Tuesday, May 1, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.1: The Beatitudes

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus. Before we dive into his actual words, a few more words of my own on the framework of invitational morality, starting with the idea of should. We use should on ourselves in the same way that we use it on others. I tell you how you should behave, I tell myself how I should behave. I sometimes punish you when you behave as you shouldn't, I sometimes punish myself when I behave as I shouldn't. Occasionally I will even coerce you into punishing yourself, occasionally you will coerce me into punishing myself.

Earlier I mentioned guilt as one means of emotional punishment and coercion that we use on each other, but I forgot to mention humiliation and shame. These are among the foulest, most poisonous offspring ever misbegotten by the prefrontal cortex. We use these on ourselves and each other with surprising frequency. Even parents who have sworn off corporal punishment—seeing it for the evil it is—use guilt, shame, and humiliation with abandon in order to control their children, not seeing that these punishments are far more scarring than many physical punishments they might administer.

I propose that we do away entirely with the concept of punishment, both emotional and physical. Let's stop using guilt, shame, humiliation, and the like, on anyone, whether adults or children. Let's stop imprisoning people, including after-school detention or sending kids to their bedrooms. Let's stop all forms of bodily affront, no matter how mild. I propose that we do away with the concepts of "moral" and "immoral." No one has any rights. No one has any obligations. I call it "invitational morality" because I'm inviting you to try on this way of thinking, in the hopes that it will increase the quality of your life and those around you. If you find it useful in that way, then you might invite others to try it as well.

Reading the New Testament sequentially, we find that Jesus' first pronouncements appear in Matthew Chapter 5. In Verses 3-12, we find a short speech by Jesus that is known now as The Beatitudes. This speech is viewed by many as representing some of the loftiest words ever spoken by any human being. The first three verses go like this:
  • 5:3 - "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
  • 5:4 - "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
  • 5:5 - "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
    Taken together, the message of these three blessings seems to be primarily that although your life sucks now, it will be better for you at some unspecified point in the future, most likely after you die. I find it somewhat difficult to give much credence to a moral philosopher whose primary solution to the problems of life is to look forward to death.
  • 5:6 - "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
    You might start to notice here that Jesus hasn't really said anything of value in these first four verses. They have the ring of a horoscope about them: vague and flowery speech that can be interpreted to mean almost anything.
  • 5:7 - "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."
  • This blessing starts off really well, but then Jesus ruins it with a big Yahweh-style "or else:" be merciful, because if you're not, Yahweh will kick your ass. This is the worst kind of motivation to have for any behavior. Mercy is the same thing as forgiveness: suspension of punishment. Mercy is good because punishment is counterproductive, not because you'll get in trouble for not being merciful.
  • 5:8 - "Blessed are the pure in heart."
    Someone help me to understand what "pure in heart" means. Does it mean that you can pull the sword out of the rock? Does it mean that you won't go over to the Dark Side even when the emperor tortures you with his lightning fingers? I hear that nowadays people think the phrase "pure in heart" refers simply to decent folk who strive to live a good life. Either way, not exactly the stuff of genius.
  • 5:9 - "Blessed are the peacemakers."
    Sure, it's great to be a peacemaker. But really, if you're not going to give some useful advice on how to make peace, then don't whet our appetites by bringing it up. Someone might want to argue that Jesus went on to give good advice later, with all that about turning the other cheek. But again, turning the other cheek is an expression of coercive morality, which Jesus swallowed whole. Turning the other cheek might result in the kind of peace that means that no one is actively engaged in hostilities, but it has nothing to do with people being at peace within themselves. It would have been better if Jesus had given us some thoughts at how to be at peace rather than just advising us to keep a lid on our tempers.
  • 5:10 - "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness."
    This is ridiculous. No one has ever been persecuted because of righteousness. Certainly people have been persecuted because of their religion, but it's not because their religion is righteous; it's because their religion is not that of their persecutors. The early Christians were persecuted for their righteousness, you say? My understanding is that the early Christians were labeled atheists, because they went around telling everyone that their gods didn't exist, and that they were persecuted largely because it was thought that the gods were angered by the claims of these atheists. That persecution is not because of righteousness. It's the same treatment that has been doled out to every unpopular group since the beginning of time. "Persecuted because of righteousness" is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard.
  • 5:13-16 - "You are the salt of the earth."
    I won't bore you by reading the rest of it. It's garbage. It reads like a horoscope, in that it can be interpreted to mean anything.
  • 5:17-20 - Here Jesus does some messiah talk, about how he has come to fulfill the law. I'll ignore this kind of thing in this series. The standard to which we'll hold Jesus for this QC session is simply that of great moral and inspirational figure. I won't comment on whether he was a deity, whatever "deity" may mean, or on his lack of scientific knowledge. Here we're exploring only the question of whether his message lives up to its reputation. So far, the answer is no; The Beatitudes aren't worth much as inspirational material.
That's 8.1. Thanks for watching.

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