|The Myths of Christianity - 3
The Myth of Justification by
In my first lecture in this series I referred to
Thomas Kuhn's ground-breaking essay, 'The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions'. One of Kuhn's most persuasive insights was that science is
human and that shifts in scientific thinking, paradigm shifts, are
prompted by social forces as well as by what we might think of as pure
This should not surprise us, of course, but it is worth repeating,
because one of the permanent fallacies we commit in all the human
disciplines is to accord them an objectivity they cannot have. So we
imagine that the ideal scientific experiment is one that is completely
clinical and abstracted, conducted from some kind of bunker that insulates
the scientist from outside influences. No such isolation is possible or
desirable. There is no way we can get ourselves out of our skin or out of
our social and cultural context.
Even a scientist as rigorous as Darwin, in finding a narrative in which
to express his discoveries, had to use metaphors that clearly came from
nineteenth century capitalism, with its notion of struggle and the
survival of the fittest. When Kuhn used the Copernican revolution as an
example of how paradigm shifts occurred, he recognised that new social
needs, as well as scientific discoveries, contributed to the replacement
of the Ptolemaic paradigm by the Copernican one.
If non-scientific factors contribute to the work of science, then it is
certainly the case that non-theological factors contribute to the work of
theology. I would go further and say that there are no such things as
purely theological factors. There may be objective elements in theology
such as the claims of revelation and historical debates over their
meaning, but the work of theology is an inescapably human work. In
addition to the human factors involved, scientists do have an external
reality to work on and look at in the form of everything other than
themselves that exists.
Theologians, in spite of the claims they make to the contrary, do not
have access to an equivalent metaphysical reality from which they can make
deductions and conduct experiments. Everything they have to deal with
comes from within the human envelope. Theology is more like psychology
than geology; it is another way of describing human experience and its
struggles with itself. The proof of this is that even if we assert the
existence of a reality other than ourselves that reveals itself to us, we
are inescapably fixed on the human end of that experience and cannot know
the Other as it is in itself, but only as we receive it or have known it.
The reason theological dispute is so endless is that there are no
empirical experiments that can obviously settle them, the way we might
settle a dispute over the exact temperature of the boiling point of water
or establish the age of an artifact by carbon dating. This will only
disturb us if we have persuaded ourselves that when we are doing theology
we are dealing with a substance other than ourselves.
Whereas the enduringly fascinating thing about theology is that it
provides us with a mirror into our own souls. This is particularly the
case when we come to examine one of the most fascinating and complex of
the Christian theological themes, the idea of Justification by Faith.
In John Osborne's great play about him, he relates Luther's discovery
of the significance of this great theme in Paul's letter to the Romans to
the German reformer's constipation, to which he was a martyr. W. H. Auden
made the same point when he said that 'Revelation came to Luther in the
privy'. In Osborne's play the release of the great idea that ignited the
Reformation exactly coincides with a massive evacuation of Luther's
Luther's anguish was caused by the fact that he felt incapable of
achieving the perfection God required of him. Many of the great religious
geniuses have been souls in torment about themselves who found peace
through the discovery of a spiritual truth that rescued them from despair.
Buddhism is one of the most attractive examples of how human anguish
can prompt people to the search for a costly peace. The story is well
known of the young prince who renounced worldly glory to seek salvation,
and discovered that the stumbling block to his own salvation, and the
cause of all human misery, was desire or craving. If he could get rid of
that desire, banish that craving, he would know the peace of high Nirvana.
The genius of Buddhism is that it is a "Middle Way" that repudiates two
extremes, the worthless life of self-indulgence and the equally worthless
life of self-torture.
The difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that Buddhism is
essentially a practice, an arduous discipline that can deliver peace and
compassion to its adherents. Christianity also has its spiritual
disciplines, but it also believes that its doctrines are themselves saving
and life-changing. Much of this goes back to the originating genius of
Christian theology, Saul of Tarsus who became Paul. The paradox is that
what for Paul was a liberating psychological experience was later to be
hardened into a formula that radically contradicted his original insight
and the experience that prompted it.
It is hazardous to guess at the psychological disposition of long-dead
people who are only known to us through their writing, but Paul did
provide us with a lot of material for our speculations; he disclosed much
of himself in a series of letters that are a valuable tool for our
exercise in detection.
William James divided people into healthy and sick souls, into people
with equable dispositions and people who are internally conflicted and
divided. Paul seems to have been an example of the latter. He tells us in
the Letter to the Romans that he is puzzled by the divisions in his own
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I
agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it,
but sin that dwells within me.
