I belong to the Scottish professional middle class, a social grouping which has historically contributed more than its fair share of scientific, engineering, literary and philosophical excellences to the world, along with its support of the British Empire, its Calvinist morality, and its canny commitment to personal prosperity.
I grew up with a very strong sense of right and wrong. That’s not to say that I was a saintly child, far from it, but when I had done wrong, I knew it. Not only did I know it, I felt guilty about it, and was in constant fear of being found out and exposed as a unworthy of my family, my church, my community. Again, all this fear and guilt in no way stopped me from doing the things I knew were wrong. Quite the reverse in fact, as it gave an additional thrill to the doing of them.
Looking back, I wonder how many of those sins were in fact wrong- some of them, certainly; others were simple failures and follies. This was the product of a moral system which saw sex outside marriage as wrong, but the takeover of other countries for the benefit of the natives, as right and even praiseworthy. Without doubt however the training worked. Even now I hesitate to talk back to respectable people who are expressing loathesome opinions in case I get a clip on the ear and am always conscious that appearing in public with unpolished shoes is slovenly and lets the family down.
I can see that this ethos, backed by an agreeable sort of Christian faith, equipped its young people to treat their equals with decency, to work hard, and to believe that public service was honourable, albeit better as a hobby than a career. It was probably the same ethos that David Cameron’s mother impressed on her family. In my case, and perhaps in many others, it produced a selective conscience which judged my foolish actions as big sins but was quite unmoved by my leaving my physician mother to do all the housework.
At first I saw Jesus as another purveyor of this ethos, even if He was a bit superior to the rest. In fact I never thought of him as historically real, or even as the hero of the books in which he appeared, but rather as a sort of free-floating human God who had descended to earth for my benefit, and in some mysterious transaction involving his death, had persuaded God to forgive my sins. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the story of forgiveness, because it meant that even if I flunked the moral examination which was my life on earth, I would not be relegated to the eternal Junior Secondary, which was the anticipated hell of all lazy 11+ examinees. ( “the plumber’s kids go there!” my mother hissed.)
But then, bit by bit, Jesus started to be real to me. At first, it was just noticing that he wasn’t much in favour of the ethos in which I had been trained. He was especially unimpressed with those who passed judgement on others and seemed at ease with tradespeople, of which he was one, not to mention prostitutes, traitors, and other riff-raff that his moralistic contemporaries and mine considered beyond the pale. Above all, he was curiously un unconcerned with “sin”. There is a certain gaiety to his forgiveness of sin, by which he recognises its capacity to destroy life, especially when it results from the judgement of others; and gets rid of it in God’s name, so that the sinner may recover fullness of life. Even serious sins, like those of the collaborating tax collector Zacchaeus, are left uncondemned, so that the sinner can change his life and provide recompense without being told to do so.
I said, unconcerned, but of course that only refers to his lack of moralistic condemnation, while he is on the other hand, a complete terrorist with regard to what human beings can become, that is, citizens of the kingdom of God, who must strive to be perfect as God is perfect. For the sake of becoming agents of God’s justice and compassion people have to leave other things behind them, including their sins. Forgiveness is offered not for the sake of what a person has been, but for what she is called to be by God.
There is practically nothing in the teaching of Jesus which chimes with the theological story of the appalling weight of human sin which can only be forgiven by the Divine Son of God bearing the divine condemnation of it, so that God may offer forgiveness without compromising his justice.
Jesus it appears, understood human wrongness as the misuse of the capacities the Father had given to his children. ( As the father of the prodigal provides a share of his patrimony) He knows that “in the beginning” that is, in God’s intention, it was meant to be otherwise, and rather than compromising, he insists that his followers live as they were meant to, no matter how unrealistic that may seem. The children of God, to be sure, need not fear the Father’s rejection, but they are commanded to begin again in the Father’s generosity ( to become like children/ to be born from above), showing that same generosity in their life with others.
The cross is not the grim story of a psychopathic God who demands satisfaction from his Son, but the sober story of the Son of God who poured out the Father’s generosity in life and death, the victim of moralism, meanness, prejudice, hatred and fear, yet still undefeated. Jesus faithfulness unto death to the generosity of God, is as St Paul recognised, the end of all religious systems designed, like the Torah, to secure the blessing of God. As Jesus knew, the blessing is already given to those who turn to God, in spite of their sins. Now, in that blessing, they have to start again, and again and again.
In that confidence I have learned from Jesus how to be wrong, namely, to accept it as my misuse of God’s endowment of my being, my choice as a person who shares in human evil, which also means that I can choose otherwise, to start again as a person who can share the goodness of God.
All this comes from Jesus, whose life and death and resurrection I accept as the definitive communication of God. There is for me no other God than the Father of Jesus. Do I mean that all other religions are lacking? Yes. Do I mean that all other religions are completely wrong? Of course not. I cannot follow Jesus and pretend that Mohmammed was right about enemies, or that Buddha was right about non-attachment. But I can learn from Mohammed’s commitment to justice and the Buddha’s cure for egoism. My approach to other faiths and philosophies should be wholly ecumenical, but even that openness derives from Jesus the crucified Messiah, the beloved child of God.