This part continues straight on from the previous one, exploring the virtue of nonpossessivenes in relation to Jesus’s parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13–21), but also takes a look at some similarities between this virtue and ideas from other ancient traditions.
Possessiveness Toward Lives
As is obvious from experiencing strong sexual desire, possessive thoughts can precipitate unhelpful attachments to people as well as to objects. This is why St. Paul says, true love “is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance” (1 Cor. 13:4b, Philips Translation). Moreover, Jews are very familiar with the story of how King David’s desire to possess Bathsheba led him not only to manslaughter, but also to endanger the lives of many of his soldiers (2 Sam. 11). Of course, possessive desires toward people need not be sexual, and Jesus seemed more concerned about attachment to family members, which tended to be stronger in earlier forms of civilization than today. Again using hyperbole, which, as in the Antitheses, would be horrific if taken literally, Jesus’s exhortations not to bury the dead (Luke 9:59–60) and to hate your family (Luke 9:61–62 and 14:26) should, according to Ward, be taken as “advice to love without attachment, and to put the pursuit of goodness before the attractions of a restricted and uncritical form of family loyalty” (2011, 139–140). And given Jesus’s emphasis on love, this reading is more plausible than any alternative.
The person the Rich Fool is possessive toward, however, is himself. He is so attached to his own future comfort that he forgets the need to care for others in the present. No doubt he will hire poor laborers to pull down and raise his barns, but where do they figure in the surplus? He has failed to recognize that although he has farmed the land, the land is not ultimately his, and that everyone’s possessions share the fate of ending at death. This is the principle of the common destination of goods, which the following anecdote (not a parable) may help to illustrate:
In the 19th Century, a tourist from the USA visited Poland to meet the famous Rabbi Hafez Hayyim. He was astonished to see that the Rabbi’s dwelling was a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a small writing desk and bench.
‘Rabbi, where is your furniture?’ asked the tourist.
‘Where is yours?’ replied Hafez.
‘Mine? But I’m only a visitor here.’
‘So am I.’ said the Rabbi.
Our possessions, and our very lives, are “on loan,” as it were. This is why the character of God in the parable asks us “the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). Perhaps now they will be shared with the laborers and local poor, seeing as, in contrast to the behavior of the rich man, Jesus urges “sell your possessions and give alms” (v.33). But in order to be able to release one’s attachment to objects one might first have to control one’s possessive thoughts toward one’s own life. Jesus appears to make an a fortiori argument to this effect in Matt. 6:25: if you do not worry about your life or your body, then you will not have to worry about what you will eat and drink (cf. v. 26), or what you wear (cf. v. 28). We should avoid the mistake made by the rich man by remaining mindful of our death. With the parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus thereby commends the practice of memento mori—remembering one’s own mortality, as a release from anxiety about one’s life (O’Collins, 171).
The “Eastern Jesus”
Before closing our exploration of Jesus’s statements on anxiety, we can digress into similarities between these and other popular spiritual ideas, particularly from eastern philosophy. These cannot go unrecognized because a few of the thinkers I cite, such as Ward and Sahajananda, pursue the integration of insights from other wisdom traditions with Christian philosophy, into what can be called “wisdom Christianity.” To begin with, it is worth noting that unlike the Platonic Socrates or some other ascetics, Jesus never taught that “life after death is the only true reality” (O’Collins, 169); on the contrary, as we have seen, he encouraged a form of living in the present. Moreover, according to the same gospels that record his parables for us “he worked miracles that restored people to complete bodily integrity” (168). The Gnostic belief that physical things are evil only developed later under the influence of Neoplatonism.
Buddhism is focused on liberation from the ego, and regular meditation on one’s death is a key technique for this. And while this aspect of mindfulness is more associated with other traditions of asceticism and resilience like Stoicism than it is with Christianity, it has also been practiced by monastics from their origins in St. Anthony and St. Benedict (O’Collins, 169), and was later popularized by Thomas A’Kempis and by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Of course, the idea with this practice is not that we should be constantly consumed by thoughts of death (170) because, especially in the case of Christianity, the purpose of developing this resilience is to strengthen our activities for “social transformation” (Sahajananda, 79).
