An extract from God Is No Thing: Coherent Christianity by Rupert Shortt
Through the Old Testament and into the New, God is gradually dissociated from religious violence until the victim is wholly innocent in the case of Jesus
Jesus plainly did not want to die. His anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane is clearly recorded. Yet over and again, he is portrayed as wanting to do the will of his Father above all. Photograph: Hazlan Abdul Hakim
Are the Church’s historical claims about Jesus credible? Many liberal believers, let alone agnostics and atheists, have doubts about the reliability of the New Testament. An example comes in Alan Isler’s novel Clerical Errors, where a priest educated in the 1950s and ’60s loses his faith and speaks for many in asking, “How can any rational creature not see in the story of Christ the pattern of countless pagan myths, the universal romance of the sacrificial god, his apotheosis and his rebirth?”
But this question has a period feel, a point overlooked in two recent fictional bestsellers, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary and Philip Pullman’s fundamentally misconceived The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It isn’t over-simplifying a complex picture to say that many scholars are more confident about the gospels’ reliability than several generations ago.
One robust summary of Jesus’s message might run like this. In common with other rabbis, he expounded Scripture, enjoined his hearers to observe the central elements of Jewish law, and emphasised God’s love for the outcast. More remarkable was his absolute renunciation of violence and insistence on self-giving love as the supreme virtue.
He proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God, with all that it entailed in terms of the espousal of the poor and weak, the casting out of evil spirits, and the release of those resources of generosity and compassion which are so easily deflected by social convention and spiritual legalism.
This mission led to Jesus’s death, which he accepted, sensing that his crucifixion and subsequent vindication by God would have redemptive power for the community of believers he inaugurated.
He believed this because he made one especially audacious claim from the start of his ministry: that the question how people relate to him and to what he says will govern how they relate to the God he addressed as Father. On this understanding, Jesus was acting like the Creator who chose Israel at the dawn of the biblical narrative. God had chosen a group of slaves to be a people; and Jesus, in selecting his fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes, was repeating and re-embodying this choice. He was claiming a level of creative freedom for himself usually associated with God alone.
Christian experience was distilled from the experience of prayer and communal life over generations. The teaching that emerged in the New Testament and early Church holds that through Jesus’s death and resurrection, a new phase in history has been inaugurated. Human beings discover their destiny in an orientation towards the source of their being; but this is not the orientation of a slave to a master, but the intimate relationship of a son or daughter to a parent.
In that relationship, the Christian can become free to imitate the self-giving of God the Trinity – a pattern of loving relationship – who made us and saved us. The Church is the community on earth representing this “new creation”. Its chief task is to proclaim and witness to God’s will for universal reconciliation.
Why was Jesus crucified and why does it matter? One of the first things worth noting is that his execution was not accidental. He indicates several times in the gospels that his forthcoming demise cannot be avoided. This was not just because he scandalised the Jewish authorities by presenting his teaching as the fulfilment of the law of Moses, but also because of a more general human trait – our tendency to despise and reject full humanity when we encounter it.
Jesus plainly did not want to die. His anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane is clearly recorded. Yet over and again, he is portrayed as wanting to do the will of his Father above all. This is not to suggest that the Father sought Jesus’s death either. Commentators have drawn an analogy with human parenthood: mothers and fathers are aware that their children may suffer all manner of adversity given the slings and arrows of fortune, but it is not their wish that this should happen. What loving parents hope for is that their offspring will flower as people.
The Father’s will, of which Jesus was so conscious, consisted in being completely human: this was the path that led to the cross. In the words of the theologian Herbert McCabe, “the fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but that we have arranged. We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering.” Jesus can be seen in this light as the most perfectly human person ever to have existed: for him, to live was to love.
Widely held to be no more than a distant event of no abiding significance, the crucifixion remains hard to interpret, even for many Christians. An evolutionary perspective can help. It is almost universally recognised that when humans advanced to form social structures, their increased power came with greater danger and greater opportunity, including the capacity for both murder and love – a further mark of the cleft in our natures explored in many a religious text, biblical and non-biblical.
With these ideas in mind, we can grasp the significance of a regularly heard claim – that the New Testament is a pretty anti-religious document in important respects. This emerges forcefully in the work of René Girard, the French anthropologist who long saw religions in negative terms as sublimated forms of wrath.
He meant that many ritual systems entail the scapegoating of a victim as a way of channelling a given society’s tendency towards violence, and engineering “peace” (more a cessation of hostilities purchased at great price) around the corpse of the victim, whether animal or human. Having assumed that Judaism and Christianity reproduced this corrupt pattern, Girard came to see that the opposite is true. Both Jewish rituals and the Christian eucharist employ sacralised violence as structuring motifs, but there is a deep difference compared with other religious systems.
Through the Old Testament and into the New, God is gradually dissociated from religious violence until the victim is wholly innocent in the case of Jesus. What is more, the figure on the cross claims to speak for God; Christians in turn are challenged to identify this scene of execution as the place where God stands.
The “price” played through the crucifixion is not connected with placating the supposed anger of God. It has to do instead with the manner in which the bearer of God’s nature takes on the result of human hatred. God is revealed not as the figure who expels us, but as the one whom we expel, and who allowed himself to be expelled so as to make of his rejection an example of what he is really like.
God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity by Rupert Shortt is published by Hurst Publishers (£9.99). Rupert Shortt is religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a former visiting fellow at Oxford University. His books include Benedict XVI (2005), Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack (2012) and Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop (2014)