Tag Archives: Jesus

How to Solve a Problem Like John Lennon

‘Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty’.


John Lennon was, with Paul McCartney, one half of the greatest song writing duo in history, and one quarter of the greatest bands in history: the Beatles (as very rare examples of absolute facts these, perhaps, represent the only time when Middle Way notions of provisionality, incrementality and agnosticism do not apply). Nevertheless, some would also have you believe that Lennon was a peace-loving, feminist icon who fought for the rights of the disenfranchised and the oppressed.  A man who declared that ‘all you need is love’ and dared to Imagine a world without war, nationalism or religion.  Others present him in an altogether different hue: as a violent, jealous and chauvinistic bully who abused his first wife, Cynthia and emotionally neglected his first son, Julian.  On one hand we have Lennon the hero and on the other we have Lennon the villain and in many cases he is presented as either/or, with commentators unable, or unwilling to negotiate this juxtaposition.  Sometimes, biographical accounts will even skim over, or ignore these conflicting characteristics entirely and instead focus solely on his musical career.  I remember watching a biographical documentary which, apart from briefly referencing his peace activism (and judging it to be an immature and naive embarrassment) did exactly that.

‘When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in’.

There’s a tendency to dehumanise those whom we cast as heroes or villains, creating one dimensional figures to be loved or reviled.  This tendency is apparent with the treatment of exceptional individuals throughout history, such as Saints, military heroes and political activists.  The recent rise of the celebrity (a term which often invites scorn, but is actually an umbrella term covering people with a wide range of skills and achievements, like Elvis Presley, Princess Diana or anyone who appears in any reality TV program) has provided john-lennon-487033_960_720another category.  There clearly seems to be a need for us to create simplified archetypes and doing so does appear to be useful, but to do this with historical people that have lived (or are still alive) can deny us a richer understanding of their, and consequently our own, humanity (and can also create real dangers, as chillingly demonstrated by the recent case of Jimmy Savile).

‘Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind’.

Lennon’s lyrics often seem like raw, unguarded confessions that reek of insecurity and contradiction.  He seemed to be keenly aware of the conflicting aspects of his personality and didn’t shy away from exploring them in the material he released.  He acknowledged both the good and the bad; the hero and the villain.  While he declared that ‘all you need is love’, he also put to song the disturbing words ‘baby I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead’.  Filling the space between these two extremes was a Scared, Jealous Guy who felt in serious need of Help!  A perfect example of this uneasy juxtaposition can be found on the Imagine album.  As well as featuring the well-known title track, which has become something of a secular hymn, it also contains the track How Do You Sleep?, a venomous attack on his former writing partner and friend, Paul McCartney, which couldn’t be any further from the sentiments expressed in Imagine.

‘Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me
I guess I knew it right from the start
Sing out about love and peace
Don’t want to see the red raw meat
The green eyed goddamn straight from your heart’.

He admitted that he had been physically abusive to women – not just Cynthia – and that he had not been a very good father to Julian.  He admitted that he was a bully.  He also described his own experiences of childhood abandonment and later feelings of fear and insecurity, which he concealed behind a mask of buffoonery and violence.  Not that this excuses the behaviour of a grown man, but it does provide us with some sense of a complex human being.  Add to that his later promotion of pacifism, feminism and social justice and the asymmetrical mosaic grows greater still.  In the later years of his life he became a devoted parent to his second son, Sean – with whom he seemed able to attain some sense of atonement.  Unfortunately, his relationship with Julian remained strained and distant.  Maybe the old wounds would have healed, had he not been shot and killed at the age of 40, but perhaps his earlier behaviour had been too damaging.

‘I really had a chip on my shoulder … and it still comes out every now and then’.

There are those that might cry ‘hypocrite’ at such apparent contradictions, but that would be over-simplistic and unfair.  It’s quite possible for Lennon to have been all of these things over time (or even simultaneously), with some characteristics perhaps being the consequence of another.  For instance, it’s likely that his feminism grew, in part, out of a need for redemption.  That’s not to say, then, that the villain of the piece was defeated; forever to be vanquished by the upstart hero and his eye shatteringly shiny armour.  No, far more likely was that the two existed side by side in an on-going (and probably uncomfortable) process of conflict and negotiation.  Acknowledging someone’s flaws does not necessitate that one question the sincerity of their strengths.

