ‘to some extent anticipated in the Rabbinic teaching’. In a remarkable book by an unknown writer, entitled The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and written about a century before the Christian era, there are passages that show the spirit and some of the phraseology of the Sermon on the Mount. Dr R. H. Charles, an eminent scholar in the field, thought that Jesus must have known this book and that St Paul used it as a vade mecum. The Mosaic law taught that the Sabbath should be carefully observed; Jesus departed from this by teaching that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath; but it has come to light that there was a rabbinic saying, ‘the Sabbath is yours, and you are not for the Sabbath’. Warner Fite writes: ‘his praise of the childlike attitude (of the “little ones”), his condemnation of him “who looks upon a woman to lust after her”—both have been included among the marks of a finer morality distinctive of Jesus; yet to both we may find parallels in the Rabbinic Anthology of Montefiore and Loewe. Note that, in the passage numbered 1447, “he who sins with the eye is also an adulterer”.’27 The doctrine of non-resistance was taught some five or six centuries before Christ by Lao-Tse and Buddha. The restraint placed by Christian ethics on the natural man was anticipated by many ancient sects: the Egyptian priests of Isis were celibates; the Orphic brotherhoods of Greece practised fasting; the Pythagoreans were ascetics in some respects, and the Cynics in many. Whether Jesus was influenced by reports of these practices is unknown; he may or may not have been; in any case, his curbing of the natural man in a religious interest was not a new thing in the world.

These parallels between the teaching of Jesus and those of his predecessors could be continued, and if they were completed, probably few of his teachings would be left standing as quite new. Does this mean that his ethics as a whole was unoriginal? Certainly not. For he combined the elements as no one else had ever done, and he suffused the whole with a passion of religious devotion that brought these elements to fresh life. The love of God, the love of man, forgiveness, non-resistance, humility, otherworldliness, can all be found in other moralists, but nowhere in their Christian unity and interdependence. He is unique among moralists, and indeed among mankind, for his simple, overwhelming conviction of the reality of the unseen, and for his subjection of all the details of thought, feeling, and action to the control of a will not his own, so that he was a ‘God-intoxicated’ man. The sense of the reality of the divine was linked in his thought and practice with a sense of the divine in man, and therefore of the value of all men as persons. Like St Francis, in whom he was so largely reincarnated, he had nothing but compassion for the morons and lepers, the prostitutes and untouchables, around him; wherever his message has penetrated, those who are ‘despised and rejected of men’ have felt themselves befriended in an unfriendly world, and somehow important in spite of their seeming worthlessness. And the form of his teaching, like its substance, uniquely combines convention with novelty. It echoes the phrases of the prophetic preaching and the cadences of traditional poetry, but in the Sermon on the Mount it achieves a succinctness, and in some of the parables, like that of the prodigal son, a vividness and economy, that have given his words a permanent place in the literature of the world. Thus the originality of Jesus, despite all that must in detail be subtracted from it, remains extraordinarily high.


23 What of his personal character? The tradition in the church is of course that he was sinless and perfect. But Jesus did not hold this view of himself, and it is not supported by the portrait of him in Scripture. When a follower addressed him as ‘Good Master’, he rebuked him, saying ‘Why callest thou me good? None is good save one, that is, God’ (Luke 18:19). Zeller thought that he would not have used such phrases as ‘Forgive us our sins’ and ‘Lead us not into temptation’ if he had thought of himself as above sin.28 Nor would he have felt the need of baptism. ‘The baptism had a particular symbolic meaning; it implied past sin, present repentance, and preparation for the expected Messiah.…’29 His injunction to his hearers was to follow him, not only in his teaching but also in his example; but his example would hardly have been an example if he knew nothing of the common man's temptations and frailties; as Leslie Stephen insisted, ‘you sever the very root of our sympathy when you single out one as divine and raise him to the skies.… The ideal becomes meaningless when it is made supernatural.’30

This picture of a character with flaws is supported by the portrait supplied by his biographers. The torrents of merciless invective poured upon the Pharisees and the readiness to consign them to endless torment are not only inconsistent with his own teaching of forgiveness, but, it must be candidly said, inconsistent with rational standards of justice and humanity. Bertrand Russell can even write: ‘… He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often.’31 And what is one to make of the incident of the fig tree?

‘he was hungry: and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever.… And in the morning… Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away’ (Mark 11:12–14, 20–21).