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my
flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do
the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do
what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil
lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,
but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind,
making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
The orthodox way to interpret Paul's personal anguish is to say that he
sought to make himself perfect through the minute observance of the Torah
or holiness code of the Jewish people. He tells us in the Letter to the
Galatians that he was a strict practitioner of the way of his people:
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was
violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for
I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.
An insight from Rabbi Lionel Blue may help us here. In a lecture he
gave in Edinburgh he remarked on the different ways the followers of the
three great monotheistic religions go mad. In Judaism madness takes the
form of obsessive compulsive neurosis; in Christianity it becomes
sado-masochism; and in Islam it is megalomania.
It is a perceptive insight. There can be little doubt that the
Christian obsession with guilt and punishment has been richly productive
of sado-masochism in the practices, as well as in the iconography of his
adherents. Obsessive-compulsive neurosis is an equally obvious danger for
those who follow a highly ritualised religious code, like the Torah. And
Woody Allen is a good example of how these tendencies can be entirely
secularised. As far as Islam is concerned, there does seem to be a
tendency to megalomania, if only in response to what is perceived to be
international prejudice against this ancient religion.
If there is anything in Lionel Blue's insight, it might help to account
for Paul's crisis, both before and after his conversion. We do not know if
he ever met or heard Jesus, and he certainly does not quote him nor show
explicit acquaintance with his teaching. What he does is to develop a
mystical response to the crucifixion of Jesus, but at its heart we can
detect a relieved acceptance of Jesus' critique of code based religion,
precisely because it can become a vehicle for obsessive-compulsive
The best way to get into this is to look at the attitude of Jesus to
the Sabbath, because it exemplified his approach to a number of
fundamental matters. We invent systems, such as days of rest, to help us
live wisely, but there is a tendency in us to take these useful inventions
too seriously and offer them an absolute allegiance. This was the point
that Jesus made in his dispute with the legalists of his day.
One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the grain fields, his
disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and
ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is
not lawful on the Sabbath?" Jesus answered, "Have you not read what
David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house
of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not
lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his
companions?" Then he said to them, "The Son of Man is lord of the
On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there
was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the
Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the Sabbath, so
that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew
what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand,
"Come and stand here." He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to
them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the
Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?" After looking around at all
of them, he said to him, "Stretch out your hand." He did so, and his
hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with
one another what they might do to Jesus.
Mark's original version of the first of these two incidents is even
more significant, because it contains the saying that relativises all
human systems, including religious ones, and refuses them any absolute and
unchanging authority. They are all human and therefore provisional in
their usefulness. The time may come when they have to be modified in
response to a particular human need, as in the case of the man with the
withered arm in Luke, or replaced entirely by a system that does the job
One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made
their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees
said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the
Sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did
when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered
the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of
the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat,
and he gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The
Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.
Our danger is that we often make things we invent for a good reason so
absolute that they end up defeating the purpose they were intended to
serve. There's an amusing example of this in the Robert De Niro comedy,
'Meet the Parents'. Ben Stiller, the hapless hero of the movie, is in an
airport departure lounge about to board his plane. The steward calls for
passengers in seat-rows nine and above to come forward. Since the
departure lounge is completely empty, our hero steps forward and presents
his boarding card for seat-row eight. The steward orders him to step back,
because his row has not been called. He remonstrates with her: 'No one
else is boarding, why can't I come through now?' 'Because we board by
strict rotation of seat row' is the reply. They wait for a few minutes
while no one boards; then she calls for all remaining passengers to come
forward and he, alone, presents his ticket.
Boarding planes by seat-row-rotation makes sense, it assists us in wise
living, but to make it an absolute rule in all circumstances is insane.
That's the point, the only point in Jesus' dispute about the Sabbath.
Exact, compulsive observance of the letter of any code can take us over
and drive us mad, as we seek to achieve a perfect conformity to the law or
Whatever the precise nature of Paul's religious torment, he found
release from it by a particular application of the teaching of Jesus to
Fatefully, however, rather than proclaiming a new attitude to human
codes that would help us to get them into proportion, which is what we get
from Jesus, he claimed that the death of Jesus effected a mystical change
in the order of things that mechanistically changed relations between God
Behind the formula he developed to express this doctrine there probably
lay an awareness of Jesus' critique of all codes, because they can turn
what was meant to assist humanity into a heavy burden round its neck. Paul
expressed the liberation he experienced in the metaphor of justification
or acquittal: a wretched criminal stands in the dock, tormented by guilt
and self-loathing, waiting for certain condemnation; miraculously, the
tortured soul is gratuitously acquitted of guilt and set free.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ
Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you
free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law,
weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the
likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in
the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled
in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the