‘Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
My tears are falling like rain from the sky
Is it for her or myself that I cry’?

JohnLennon1963A minor deviation here, but I would like to comment on the supposed naivety and immaturity of Lennon’s political views.  First of all, I feel that this is a misrepresentation of what he actually said.  If we look at the two main points that critics tend to pick up on: the invitation to imagine everybody living in peace and the request to give peace a chance.  Both of these notions seem far from naïve to me, in fact they seem like reasonable suggestions for incremental change.  There is clearly no unrealistic demand for overnight change; just a suggestion that we consider an alternative way of conducting ourselves, with the hope that things might start to get better.  In the UK similar accusations are levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, and they grate with me for the same reasons.  I’m not suggesting that anyone has to agree with either Lennon or Corbyn, but the condescending disregard of their, perfectly valid, views strikes me as being unnecessary and spiteful.  Secondly, the generalised criticisms of Lennon’s political views assume a fixed ideology that just doesn’t seem to have been present.  He changed, altered and evolved his ideas all through his life, and was often critical of things that he had previously said or done.

‘My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all’.

imagine-1913561_960_720While I probably wouldn’t go so far as to put Lennon forward as a Middle Way Thinker, I do think he provides a good example of how a Middle Way approach can be useful in the consideration of those whom we admire… and those we do not.  Gandhi (who has featured in Robert M Eillis’ Middle Way Thinker series) could, with some justification, be accused of misogyny and racism, but that doesn’t take away from his achievements or the legacy he left behind.  The medieval Saints of Europe become figures of greater interest and inspiration when their multi-dimensional and flawed humanity can be glimpsed beneath their holy veneers (a principle that, I have recently discovered, can be applied to Jesus too).  Of course, such figures need not be well known.  We also create heroes and villains in our day to day lives too; looking up to, or down upon family members or colleagues, for instance.  If we can recognise the messy middle from which others are composed and accept that people can be both good and bad, in different measures, at different times, then this might just enable us to become more open to those around us and more accepting of ourselves.  This sounds easy on paper, but can be difficult to achieve in practice.  I, for one, have a long way to go but the closer I look, the more complicated the picture becomes and the easier it gets.

‘We all have Hitler in us, but we also have love and peace. So why not give peace a chance for once’?

Songs Quoted (In Order of Appearance)

All You Need Is Love (Lennon-McCartney, 1967)
Revolution (Lennon-McCartney, 1968).
Run For Your Life (Lennon-McCartney, 1965).
Scared (Lennon, 1974).
Loser (Lennon-McCartney, 1964).

Pictures (In Order of Appearance)

Lennon Memorial Plaque, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
John Lennon Beatles Peace Imagine, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
The Beatles & Lill-Babs 1963, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine John Lennon New York City, courtesy of Pixabay.com.

Finding Jesus (perhaps that hole isn’t God shaped after all)


My relationship with Jesus of Nazareth has recently changed for the better.  I’ve never felt particularity negatively towards him, as I have towards God (I just can’t respond well to a character who encourages filicide, slavery, bigotry and genocide, to satisfy their own jealous insecurities) and have always found his depiction to be strangely captivating.  Yet I have not consciously regarded him as a figure of inspiration; I always felt that he was the property of practising Christians, and anyway, wasn’t he the Son and earthly manifestation of the God that I find so problematic?  This, I am pleased to report, is no longer representative of how I feel (about Jesus, at least) and I’d like to spend some time explaining how this change of heart has come to pass.

As the assumed Son (and earthly manifestation) of a perfect God, it has always been posited to me that Jesus must also be perfect; this was either something you believed in or you didn’t, take this view of Jesus or don’t take him at all.  I assumed that as there are compelling arguments to suggest that the Abrahamic God is far from perfect, then it must also follow that Jesus could not be perfect.  Further confirming this view, a recent reading of the New Testament revealed a sometimes flawed and aggressive Christ rather than the serene, unshakably tolerant, haloed figure of Christian tradition.  This Biblical character seemed leagues apart from the perfect Jesus that I’d been taught about, through art and carefully selected Bible readings.  I also had the suspicion that even if I did find inspiration in Jesus, I could not do so openly and easily without belief in God – as an atheist (hard agnostic) I have often been asked (sometimes forcefully) why I celebrate Christmas, and the fact that my wife and I were married, as atheists, in our local parish Church has also caused confusion and even offence.  When I considered all of this alongside the glaring inconsistencies in the New Testament my response was one of rejection.

