Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Image of the Christ as Portrayed in the Beatitudes

A simple discovery: The beatitudes function as an implied dialog. They begin with the crucial first step for proper functioning in an ethical community, followed by a second step that addresses a moral pitfall that besets an exclusive emphasis on the first step. The second step also has an associated moral pitfall that needs to be addressed by a third step, and so on through the nine beatitudes. Because the first beatitude begins with the crucial first ethical perspective and the last with a meta-point that intensifies and personalizes the preceding eight beatitudes, it is plain that the implied dialog is intended. Furthermore, it is plain that what is intended is a conceptual depiction of moral balance, a way of "seeing" how to avoid the moral pitfalls associated with human attempts to maintain an ethical equilibrium. They can, then, be viewed as a depiction of the points of view that provide proper moral balance.

Since the beatitudes are the central moral teaching of Jesus, and Christianity has traditionally claimed moral perfection for Jesus, it follows that Jesus' central moral teaching will be seen as descriptive of Jesus within Christian tradition--and, of course, the Gospels are a product of Christian tradition, thus preventing a vicious circle in the reasoning. In that sense the beatitudes depict Jesus, the Christian image of the Christ. This is significant, since the central image of the faith is the cross, and--to be blunt--the cross is no way to live.

The form of exposition to follow will be to simply put the beatitudes in order along with the "missing" implied dialog. First, however, a brief explanation of why the first of the beatitudes provides the crucial first ethical perspective.


THE CRUCIAL FIRST ETHICAL PERSPECTIVE

Immanual Kant addressed the ubiquitous human tendency to engage in a "natural dialectic" that "quibbles with the laws of duty" and perverts moral principles by adapting them to "our wishes and inclinations; that is, to pervert their very foundations..."1 Jesus addressed that very tendency in the religious culture of his time. "...woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice..." (Luke 11. 42, NRSV) Kant prescribed the "categorical imperative" to counter the tendency to adapt ethics to our wishes: "I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law."2 In effect, Kant advised us to continually act on a rule that is designed to prevent the use of convenient exceptions for ourselves to rules of action we expect of others in our society. That is, it is the purpose of the categorical imperative to remind us that we are not in a different category than others in our society.

But what of another human tendency, equally likely to pervert the foundations of our moral principles, namely pride? It too impels us to place ourselves apart from the rules that we expect others to be bound by. This is an especially insidious moral problem, because it addresses the very idea that one OUGHT to function within the same moral categories as are expected of others. It is precisely this meta-Kantian danger that the first beatitude addresses:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Mt. 5.3, NRSV) The Phillips translation uses "humble minded" rather than "poor in spirit." In simple language Jesus endorsed a moral/ethical principle that persons who understand ethical principles should not see themselves as above them. It can be argued that Jesus began with a blessing that is at once more fundamental and more practical than Kant's imperative, since it addresses the root cause of the human tendency to find exceptions to moral principles when they considering the application of those principles to their own case. In that sense, the first of the beatitudes states the crucial first ethical perspective: be "humble minded."

(The hypocrisy Jesus confronted in the Pharisees is an ironic form of pride as an underlying moral hazard: They viewed themselves as superior to those who were not in a position to keep the small points of the law, thereby justifying an injudicious pride by means of which they dealt with those who did not keep the small points of the law with contempt.)

With that in mind we are ready to see the beatitudes as an implied dialog by which Jesus provided the Christian community with an ethical perspective held in proper balance.


THE BEATITUDES WITH INTERPOLATED IMPLIED DIALOG (MT. 5.3-11)

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

But if a person is "poor in spirit" isn't it a moral hazard that she or he will decide that their hopes and wishes just don't matter, that they will lead lives of resignation and detachment?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the poor in spirit...

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."


But if a person cares so deeply that they are in mourning, don't they leave themselves open to developing an angry and vengeful attitude?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to those who mourn...

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."


But isn't it possible that those who are meek will lack resolve in the face of life's challenges and injustices?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the meek...

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied."


But, isn't it possible that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will become heartless and legalistic in their pursuit of justice?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."


But isn't it possible that those who love mercy will become morally slack?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the merciful...

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."


But isn't it possible that the pure in heart will be unyielding and uncooperative to those with less pure points of view?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the pure in heart...

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."


But isn't it possible that peacemakers will become disillusioned, since peace is often illusive, and even opposed by those who unjustly want to get their selfish ways?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to the peacemakers...

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."


[Here, the beatitudes' thematic structure at once has gone full circle--they have returned to the first blessing of "their's is the kingdom of heaven"--and goes meta: the implied rejoinder to this beatitude concern's the hearers having ears to hear.]

But, isn't it possible that a person can agree with these recommendations you make without really taking them to heart?

"Yes! Therefore, I say to someone who understands and agrees with these moral values and blessings but has not personalized them...

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven."



ENDING COMMENT

For our purposes here, three outstanding attributes run throughout this implied dialog: 1. Each moral desideratum is kept in proper balance and perspective against a wider range of moral desiderata. 2. Conviction and strength of character are necessary and to be prized (blessed). And 3. The person who is able to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the possibility of any single moral value's capacity to distort our minds when taken singly will have an extraordinary suppleness of mind. Strong will. Good will. Great intelligence. All are needed to see the counterpoised balance among multiple moral and ethical desiderata that must be maintained to achieve moral perfection. That is the image of Jesus that the beatitudes gives us, on the assumptions given above. It is a moral and conceptual likeness, in Christian form, that bears a likeness to the Greek ideals of balanced perspective and strength, as seen in statues of Apollo, in which the Greek arche' is depicted. The image of Jesus, implied, is a striking, beautiful image: a Christian arche'.


NOTES

1. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanual Kant, tr. H. J. Paton (Harper and Row, New York, 1956) 73.
2. Ibid., 70.

2 comments:

Under the Eagle's Wing said...

Kant advised us to continually act on a rule that is designed to prevent the use of convenient exceptions for ourselves to rules of action we expect of others in our society. That is, it is the purpose of the categorical imperative to remind us that we are not in a different category than others in our society.

Basically "Do unto ... as you would have"

Good to see you blogging again

Tracy Witham said...

Thanks, John. Every once in a while i have an idea that it would be a shame not to share in some way.

Basically it can be said that Kant's categorical imperative contains the gist of the golden rule and vice versa. But Kant was concerned to make an analytically rigorous principle, where Jesus' concern was, I think, to make us more empathetic.

For instance, a mob family can function within the "do for others as you would have them do for you" formula as the "family" members murder and cheat on each other's behalf. And so to maintain the empathetic intent of the golden rule, one must go meta on it and apply it outside the "family."

Kant's imperative does not require that unstated extension. On the other hand, the golden rule is much more elegant.