The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, March 19, 2011
Personal Reflections ... Religion ... Spirituality ...

When I was 15 years old, I worried a lot about what Jesus said in the Gospels. Yea, I was a bit different from most guys my age, who mostly worried about playing sports, getting hold of contraband (cigarettes, liquor, marijuana), and getting girls to notice them and perhaps allow them into the garden of sensual delights. For a host of reasons that would require a small book to explain and a panel of shrinks to interpret, I became more and more religious just as most kids lost interest in churchgoing. I was taking the Gospels seriously, looking to them as the rulebook by which I was to live my life.

The problem with that is that Jesus set really high standards. I became increasingly worried about my ability to live up to his standards; like hey, even thinking about sex was just as much a sin as doing it! So I started going to confession a lot (that wonderful Roman Catholic ritual of having a priest listen to your sins and give you pardon, on the condition that you perform some penance – usually saying a bunch of prayers), because I was afraid of the danger of going to hell for not fulfilling the strict standards that Jesus set.

A few years later, when facing the possibility of being drafted into military combat service in Vietnam, I decided to file for conscientious objector status so that I would not violate Jesus’ blanket prohibition on taking another human life. (Luckily for me, the draft soon ended). I also shied away from any romantic involvements with the opposite sex, as to avoid the temptations of the flesh. I didn’t care that no one else seemed worried about the lapse between the way that most people acted and what Jesus said was acceptable; not even the priests in my church seemed overly upset about that, despite occasional grumbling on their part during their sermons. But I didn’t care, I was going by the book.

And now it seems that I didn’t have to. I just finished reading “Jesus of Nazareth” by Prof. Paula Fredriksen, a prominent scholar who focuses on the “Jesus of history”. On page 110 of her book, Prof . Fredriksen explains that Jesus only got away with setting such strict standards because he lived under a “foreshortened time frame of vivid apocalyptic expectation”. It wasn’t explained to us in “Christian Doctrine” class (good old “CCD”) that Jesus expected God’s kingdom to arrive on earth within a year or two at most, and that people needed to be on their best behavior in preparation for it. In Jesus’ mind, there weren’t going to be too many tomorrows in the imperfect world that we know.

Prof. Fredriksen explains that “no normal society could long live according to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount”. To live by stringent moral codes similar to what Jesus prescribed, the ancient Essenes needed to form their own separate society; Christians interested in doing the same later formed walled-off communities, i.e. monasteries. As the Professor explains: “the earliest followers of Jesus did not retreat into separate communities . . . Why not? Because these early Christians, and Jesus before them, did not expect a long run. The Kingdom was at hand . . .”

Hmmm, I did not know all of that back in my high school days. My attempt to live a “Jesus life” in the suburbs obviously failed. It turned out to be folly, a naive exercise in idealism and anxiety. I could have saved all the energy that it took to go off on my own and be different from the rest, and used it for something more tangible. Right?

But then again . . . . even though folly is failure and stupidity, sometimes there’s still something about it that makes you glad it all happened; perhaps this kind of folly wasn’t so “folly-esque” after all. I believe that the Renaissance writer Erasmus was trying to make a similar point in his “Praise of Folly” (but I’m not 100% sure, given how complicated PofF is). Perhaps we need more folly like that in our world after all, Prof. Fredriksen and my former parish priests notwithstanding.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:48 pm      

  1. Jim, Back in the 1950s and 1960s I taught high school and had the opportunity to speak seriously with young men about their interior lives. I know for a fact that there were then many young men of high school age who thought seriously of religious, spiritual, “Jesus” things and how to apply them in their lives. My tho’t is that even though some 50 or 60 years have passed since then, human beings do not change that quickly, and I have no doubt that there still are plenty of people around who take seriously trying to live a good life. People may be more or less successful at it, but they take it seriuosly.

    Society may tell people what to think or presume people think one way but that goes not mean that people on their “insides” actually think the way society says they are “supposed” to think. So I presume tht today still, young men (and women) are concerned about religious, spiritual, and “Jesus” things as they are applied to their own lives.

    And as to not having had explained the fact that the very early Christians considered that the apocalypse was coming any moment (or within their own lifetime), I think that some of that information is often left to the doctoral level of discussion; so it is entirely possible that even some priests, ministers, etc., may not know some of these facts. Then too, within the last half of the 20th century a great deal of information was discovered with the study and dissemination of the information found from the Nag Hammadi matrials and others. Within the last 50 years (and even more recently) there has been a great deal of information disseminated about first century Christians that was not really common knowledge (even for those more educated in religious matters) before then.

    Regarding another issue: I find myself disagreeing with Prof. Fredriksen who says that no normal society could live very long trying to practice the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. I think there are a great many people who do just that. They don’t necessarily make it a big issue that that is what they are doing, but a lot of people take seriously the living of a Christian life, which would include the Sermon on the Mount. I simply cannot agree with Prof. Fredriksen on that point.

    I hope and presume that you mean your last paragraph in a jesting way. Sure, anybody could certainly say that his/her attempt to live a “Jesus life” fails; but that does not mean that such a life is worthless. Frankly, when one looks at Jesus’ own life, there could really be no bigger “failure.” So, “failure” when it comes to trying to live as Christ might live were he alive now would be a person’s trying to do the best he/she might be capable of, which is the most that can be asked of anyone.

    Comment by Mary S. — March 21, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

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