"This guy is Old Testament. Blood, bullets, wrath of God. That's his style."
- From the movie Fast Five
The above quote is made in reference to a character named Agent Luke Hobbs, played by Dwayne Johnson, an amusing character in a pretty cool movie. The quote takes me back to a conflict I had growing up.
Like many people, I attended a quiet little catholic school during my earliest years of education. In addition to the more usual subjects, such as reading and mathematics, we also had regular time dedicated to learning about religion, which of course meant learning about Christianity, the world's largest religion, which is usually considered to be based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (1) .
I often looked forward to learning about the New Testament, which focused on the life and teachings of Jesus. He taught about love and forgiveness, and he treated everyone with respect, no matter who they were or what they had done. Somehow, every time I learned about this man Jesus, a rising sensation of wonder built within me; I realized just how "good" a human being could become, if they only kept to a simple path based on helping others. For me, the example provided by Jesus enhanced the nobility of the human condition as a whole; what if more people lived as he did? Perhaps I was too young and impressionable, yet the fact remains, to this very day, that I am hard-pressed to think of a better role model.
Agent Hobbs: Going Old Testament.
However, there was a different aspect to these classes in religion, one I was not so fond of, for it seemed to contradict the way that Jesus lived and taught - the Old Testament, which focused more on the "rules" of Christianity. These were best exemplified by The Ten Commandments, a set of principles relating to ethics and worship (2), and despite attempting to wrap my impressionable young brain around them, despite all its neuroplasticity, I could not fully accept many of these commandments. It was not so much the commands themselves, for most of them seemed sensible, but rather the fact that they were conveyed in the manner of an imperative doctrine, implying that some form of punishment awaited the person who should break any of them. Unlike Jesus, who taught and lived that to be a "good" person meant teaching and living in a way that helped humanity, these commandments seemed to state that being a "good" person meant abiding by and not breaking any of these commands - in other words, just doing what one was told. Yet Jesus did not do what was told; he did what he thought was right, even if it meant breaking the rules - any rules.
Thus, my view at the time was that although the New Testament, which contained the life and teachings of Jesus, was awesome, the Old Testament, with its rules and commandments, was not. In the resulting confusion, I disregarded both for many years, including the New Testament and its stories about Jesus. Yet in recent years, I have returned to learning about this man, trying to see him as the human being he was, independently of the rules and commandments of the Old Testament.
The New Testament
Please forgive me if I seem overly bold or pretentious, but if I was to summarize the gist of what Jesus was trying to say in the New Testament, it would be these two things - first, he consistently taught about a philosophical outlook that is now somewhat paradoxically known as The Golden Rule, and second, he consistently attempted to enhance the awareness of the people around him, even - especially - those closest to him.
The Golden Rule in its direct and empathic forms states, "Wish upon others as you would like to be wished upon. Act upon others as you would like to be acted upon." That's it. Importantly, it's not really much of a hard-and-fast rule as it is a philosophical outlook, one that a person can constantly use to help him or her decide how to live life in general - so, if you ask me, I think it should be called The Golden Philosophy. Here are a few excerpts from the Bible (3,4), ascribed to Jesus, exemplifying that he did indeed advocate such a philosophy:
"Whatever you would have men do unto you, do so to them."
- Matthew 7:12
"With whatever judgment you judge, you shall be judged."
- Matthew 7:2
"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you
do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
- Matthew 6:14–15
Yet on another level, I believe Jesus was trying to teach people to think beyond the Golden Philosophy; I think he was trying to help them to think for themselves, to be pro-active in thought, rather than reactive to the rules set by others; recall that in the previous article, we discussed Awareness, defined as the accurate perception of self, the world, and the moment, as the only universal moral. I believe that Jesus was trying to help people - to help humanity - achieve a deeper level of Awareness. Consider these quotes ascribed to him, in which he constantly reminds people to seek an understanding beyond the words and rules of his parables:
Jesus: Going New Testament.
"Do you not yet understand, neither remember? … How is it that you do not understand?"
- Matthew 16:9, 11
"Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?"
"Do you not yet perceive or understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? How is it that you do not understand?"
Mark 8:17–18, 21
If the statements above were really made by Jesus, then it seems to me that this was a man who preferred to live and teach a particular philosophy, one based upon wishing and acting upon others in a loving, forgiving, and respectful, and most importantly aware, manner. Jesus did not emphasize the rules, not even the commandments, nor did he support the notion of punishing people.
He seemed to be alright with bending or breaking the Fourth Commandment, deeming that it was more important to do the right thing than to blindly follow a command, even a commandment:
"What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?… therefore it is not wrong to do good on the Sabbath."
- Matthew 12.
Moreover, when confronting a crowd about to stone a woman to death for committing adultery, he made it quite clear that he was not an advocate of punishment:
"He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone."
- John 8.
Thus, it seems to me that Jesus did not place as much emphasis on the rules, commandments included, as he did on people trying to think and act in a beneficial, aware manner. If we look past his words and weigh the man's actions, this still holds true - Jesus didn't hang out with legal or religous authorities, he hung out with people who were sometimes lost, yet wanted to better themselves. His closes friends were mainly fishermen.
Live Proactively, Not Reactively
Upon reflection, I now consider the life and teachings of Jesus as a largely separate subject from the topic of religion. Jesus was more philosopher than religous devotee, one that advocated a pro-active way of living focused on wishing and acting upon others in a living, forgiving, respectful, and aware manner. This is a very different method to that advocated by the commandments, or by the practices and rites of Christianity, which outline a reactive way of living in accordance with the rules made by other people. If one pro-actively wishes and acts upon others in a living, forgiving, respectful, and aware manner, then one is living in accordance with what Jesus lived and taught. Conversely, if one person or group religiously (forgive the pun), reactively, follows the rules - any rules - this may result in friction and misunderstanding if it comes up against another person or group with a different set of rules, culminating in an unhealthy, even destructive, conflict.
Don't misunderstand me; rules can be great as guidelines, especially when designed to provide structure for people who are lost and need something to guide them for a while, as Moses did when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive The Ten Commandments, aiding the people of Israel during a time of great struggle. Yet, in the long run, what matters the most is the motive behind the rules, rather than the rules themselves; as such, I believe we can learn more about how to live from the life and philosophical teachings of Jesus, Muhammad, and Siddhārtha Gautama than we ever can from the rule-based rites and practices that have become associated with their names.
Sometimes, rules are helpful; during difficult times, they may even be necessary.