In anyone else this would be regarded as an outburst of petulance, natural enough in hunger and frustration but still unreasonable; and so it probably was in this case. To orthodox interpreters it offers a conundrum hard to solve, since the agent, as sinless, was incapable of anything so petty as losing his temper. In the incident of the Gadarene swine, again, there is no apparent thought of the loss to their owner or of the drowning animals themselves. In some instances he displays a spirit that would, in another, have been set down to inconsiderateness or spite. When he sent out his disciples, he instructed them to take no money with them, but to depend on charity; ‘And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgement, than for that city’ (Matt. 10:14–15). Klausner thought that the saying, ‘Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father’ expressed a spirit of vengeance.

When Jesus’ appraisals differ from ours we do not always, on reflection, retreat. We have seen that he sometimes exhibits, as in the case of Lazarus and the rich man, an apparent antipathy to rich men because they are rich and approval of poor men because they are poor. This is not quite easy to justify on ethical grounds. Sometimes, again, he shows a curious disregard for what we should call property rights. On his way to Jerusalem he had need for some means of transport. He told two of his disciples to go to the next village where they would find a colt tethered in the street; they should simply take it and bring it to him. If anyone asked why, they should say ‘the Lord hath need of him’ (Luke 19:29–35). We are not told that it belonged to a friend, or that permission was asked, or thanks returned. And those unfortunate Gadarene pigs inevitably crop up again; they were presumably someone's property; were they paid for? That seems to have been too trifling a detail to find entry in the account.

Once more, in his recurrent crossing of verbal swords with ‘the scribes and Pharisees’, does he provide a model of controversy, a better model, say, than Socrates? Not on the intellectual side, but what of the moral side? Socrates was not above arguing for victory; Jesus too appears to have taken satisfaction in confounding his opponents by dexterous fencing. Sometimes, as we have seen, he employs what looks like deliberate mystification; and at times he did what the urbanity of Socrates never permitted him to do, namely excoriate the character of his opponents. It may be protested that Socrates was a mere man, without the sure insight into men's hearts that could justify such denunciation. But that consideration is double-edged. If Jesus was indeed an ultimate judge of men who could turn with full knowledge from argument to denunciation, we certainly are not, and hence his conduct of discussion could hardly serve as a model for ourselves.

There is another puzzling feature in the moral attitude of Jesus. He takes us aback from time to time by urging that conduct which is outwardly right should be done from motives that seem wrong. The right motive for giving to another is the desire for the good of that other, not the good of oneself. But Jesus says, ‘Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom’ (Luke 6:38). This seems unsatisfactory, whether as moral counsel or as statement of fact. Even in his injunction to prayer the motive suggested sounds strange: ‘pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly’ (Matt. 6:6). We do not consider that goodness moved by the desire for reward is a high type of goodness. Neither do the gospels, at least uniformly: ‘love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again’ (Luke 6:35). But even here there comes the immediate addition, ‘and your reward shall be great’. The moral values of the different motives that may lead men to right conduct seem never to have been clearly distinguished in Jesus’ teaching; actions done from the love of God, the fear of God, the desire for a heavenly reward, the desire for a reward on earth, are all grouped as praiseworthy along with genuine compassion for human suffering, and sometimes treated as on a level with it. The desire for heaven and the fear of hell are represented as among the worthiest of motives.


24 This brings us to our final comment on the ethics of Jesus. Along with much that is noble and appealing, it is deficient in its respect for reason. Its emphasis on good will and its consideration for the intrinsic value of every human life must remain central in any valid ethics. To be sure, the teaching is not consistently presented; and its followers have found in its silences and ambiguities an excuse for much cruelty and injustice. It has served, nevertheless, to redress the ancient imbalance of the natural man, with his bias for the goods of appetite, wealth, and power. By its quiet insistence on the goods of the inward life—on affection, compassion, humility, and clearness of conscience—it has done an incalculable service to mankind.

The great defect remains. It is not a single simple defect, but a set of related ones, which spring from the same root—the failure to take reason seriously, to see how fundamental cognition is among man's faculties, to see how largely reflection can make or unmake a world, and how central it is even in morals. This failure manifested itself in several forms.

