When I was younger, I assumed that whatever influence the teachings of Jesus had on people was straight-forward. That is, I assumed if someone read, say, "love your neighbor as yourself", they would either reject that teaching or accept it, and if they accepted it, they would attempt to live up to it. What I did not grasp for many years was the extent to which people would interpret the teachings of Jesus, to say nothing of interpreting the rest of the Bible.
The Bible is the book everyone quotes and no one reads. Hence, ignorance of the Bible might explain how there can be so many interpretations of Jesus' teachings. But another possibility is a bit more subtle. We often project ourselves into things without realizing it. Or, as an old joke has it:
So ignorance of the Bible might not be the main culprit here. Instead, it might well be that many of us -- perhaps even most of us -- interpret Jesus in light of our own selves. If we love everyone we meet, then we tend to think Jesus meant everyone we meet by "neighbor". If we love only those we feel a strong commonality with, then we tend to think Jesus meant only a our favorite group by "neighbor". But whatever the case, we read into the teachings of Jesus as least as much as we get out of them.A new patient comes to see a psychiatrist. The doc decides to give the patient a Rorshach Test, and shows him a series of cards with different inkblots on them.
“What do you see on the first one?” asks the shrink.“That’s a man and a woman making love.”
“And the second one?”
“That’s a couple who just finished making love.”
“And the third one?”
“That’s a man asking a woman to make love, and she’s deciding what to do.”
The shrink asks, “Don’t you think it’s interesting that you see sex in every card?”
“Don’t blame me,” says the patient “they’re your cards.”
I often hear the religious folk among us talk about being "empowered by Christ's message". And, almost as often, I find myself wondering what that really means. And, in attempting to answer that question -- "What does it mean to feel empowered by Christ's message" -- I naturally turn to my own experience. That is, I do exactly what I have suggested many (or most) of us do when interpreting Jesus' teachings: I project myself into the message.
As it happens, I was once a Christian. My "Christian phase", which occurred during middle school, lasted less than a month, and in the end, I rejected Christianity on the grounds that -- if my unsaved family was going to hell -- I would rather join them in hell than be separated from them, though in heaven. For a short while, however, I was Jesus-intoxicated, and hour by hour yearned and stretched myself to live up Christian ideals -- as I understood those ideals.
That experience, however brief, was enough to teach me how strangely empowering it is to feel Jesus is on your side. For instance, when I was a kid, I valued honesty, but I didn't always feel I was supported in that by my peers and teachers. After I became a Christian, however, I felt immensely supported in that valuation because now Christ was on my side. If I had any doubts about whether honesty was appropriate in some given circumstance, I had only to ask, "What would Jesus want me to do?" And Jesus, of course, always wanted me to do what I was inclined at the time to do anyway -- that is, he always wanted total honesty.
Because of my own limited experience, I think there might be some circumstances in which a commitment to the teachings of Jesus can empower us to be true to ourselves. Or, at least, to be more true to ourselves than we might be otherwise. Yet, I do not think everyone discovers that a commitment to the teachings of Jesus empowers them to be true to themselves.
I once told my friend Don what a positive experience it had been for me to be a Christian. Unfortunately, Don's own experience of being a Christian -- an experience that had lasted decades, rather than mere days -- was far from positive. Christianity, rather than empower him to be true to himself, had too often caused him to feel daunting fear and guilt when he tried to be true to himself.
So,. I suppose it might depend on whether we get past reading our own self into the teachings of Jesus. I never really did during my short time as a Christian. Everything Jesus wanted of me was what I myself wanted of me. Hence, Jesus was emotionally empowering.
But Don got way past reading his own self into the teachings of Jesus. Then, like many, many other people, he discovered things in the teachings of Jesus -- or things in his religion as a whole -- that were self-alienating, rather than self-affirming. Consequently, Jesus was not an overall empowering influence in Don's life.
What do you make of this issue? Can faith in Jesus empower us to be true to ourselves? If so, how so? If not, why not?
(H/T: Was Jesus a great teacher? Sabio Lantz has begun a promising series of posts on that subject over at his Triangulations blog. His core question -- "Was Jesus a great teacher?" -- inspired this blog post.)