Life of Jesus (Renan)/Chapter 19
Chapter 19: Increasing progression of enthusiasm and of exaltation.
IT is clear that such a religious society, founded solely on the expectation of the kingdom of God, must be in itself very incomplete. The first Christian generation lived almost entirely upon expectations and dreams. On the eve of seeing the world come to an end, they regarded as useless everything which only served to prolong it. Possession of property was interdicted. Everything which attaches man to earth, everything which draws him aside from heaven, was to be avoided. Although several of the disciples were married, there was to be no more marriage on becoming a member of the sect. The celibate was greatly preferred; even in marriage continence was recommended. At one time the Master seems to approve of those who should mutilate themselves in prospect of the kingdom of God. In this he was consistent with his principle. "If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell-fire." The cessation of generation was often considered as the sign and condition the kingdom of God.
Never, we perceive, would this primitive Church have formed a lasting society but for the great variety of germs deposited by Jesus in his teaching. It required more than a century for the true Christian Church -- that which has converted the world -- to disengage itself from this little sect of "latter-day saints," and to become a framework applicable to the whole of human society. The same thing, indeed, took place in Buddhism, which at first was founded only for monks. The same thing would have happened in the order of St. Francis if that order had succeeded in its pretension of becoming the rule of the whole human society. Essentially Utopian in their origin, and succeeding by their exaggeration, the great systems of which we have just spoken have only laid hold of the world by being profoundly modified, and by abandoning their excesses. Jesus did not advance beyond this first and entirely monachal period, in which it was believed that the impossible could be attempted with impunity. He made no concession to necessity. He boldly preached war against nature and total severance from ties of blood. "Verily I say unto you," said he, "there is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.
The teachings which Jesus is reputed to have given to his disciples breathe the same exaltation. He who was so tolerant to the world outside, he who contented himself sometimes with half adhesions, exercised towards his own an extreme rigor. He would have no "all buts." We should call it an "order," constituted by the most austere rules. Faithful to his idea that the cares of life trouble man and draw him downwards, Jesus required from his associates a complete detachment from the earth, an absolute devotion to his work. They were not to carry with them either money or provisions for the way, not even a scrip, or change of raiment. They must practice absolute poverty, live on alms and hospitality. "Freely ye have received, freely give," said he, in his beautiful language. Arrested and arraigned before the judges, they were not to prepare their defence; the Peraklit, the heavenly advocate, would inspire them with what they ought to say. The Father would send them his Spirit from on high, which would become the principle of all their acts, the director of their thoughts, and their guide through the world. If driven from any town, they were to shake the dust from their shoes, declaring always the proximity of the kingdom of God, that none might plead ignorance. "Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel," added he, "till the Son of man be come."
A strange ardor animates all these discourses, which may in part be the creation of the enthusiasm of his disciples, but which even in that case came indirectly from Jesus, for it was he who had inspired the enthusiasm. He predicted for his followers severe persecutions and the hatred of mankind. He sent them forth as lambs in the midst of wolves. They would be scourged in the synagogues and dragged to prison. Brother should deliver up brother to death, and the father his son. When they were prosecuted in one country, they were to flee to another. "The disciple," said he, "is not above his Master, nor the servant above his lord. Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows." "Whosoever, therefore," continued he, "shall confess to me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven."
In these fits of severity he went so far as to abolish all natural ties. His requirements had no longer any bounds. Despising the healthy limits of man's nature, he demanded that he should exist only for him, that he should love him alone. "If any man come to me," he said, "and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." "So, likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple." There was, at such times, something strange and more than human in his words; they were like a fire utterly consuming life and reducing everything to a frightful wilderness. The harsh and gloomy feeling of distaste for the world, and of excessive self-abnegation, which characterizes Christian perfection, was originated, not by the refined and cheerful moralist of earlier days, but by the somber giant whom a kind of grand presentiment was withdrawing, more and more, out of the pale of humanity. We should almost say that, in these moments of conflict with the most legitimate cravings of the heart, Jesus had forgotten the pleasure of living, of loving, of seeing, and of feeling. Employing still more unmeasured language, he even said, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and follow me. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake and the Gospel's shall find it. What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Two anecdotes of the kind we cannot accept as historical, but which, although they were exaggerations, were intended to represent a characteristic feature, clearly illustrate this defiance of nature. He said to one man, "Follow me!" But he said, "Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father." Jesus answered, "Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God." Another said to him, "Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell which are at home at my house." Jesus replied, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." An extraordinary confidence, and at times accents of singular sweetness, reversing all our ideas of him, caused these exaggerations to be easily received. "Come unto me," cried he, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me: for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
A great danger threatened the future of this exalted morality, thus expressed in hyperbolical language and with a terrible energy. By detaching man from earth the ties of life were severed. The Christian would be praised for being a bad son or a bad patriot if it was for Christ that he resisted his father and fought against his country. The ancient city, the parent republic, the state, or the law common to all, were thus placed in hostility with the kingdom of God. A fatal germ of theocracy was introduced into the world.