In the past year or so I have read two books that have caused me to think again: Zealot by Reza Aslan and Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong.  Although I discuss them here, this is by no means supposed to be a detailed analysis or synopsis.  I would, however, recommend them both for reading.  Aslan spends a lot of time exploring the historical context of Jesus’ life and of the subsequent writing of the books of the New Testament.  I think he does this well and draws many interesting conclusions.  The main one being that Jesus was a radical Jew who, as part of a wider movement, challenged the authority of Rome and perceived corruption of the priestly class, and despite being unsuccessful had a profound impact on those that followed him.  In the decades after Jesus’s death and in the wake of the Roman’s retaliatory destruction of Jerusalem (following their successful expulsion), the foundations of the Christian church were laid – by some that knew him and by many that did not.  Interesting as they are, such conclusions were not the most affecting aspect of my time with this book.  Rather, by thinking about Jesus as a human being and the New Testament as a series of documents – both worthy of historical analysis and set within a surprisingly (for me at least) well understood historical context, I found that my entrenched rejection began to subside.  The fact that Jesus might have existed (and I think it seems likely that he did, given the short time in which his cult developed following his death) and that I felt able to explore this possibility, without feeling that I should harbour some sort of Christian belief, has become fundamental to the way I am able to engage with him and the texts in which he appears.

One can argue, rather successfully as it happens, that to be inspired by Jesus’s life and message requires neither Christian belief nor interest in the historical figure.  I agree, to an extent; why should one have to suspect that Jesus existed to respond positively to his message of forgiveness?  One doesn’t.  Nonetheless, by doing so I have been able to attain much more meaning from the Jesus story than I could before.  Why then, should it matter if individuals or events can be argued to be historical in relation to the meaning they have for me?

Take the image of Father Christmas.  I’ve long believed that the red and white colour scheme of his outfit was designed and introduced by Coca-Cola as part of a marketing campaign.  Red and white are the identifying colours of the company and they do have an irritating habit of plastering Santa’s image over a massive articulated lorry that appears on their festive adverts and visits various towns and cities.  It came to my town this year and people went wild, standing round it in large crowds staring excitedly – filming it on their mobile devices, no doubt.  Anyway, this association with a) the advertising industry and b) a multi-national company, that has a rather chequered ethical reputation, tarnished the meaning of images of Father Christmas for me.  I still had fond memories of childhood, of family getting together in merriment, of nativity plays, of Christmas smells (the list goes on) – but they were mixed up with notions of cynicism, commercialism and exploitation of communities in the developing world.  Of course, the whole Christmas season involves these things, it is a time of excessive contradictions, but the idea of this treasured figure from my childhood being the cynical marketing construction of a company that I have had ethical concerns about distilled this somehow.  Thus, I was quite delighted to find out that the story is probably not true.  Yes, Santa’s image is widely used for cynical marketing purposes, but the fact that his traditional image is used, rather than having been created for, this purpose seems to matter to me.  The story of Coca-Cola creating Father Christmas’s modern image still exists, but the knowledge that it is likely a misconception, rather than historical event changes, for me, the nature of its meaning, and the meaning of depictions of Santa.

Walter White and the series Breaking Bad provide another example of how confidence in the historicity of events can impact on the meaning they may have on an individual.  I loved Breaking Bad; I didn’t want to, because of its popularity, but I did.  The series is harrowing in places and the actions of White become increasingly extreme and difficult to justify.  It skilfully explores a wide range of ethical issues, and I often found myself questioning not only the characters, but myself.  However, if I’m honest, I was always on the side of White.  No matter what he did, I was with him all the way.  Now, if I ‘d gone into the series with the belief (or found out after) that it was either a biography based on actual events, or that it was a documentary, I would have had a very different response to White and his activities.  The ethical questions would still be there, as would the wonderful grey morality in which the story revels, but my response, both intellectual and emotional would be very different; White and his story would have had different meanings for me.

