Satires and Profanities/Jesus: as God; as a Man

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Jesus: as God; as a Man by James Thomson (B.V.)
as published in Satires and Profanities

JESUS: AS GOD; AS A MAN.

(1866.)

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"These hereditary enemies of the Truth… have even had the heart to degrade this first preacher of the Mountain, the purest hero of Liberty; for, unable to deny that he was earth's greatest man, they have made of him heaven's smallest god."—Heine: Reisebilder.




The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus, which, in whatever relation regarded, is full of self-contradictions and absurdities, is, above all, pernicious in its moral and spiritual results. Most myths have a certain justification in their beauty, in their symbolism of high truth. This one distorts the beauty, degrades the sublimity, stultifies the meaning of the facts and the character wherein it has been founded, taking away all true grandeur from Jesus, benumbing our love and reverence.

Jesus, as a man, commands my heart's best homage. His words, as reported by the Evangelists, are ever-flowing fountains of spiritual refreshments; and I feel that he was in himself even far more wise and good than he appears in the gospel. What disciple could be expected to report perfectly the words of a teacher so mystically sublime? The disciple intends and endeavors to report faithfully; but when he hears words which to him are without sense, because they express some truth whose sphere is beyond the reach of his vision, he makes sense of them by some slight change—slight as to the letter, immense as to the spirit; for the sense is a truth or truism of his own lower sphere. And when the reports are not put into writing until many years after the words were first uttered, the changes will be important even as to the letter; for a narrative from a man's mouth always alters year after year as much as the man himself alters, for he continues grafting his own sense (which may be deplorable nonsense) upon words which have been spoken. When we find sentences of the purest beauty and wisdom in the records of a man's conversation, we may safely proportion the whole philosophical character of the speaker to such sentences. They mark the altitude at which his spirit loved to dwell. We are but completing the circle from the clearest fragment-arc left. Sentences of wisdom less exalted, or of apparent unwisdom, have perhaps been degraded by the reporter, or have been relative to circumstances which we cannot now learn thoroughly.

Jesus as a man, whose words have been recorded by fallible men, is not lowered in my esteem by such contradictions as I find between his various speeches. Every proverb has its antagonist proverb, each being true to a certain extent, or in certain relations. Could we conceive an abstract intellect, we might conceive it dwelling continually in the sphere of abstract and absolute truth; but no man, however wise, dwells continually in this sphere. As a man living in the world, his intellect no less than his body lives in the relative and the conditioned, and naturally reflects the character of this sphere. The wise man finds himself surrounded and obstructed by certain concrete errors, and he attacks these errors with relative truths. Were the errors of another sort, the truths commonly in his mouth would be of another sort too. Many wise men of different ages and countries are pitted against each other as if their doctrines were fundamentally antagonistic, while, in truth, their doctrines are essentially in unison, and either would have spoken or written much the same as the other had he lived in the same circumstances. For a wise man only attacks the errors that are in his way; things which he never meets he can scarcely think of as obstructions. Hannibal, whose business it is to get into Italy from Gaul, sets about blasting the Alps. Stephenson, whose business it is to get from Manchester to Liverpool, sets about filling up Chat Moss. The same man, who muffles himself in as many furs as he can get in Greenland, will strip himself to a linen robe in Jamaica. Luther said that the human mind is like a drunken peasant on horseback: he is rolling off on the right, you push him up, he then rolls over on the left. Exactly so; and because one sage, seeing him roll down to the right, has pushed him up on the right, while another sage, seeing him roll down to the left, has pushed him up on the left, are the two sages to be accounted antagonists? Now as a wise man in the course of his existence meets errors of many sorts, some of a quite opposite tendency to others, and as he proves his wisdom by applying to each error its relative or pertinent truth, the rule is almost rigidly exact: that the wiser the man the more of apparent contradictions can be found in his writings or conversation treating of actual life.

But deity is beyond the sphere of the relative and conditioned. When deity speaks and deity reports the speeches, all should be absolute truth transparently self-consistent, else what advantage or gain have we by the substitution of God for Man? Why bring in God to utter and record what could have been as well uttered and recorded by man?

Everything for which we love and venerate the man Jesus becomes a bitter and absurd mockery when attributed to the Lord Christ. The full heart is praising the man; you turn him into God, a ruinous salvo is added to the praise.

