If you doubt this, I’d like to persuade you by way of his parables, which imply a certain kind of ethical system with several key values. These include, principally, prudence, nonpossessiveness, nonjudgmentalism, humility, inclusion, and forgiveness. This is post is the first of several parts. In future parts, I’ll address parables themselves. In this first post, I describe the scope of the project, explain what I mean by “Jesus the philosopher,” and outline Jesus’ morality with reference to a convergent ethical system.
“The preacher became the preached.”
This pithy description of the inception of Christianity presents us, like many of Jesus’ own parables, with a Reversal,i and reveals a tension we must deal with. In this case, it captures something of that gulf which stands between us in the trans-Christian culture of the West, and the historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth. And while “the historical Jesus” is one subject which falls outside the scope of the present piece, it is helpful to recognize that a similar gulf separates us from Jesus the philosopher. It is not that writers have historically chosen to focus on Jesus as the subject of philosophy rather than as a proponent of it, and we can now simply chose the other path. For the only paths available to travel back along now are the paths of those philosophical traditions which have grown up around Jesus, almost—one might say—like weeds around a wheat crop. As such, even today when one consults a book like The Philosophy of Jesus (2007) by the American philosopher Peter Kreeft, one finds very little on Jesus’s philosophy. In Kreeft’s case, though, there is a twist entailed by his escalated Christology: that Jesus “the philosopher” has become in Kreeft’s faith not just “the philosophized” but “philosophy itself” (in Kreeft’s view, philosophy Himself). This extravagant claim is but one of many that could be made on the basis of Jesus’s claimed divinity. And although Kreeft himself is a Thomist, this view of God is perhaps better understood along the lines of G. W. F. Hegel: that the eternal reality is Reason, and Reason is instantiated in human reasoning as it develops towards a divine unity. In Hegel’s philosophy this unity is called the Absolute, but in Christian language this is the Cosmic Christ, “through whom all things were created,” and in whose metaphysical body—the Church—humanity and creation itself will in the end be redeemed and glorified. Such grand metaphysical systems, and even the divinity of Jesus, are issues of a different sort of “Jesus-Philosophy” to that which I’d like to focus on for now. They arise from the higher Christology of John’s Gospel, including its identification of Jesus with the Ancient Greek philosophical concept of the Logos. I shall not be focusing on the nature of Jesus, but rather on his parables, which are found in the other gospels. You may be relieved to hear that I shall not be concerned with “The Gospel” of salvation, nor with questions of the inspiration or historicity of the text, but simply with explicating (rather than defending) the philosophical views presented in the text as we have it. Needless to say, if we find some of these views implausible that is no reason why we may not find much worth in the others.
Jesus as a Philosopher
What does it mean to say that Jesus was a philosopher? It is not to say that he was a philosopher and nothing else. Historians are confident he was also a religious preacher and healer, and was seen as a miracle worker. Nor is it simply to say that his views touched upon philosophical issues, because as Kreeft observes, that would be true of any human being. No, his philosophy was more substantive than that.
It is common to hear Jesus compared with Socrates because they were both executed for standing up for their ideals. But although some have labeled philosophy as “learning to die well,” it is not Jesus’s death that makes him a philosopher, but his life, in which, like Socrates, he moved about teaching and questioning people -whether they liked it or not, criticizing and combating prevailing attitudes. In doing so, Jesus very often appealed to scriptural tradition (we cannot deny that he was thoroughly religious), but he often used reason in doing so—and philosophical argument is implicit in much of his teaching, particularly when he is in dialogue. In the “Synoptic Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, however, most of his teaching takes the form of parables, which as stimuli to deeper thought, are philosophical devices also.
So what is Jesus’s philosophy? Well, if we’re bracketing off theological issues of salvation, and politely declining Kreeft’s suggestion that Jesus is himself the true epistemology and the true metaphysics, we are left with moral philosophy. And what a rich resource for this Jesus is!
Now, a comprehensive moral philosophy provides several things:
- A metaethical account of the nature of the values fundamental to morality, i.e. goodness;
- A normative ethical account of what makes actions impermissible (wrong), or permissible, morally neutral, obligatory, or supererogatory (right);
- Decision procedures for assessing which course of action to take in given circumstances;
- Advice for dealing with complex problems like conflicts of duties; and
- General positions to take on controversial issues such as political authority, war, abortion, or euthanasia.ii
However far Christian ethicists may have succeeded in elaborating moral philosophies that encompass these needs, remember that here we are only concerned with a portion of the gospels (I mainly draw on Luke), let alone the whole Christian tradition. And I think it is clear that Jesus neither provides a comprehensive moral philosophy, nor any of those components of one.1 But this is not a failure on his part because, firstly, there are many useful points we can take from him which fall within these categories. Secondly, we can be quite confident of a few fundamental issues;
- Thought that morality was pervasive and important in human life, and that immorality is a serious issue to be corrected.