By thinking about Jesus without personal associations of Christian dogma, I’ve been able to imagine, with varying degrees of confidence an individual of greater scope and depth.  This does not require a separation of Jesus from either Jewish or Christian belief.  Nobody seems to quarrel when historians study Alfred the Great or Joan of Arc.  Both individuals were pious Christians, both have mythologies that blur the lines between history and fiction, and one does not have to share their beliefs to study or take inspiration from them.  It seems acceptable, in a way that it often isn’t with Jesus, to examine the evidence and conclude with a degree of confidence that each of these figures existed and that some life events are more likely to have occurred than others.  Joan of Arc (like most historical figures) is both a figure of mythology and of history, there is no conflict and the lines between the two need not be distinct.  If I consider the possibility of Jesus as the radical reformative Jew described above and then take a hard-agnostic view on the possibility of him being the Son of God (whether he thought he was or not is often debated, but there is at least the possibility of finding historical evidence) then Jesus ceases to be perfect, and this is a good thing.  Apart from being more interesting, his sometimes erratic and even intolerant behaviour becomes less problematic.  As a human in a specific historical context, he can be excused for being imperfect, or even morally questionable in a way that God cannot.  The New Testament can be similarly viewed.  Even more than Jesus (who is not around today), the Bible has a history, its various books can be placed, with varying degrees of accuracy, within historical times and places.  The authors need not be identified to understand the context in which they were written.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle is a vast document that details events over a long period.  It’s often contradictory and seems to freely mix fiction with historical events and yet it’s place as an important historical document is rarely questioned.  I don’t have to have the same beliefs as those that wrote it and I don’t have to think that everything that is written in it actually happened.  Aslan, treats the New Testament in much the same way, not just studying the text itself, but also exploring the societies and historical events that frame their construction.  While Aslan’s book enabled me to look at Jesus with fresh eyes and provided an interesting perspective, it didn’t describe a Jesus who significantly inspired me.  Agreeing with all of Aslan’s conclusions felt unimportant compared to the process of exploration that he provided.

Spong’s book, on the other hand, did present me with an inspirational figure.  Like Aslan, Spong also considers historical evidence for Jesus’s life and the formation of the books of the New Testament, but his focus is very different.  In many ways, it’s an account of how he, as a Bishop and long standing Christian who can no longer adhere to mainstream Church teachings, has struggled and succeeded in maintaining his meaningful experience of Jesus and God.  The Jesus he presents is (very roughly) a first century Jew whose radical activities and high levels of humanity, love and integration were able to inspire similar attributes in those that knew him and those that came to know the versions of him that existed after his death.  Spong describes a Jesus that is able to inspire a deeper level of human experience; an integrated state that he calls the ‘God experience in Jesus’.  For me, as someone who has no attachment to the idea of God, I would not describe such an experience in those terms.  Nonetheless, a combination of my experiences with this society (especially Roberts explorations of inspirational integrated Christian figures such as St. Francis of Assisi) and the reading of these two books has allowed me to reassess and come to understand how one could experience and describe a ‘Jesus experience’ of integration, regardless of background or faith.

I haven’t had such an experience, but I’m now able to experience Jesus as a figure of inspiration alongside others, such as Julian of Norwich, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai.  Another unexpected consequence is that my various Buddha figures have taken on additional meaning: instead of representing only the Buddha, the statues now seem able to represent all those who I find inspirational and who also appear to have experienced high levels of integration.  For some, the historical existence of these characters, and others like them will have little impact on their relationship with them.  For me, confident historical speculation seems to augment my experience with deeper levels of meaning.  I have got no idea if the story of Jesus washing Peters feet (depicted above) represents something that happened but I still find it inspirational.  If, however, evidence was discovered that increased my confidence in its historicity then the inspiration and meaning I experience would be further enhanced.