From this point another consequence may be perceived. This morality, created for a temporary crisis, when introduced into a peaceful country, and in the midst of a society assured of its own duration, must seem impossible. The Gospel was thus destined to become a Utopia for Christians which few would care to realize. These terrible maxims would, for the greater number, remain in profound oblivion -- an oblivion encouraged by the clergy itself; the Gospel man would prove a dangerous man. The most selfish, proud, hard, and worldly of all human beings, a Louis XIV., for instance, would find priests to persuade him, in spite of the Gospel, that he was a Christian. But, on the other hand, there would always be found holy men who would take the sublime paradoxes of Jesus literally. Perfection being placed beyond the ordinary conditions of society, and a complete Gospel life being only possible away from the world, the principle of asceticism and of monasticism was established. Christian societies would have two moral rules; the one moderately heroic for common men, the other exalted in the extreme for the perfect man; and the perfect man would be the monk, subjected to rules which professed to realize the Gospel ideal. It is certain that this ideal, if only on account of the celibacy and poverty it imposed, could not become the common law. The monk would be thus, in one sense, the only true Christian. Common sense revolts at these excesses; and if we are guided by it, to demand the impossible, is a mark of weakness and error. But common sense is a bad judge where great matters are in question. To obtain little from humanity, we must ask much. The immense moral progress which we owe to the Gospel is the result of its exaggerations. It is thus that it has been, like stoicism, but with infinitely greater fullness, a living argument for the divine powers in man, an exalted monument of the potency of the will.
We may easily imagine that to Jesus, at this period of his life, everything which was not the kingdom of God had absolutely disappeared. He was, if we may say so, totally outside nature; family, friendship, country, had no longer any meaning for him. No doubt, from this moment he had already sacrificed his life. Sometimes we are tempted to believe that, seeing in his own death a means of founding his kingdom, he deliberately determined to allow himself to be killed. At other times, although such a thought only afterwards became a doctrine, death presented itself to him as a sacrifice, destined to appease his Father and to save mankind. A singular taste for persecution and torments possessed him. His blood appeared to him as the water of a second baptism with which he ought to be baptized, and he seemed possessed by a strange haste to anticipate this baptism which alone could quench his thirst.
The grandeur of his views upon the future was at times surprising. He did not conceal from himself the terrible storm he was about to cause in the world. "Think not," said he, with much boldness and beauty, "that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. There shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household." "I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?" "They shall put you out of the synagogues," he continued; "yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doeth God service." "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. Remember the word that I said unto you: The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you."
Carried away by this fearful progression of enthusiasm, and governed by the necessities of a preaching becoming daily more exalted, Jesus was no longer free; he belonged to his mission, and, in one sense, to mankind. Sometimes one would have said that his reason was disturbed. He suffered great mental anguish and agitation. The great vision of the kingdom of God glistening before his eyes bewildered him. His disciples at times thought him mad. His enemies declared him to be possessed. His excessively impassioned temperament carried him incessantly beyond the bounds of human nature. He laughed at all human systems, and his work, not being a work of the reason, that which he most imperiously required was "faith." This was the word most frequently repeated in the little guest-chamber. It is the watchword of all popular movements. It is clear that none of these movements would take place if it were necessary that their author should gain his disciples one by one by force of logic. Reflection leads only to doubt. If the authors of the French Revolution, for instance, had had to be previously convinced by lengthened meditations, they would all have become old without accomplishing anything; Jesus, in like manner, aimed less at convincing his hearers than at exciting their enthusiasm. Urgent and imperative, he suffered no opposition; men must be converted, nothing less would satisfy him. His natural gentleness seemed to have abandoned him; he was sometimes harsh and capricious. His disciples at times did not understand him, and experienced in his presence a feeling akin to fear. Sometimes his displeasure at the slightest opposition led him to commit inexplicable and apparently absurd acts.
It was not that his virtue deteriorated; but his struggle for the ideal against the reality became insupportable. Contact with the world pained and revolted him. Obstacles irritated him. His idea of the Son of God became disturbed and exaggerated. The fatal law which condemns an idea to decay as soon as it seeks to convert men applied to him. Contact with men degraded him to their level. The tone he had adopted could not be sustained more than a few months; it was time that death came to liberate him from an endurance strained to the utmost, to remove him from the impossibilities of an interminable path, and, by delivering him from a trial in danger of being too prolonged, introduce him henceforth sinless into celestial peace.