Religion on the Level: #3
What is the Use of Jesus?
There is a fundamental distinction to be made in the meaning of
the word authority. The more obvious or usual meaning suggests
extrinsic authority. This refers to an individual, agency or
institution that has power over us and can compel our obedience.
Many of these extrinsic authorities operate in a relatively benign and
helpful way. The traffic policemen have authority or power over us in the
highly specific situation of traffic discipline. We may feel that he is
performing the task in an incompetent way or that he is giving preference
to the stream of traffic coming in the opposite direction to the one we
are going in, but we are unlikely to challenge his authority, to get out
of the car and try to take over the role.
Most of us are tolerant of minor versions of extrinsic authority,
although we often experience examples of petty tyranny of the sort that
makes us expostulate to our friends afterwards. It is altogether different
if we live in a real tyranny, in one of those authoritarian societies
where people are ordered around in ways most of us would find intolerable.
Even worse are the totalitarian societies where there is no aspect of life
that is beyond the prying interference of rulers and their brutal
In these cultures outward conformity to the powers that be is often
combined with an inward withdrawal of consent, so that the soul of the
apparently compliant individual maintains a sort of spiritual purity.
Sometimes women who have been raped offer a similar kind of testimony.
They were subjected to extrinsic power, brute strength that was imposed
upon them, but they did not offer it the consent of their hearts and minds
and tried to preserve a detachment from it that separated them from the
horrifying thing that was happening to them.
Very different from extrinsic or imposed authority is intrinsic
authority. Intrinsic authority wins our inner consent by a mysterious
process that persuades and draws affirmation from us. We say yes to it,
acknowledge that it has a legitimate claim upon us, has caused a powerful
act of recognition and mutuality to work within our hearts and minds.
To use another sexual analogy, we fall in love and open ourselves to
the entrance of the other, consent eagerly to the other's embrace,
participate fully in the encounter. They said of Jesus that he spoke
with authority, and not as the scribes. I am assuming that this means
he had an intrinsic authority that called forth voluntary assent from
people, while the scribes had an extrinsic authority that extracted
official compliance, but never real inward assent to what was said or
commanded by them.
And we have all had experiences of this sort. There have been times,
for instance, when we have had to listen to a speech delivered, say, by a
junior minister in one of the departments of government. It is quite
obvious to us that the speech has been written for him, that it is not his
own in any way that compels our interest, and we listen politely,
fulfilling one of the rituals of public life in that unengaged way that
usually characterises such occasions.
It is very different, however, if we go to hear a lecture by a
brilliant and charismatic scholar whose command of her subject draws
admiring approval from us. The speaker and the speech have an intrinsic
authority that draws attention from us.
The distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic authority is very
important in our encounter with religious meaning. We have all sat under
clergy who had no intrinsic authority, no ability to compel our assent, no
matter how loaded they were with the trappings of extrinsic ecclesiastical
And we encounter the same distinction when we deal with religious
language and the claims of religious authority. The mere assertion of
authority does nothing for us. For instance, the claim that a particular
statement must have authority in our lives because it happens to be in the
Bible is likely to leave many of us cold.
No form of words will impress us because of their claim to extrinsic
authority; a platitude is still a platitude even if it comes from a prime
minister or an archbishop; but their words might impress, challenge or
console us because of their intrinsic power and not because of who uttered
them. They might draw recognition and assent from us because of their
self-evincing authority. They have something, we say,
they got to us, touched us, made is shiver.
This distinction in the way we understand authority is very important
for our project of trying to derive usable wisdom from religious
narratives and traditions. The Christian tradition believes that Jesus was
a manifestation of God, God made accessible in human life.
No matter what we make of the claim itself - and it is hardly one that
can be vindicated by the standard tests of verifiability, so it must
always remain a claim of faith - the very fact of the emergence of the
claim is itself interesting and significant and suggests, at the very
least, that the presence and teaching of Jesus had a considerable impact
upon those who met him.
It seems safe to claim that the route to the extrinsic authority that
was claimed for Jesus - that he came from God - must have first gone
through the demonstrable fact of his intrinsic authority. I would like to
suggest that it is more important to open ourselves to the words that gave
rise to the claim of divinity, rather than profess allegiance to the claim
but show little or no response to the words that precipitated it; and that
it is more important, for instance, to be forgiving than to claim that
Jesus' attitude to forgiveness demonstrates his essential divinity.
If we follow the criterion of usability we have been expounding in
these lectures, what is the use of Jesus, in what way can his life and
teaching be of use to us?
The details of his life and death are already so well rehearsed that I
do not want to repeat them, but I do want to propose that the central
elements of his life and teaching have abiding and challenging usefulness
both for individuals and for society.
And I want to begin by exploring the problem of forgiveness, one of the
central elements in the teaching of Jesus.
In the prayer he taught his disciples they were to say "Forgive us our
sins and we forgive those who sin against us". In his parables he
repeatedly taught the particular importance of remembering our own need
for and experience of forgiveness when we ourselves are called upon to
It was E M Forster who said it, but it could as easily have been Jesus:
"Only connect". Connecting in this radically magnanimous way is difficult
of course, but Jesus was right to make it the central element in his
teaching. Without radical forgiveness of one another we condemn ourselves
not only to the pain of our offences against one another, but to years of
misery which deepen the original wound by the corrosions of bitterness and
And this is true not only of our individual trespasses against one
another, but of the sins of whole tribes or nations. Forgiveness is an art
the politicians are only just beginning to work at, but their struggle to
apply it to some of the most intractable conflicts that disfigure the
human situation today gives us an opportunity to meditate on a crucial but
complex aspect of human relationships.
In a not-yet-published novel, John Whale describes one of the most
difficult of human predicaments. Philip, the main character in the story,
has gone into the country near Oxford to prepare for the death that cancer
will soon bring to him. His predicament is that he has a sin on his
conscience for which he believes there is no obvious forgiveness.
His mother had been a monster of tyranny and intolerance all his life,
but towards her end he had taken her into his home to care for till her
death. Confused, doubly incontinent and enduringly spiteful, she
maintained an iron grip on him and would permit no one else to assist in
her care. So he stopped feeding her, giving her instead occasional cups of
hot water. She hardly noticed and in a few days was dead.
Now Philip, contemplating his own impending death, is unable to
find forgiveness. Who can forgive him? He cannot forgive himself. Though
he is a priest, he is not quite sure if there is a God to forgive; and
anyway, can God forgive on his mother's behalf? This is where the
predicament really bites; she who was sinned against is no longer
available to offer the forgiveness that might heal his tortured heart.
This is a dramatic example of a not uncommon experience. Many
innocent people feel guilt at the death of a loved one: did they do enough
or did their neglect somehow contribute to the tragedy?
And the comfort of friends does not really help, because the one person
who might make a difference is no longer there to make it. The pain is
crueler if something was done, if there
was some kind of culpable neglect. That is when guilt burns and gnaws
at the gut and changes the beauty of the day into bleakness and sorrow.
Bad as all that is, it is not the difficulty that particularly obsesses
me. I've had more to be forgiven for than to forgive in my life, but
nothing very terrible has happened to me, so I sometimes wonder if I have
any right to talk about forgiveness at all. Has my message been too easy?