The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca

This is one of the best-known paintings of the Italian Renaissance, a classic depiction of a Biblical scene: that of John the Baptist baptising Jesus in the Jordan. Like many such paintings, there is also much more to it than may initially meet the eye. I have been thinking a good deal recently about the life and teachings of Jesus, and the ways that we could choose to interpret them in terms of the Middle Way. You could ‘read’ this painting only in terms of dogma and discontinuity if you wished: as a symbol of purity (a concept that it often absolute), and of Jesus’ claimed power as the Son of God. But it is much richer and more ambiguous than that. I choose now to understand it more positively.

Piero baptism of Jesus

One of the first things that has puzzled me about this painting is that, although the gospels clearly say that Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan, here there is no sign of the river. The reason for this may be that Piero was following a medieval story that the Jordan miraculously stopped flowing at the time of the baptism – so that we are meant to be looking at a dried up river bed. But this may have quite different resonances today, focusing not on miracle stories but on the meaning of an exposed river bed. The drying up of a great river is an ecological catastrophe, but to engage in a quiet, reflective ceremony in those circumstances has a special power. In the face of dramatically adverse changes in conditions such as droughts, wars and revolutions we more than ever need to find a point of reflectiveness and openness in order to adapt.

The sacredness of the ceremony is emphasised by Piero’s unique use of pallid colours, by the balance of the picture around the figure of Christ, and by the spectators. According to the gospel narratives, Jesus had just returned from his temptation in the wilderness: a story that bears some very interesting parallels to the story of the Buddha going out into the jungle. He is now about to return to society and share the insights that he has found in solitude, but to do this successfully he will need awareness, confidence, resolve and support from others. Interpreted positively and experientially rather than just as a conversion ceremony, baptism is a rite of passage that could help a person to integrate all of these things.

The figure of the dove above Jesus, representing the Holy Spirit, more than anything reminds us of the God archetype as Jesus might have been experiencing it at that moment: as a glimpse of his own potential as a fully integrated figure. To maintain a strong link with that potential we need a stable awareness of a right hemisphere perspective to supplement the narrow and goal-driven left-hemisphere dominant state, and the solemnity of a ritual can help achieve this.

But, apart from Jesus and John the Baptist, there is another very important presence in the painting: the tree immediately to the left of Jesus. Experts say this probably depicts a walnut tree such as Piero would have been familiar with in Italy. It is this tree that for me, more than anything else in this picture, that helps put Jesus’ baptism in a genuinely spiritual setting based on the Middle Way. The tree can represent the process of integration as one of organic growth, taking up nourishment through its roots from shadowy and rejected energies in ourselves and transforming them incrementally into a finished, balanced organism. I have already written in an earlier blog about the Tree of Life motif as it is used by Jung in his Red Book, and the Tree of Life can be a powerful alternative symbol for the Middle Way.

On the left hand side are three spectators that I at first did not realise are intended to be angels. One of them has a pink garment that may be intended to re-clothe Jesus after the baptism. An interesting tradition also links these three figures to a process of reconciliation in the Church (and thus to a Middle Way between opposed beliefs). Nicholas Cranfield explains:

A once popular recension of scholars convincingly argued that the picture alludes to the then recent Council of Florence that in 1439 had briefly, and importantly, forged a concordat between the Western and the Eastern Church, a short-lived salve for the centuries’ old rift that had breached Christendom since 1054 and which re-opened soon after the collapse of Constantinople in 1453. Such a ‘reading’ hinges on the gesture of the two angels closest to the Lord, watched by the third, the (?)Archangel, a seemingly superior angelic being. The angels immediately to the right of Jesus take hands in a classical gesture that is associated with Concordia and the Augustan tradition of peace. (from a sermon given in 2004)

The undressing figure depicted behind John the Baptist is also quite striking. His presence seems to emphasise that Jesus’ baptism was not unique: that there were many other people going through the same process. Jesus was not the first or the last to be baptised, or to go through a process of integration. The water and sand behind the main figures also resembles a winding (flooded) path, so we could also see the undressing man as representing another point in the path behind Jesus. We could even interpret him as Jesus himself at an earlier point in time, following the cartoon-like conventions often found in early Renaissance paintings whereby the same figure is represented at different points in a story within the same picture.