- Was not a moral relativist—he did not think that people could just act as they felt like or choose an ethic that was “true to them.”
- Was a moral realist—he thought that there are moral truths, that moral questions have correct or incorrect answers.
- Was a Jew—he almost certainly believed in some general moral laws, e.g. that theft, false witness, adultery, murder, and idolatry were universally wrong, that is, wrong for gentiles as well as for those under the Mosaic covenant.2 (One might object that Jesus never explicitly taught such laws—but there would have been no need to, as his audience would have been well-versed in them. A better objection might be that he regularly taught against legalism. But rejecting legalism doesn’t entail the rejection of moral laws any more than rejecting bestiality means that you hate animals.)
- Was not a consequentialist. He shared some ideas with utilitarianism but it is unlikely that he would have thought the ends always justified the means, because he showed no concern for maximizing good consequences. Probably, he trusted God to sort out what was best. What kind of supreme principle for determining moral rightness he would have subscribed to, however, or whether, like W. D. Ross, he would not have subscribed to one, is not clear.
Third and finally, we can forgive Jesus for not bequeathing us a prepackaged moral philosophy because he simply wasn’t a modern systematic academic philosopher. (Obviously, he was thinking of the careers of future philosophers with characteristic mercy.) Rather, Jesus was what I call a eudaimonistic philosopher, like the Stoics and Neoplatonists influential in his contemporaneous Hellenistic culture, who were concerned with human flourishing and living a good life. This is a holistic approach to morality, which comprises what we might call a “secular spirituality” as well as a guide to right and wrong actions.
Jesus’ Ethics as Virtue Ethics
The most successful system of eudaimonistic philosophy is the virtue ethics of Aristotle, which, via St. Thomas Aquinas, became incorporated into Roman Catholic doctrine as part of the framework for understanding Jesus’ ethics. This tradition is also popular among Christians more generally, and hence Keith Ward, in his 2011 book The Philosopher and the Gospels, defines “Jesus’ moral teaching” as “a participative virtue ethics,”iii “participative” here referring to how Jesus’ audience would be gently coaxed3 into taking an active role in interpreting and experimenting with his ideas, in order to be opened up to a transformative experience. Rather, that is, than simply having “the truth” dictated to them in prepackaged conceptual language. This is the method Law Ware, the guest on the podcast, referred to as the “participatory pedagogy” of the parables.4 With virtue ethics, there are two different but compatible ways of thinking about it. On the one hand, it is about imitating the behavior of positive moral role models, and on the other it is about developing dispositions towards moral behavior—virtues—in oneself through habituation. The first approach would include the popular notion of “What Would Jesus Do?” In his 2007 book What Would Jesus Deconstruct? John D. Caputo notes the irony that the slogan began as a somewhat radical call for social justice but now has been hijacked by conservative evangelicals to promote conservative social views. Nevertheless, Jesus did call people to follow him, and perhaps more importantly, the ideal of imitating God underscored much of his teaching,iv most explicitly on the love of enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), which ends with the imperative “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is crucial to note that we do not need to believe that Jesus is the human incarnation of God to believe he is the (or an) ideal human being to emulate. Moreover, the Hindu ‘Great Soul’ (or Mahatma) Gandhi said “even if it turned out that Jesus never existed, his Sermon on the Mount would still be true for me.”
Whether we take virtue ethics to focus on the moral exemplar or on the moral agents (i.e., everyone else), it’s clear it is the virtues themselves which are more fundamental in determining the rightness of actions. In what follows, my focus will therefore be on the virtues distinctive to Jesus’ moral teaching. It is very unlikely that Jesus taught virtue ethics as an abstract theory. But I am arguing that it is the framework that provides us the best fit for our data on his teaching. This is mainly because his teaching consisted of moral precepts rather than laws (although sometimes the hyperbole with which he expressed these precepts made them sound like laws), and these were to encourage people to put his values into practice as virtues.
1 Regarding #4, he did teach people to put both themselves and God before their families and careers, but he spoke in hyperbole without giving specific practical advice.
2 This is how the (global) Noahide covenant is elaborated in Judaism, but we must be cautious about imputing that to Jesus, not because of his anti-legalism, but because it was not codified by Jewish authorities until around the third century after Jesus, though the belief probably goes back much longer.
4 This has similarities with the “poetic” method of the later Wittgenstein and of course with the dialogue style of Plato and the Socratic method of ignorance used therein.
ii Adapted from the introduction to: Hooker, Brad, (2000), Ideal Code: Real World, Oxford University Press
iii Ward, (2011), p. 119
iv Ward, (2011), p. 115 ff.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Caputo, John D., (2007), What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, Baker Publishing Group, Michigan
Kreeft, Peter, (2007), The Philosophy of Jesus, St. Augustine’s Press, Indiana
Ward, Keith, (2011), The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus Through the Lens of Philosophy, Lion Hudson, Oxford
The illustration is a 14th-century fresco from the Visoki Decani Monastery, Kosovo, Serbia.