25(1) In the first place, Christianity tied its ethics to an unreal world which was bound to dissolve when the winds of criticism began to blow on it. That Jesus should have accepted the outlook of his time and place is no matter for surprise unless one begins by assuming him to be Deity, and then it becomes an insoluble problem. How could he be omniscient if he accepted error; how could he be good if, knowing it is error, he did not disclose it? Ethics and religion were to him inseparable, and at the heart of his religion was the Jewish cosmology of his day. With certain humane changes of emphasis, his God was still the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a person like ourselves but older, wiser, and more powerful, loving toward his chosen people but imperious, jealous, and quick to anger. He had made the world not very long ago; every male ancestor of Jesus back to the creation could be named. God had created Adam and Eve as mature beings without youth or ancestry, and his permission to Satan to tempt them in the garden was part of a larger plan for mankind. All the world was a stage on which the creatures made in his image could be tested for more permanent roles under his critical eye; and the ground for judging all of them was the same, namely obedience to his will. The chief motives of their conduct were to be the love of him and the fear of him. The rewards and punishments he dealt out had been conceived by the ancient Jews as coming in this life, and any life beyond the grave was vague and doubtful to them. Jesus added to the older motives, and gave a more definite shape to the older anticipations. Men could play their roles on the world's stage with the certainty that if they did it to their maker's pleasure their lot would be eternal bliss, and if they failed, a torture appalling beyond words or thought. As to the final judgement that would usher in these two eternities, it was almost upon them; it was to come like a thief in the night in his own generation. This was the world framework in which Jesus lived, and to which he bound his ethics with chains as strong as he could make them. Except within its limits, life was vanity.

Now this framework has collapsed. It has disintegrated with the advance of knowledge. Whatever God may be to the modern mind, he is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a magnified man, siring the human race, championing a chosen people, tender and ferocious by turns, with a reward in one hand and a fiery scourge in the other. The creation, as Jesus must have thought of it, never occurred; there was no Eden, no Adam, no tempting Satan, no fall, no inherited sin. The confidently predicted world catastrophe deferred itself indefinitely. Little by little this entire theological scheme of things came to seem unreal. The idea that a universe stretching billions of years into the past and billions of light-years into space was all fabricated as a stage for the performance of one biological species, appearing transiently on one floating grain of dust, strikes the scientific mind as grotesque. Not that the older framework has ever been conclusively demonstrated to be mythical. But two things have happened to it. It has been frittered away around the edges by a long series of abrasives, supplied among others by Galileo and Descartes, Lyell and Darwin, Strauss and Freud. Secondly, the structure as a whole has become increasingly unbelievable through its incoherence with the world of natural law. It is true that one cannot decisively disprove a single miracle. Jesus may in fact have walked on water and brought a dead friend to life. But as man's grasp of nature becomes more complete, the crevices through which the supernatural flowed in have become fewer and narrower; and as his understanding deepens of the ease and range of his self-deception, the ratio of fact to myth in the old cosmology grows steadily smaller.

Nevertheless, to that unreal cosmology Jesus tied his ethics. The two, he believed, must stand or fall together. As it turned out, the cosmology failed to stand, and if we were to draw the inference he thought inevitable, we should have to reject the ethics with it. Many have done that, and with a New Testament warrant in their hands. I have declined to follow them. There is too much in Christian ethics with which we cannot afford to part. But the New Testament makes that course difficult by lashing its ethics so firmly to a sinking ship. When we say that Jesus failed to take reason seriously enough, part of what we mean, then, is that he bound what was morally valid to what has proved intellectually untenable.

26(2) This unhappy liaison affected the ethics itself. The relation of morality to the divine will and the motives for right conduct were both distorted. The will of God was taken as the ultimate authority, which man was to obey without question; whatever God willed was right. But this cannot be the true ground of rightness. If God wills an action, it must be because it is right; it is not right because he wills it. Otherwise his will becomes irrational and whimsical; if he wills that we murder, murder thereby becomes right. That could be accepted by the elastic moral sense of a Kierkegaard, but it is not in this direction that moral sanity lies. One clearer-headed moralist, Paley, did attempt to defend the definition of ‘right’ as ‘willed by God,’ but his defence has been too often and decisively dealt with to require reconsideration.