In the end, though, I find that such interpretations can only contribute to an overall impression in which aesthetic appreciation of light and colour, awareness of symbol, and a sense of cultural context merge with a recognition of Piero della Francesca’s overall moral and spiritual purpose. My understanding of Jesus as a figure and of the archetypes he invokes are both affected by this picture and feed back into my understanding of it. It seems to be not for nothing that this is such an acclaimed picture in the history of art.

The picture can be seen in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, London.

Links to earlier art blogs by Robert M Ellis: 

The Tower of Babel by Breughel

The Annunciation by Simone di Martini 

Index to further art blogs by Norma Smith

Middle Way Thinkers 6: Jesus

Was Jesus a Middle Way Thinker? Largely not. His beliefs seem to have included many absolutes, and he has also been interpreted since in terms of those absolutes. Yet in this series I also want to encourage incremental thinking. I want to suggest that there are some important ways in which Jesus moved forward from the dogmas of his time, which amount to some specific instances of Middle Way thought. I’d suggest that it is due to these new ways that he addressed the conditions of his time that he gets much of his power. Particularly for those of us from a Christian background (which includes me), I think it’s important to re-examine Jesus in a critical way: one that tries to separate out the dogmas of Christian tradition from those elements that might helpfully speak to our experience.

However, this is a loaded subject, so I’d better start with some clarifications. On the one hand, I’m not interested in supporting any of the dogmas of the Christian tradition about Jesus: either that he was the Son of God, affirmed as some type of supernatural status, or that everything he uttered was ‘true’ and the Word of God. But nor, on the other hand, am I interested in historical revisionism, which seems to be the opposite trap for those interested in re-examining Jesus. I don’t want to make any claims about what Jesus “really” was, or believed, or meant to say. I’m content to work with the Jesus accepted by Christian tradition, and depicted in the four canonical gospels, because that is what ‘Jesus’ effectively means to most people today. I’m looking for insights or symbolic inspiration, rather than historical revelation, in this traditional depiction of Jesus, without getting swallowed up by the various scholarly quagmires of Biblical Studies. The third extreme I’d also want to avoid here, is the mere rejection of Jesus as a source of insights or inspiration. For me, and I suspect many others in the West, Jesus is a powerful archetypal figure, both because of his role in Western art and culture and because of his influence through the Christian churches (very much associated, for me, with childhood experience as a minister’s son).

Let me also briefly note some of the aspects of Jesus that I think are pretty unhelpful. There’s the virgin birth, the idealised childhood, and the sense of divine destiny as the son of God. There are the miracles: at least where these are presented not as acts of compassion but (as particularly in the gospel of John) as signs of divine status. There’s the self-sacrificial aspect: he appears to have basically offered himself up as a sacrifice, aware that he was walking into a trap that would result in his death in Jerusalem, but still doing it. In his trial before Pilate he also seems guilty of false modesty, not offering even a moderate defence to draw people’s attention to his innocence. It seems possible that he believed God would save him from the cross (accounting for ‘My God! Why have you forsaken me?’), because of his profound belief in cosmic justice and an imminent doomsday. Finally, if we follow the role of Jesus in Christian tradition, there’s the interpretation of Jesus’s death as an atonement for human original sin, and the belief in his resurrection as a further sign of divinity and a proof of eternal life for the saved: all these are damaging dogmas by which the moral complexity of our experience is overlaid with crude diagnoses and crude magical solutions.

But, if we can manage to leave all that stuff aside, let’s try to focus on some of the ways that Jesus can be inspiring and insightful – corresponding also to ways that he moves towards the Middle Way. I’d suggest that these fall into two categories: one of these is helpful elements in Jesus’s moral teaching, and the other is helpful archetypal interpretation of the meaning of Jesus as the Son of God.

Much of Jesus’s moral teaching involves a struggle with the Pharisees, who were a sect of Jewish legalists, and the Sadducees, who were conservatives associated with the priestly elite at the Jerusalem temple. Jesus is excoriating about rigid observance of tradition or adherence to the letter of the law, instead urging awareness of motive and the spirit behind the law. For example, when his disciples plucked ears of corn on the Sabbath (against the laws that forbid harvesting on the sabbath, which would be work) and were criticised by the Pharisees, Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). He also emphasised motive in urging people not to be showy about giving alms, “Your good deed must be secret” (Matthew 6:4). From today’s perspective, to merely emphasise motive in ethics is not enough, because our motives vary so much along with our unintegrated desires. However, this emphasis was a major step forward in a context where people were thinking of ethics only as an extension of law, in the form of rigid social rules. On the other hand, Jesus seems to be trying to strike a Middle Way in relation to the Jewish Law, because he does not reject it either: “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete” (Matthew 5:17).