He went about doing good: if God, why did he not do all good at once? He cured many sick: if God, why did he not give the whole world health? He associated with publicans and sinners: if God, why did he make publicans and sinners at all? He preached the kingdom of heaven: if God, why did he not bring the kingdom with him and make all mankind fit for it? He loved the poor, he taught the ignorant: if God, why did he let any remain poor and ignorant? He rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees: if God, why did he not wholly purify them from formalism, hypocrisy, and unbelief? He died for love of mankind: if God, why did he not restore mankind to himself without dying? and what great thing was it to seem to die for three days? He sent apostles to preach salvation to all men: if God, why did he not reveal it at once to all men, and so reveal it that doubt had been impossible? He lived an example of holiness to us all: if God, how can our humanity imitate Deity? And finally, a question trampling down every assertion in his favor: why did he ever let the world get evil?

One is ashamed of repeating these things for the ten-thousandth time, but they will have to be repeated occasionally, so long as a vast ecclesiastical system continues to rest on the foundations of the absurdities they oppugn. And while one is grinding such chaff in the theological mill, he may as well have a turn at the Atonement, which is, in fact, the essence of the dogma of the Incarnation. No wonder this poor Atonement has been attacked on all sides; it invites attack; one may say that in every aspect it piteously implores us to attack it and relieve it from the misery of its spectral existence. It is so full of breaches that one does not know where to storm.

I am content to note one aspect of this unfortunate mystery which, so far as I am aware, has been seldom studied. The whole scheme of the Atonement, as planned by God, is based upon a crime—a crime infinitely atrocious, the crime of murder and deicide, is essential to its success: if Judas had not betrayed, if the Jews had not insisted, if Pilate had not surrendered, if all these turpitudes had not been secured, the Atonement could not have been consummated. Need one say more? Sometimes, when musing upon this doctrine, I have a vision of the God-man getting old upon the earth, horribly anxious and wretched, because no one will murder him. Judas has succeeded to a large property, and would not be tempted to betray him by three hundred pieces of silver; the chief priests and elders think him insane, and, therefore, as Orientals, hold him in a certain reverence; Pilate is henpecked and superstitious, accounts the wife's dreams oracular, and will have nothing to do with him; even Peter won't deny him, although he has restored Peter's mother-in-law to life. The situation is desperate; he has again and again prayed his Father to despatch a special murderer to despatch him, yet none appears: shall he have to perish by old age or disease? may he be compelled to commit suicide? must he go back to Heaven unsacrificed, foiled for want of an assassin?

Benjamin Disraeli attained the cynical sublime when he suggested a monument of gratitude to Judas. In fact, Christendom ought to have erected hundreds of years ago three grand monuments to the sub-trinity of Christianity, to the three men without whose devoted assistance the heavenly trinity would not have triumphed in the scheme of Salvation by Atonement; Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate; and as these three men could not have done what they did in furtherance of the glorious work without a well-known inspiration, a fourth memorial—the grandest of all—should have been erected to the Devil. But the world, even the religious world, has always been ungrateful to its most generous benefactors.

Is it not the worst of sacrilege, a foul profanation of our human nature, which for us, at least, should be holy and awful, when the heroic and saintly martyrdom of a true Man is thus falsified into the self-schemed sham sacrifice, ineffectual, of a God? The people who profess belief in this are shocked at the outrage offered to our humanity by the Development Theory, while they themselves commit this outrage more flagitious. Little matters whence we sprang; we are what we are. But much matters to what we may attain. If the Development Theory plants our feet in the slime, the Christian Theory bows our head to the dust. It asserts that human nature could not possibly be so good as Jesus, that human genius could not possibly write the books which tell of him; it denies us our noblest prerogatives, and declares us bastards when we claim a crown. It climbs to God by trampling on Man, it builds Heaven in contempt of Earth, its soul is a phosphorescence from the slain and rotting Body; its fervent faith vilifies us worse than the coldest sneer of Mephistopheles. Yet the orthodox shudder and moan, outraged in their pious sensibilities, when one dares to speak with manly plainness of their doctrines, which commence by polluting our common nature, continue by insulting our reason, and conclude by damning the large majority of us!