The linkage of ethics to a faulty world view had another morally unfortunate consequence. An important part of that world view was an eschatology that was bound to distort men's motives. Its influence took two forms. In the first form, it worked through the expectation of an early second coming. We have repeatedly seen how hard it is to be sure what lay behind Jesus’ injunctions. Was his injunction to take no thought for the morrow or not to lay up treasures on earth a general warning against worldliness, or special advice in view of the shortness of the time? Schweitzer and many others have thought that his mistaken expectation threw its long, obscuring shadow across the whole of his teaching, making it impossible to distinguish with confidence what was the by-product of error and what was independent insight.

In its second form also, the New Testament eschatology has had a large and dubious influence. Jesus saw that if our actions carry with them an everlasting reward or penalty, that consciousness should never be far from our thought. It is plain enough that Christians have not generally taken this prospect very seriously, for if they had they could have thought of little else; the next life, with its overwhelming sanctions, would dominate this life completely. Nevertheless it has had great effects, both historical and moral. It has undoubtedly coerced many to keep their feet outwardly on the straight and narrow way. It has also justified enormous cruelties. It provided a logically impeccable excuse for the gagging of critics and the torture of heretics. The influence of such otherworldly expectations when entertained for some twenty centuries by even feeble imaginations is incalculable. Whether that influence is legitimate depends, of course, on the truth of those expectations, a question we cannot here explore. Suffice it to say that if Jesus’ doctrine of a God of love is true, the doctrine of eternal punishment cannot also be true.

The question remains whether the expectation of such rewards and penalties provides morally sound motives. In the form presented in the New Testament, it does not. If the teaching were that we shall ‘fare ever there as here’, it would be a ground of hope, for the next world would be, like this one, ‘a vale of soul-making,’ where continued advance would be possible. But this is not the picture painted in the gospels. Heaven and hell are depicted in hedonistic colours, with the good eternally happy and the wicked without hope in a place where ‘their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched’. Such prospects throw all human motivations out of true perspective. If the thief or the killer holds his hand not from consideration for his victims but from fear of his own pain, his ‘right conduct’ is a hollow shell. If the man who sacrifices himself for another does so as a step to his own happiness, his ‘sacrifice’ is in reality self-seeking. With so tremendous an egoistic lure hovering always in the offing, no motive is safe from taint.

27(3) The insufficient respect for reason has shown itself in other ways than by tying morals to a false cosmology and eschatology. It has made escape from these more difficult by a peculiar ethics of belief. Man's intellect, when granted free play, could and eventually did make its escape, but the ethics of belief inculcated in the gospels declined to grant it free play. Instead, contentment with the prescribed world order was made a virtue, and disbelief in it—even doubt of it—was made a sin. Hence the process of correction which should have been made from within by critical reflection was delayed until the correction was battered home from without; and we have seen that resistance to rational battering is still strong in both Catholic and Protestant communions. The strength and weakness of the Christian ethics of belief, however, is a large and important subject, whose fuller consideration is reserved for the chapter that follows.

28(4) In saying that the Christian ethics did not take reason seriously enough, I have in mind still another meaning. It failed to recognise the place of reason in the moral life itself. It did not perceive the degree in which ethics is autonomous. The principles of ethics are not derived from some authority outside itself, even theology, but from the reason implicitly at work in all morality. Most philosophical moralists have held that the rightness of conduct turns on the intrinsic values it brings into existence. What sort of insight is it which enables us to see that an experience possesses value in itself, or that one intrinsic value is greater than another? The main tradition of Western thought would say that it is a rational insight; and we agree. Even those in this century who have devised the theory that it is nothing but an emotional preference are now saying that it is at least a preference for which valid reasons may be given. In the statement that happiness is better than misery, understanding than ignorance, the experience of a cool drink in a parched throat than a raging toothache, there is something very like self-evidence; no deduction of it from theological or metaphysical premises is as compelling as the statement itself. Anyone who rejected such statements, when offered in unambiguous form, we should probably regard as perverse or not quite sane. This is not to say that moral judgements are incorrigible. It is to assert that, like other judgements, they belong in the province of truth and falsity, and evince a reason that is pressing in and through them toward an ideal of objective truth.

