One of my favorite lines in Robert Bolt’s stage play A Man for All Seasons which was not carried over into the 1965 film comes during an exchange between Sir Thomas More and the Spanish ambassador Signor Chapuys (a character omitted in the film).
Chapuys, who is politically opposed to King Henry’s wish to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon, takes More for an ally — but More’s position is nuanced, and Chapuys is startled by the Lord Chancellor’s insistence on his loyalty to his king. Remonstrating with More, Chapuys “glibly” quotes, “Render under Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” — and then, raising a “reproving finger,” adds, “But unto God—”
“Stop!” More cries agitatedly, and must compose himself a moment before illuminating Chapuys’ offense: “Holy writ is holy, Excellency.”
Holy writ is holy.
I think of this from time to time, most recently when I read about former president Jimmy Carter remarking in an interview that, in his personal belief, Jesus “would approve of gay marriage.”
“I believe that Jesus would approve of gay marriage, but … that’s just my own personal belief,” Mr. Carter said, acknowledging that he didn’t have “any verse in scripture” in mind supporting this view. “I think Jesus would approve of any love affair that was honest and sincere, and was not damaging to anyone else. And I don’t think that gay marriage damages anyone else.”
My reaction to claims like this is complex, but I think my first impulse is not simply to denounce or reject Carter’s opinion, or to argue or explain why I think he is wrong with appeals to scripture, tradition, magisterial teaching or natural law.
Rather, my first impulse is to utter an agitated “Stop!”
Not because Carter is projecting onto Jesus a view I believe or that the Catholic Church teaches is wrong, but because Carter is projecting onto Jesus, whom he regards (as do I) as the epitome of goodness and righteousness, Carter’s own ideas about what is good and right.
That projection, more than the wrongness of Carter’s views in this case, fills me with deep unease bordering on holy fear. It’s a fearful unease I feel with anyone’s attempt — Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, liberal or conservative, traditionalist or radical — to sanctify their opinions by presuming to grant them, on Jesus’ behalf, his personal if hypothetical stamp of approval.
Carter’s pietistic rhetorical move is echoed in countless exchanges and debates in which people claim Jesus’ personal support for their views on just about anything: immigration, spanking, communion in the hand, capital punishment, a given war, hybrid cars, R-rated movies, gun control, you name it.
It’s true that all of these are topics with moral implications, and a Christian can’t hold a moral belief about anything without presuming, at least implicitly, that this opinion is — one believes and/or hopes — consistent with the will of God, and thus consistent with the teaching of Jesus.
On the other hand, Jesus is neither an abstract ideal that means different things to different people, nor a mere historical thinker like Plato or Thomas Jefferson whose historically limited system of thought can be reasonably developed along different lines to arrive at wholly theoretical suppositions regarding “what he would have thought.”
Jesus is God from God, light from light, true God from true God. He is the master to whom we all stand or fall. Holy writ is holy, but Jesus is the Holy One himself, the fountain of all holiness.
Naturally, “what Jesus would have thought” always turns out to be that, of course, he would have agreed with the speaker. To do this is effectively to turn the Alpha and the Omega into a sock puppet who echoes our opinions, a team mascot who always has our backs, a figurehead in whose name we do or say whatever we were going to do or say anyway.
Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, and no party or ideology can safely claim him. To do so is to run the risk of something considerably worse than crashing absurdity and self-flattering nonsense: It is potentially to be blasphemers.
Obviously we can discuss Jesus as he is made known in the Gospels and the New Testament generally. At the same time, we must bear in mind that there is far more to Jesus and his world than the Gospels reveal. It is very easy to read Gospel stories the way medieval artists painted them, bringing our own mental landscape and fashions to stories that originally had a very different setting — one that has become obscure to readers removed from that setting by vast divides of history and culture as well as geography.
Jesus was and is the Son of God, but he was also a particular man in a particular geographical, cultural and religious context: an ancient Near Eastern Jew of the Second Temple period. Not a typical man of that sort; not one who did and said only the sorts of things one might expect of such a man, for he was capable of shocking and offending his contemporaries by defying the cultural norms and expectations of his day.
But we need to remember that Jesus is just as capable of defying our expectations. Even in the Gospels, which have shaped Western civilization for millennia, there are passages that continue to give thoughtful, attentive readers uncomfortable pause. And since Jesus himself is larger than the Gospels, there is no reason to think the Gospels exhaust all the ways that Jesus might challenge other people’s expectations, including ours. In his unknown life and ministry, if we could witness it, might be any number of unexpected revelations that would throw many of our ideas about Jesus into confusion.
This is not to lapse into agnosticism, or to suggest that Jesus is an unknowable mystery. The Gospels do give us true knowledge of the historical Jesus, though we need to bring a healthy spirit of self-criticism and epistemological humility to how we interpret them.
I’m not even saying that we can’t speak confidently about the implications of Jesus’ teaching for same-sex marriage. But we can’t just assume that what seems reasonable to us would be approved by him.
The Gospels don’t report Jesus saying anything about “love affairs that are honest and sincere,” or about “not damaging anyone else” being a sufficient criterion for approving something. Those are Carter’s ideas, not Jesus’. We need to look deeper than that.
To be continued.