Don Cupitt has written that Christianity itself needs to transform and promote its interior spirituality, citing the example of Buddhist disinterestedness (1980, 10). But I think that Jesus’s asceticism is more similar to Stoic detachment, because it is not disinterested in the external world, but interested in it being put to “good use” (Merton, 106). Detachment from things external to oneself is not a matter of avoiding pleasure, but of cultivating an interior space of freedom and virtue (Jamison, 35–37). However, while Stoicism bases resilience on self-reliance, eschewing things outside to the individual’s control, Christianity, with its emphasis on sin or “human brokenness,” instead follows Jesus’s teaching of humility in being grounded in things external (as well as internal) to oneself, namely, “the sacred.”
An aspect in which there is a more of a similarity to eastern philosophy than to Stoicism is in the Buddhist concept of attachment. Like possessiveness, this concept recognizes that we are always grasping at things to fulfill us, things that according to this view we incorrectly feel will make us happier or more complete. Though in the case of Buddhism, it rightly sees theistic beliefs in God or heaven as potential offenders there. But the Buddhist concept fits with Jesus’s radically inward approach to virtue ethics because each take their respective theological diagnoses to bear on humanity’s fundamental tendency toward attachment, applying these both to things that are within the scope of our interior freedom as well as those without.
Where Jesus’s morality does touch upon worry about things outside of our control, this includes, as we saw in part 5, the exercise of humility in “action without attachment to consequences,” which means having the faith to act despite our inability to control the outcomes of our actions (Ward, 136). Ward’s characterization of this is influenced by the Hindu spiritual classic the Bhagavad Gita, where that is a major theme. In Buddhism, this idea became less about taking courageous actions and more about rejecting those desires that have happiness as their desired consequence. These ideas also have much overlap with that of “actionless action,” or wu-wei, in Taoism, although there it is more bound up with an ideal of following the order of the natural world, making it more in line with Stoicism.
What, then, explains the multiple similarities between Jesus’s nonpossessiveness and eastern nonattachment? As the PEL podcast’s Mark Linsenmayer has noted before on this blog, there is a history of speculation about Jesus traveling to India and being taught by Buddhists. But this theory is figuratively as well as literally outlandish. Linsenmayer suggests it can be more simply explained because “both traditions are independently arriving at the truth, or because patterns of myth are common among cultures.” Forum contributor אהרן רובין agrees, claiming that the similarities “are due to asceticism being the common denominator rather than any cross-cultural influences.” He supports this with the fact that there was a significant Jewish sect, the Essenes, who were contemporaneous with Jesus, and whose followers were more strictly ascetic.
I also think that a large factor in this is the uncovering through reason of a universal natural law, leading to the convergence of, in a phrase popularized by Aldous Huxley, “the perennial philosophy.” But this does not preclude cross-cultural influences, because there would have been plenty of opportunity for the relevant spiritual concepts to spread without Jesus having had to travel as far as India, if even out of the Middle East. The account of the Synoptic Gospels is that before beginning his ministry, Jesus undertook ascetic practices in the desert for “forty days”—this being (in translation) an ancient Hebrew idiom meaning “a long time,” and he could have encountered such influences during this period. (Conservative Christians scandalized by association with other religions would no doubt use this juncture to point out that Jesus was also reportedly influenced by the devil at this stage.)
If it is academically respectable to contend that Plato was influenced by eastern philosophy (and through him the Stoics indirectly so), I do not see why these ideas could not also have reached first-century Palestine. This thesis gets its credibility problem from being associated with the sensationalism befitting of a conspiracy theory, being presented the revelation of a secret that would turn the world upside down. But there is nothing in traditional Christianity that need be challenged by the existence of such influences, and for the perspective of “wisdom Christianity” it would only strengthen an already existing synthesis.
The next installment will be yet more possessiveness, but moving more into a social context with the theme of distributive justice related to a number of further parables.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Cupitt, Don, , (2001), Taking Leave of God, SCM Press, London
Jamison, Christopher, (2008), Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps For A Fulfilling Life, Orion Books Ltd., London
Merton, Thomas, (1955), No Man Is An Island, Harvest/HJB, New York
O’Collins, Gerald, (1999), Following the Way: Jesus Our Spiritual Director, Harper Collins, London
Sahajananda, John Martin, (2014), Fully Human, Fully Divine, Partridge (India)
Ward, Keith, (2011), The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus Through the Lens of Philosophy, Lion Hudson, Oxford
Peter Hardy is an administrator on the Partially Examined Life Facebook Group. You can follow him on Twitter @VibrantBliss. He has previously written a longer reflection on Buddhism in relation to Christianity.