Jesus is also well-known for his teaching of ‘turning the other cheek’ – the apparent pacifism of “Do not resist those who wrong you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). The key insight here is the necessity of avoiding fruitless conflict. Rather than offering one rigid position in response to another, we need to find ways of reducing (an not acting on) the narrow egoistic identification we may have with ‘winning’ when someone challenges us. However, I also think that the Pacifist interpretation of this verse develops another kind of dogma. If we read it as forbidding violence in all circumstances whatsoever, then we rule out the possibility of violence addressing conditions in some circumstances where it might be the best response.

Jesus also offers what might be regarded as a brief equivalent to the Kalama Sutta in Buddhism, offering the suggestion that we need to consult experience when confronted with a conflict between different dogmatic claims. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you dressed as sheep while underneath they are savage wolves. You will recognise them by their fruit. Can grapes be plucked from briars, or figs from thistles? A good tree always yields sound fruit, and a poor tree bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15-17).  Here he seems to be suggesting that verbal claims are not enough, and one of the ways we can judge the justification of conflicting claims is by their integration, evident in people’s behaviour. Again, we could take this to another extreme, by rejecting a person’s view whenever there is a shade of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy does not necessarily make people’s claims untrue, but it is a useful warning sign.

Much more could be said about Jesus’ moral teaching, but I must keep this post brief. More broadly, too, I think Jesus’ symbolic role should also be mentioned. His traditional position in Christianity as ‘Son of God’, both wholly human and wholly divine (according to the Nicene Creed) does not have to be merely rejected as a dogmatic belief, because its meaning can be separated from such beliefs. That meaning is one I encounter very frequently in Renaissance art, where I encounter Jesus as what sometimes seem to be an attempt to represent the Middle Way in human experience. The symbolic richness of Jesus’s status as both divine and human is one way of confronting the profound ambiguity of the relationship between perfect ideals and imperfect experience, the ‘truth on the edge’, or necessity of maintaining a robust conception of truth without claiming to possess it. Jesus is full of contradictions: he is both vulnerable and powerful, wise and foolish, alive and dead, but these contradictions are only damaging as objects of incoherent belief. As symbols, on the other hand, their ambiguity can help us to recognise both the conflicts in our own experience and the ways we can work with those conflicts.

Orozco_Christ_cuts_his_CrossWestern art often depicts Jesus in three particular forms: as an infant, in his crucifixion, and in his resurrection. All of these, I think, can be appreciated as offering evocations of that symbolic richness. As an infant he represents the incarnation, that strange ambiguous middle way between divine and human. On the cross he represents the unbearable and unjust suffering of the human condition when understood in relation to divine perfection. When resurrected, he shows the perseverance of hope: that the good can still come through human experience even when we least expect it, when we have come to terms with the conditions of human life. The picture here is an intriguing one by the Mexican artist Orozco. There are many ways of reading it, either as a symbol of resurrection, or as an anti-theistic statement in which mere humanity triumphs.

I have passed through a number of stages in my response to Jesus. As a child and teenager, I mainly had a negative reaction to the idealised figure I was presented with, who was being foisted on me, but didn’t at all seem to represent the qualities I would have chosen to idealise or to worship. At times, however, I also tried out that idealisation, though I had great difficulty making it my own. I then started to see Jesus primarily as a swindle: an attempt to magically jump across the difficulties of human life. Now, however, I’m quite clear about rejecting a lot of the religious claptrap that surrounds beliefs around Jesus, but at the same time I think I am beginning to develop  a relationship with him both as a man and as an icon. As a moral teacher, he can be inspiring, but does not seem to me as hugely significant as he is often cut out to be, and a lot of contextualisation is needed to see how he was moving towards the Middle Way. As an archetypal symbol, though, he means a lot more, and that meaning develops a little almost every time I step into an art gallery.