This hit me like a ton of bricks today, and I’m not sure why I didn’t see it sooner. I was thinking again this week about the reasons why I left my faith (or rather why it left me), and it dawned on me how centrally Jesus’s own teachings factored into my deconversion.
It has become cliche among atheists when asked what book most influenced them away from religion to answer, “the Bible.” I would say the same thing, except perhaps for different reasons than they do. The more I think about the long road I took out of my faith, the more I realize that journey started the moment I internalized the approach to religion taken by Jesus himself, at least as we find him in the New Testament.
Has it ever occurred to you how fundamentally iconoclastic Jesus really was? How bitterly anti-establishment he was? He had exactly zero qualms about questioning every single thing the religious people around him believed.
Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mark 7:6-7)
Granted, he had his inconsistencies like most other composite characters in works of dubious historical accuracy. Serious scholars of every stripe have long admitted to seeing multiple competing layers of tradition in the stories and sayings of Jesus we find in the canonical gospels.
But no matter what the comparative authenticity of those disparate layers, there is one thing about which we can be relatively certain, namely that the version(s) of Jesus we find in the Bible today preserve for us the very ideas which, if carried to their logical conclusions, will lead any serious follower to be critical of the religious apparatus that today represents the faith he was supposed to have founded.
Jesus, the Critic of Religion
Whether or not you are convinced he actually existed, Jesus rightly belongs to a prophetic tradition within the Jewish faith that was always calling out its leaders for allowing the religion to major on obsessions which benefit no one save those at the top of the religious order.
[Related: “Five Times When Jesus Sounded Like a Humanist“]
Jesus was brutally critical of the men who had become the face of the religion of his birth. Consider for a moment the kinds of things that he said of them:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are…
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (emphasis mine)
We could go thirty rounds about what it was that Jesus was most upset about, but the one thing we can all agree on is this: Jesus wasn’t afraid to question religious authorities, and he wasn’t even ashamed to make a spectacle of the process.
I submerged myself into the life and teachings of Jesus many years ago, and if I took away nothing else, it was that the most Jesus-like thing you could do is to critically analyze what you’ve been taught to believe in order to sift and sort out the man-made stuff from the authentic roots of your belief system.
Consider how many times in his famous “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus quoted the Hebrew scriptures only to turn around and disagree with it!
“You have heard it said…but I say to you..”
That takes a lot of nerve, you know? Interpreters today seem content with a facile dismissal of this tendency because, hey, it’s Jesus, right? I mean surely he enjoys a special privilege because of who he is, and he had no intention of teaching us to do the same things he did, right?
I find that intellectually lazy. And the thing is…once you get started on this project, you may find that pulling on that thread soon leads to the whole fabric coming undone. So be it. Your journey may not take you that far, but mine did.
Looking back to the first passage I quoted above, it was Jesus himself who took a tradition the Pharisees were obsessed with and used it as a “teaching moment” to encourage his people to use critical thinking skills for a change. In Mark’s gospel (we literally have no idea who wrote this despite what you may have heard) we read Jesus asking why ceremonial prayers (whoops, I mean washings) before meals would have any effect at all on the holiness of the food. Jesus thinks out loud for us, modeling the kinds of critical thinking skills he wants his listeners to emulate:
“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing which enters a person from the outside can defile them? It doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.”
(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean)
Why does that not shock more people? They must not be really reading what the gospels say. Or rather, they are heavily relying on the people at the top of the religious order to explain to them what it all means—ironically the very people Jesus had the most problems with, at least according to the gospels we have in our canon today.
My point is that Jesus got me started on the road to questioning what I believe. I find that deliciously ironic since I only listened to what he had to say because the people whose authority he taught me to question never seemed to realize how much what he had to say was undermining their authority.
The Key to Knowledge
I want to add one more thing before I close out this thought. I’ve often wondered, amidst the many layers of legend piled on top of whoever Jesus really was, if Jesus was really a proto-humanist in disguise, couching all of his teachings in a framework which the people of his day could understand? Such a man would necessarily have to take his own thoughts and phrase them in such a way as to make them feel consistent with the central tenets of the tradition to which his audience belonged.
What if the historical Jesus underneath all the layers of legend was an early freethinker who lacked the intellectual heritage to put words to his own epistemological instincts because he lived in antiquity? Am I the only one who finds that a fascinating possibility? At one point, he says something cryptic which, in context, may signal something very much along those lines. At the end of one of the passages I quoted above, Jesus says:
Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.
Much has been said about this cryptic statement, and about what this “key to knowledge” must have signified. Personally, I feel it’s possible he meant that critical thinking skills would have enabled the people of Israel to evaluate what they had been taught but that trust in authority had divested them of that capability.
I’m not saying I’m ready to swear my life on it. But it’s an intriguing possibility, isn’t it? I feel it would make a whole lot of sense out of a number of things Jesus said, but which were soon co-opted by the church in order to buttress the religious establishment which was inevitably patterned after the very apparatus Jesus set his own sights to take down.
At one point religious leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy (okay, so they did that often, actually) and were picking up stones to throw at him and he just started quoting scripture back to them, saying:
Has it not been written in your law…and the scripture cannot be broken…?
What a fascinating response! First of all, why did he refer to is as their law? He was just quoting the Hebrew scriptures—what the Christian Bible calls the Old Testament. And second of all, once we read his words against the backdrop of everything else he said, remembering how casually this man is willing to question the very basis for their food laws and worship rituals, we begin to wonder if his comment about the scripture not being broken wasn’t actually sarcasm?
Maybe it wasn’t. I suppose in the end it doesn’t ultimately matter. But it’s still an intriguing possibility, and you have to admit it adds an interesting layer of complexity to a story we’ve all probably read far too uncritically.
The point of all this is that I learned from Jesus how to question my faith, and ironically that journey led me right out of the faith he ostensibly founded.* That’s what I got for doing what I was told.
[Related: “Our Biggest Mistake: We Did As We Were Told“]
[Image Source: Unsplash]
* I believe it is more accurate to view the apostle Paul as the true founder of the Christian faith since it was the communities he started which survived the Jewish-Roman wars of 66-70 C.E. Even the versions of Jesus we find in the surviving gospels were ultimately products of those communities, which means our modern understanding of Jesus has been heavily filtered through the theology of Paul. For more about that, you can read “Paul, the True Founder of Christianity.”