The Buddha, Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi are three persons whom I found myself admiring as I grew older though not proportionately wiser. I don’t share their great qualities, feeble as I am. In fact, I may find myself towards the middle of the spectrum if we construct such a continuum of human qualities and personality traits as the one envisaged by philosopher Spinoza. Is what another philosopher, Nietzsche, said of himself true for me too: “What I am not, that for me is God and virtue” [in Thus Spoke Zarathustra]?
If I apply Spinoza’s classification, these three luminaries whom I have grown to admire belong to the category of people who regarded love as the primary virtue, considered all people to be equally precious, and resisted evil by returning good. Spinoza argued that people like Jesus and Buddha constructed an ethical system that stressed feminine virtues. At the other end of that spectrum are people like Machiavelli and Nietzsche [and most administrators I’ve been fated to live with] who stressed masculine virtues, acknowledged the essential inequalities of human beings, relished the risks of conquest and rule, and identified virtue with power. Towards the middle of that spectrum lie people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle [oh, so antique!] who identified virtue with intelligence. An informed and rational mind can make better decisions than one guided by love or power, says Spinoza – and I agree.
As the world gets ready to celebrate the birth anniversary of Jesus (Christmas), I found myself overcome by an urge to explore why I admire Jesus in spite of his emphasis on love and compassion, virtues that I can’t claim to possess. I know well that I don’t deify what I am not, a la Nietzsche.
The first thing I like about Jesus is that he questioned the very fundamentals of his religion, Judaism. Jesus was crucified by the Jewish priests. The priests did not like Jesus’ questioning of their religion and the way it was being practised. He drove out the commercial entrepreneurs out of the synagogue [John 2:15]. He accused the religious teachers of being hypocrites [Mathew 23: 1-15].
Jesus argued that merely following religious rituals or laws would not guarantee anyone salvation. “Not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” said Jesus [Mathew 7:21]. Jesus wanted people to live a life based on certain fundamental values and principles, especially love, and not merely follow rules and observe rituals.
The Sabbath was not as holy for Jesus as for his religious leaders. It is better to do good to other people on Sabbath than merely observe it as a ritualistic holiday, said Jesus [Mathew 12:12, Mark: 3:4].
What Jesus wanted people to do was to have purity of heart, rather than follow rituals. Good actions will ensue automatically. It is the inner goodness and the good deeds which follow automatically that really mattered to Jesus. He did not value the man who claimed to be “not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers...” but claimed to “fast twice a week, give tithes of all that I get.” Jesus argued that the man who admitted his weaknesses in all humility and sought to keep his heart pure was the real religious person [Luke 18: 11-14].
Women who committed adultery were to be stoned to death, according to the Jewish law. When such a woman was brought to Jesus, he said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” [John 8: 7]. Jesus accepted the fallibility of human beings. What he asked people was to rise after each fall, learning the lesson from it, and to become a better human being.
The prodigal son’s homecoming is a far greater occasion for celebration than the dutiful son’s regular goodness [Luke 15: 11-32]. Bringing the lost sheep back to the fold was more important than tending the regular flock [Mathew 18: 12-14, Luke 15: 3-7].
Restoring goodness to each individual – that was what Jesus wanted.
Religion was not his concern. Rituals were not at all his concern. Mere recitation of prayers meant little to him.
In fact, he did not even found a religion. The Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, says, “he (Jesus) did not seek to found a separate community distinct from Israel with its own creed and cult, or to call to life an organization with its own constitution and offices, let alone a great religious edifice. No, according to all the evidence, Jesus did not found a church in his lifetime.” [The Catholic Church, Phoenix Press, 2002, page 11]
I admire Jesus, the man, the visionary, the philosopher. His message is still relevant, as far as I am concerned. His churches, however, don’t remind me of his message. So I shall celebrate Christmas in my own private way.
Wish you a Meaningful Christmas.
[Note: All the Biblical quotes are taken from the Revised Standard Version.]