The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount did not flatly reject such a view. If Jesus had been asked such an improbable question as whether it was self-evident to him that love was better than hatred and forgiveness than vengeance, one can only guess that he would have said Yes. But like other great moral reformers, he was more interested in the truth of what he said than in the way of arriving at it. His way was that of the prophets, who were seers, not epistemologists. And when the prophet speaks, it is not his intellect that is chiefly engaged. He would be impatient of distinctions between logical certainty and emotional certitude. There are poor and wretched people around him in whose misery he partakes. He has had a vision of what life might be if mankind were a brotherhood instead of an arena for rivalry and greed; his account of his vision has something of the lyric cry about it; and he lashes out in fury at those who, having ears, refuse to hear. Because his words come from the heart and are the utterance of passionate sympathies, antipathies, and aspirations, they will almost certainly have wings. But they are not likely to express the balanced judgement of the sage.

29 Does this line of reflection apply to the ethics of Jesus? Without undue disparagement of so great a figure, one may venture to think that it does. If his ethics had been the expression of a critical reason, his order of values would surely not have been what it was. For him religion and morality were virtually the whole of life; nothing mattered much except the hunger and thirst after righteousness. He was the last and greatest of the prophets, and the old tradition spoke through him when he focused his teaching on the moral side of life. But morality, though the most important thing in life, is not all of it, and in fixing on it so exclusively he undervalued the other great goods of life. The adequate appreciation of these had to be learned from other sources—of intelligence and beauty from the Greeks, of justice and order from the Romans, of courage from both, as well as from the Goths. The moral philosopher knows that these are goods, and great goods, which should have their part, if possible, in every life. But no Hebrew prophet, even of transcendent genius, was a moral philosopher. They were all passionate purveyors of a single message—the kingdom of God and his righteousness. They are not to be blamed for lacking a range of contemplation that, in their position, was impossible for them. It is otherwise with those who, without their genius, have a command of history, philosophy, and science that was never available to them. Jesus was the supreme prophet, poet, and genius of inward goodness. But we mistake his office and narrow our possibilities if we look to him alone for the architecture of the good life.

  • 1.

    Warner Fite, Jesus the Man, 103.

  • 2.

    George F. Thomas, Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy (N.Y., Scribner's, 1955), 248.

  • 3.

    H. C. King, The Ethics of Jesus (N.Y., Macmillan, 1912), 38.

  • 4.

    Friedrich Paulsen, A System of Ethics (N.Y., Scribner's, 1899), 71.

  • 5.

    Francis W. Newman, On the Defective Morality of the New Testament, 19.

  • 6.

    Fite, op. cit., 117.

  • 7.

    Inge, Christian Ethics and Modern Problems, 246–7.

  • 8.

    A. C. Benson, Thy Rod and Thy Staff (London, Smith, Elder, 1912), 161–2.

  • 9.

    F. W. Newman, op. cit., 10.

  • 10.

    Percy Gardner, Evolution in Christian Ethics, 201–2.

  • 11.

    Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963), III, 135.

  • 12.

    Adolf Harnack, What IS Christianity? (1901), 67, 70.

  • 13.

    John Dewey, A Common Faith (Yale Univ. Press, 1934).

  • 14.

    See above chap. 6, secs. 40–41.

  • 15.

    This view is developed and defended in my Reason and Goodness, chaps. 11–13.

  • 16.

    H. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, bk III, chap. 10, sec. 2 (2nd edn, 309).

  • 17.

    King, op. cit., 207 ff.

  • 18.

    Albert Schweitzer, The Psychoanalytic Study of Jesus.

  • 19.

    George Santayana, Reason in Religion (N.Y., Scribner's, 1916), 13.

  • 20.

    J. A. Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects, IV, 286.

  • 21.

    Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

  • 22.

    Reported by White, Warfare of Science with Theology, II, 369.

  • 23.

    ‘Camus argues that “capital punishment, in fact, throughout history has always been a religious punishment.…” He finds humanism more humane than theism.’ Walter Kaufmann, Religion from Tolstoy to Camus, 41.

  • 24.

    Fite, op. cit., 108.

  • 25.

    D. C. Simpson in The History of Christianity in the Light of Modern Knowledge (London and Glasgow, Blackie, 1929), 162.

  • 26.

    H. Sidgwick, History of Ethics (4th edn, Macmillan, 1896), 124.

  • 27.

    Fite, op. cit., 136.

  • 28.

    Eduard Zeller, Strauss and Renan, 75.

  • 29.

    H. Sidgwick, Miscellaneous Essays and Addresses (Macmillan, 1904), 8 fn.

  • 30.

    Leslie Stephen, Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking (N.Y., Putnam, 1908), 391.

  • 31.

    Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, 18.

From the book: