An essay donated by Alton Thompson
Jesus reconsidered, including problems
constraints on, his ministry.
Occasionally I feel a need to re-read a book that I had read years earlier. This occurred to me recently in the case of the book Rethink: A Paraprimitive Solution (1972), by Gordon Rattray Taylor. 1,2
(My copy was printed in 1974 by Penguin Books, and has as the subtitle "Radical Proposals to Save a Disintegrating World.")
What evidently caused me to think of this book was my remembrance of the phrase “we live in a psychological slum” that occurs in the book. I thought it worthwhile to re-read what Taylor had to say about this matter, even though his book had been published over 40 years ago.
The phrase “we live in a psychological slum” first occurs on p. 35 of Taylor’s book. Section II of the book (“Problems of the Present”) begins with Chapter 6, “The Psychological Slum,” pp. 123 – 149. (I should perhaps note that the “we” in the “we live” here refers to “civilized” societies, Great Britain, the United States, and Canada in particular.)
As I was reading Taylor’s Chapter 6, for reasons that I cannot explain, I began to think of Jesus’s “ministry 3” of two millennia ago, and began to think of possible problems with it, especially from the standpoint of its relevance for today. Given that the person of Jesus has been a fixture of Christianity for centuries, it is not easy for most of us who were raised in Christianity to consider the possibility that his ministry was problematic. But as I was reading Taylor’s Chapter 6, several reasons for thinking this way about Jesus’s ministry occurred to me:
- It may have reflected the Tradition of which it was a part to such a degree that it was somewhat “out of tune” with the realities of his day, and the society within which he lived. (Note my use of the word “may” here -- indicating that I am simply suggesting this as a possibility.)
- On the other hand, however, the “realities of his day” and society may have distorted his ministry -- in the sense that he was unable to develop the sort of ministry that he would have liked to have established, because of constraints operating in his society:
The possibility that he would have been accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders in his society, and executed in consequence. The fact that Jesus often taught by using parables may have reflected such a fear.
The fact of Roman occupation of his society at the time may have constrained his ministry (in a manner that I will comment upon shortly).
- Questions arise as to the relevance of his ministry for today. That is, even if Jesus’s ministry was not subject to constraints, and was relevant for his day and place, it does not necessarily follow that his ministry has relevance now, and for us. It may be now only partially relevant for us.
As it is only this third point that I wish to pursue here, it is useful to begin by noting that Jesus’s ministry had an individualistic character. That is, his concern was evidently with teaching -- using, e.g., the parable as his major vehicle -- those who would listen to him 4 what they should do, and not do -- and especially with reference to others. His famous Good Samaritan parable 5 illustrates this point well.
Jesus’s basic message seemed to be that if one becomes aware of others in need, one should -- acting as an individual -- do what one can to address that need. Here is where Taylor’s Chapter 6 enters the picture, for:
- Unlike Jesus, Taylor provides us with a fairly thorough discussion of human needs.
- Implicit in Taylor’s discussion -- but totally absent from what Jesus said and did -- is the suggestion that those needs will not be addressed adequately simply via individuals being “good” to others; what’s needed, more basically, is societal system change. The fact that Jesus’s society was occupied by the Romans prevented Jesus from making, and acting to implement, such a recommendation, of course. But it is an open question as to whether he would, or would not, have done so had the Romans not been occupying his society.
What’s ironic about Christianity, as it has existed in its diversity over the centuries, is that it has taught love of neighbor, but not only has it not practiced it well (!), but it has not recognized that an individualistic approach to “promoting the general welfare” is only part of the answer. What’s needed in addition -- primarily, in fact! -- is societal system change. Over the centuries this fact has been recognized (e.g., by those who have written “utopian” novels), 6 but mainly by secular individuals (such as Robert Owen 7 and Charles Fourier 8) rather than those associated with Christianity. Had, instead, Christianity led the way on this matter, it’s entirely conceivable that many, if not most, of our problems, as humans, would be a thing of the past.
- Gordon Rattray Taylor, "Rethink: A paraprimitive solution" Dutton (1973). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- A brief biography of Gordon Rattray Taylor is online at Wikipedia. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/
- I put this word in quotation marks because Jesus was not a minister (or priest, etc.) in the sense that that label is understood today -- someone associated with a church of some given Christian denomination.
- Keep in mind that Jesus did not write anything, so far as we know, because, presumably, he lacked an ability to do so.
- The Good Samaritan parable is at Luke 10:25-37. See: https://www.biblegateway.com/
- A list of utopian novels is online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
- A brief biography of Robert Owen is online at Wikipedia. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/
- A brief biography of Charles Fourier is online at Wikipedia. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/
Originally posted: 2014-OCT-31
Last updated 2014-NOV-13
Author: Alton Thompson