Monday, August 13, 2012

Jesus was not a rationalistic humanist.

At the end of the  Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7) Jesus said that if someone hears his words and puts them into practice, that person is like a man who built a house on a solid foundation.  On the other hand, he said, the person who hears his words but does NOT put them into practice is like someone who built his house on sand.  When trouble comes, that house is not going to last.

Several different factors have led me to think about this text lately.  (This happens to be the text we chose for my dad's funeral, but that's beside the point.  Sort of.)  To sum up, I believe that the much vaunted "culture wars" we've heard so much about don't come down to red vs. blue states, Democrats vs. Republicans, or fiscal conservatives vs. social liberals.  In America's version of Western Civilization, at least, each of those seeming opposites is just an argument about where on the sand dune we should build the house.

Our current culture -- the culture that spans everything from "I Love Lucy" to Facebook, the Mall of America to, Jim Morrison to Justin Bieber, public kindergartens to the Harvard Law Review, my '92 Dodge Dakota to the Mars Curiosity rover -- is built on the foundation of rationalistic humanism.  Those two expensive words together mean, basically, that we believe 1) humans are in charge, and what's best for humans is what really matters, and 2) the human mind and its version of logic is what really makes useful sense of the universe.

Rationalistic humanism is taught as Fact in our public schools.  The assumptions of rationalistic humanism are not debated in Congress because both Republicans and Democrats (AND Libertarians AND Green Party advocates) share these same assumptions.  It is, to quote "The Matrix", the world that has been pulled over our eyes.  This is true simply because we don't know how to question our own deepest assumptions.

My daughter owns a book with an intriguing title that gets at the problem a little bit.  It's called, Do Fish Know They're Wet?  If all you've ever known is being underwater, how could you imagine anything different -- and therefore, how could you possibly understand that you're soaking wet?

Most of us are so saturated with rationalistic humanism that we cannot imagine anything else.  If we read or hear someone advocating a different approach to the world, we have one of two options.  We either a) filter what we hear through our understanding of rationalistic humanism, or b) reject what we hear because it sounds like gibberish.

For the Christian, this situation poses a special kind of problem.  Because -- and this is important -- Jesus was neither a rationalist nor a humanist.  Jesus was very logical, but he was not a rationalist, meaning he did not assume that the reasoning power of the human mind could make sense of the universe.  He was very concerned about human beings, but he was not a humanist.  That is to say, Jesus did not share the assumption that what was good in the eyes of humans truly defined the nature of Goodness.

Jesus was Jewish, and that makes him first and foremost a monotheist.  In other words, for Jesus the universe is defined by the existence of an all-supreme God.  Logic, the nature of good and evil, and everything else are defined by the existence and the nature of this one God.

Jesus was a monotheist, but that does not in itself define him.  There are plenty of monotheists out there today who are totally opposed to the ways of Jesus.  But you start to get the idea, I hope.  Jesus operated from a whole different set of assumptions, a whole different worldview, than that held by our current culture.  It takes a great deal of work to even begin to see life as Jesus saw it.  It's like if an algebra teacher gave Jesus a problem and said, "Solve for x" and Jesus said, "That gray tabby cat over there just caught a grasshopper."

Digression:  I am using past tense verbs to refer to Jesus, not because he is not around anymore -- he is -- but because the knowledge of Jesus' worldview and perspective and philosophy and foundation comes only from the New Testament.  So we have to use the past tense and analyze what Jesus said and did in the context of Judaism in the first century.  In this narrow sense, there truly is a legitimate quest for the historicity of Jesus.  NOTE: This interest in the historicity of Jesus is radically different from the agenda and the methods of the popularized "Jesus Seminar," if you're familiar with their work.

If we simply shellac Jesus over our present culture, we get all kinds of evil distortions, from the Aryan Jesus of the Nazis in the 1930's to the impotent "just love everybody" Jesus espoused today by liberal protestantism, and lots of heresies in between.  Too often -- far too often -- this kind of shellac job is exactly what Christians do with Jesus.  Got a problem?  Jesus is the answer.  Got a political agenda?  Let's see if Jesus fits into it.  Got questions about what you should do with your life?  Ask Jesus to help you choose the right option.  Got guilt?  Get Jesus to forgive you.

Trouble with all this is, we know Jesus as we are, not as he is.

Jesus stands clearly apart from and in tension with our culture.  Unless we are willing to leave the security of our own assumptions at least enough to start seeing things from his perspective, we have no hope of ever understanding what it means to follow him.

More on this later.


  1. Since the "Englightenment"--the triumph of rational humanism--the only serious challenge to its worldview was posed by Romanticism, the overly humanistic emotionalism. In ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, Robert Pirsig persuasively argues these are NOT the only ways; he says that a third option exists: Quality. So rationalism, romanticism, and quality are the three philosophical options. Only quality has a firm basis in religion: the follower of quality will value, and what they value will be something bigger and better than themself, their best interests, and this world. Jesus always teaches to value the desire and will of The Father: "Love The Lord your god with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" as well as "Not my will, buy your will be done." These are neither rationalist nor romantic views; to paraphrase Paul, they are illogical to rationalists and foolish to romantics. But they are high quality, from which sound ("quality") thoughts, feelings, and actions arise. Jesus broke earthly molds because he was Son of God and did God's work according to God's will, not the will and ways of humans or this universe that we think is all... Well-said, Jeff!

  2. Thought provoking! I would not have paired Jesus and Persig, and had not heard the three categories of Rationalism, Romanticism, and Quality put like that. I love your second-to-last sentence that starts "Jesus broke earthly molds ..." Thanks for the comment!